2 days in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades is the 3oth National Park we had the opportunity to visit in the last 10 years I have been in the US. We love National Parks, some more than the others, but each trip is special in its own way. Yellowstone National Park is by far our favorite, followed by Glacier National Park, Olympic National Park, Smoky Mountains and Bryce National Park. While Yellowstone National Park is like a Nature's miracle and completely filled me with awe with its Hot Springs, Geysers, mud volcanos and Sulphur cauldrons, Glacier National Park almost had me in tears of joy with its sublime beauty and myriads of flowers. We stayed in the most beautiful campground we ever laid eyes on, in the Hoh rainforest of the Olympic National Park and witnessed gorgeous Fall colors in the Smoky Mountain National Park. While Bryce National Park was like a fantasyland, the Narrows top down hike in Zion National Park was a one-of-its-kind experience. And most of our National Park trips have been during the July 4th long weekend. This being the July 4th long weekend and our 30th National Park visit, I was really hoping for something special.


North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the country, despite being only 2-3 hours from Seattle. The two relatively popular areas of the Park complex are Ross Lake National Recreation Area (north unit) and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (south unit) and both are separated by the mountain ranges. The rest of the Park is not easily accessible by car and requires hiking or boating or both, which is probably not how majority of the people like to spend their vacation. Though I can't really call myself a serious hiker, hiking is one of my favorite activities and I find these kind of places both inspiring and intriguing. So, it was firmly on our itinerary as the 30th National Park :)

The visitor center is located in a tiny town in the north of Washington state, called Marblemount. It is a 2-hour drive from Seattle and is a good place to stay if you are planning to hike in the Park. We reached Marblemount the previous night and stayed in Buffalo Run Inn, a clean and modest place, close to the entrance of the National Park. 

Our friends in Seattle wanted to join us for a day-trip to the Park, and we planned to meet them around 12:30 pm at Rainy Lake parking lot. Our original plan was to do the Maple Pass Loop (7.2 mile RT)  or Blue Lake hike (5 mile RT) on Day 1 and Cascade Pass & Sahale Arm hike (12 mile RT and 4,150 ft elevation) on Day 2. However, the Cascade river road was closed for the last 5-6 miles due to damage, so we had to cancel our Cascade Pass hiking plan. That left us with more time to explore the other areas of the Park and spend time with our friends in a more relaxed way. 

On Day 1, we left the Inn around 8:30 am and since we have a few hours before our friends from Seattle would arrive, we decided to do the 5-mile RT Blue Lake Trail. State Route 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, traverses through the Park and is open typically from May through October. We drove on Hwy 20 for a little more than an hour to get to the trailhead, which is located 1 mile before the Washington Pass Overlook. The views along the drive were ok - it wasn't as green as we thought it would be or the mountains didn't hit us immediately like say, the Grand Tetons did.

The parking lot was full, so we parked on the side of the road like several others did. This National Park has a visitor center but no entrance fee. However, this trail falls just outside the Park boundary, under the adjacent US Forest Service and you need to buy either a Northwest Forest Pass or Recreation Day Pass (for $5) or use the National Park annual pass for this. We buy 'America the Beautiful' National Park pass every year (for $80), not only because we visit at least one National Park per year but also to contribute to their maintenance in our small way. 


The Blue Lake Trail is a relatively easy hike through a forest that takes you to an alpine lake. It is shaded most of the way, which meant very little mountain views. After hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park over the past few days, we found this a bit boring in terms of views. On top of that, when we reached the lake, we were met with screaming children and biting mosquitoes. And it was getting hot. So, we got out of there soon and headed to the Rainy Lake parking lot to meet our friends. There was no cell signal and it was a huge parking lot spread among several trees. It would have been really difficult to locate them, but when we reached there at 12:40 pm, luckily our friends were standing at the trailhead, having reached a few minutes earlier. 


      Rainy Lake trail is an easy, 1 mile long paved trail that leads you to a pretty lake surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. It has a nice sitting area where we ate our packed lunches. After spending some time relaxing by the lake, we headed to the Ross Lake Recreation Area. 


     Ross Lake Recreation Area has a lot of hikes and we picked the short 1 mile hike to the Ross Dam overlook. Once we reached the dam, we saw some beautiful cabins on the Ross Lake from a distance and became curious. We saw a trail through the forest which seemed to be going to the resort and took that trail on a whim. My friends were apprehensive of going on a trail, not knowing how long it would take to get us there but our curiosity got the better of us and we pushed ahead. About 2.5 miles later, we finally got to the Ross Lake resort. And we were so glad we did. The resort area was beautiful, extremely pleasant and had a great view of the North Cascades. And it was very private. Apart from the individual cabins, they have a small shop on-site which also serves as an office and no restaurant or any other distractions. Just the mountains, lake and the boats. 




