Are you planning a day trip from Seattle to North Cascades National Park and are wondering what to do and if it’s worth it? I’ve got you covered!
I’ve taken this trip many times since I lived in Washington for 6 months and took a road trip here a few years ago. North Cascades is my favorite national park!
If you only have a short time to spend in the park, I’m going to share some of my favorite things to do, so you can really make the most of that time. After all, this is one of the best parks out there. Let’s dive in.
Seattle to North Cascades National Park: Getting There
Getting between Seattle and North Cascades National Park is actually a pretty straightforward and easy trip. There aren’t many turns, and it’s fairly short.
There are two possible routes, with the first following I-5 until Smokey Point and then turning east onto Highway 530.
You’ll then follow this road until you reach Rockport, where you’ll again turn east onto Highway 20, which leads you right into the park.
The other route is to continue on I-5 until you reach Burlington, rather than turning off. Then you’ll turn immediately onto Highway 20 and follow until you reach the park.
Personally, I prefer turning in Smokey Point and following WA-530 because I think that the views are better. There are a lot of spots to turn off and enjoy the views.
Luckily, the drive is only about 2 hours and 15 minutes, so it doesn’t take very long at all to get from the city to the park.
One Day Itinerary for North Cascades National Park
If you have just one day in North Cascades National Park, there are quite a few things that you can do. But, you’ll also need to be selective so you can have the best trip.
Below is an itinerary that I would recommend for your day in the North Cascades. It includes all of my personal favorites and a few extras!
North Cascades Visitor Center
I always like to start my day in national parks with a stop at the visitor center. It allows me to grab a map and ask the rangers what their favorite places are.
The North Cascades Visitor Center is found just a few miles past the west entrance in Newhalem. It has information about the park and a gift shop.
One other quick tip that I have is to stop at the entrance sign a few miles back! It’s a really fun one that’s different than other basic national park signs.
Sterling Miller Overlook
You won’t have to go far for the Sterling Miller Overlook, since it’s located right behind the visitor center.
We ended up finding this trail randomly during our stop here, and were surprised to have not heard anything about it!
It’s really short and easy and just leads you to an overlook. If you have 10 extra minutes to spare, I’d recommend adding it on!
Drive the Highway 20 Scenic Drive
During your time in the park, you’ll spend lots of it driving on Highway 20! While driving might not sound like the most fun, it’s actually an incredible drive.
You’ll go up and through the mountain pass, which has incredible views everywhere you look. There are also tons of pull-offs to enjoy the views.
I’d recommend planning enough time to enjoy the road and make spontaneous stops along the way. Those end up being some of my favorite spots!
If you can, I would really recommend driving this road in the fall months because it’ll allow you to check out some of Washington’s best fall hikes and views.
Trail of the Cedars
Start the next part of your day by checking out the short Trail of the Cedars. This is the perfect hike for people of all skill levels since it’s so short and easy.
It starts by crossing the Skagit River. Don’t forget to look up, because the views from the river are amazing.
One of my favorite parts of the PNW are the mossy trees and rainforests. Which is why I love this trail! You walk right through the beautiful forest.
Gorge Creek Falls
Here’s another nice and easy hike in Washington to add to your one day itinerary for North Cascades National Park. It’s only 0.5 miles long.
One of my favorite parts about the Gorge Creek Falls loop is that it’s much less crowded than some of the other areas. When we visited, we only saw one other person on the trail.
You’ll have views of the waterfall, as well as a look at Gorge Lake. Plus the trailhead is right off Highway 20.
Diablo Lake Vista Point
If you’ve ever seen North Cascades National Park online, you’ve probably seen Diablo Lake. It’s that wildly blue alpine lake nestled in the mountains.
You can see Diablo Lake from a viewpoint right off of Highway 20. Just watch out for the turn-off, because during our first visit, we almost missed the turn!
If you haven’t eaten lunch yet, this would make a nice place to have a picnic since there are picnic tables at the viewpoint. Just be sure to pack your own easy to make lunches.
I really love the view from the Vista point, but if you want more of Diablo Lake, you can hike either the Thunder Knob or Diablo Lake trails for more views.
Ross Dam Trail
When we visited, we took the trail down to the Ross Dam and really enjoyed it! There wasn’t anyone else on the trail and I hadn’t seen anyone else talk about it online.
It’s a 2-mile roundtrip hike that leads you down to the Ross Dam. Most of the hike is in the forest, but eventually, you’ll be able to walk on the dam itself.
If you use All Trails, once it says you’ve reached the end, turn left and walk down the road. Then turn right when you come to a Y. This leads you to the dam.
We found this out during our visit when we thought we had made it and were disappointed that there was actually no dam. There is in fact a dam, just further!
Blue Lake Trail
One of my favorite hikes for a North Cascades day trip is the Blue Lake Trail. It’s only about 5 miles and took us about 3 hours to finish.
Most of the trail leads through the forest, but be sure to look up because there are some really spectacular mountain views that I almost missed because I was looking at my feet.
Then you’ll reach Blue Lake, which is aptly named. It’s a really gorgeous bright blue, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see it either in fall surrounded by larches or in winter dusted in snow.
This hike is one of the reasons that North Cascades National Park is my favorite park. I think that it really just shows the beauty of the park.
Washington Pass Overlook
I can easily say that Washington Pass Overlook is one of the most beautiful overlooks that I’ve ever been to!
To get there, you’ll just pull off of Highway 20 and walk 0.3 miles roundtrip to the viewpoint. It’s a paved trail, so it’s great for everyone.
