Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 24, 2017

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Mountain residents, travelers and trekkers wait each year for the roads to open. In the mountains of the American west, particularly following a winter of heavy snowfall like the past one, it can be a long wait.

If you’ve been planning to drive into or through North Cascades National Park in northern Washington, Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, opened about a week ago, the 3rd-latest opening in its history. Crews removed as much as 25 feet of snow from the only paved road that crosses the park, which is primarily wilderness.

Cascade Loop Brad Nixon 7394-2 (640x480)

That’s the “Cascade Loop” at the eastern edge of the park as it appeared late one October several years ago, before snow had begun falling in earnest. The park itself doesn’t close during the winter, but access is limited to hardy backcountry travelers equipped to deal with extreme conditions.

Immediately above the Loop, viewed from Washington Pass Overlook (blue square in map below), these peaks give you an idea of the rugged wilderness found in North Cascades National Park.

Early Winters Spires - Liberty Bell Brad Nixon 7396 680

The pinnacles on the left are the Early Winter Spires, and on the right is Liberty Bell, 7,720′.

Liberty Bell Mtn Brad Nixon 7403 680

This detail from the NPS Visitor Guide provides an overview of Route 20 through the park.

Route 20 map NPS marked

If you enter from the west, you’ll find the Visitors’ Center a good place for a first stop for updates on conditions, camping and trail information, as well as access to a number of trails that wind through the dense, mossy forest.

From there, you’ll get a look at the imposing Picket Range, 10 miles to the north.

Picket Range Brad Nixon 7338-2 (640x468)

On the left is Pinnacle Peak, 6,805 feet, also known as the “Chopping Block.”

Pinnacle Peak Brad Nixon 7332-2 (640x445)

To the right are the Pyramid (7,920′) and Inspiration Peak (7,840′)

Pyramid Inspiration Peak Brad Nixon 7339-2 (640x480)

Those views are an excellent introduction to the reality of the park, because there are no roads and no maintained trails in the Picket Range area. Like much of the park, it is absolute wilderness.

Route 20 follows the course of the Skagit River (SKAA-jit) upstream, where it’s been dammed to form a series of lakes you’ll see below you as you drive: Gorge, Diablo and Ross.

You’ll want to take advantage of the scenic overlooks along the road, like the Diablo Lake Overlook:

Diablo Lake Brad Nixon 7353-2 (480x640)

A road leads down to the lakes where there is hiking, boating and some accommodations.

That is a man-made lake, not a natural one. Like many canyons and valleys in the American west, the Skagit River (SKA-jit) has been dammed for hydroelectric power, including at this point, the Gorge Dam.

Gorge L dam Brad Nixon 7344 (640x480)

All along the route there are trailheads for hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. One doesn’t truly see a place without getting out on foot, and you’ll be rewarded with the experience of the alpine forest, snow and glaciers on the mountains and waterfalls.

Waterfall Brad Nixon 7345-2 (640x480)

Every turn of the highway brings another vista into view.

North Cascades Brad Nixon 7361-2 (640x480)

Once out of the eastern side of the park, you’re in the watershed of the Columbia River, and the drier landscape is an important area for agriculture, especially the many varieties of Washington’s famous apples. A good stopping place is the small town of Winthrop, founded in 1891. There are shops, dining and fuel, not to mention plenty of local character.

A Big Volcano Nearby

One worthwhile point of interest not within North Cascades NP, but on its very northwestern edge is the spectacular stratovolcano, Mt. Baker, 10,781 feet (3,286 m).

Mount Baker Brad Nixon 7279-PS1 (640x468)

Draped in glaciers, it has the most active crater in the Cascades other than Mount Saint Helens, and there were eruptions in the 19th Century.

Getting There

The map below shows the park’s position relative to Seattle, about 2 hours away by car, as well as Washington’s other 2 National Parks: Olympic, to the west and Rainier, at the bottom. North Cascades National Park’s northern border is the U.S.-Canadian border.

North Cascades NP road map

There are some services within the park, but no fuel stops in the 60 miles, and few accommodations other than camping and a lakeside resort at Ross Lake. We stayed in Concrete (blue circle, top map) and I wrote about the small town in an article here, many years ago. The access to the Mt. Baker area (blue star) is just west of Concrete.

A good source for basic information about the park, including trails, hiking, camping and much more is the NPS Visitor Information Guide. Click on the link to view it and download.

This is the barest sketch of an extensive, fascinating place. Have you been to North Cascades? What tips do you have for readers?

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Top map © U.S. National Park Service. Bottom map © Google.


  1. The mountains seem intriguingly mysterious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A lot depends on the day. I had a heavy overcast of wintry clouds, and the very dense forests were particularly foreboding. You’re right, though; just a few yards from the highway is genuine wilderness that extends for many miles in all directions, and it’s a marvel to see it. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No problem. Wish I the time each day to do so!


      • Ditto.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s quite a highway! The photos make you appear to be a hiker or mountain climber. Amazing!


  2. As usual your pictures are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey – I’ve nominated you for the Blogger Recognition award!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much. That’s extremely flattering, and I’m pleased you enjoy the blog.


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