Imagine having to hike a total of 3.5 miles just to get there! The other option is to hike down the 1 mile from the parking lot and have the resort people pick you on a boat. Either way, there is quite a bit of hiking and planning involved and I felt a certain kind of kinship with the guests staying there. 


After spending some time taking in the views and enjoying the ambience, we paid a mere $3 per person to get a super fun speed ride on this beauty to the other side of the lake. From there, we hiked the 1 mile back to the parking lot. 

It was past 6:30 pm, so we headed back to the town to grab dinner with our friends before they left for the day. It was a nice day among lakes and mountains and we all loved the chance trip to the beautiful resort but we didn't really get a feel for the North Cascades. We considered going to Mt. Baker instead of the 7.2 mile RT Maple Pass hike the next day but I knew I would regret not doing that hike, so did my husband. So, we decided we would have a late start the next day, have lunch near the Diablo lake and then hike in the afternoon.

On Day 2, we reached the beautiful Colonial Creek campground near Diablo Lake around 11:15 am. It is set in an old growth forest area by the lake and we had lunch in one of the open tent spots. There were quite a few people kayaking in the lake.

After lunch, we stopped at the Diablo Lake Overlook. The turquoise lake amidst the green mountains was a stunner. It is probably the most popular spot in the National Park area and we could see why.



We then headed to the Rainy Lake parking lot again where the Maple Pass loop begins. We started the trail around 2 pm in the anti-clockwise direction, which is known to be much less steeper. It began amidst trees in a forest area but soon opened up to beautiful mountain vistas.



     Things started looking even better once we could see the pretty Lake Ann from above. Alpine lakes situated at an elevation amongst mountains and trees have their own charm. They bring the whole landscape around them together and act as a focal point, holding it all together. Lake Ann is one such scenic lake and it was a pleasure to witness its beauty as we hiked along the trail. 



    I made a couple of stops on the way to sit on the rocks and absorb the grandeur of the mountains, beauty of the lakes and the pristine surroundings. The jagged mountain peaks reminded me of Yosemite National Park and the Canadian Rockies. As we moved further along the trail, more and more mountain ranges began to appear in sight. We couldn't see any of these while driving on Hwy 20 the previous day. It felt like the Cascades were slowly opening up and we are getting to know them, bit by bit. 



As we got closer to the top, there were mountain ranges in every direction as far as we could see. I have never seen so many mountains in once place. It was truly overwhelming. I was so excited that I started running in various directions trying to capture it all, as if I could contain the whole wide world within the contours of my vision. 


I didn't even begin to comprehend the grandeur and the glamour of North Cascades - I was just blown away by their sheer numbers and scale. We had to work for those views but they were worth every single step. It had to be one of the top 10 hikes that we have ever done in terms of the views. I wished I could stay there longer and let it all sink in. But my husband reminded me that we had to get back to the town in time for dinner before the local restaurants close (the town only had 2 restaurants and they close by 8 pm). Sigh!




Since it was a loop trail, we had to leave all that beauty behind and start descending in the other direction. The views were still good but boy, it was steep! We were glad we didn't take that side of the trail to get to the top. About an hour later, we could see Rainy Lake from above.


That was probably the last of the views on this trail. By then, I was anyways tired of taking my phone out and clicking pictures every few minutes. After this, we were back in the forest area and eventually reached the parking lot around 6 pm. 

Once back in town, we headed to the Marblemount Diner, which they self-proclaimed as "the local's favorite". We sat in their backyard and ordered a couple of burgers and my favorite onion rings. We weren't expecting much but I was blown away by their veggie burger. It was simply the best veggie burger I ever had! I had tried veggie burger (I know many people think it's an oxymoron but anyways) in several cities and metropolitans before but it was in this small town of 2 restaurants that I found one that was just perfect for my taste. On that happy and tasty note, our trip came to an end. But I know one thing for sure - there is going to be a next time!

If you are planning a visit to the North Cascades National Park, I highly recommend the Maple Pass Loop. This trail is a great way to see the North Cascades and is what made our visit to this Park special. After what I have seen at Maple Pass, I am now more determined to do the Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm Trail next summer/fall. If we could do it in October, we might be able to catch the fall colors too! I am excited about it and will keep you all posted. 

And if you get a chance to visit this Park, let me know what you think.

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