I couldn’t believe the amazing view of the winding highway and the view of Liberty Bell Mountain. It kind of feels like something out of the Italian Dolomites.
Have More Time?
If you end up completing all of these activities and still have more time, I would recommend adding on another hike.
There are a few longer options that I really love that do take a bit longer, but they are really beautiful and get you into the deeper mountains of the Cascade range.
If you’re willing to get up early, some of these longer hikes make really incredible sunrise hikes, so it may be worth starting the day nice and early!
Here are some of those longer options:
- Maple Pass Loop (6.5 miles, 2,100 feet)
- Hidden Lake Lookout (8.8 miles, 3,700 feet)
- Cascade Pass (7 miles, 1,800 feet)
- Easy Pass (7 miles, 2,900 feet)
If you want to add on a hike but still want something a bit shorter, there are plenty of other options. Here are a few of the shorter hikes to add to your North Cascades National Park itinerary.
- Thunder Knob (3.4 miles, 700 feet)
- Picture Lake Loop (0.4 miles, 10 feet)
- Thunder Creek (Turn back when you want)
Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park
Deciding the right time to visit Washington’s national parks is really important because the seasons play a huge role in when you can visit!
If you’re planning a trip to North Cascades National Park, I really recommend planning your visit between the months of July and September.
These are the best times to really get the most out of the park since snow can start to fall as early as October! And a lot of the time doesn’t melt before July.
When we first visited it was the beginning of July and there was still snow on almost all of the trails. This made it hard to really see everything!
Also, Highway 20 closes for the season typically in mid-November, so there are times of the year that you can’t even reach the park.
By visiting in the summer and fall months, you’ll experience abundant wildlife, blooming wildflowers, clear hiking trails, and sunny weather. It’s great!
How Far is Seattle from North Cascades National Park?
The drive from Seattle to North Cascades National Park is only about 2 hours and 15 minutes, so it’s not far at all.
I actually really love taking this drive because of the views. I’ve found a few really great hidden gems to stop at along the way that make the drive even faster.
This distance ends up being around 110 miles.
Can I Take a Day Trip from Seattle to North Cascades?
Yes, you can definitely take a day trip to North Cascades National Park if you only have a short amount of time.
The western park entrance is about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Seattle, so if you get an early start on the day, it’s doable.
The only problem that I’ve ever had with taking a day trip is that you won’t get to do or see everything that there is to see and do.
I’d recommend having a bit longer if you can, but if you can only manage a one-day trip, then you can make it work by checking out the one-day itinerary above.
How Much Time Do I Need in the North Cascades?
I would recommend having at least 3 days in the park if you can, but if you have just a single day, you can make that work too!
Having a few more days will give you the opportunity to see and do more than if you have just one day.
My favorite way to visit a national park is to try to see every square inch, so having at least 2-3 days is best for me!
If you don’t mind only seeing the top attractions, then having just one day may be great for you!
Tips for Your North Cascades National Park Visit
If you’re planning a trip to North Cascades National Park from Seattle, there are a few things to know that will make your adventure easier. Some of which are common knowledge, some of which I’ve learned the hard way!
- Fuel Up Before Entering: You won’t find any gas stations in the park, so make sure that you’re fueled up before entering!
- Bring Snacks and Meals: Similarly, there aren’t any restaurants or places to stop in the park, so have all of the food you need for the day beforehand.
- Download a Map: I love using Google Maps to download an offline map that I can use when I’m out of service. There isn’t a lot of service in the park, so I highly recommend this.
- Ask the Rangers: I always love asking locals what their favorite things are! Be sure to stop at the visitor center and ask the rangers for some personal favorites!
- Check the Road Conditions: The park roads do close in winter and if there are wildfires or a lot of snow, so be sure to check the conditions.
- Have a Northwest Forest Pass: Some hikes on this list require a Northwest Forest pass, so make sure you purchase one online before you go!
What is the Closest Airport to North Cascades National Park?
The closest airport to North Cascades National Park is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). It’s just over 2 hours away.
Does North Cascades National Park Have an Entrance Fee?
No, North Cascades National Park is one of the few parks in the National Park Service that doesn’t have an entrance fee. However, there are some hikes on this list that are just outside of the park and require a Northwest Forest Pass.
Is North Cascades National Park Worth Visiting as a Day Trip?
Even if you only have one day, North Cascades is still worth visiting as a day trip! You can still see the top sights and at least drive Highway 20 through the park.
Is North Cascades National Park Close to Seattle?
Yes, North Cascades National Park is only about 2.5 hours away from Seattle.!
How Far is North Cascades National Park to Seattle?
North Cascades is about a 2.5 hour drive from Seattle.
Can You Drive Through North Cascades National Park?
Yes, Highway 20 leads you right through North Cascades National Park and it takes about 1 hour to drive it without any stops. But I recommend planning in time for plenty of stops!
Which National Park is Closest to Seattle?
The national park that’s closest to Seattle is Mount Rainier, although North Cascades comes in at a close second!
What is the Best National Park in Washington?
When you compare all three parks, including Olympic or North Cascades and Mount Rainier, it’s hard to choose the best! But my personal favorite is North Cascades.
Wrap-Up: North Cascades National Park to Seattle
If you’re planning one day in North Cascades National Park from Seattle, then you’re in for one amazing trip in Washington State!
As one of my favorite national parks, there’s no doubt that North Cascades is packed with all sorts of amazing hikes, views, and nature.
Now that you’re ready to embark on this adventure, check out some of the best hikes to do while you’re there!