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Washington Part 2: North Cascades National Park

Photo: Diablo Lake

This is Part 2 of a 6 Part series focused on Washington. We will spend one very busy week traversing a wide loop around the scenic state, hitting three gorgeous National Parks (Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades); visiting the fun Cascade Loop towns of Winthrop, Chelan, and Leavenworth; viewing a waterfall twice the height of Niagara; and even riding a car ferry across the Puget Sound to spend some time in Seattle. In Part 2, we will head north to visit snowy North Cascades National Park to see the emerald-sparkling Diablo Lake and the snow-capped Cascade peaks.

Once back on the dock in Anacortes from our whale watching tour, we plug North Cascades National Park into the GPS. It is a little after 2pm now, and I think we have just enough time to explore my must-sees in the park before getting to Winthrop for dinner. From here, the total drive to Winthrop is 3 hours, and the Cascades Highway (the park's main thoroughfare) is directly along our route; so that gives about 2 hours for stops and exploration. It’s quick, but it will have to do!

The drive to North Cascades National Park is quite scenic. There are little ranches, patches of farmland, and open meadows, all sitting against a backdrop of the (sometimes snow-capped) mountains in the distance. The scenery flies by, and we're at the entrance to the park in about an hour and twenty minutes.

North Cascades National Park is actually the 5th least visited National Park in the United States. I think it must be partially due to its location, tucked away in the far northwest corner of the country, and partially due to its more famous neighbors (Olympic and Mount Rainier) stealing some of its thunder. However, after researching our trip, I've decided it’s not to be missed. It has some very unique features, from the emerald-sparkling Diablo Lake to the snow-capped Cascade peaks.

When we arrive at North Cascades National Park, we stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a map and purchase an annual U.S. National Park Pass*. (Our previous one just expired.) Per the Park Ranger, we do not need a pass for North Cascades, but we are hitting several other National Parks on this trip. So, we decide to just purchase it now to avoid any issues later.

*Note: The "America the Beautiful" National Park Annual Pass is a great value if you are visiting several parks. The pass is $80 and valid for 12 months from the month of purchase (expiring the last day of that month). With the pass, you get access to more than 2,000 recreation areas. "Each Annual Pass can have up to two owners and admits pass owner(s) and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle sites and a pass owner plus 3 adults (not to exceed 4 adults), where per-person fees are charged (children under 16 are always admitted free)." The following are entitled to FREE annual passes: Current U.S. Military members and their dependents, U.S. veterans, Gold Star Families, and U.S. 4th graders. U.S. citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities are entitled to free lifetime passes. Additionally, the parks offer discounted senior citizen passes, both annual ($20) and lifetime ($80). More information on all of these pass options can be found here. For specifics/FAQs on the Annual Pass (or to purchase it ahead of time), you can find more information here.

Photos: Sterling Monroe Trail & The Pickett Range

While at the Visitor Center, we take the very short (300 foot) Sterling Monroe Trail* along the boardwalk that starts there to view the Pickett Range. It’s a quick but scenic detour. It's certainly not the best view in the park, but it's one of the easiest to get to on foot!

*Note: Another two short, easy hikes along Highway 20 are the Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk (0.3 mi) and Ladder Creek Falls (0.4 mi). We skip both of these as we will see better forests/waterfalls elsewhere during our trip, and our time is tight.

Map of North Cascades Highway

Source: (you can find the map link here)

Soon, we are back on our way down Highway 20* through the park. The highway runs along a 30 mile stretch through the park. There is currently quite a bit of construction** going on in North Cascades National Park—at one point, we actually see some sink holes in the road (that side is closed); so, I can certainly understand why!

We pass the pullout to Gorge Lake Overlook (the overlook is a 400 meter walk round trip on a paved trail), but we skip it. I've researched the views from there and don't think we need to make the effort to detour to see it. The view along the short trail is fairly obstructed.

Probably the most famous overlook in the park is Diablo Lake. However, my research says that the Diablo Lake Overlook is still closed for construction, so we end up pulling over at the Colonial Creek Campground shortly before the overlook. We can walk right up to the lake--and into it if we prefer--from here. Since it may be our only sighting, we stop and take in the view.

The lake's light emerald color is a result of the silt that runs off of the surrounding mountains along with the snow melt each year. It reminds me so much of the quintessential alpine lake coloring you’d expect to see. It’s hard to even describe the fantastic color. Photos don't do it justice.

*Safety Tip: Per the NPS - Be aware of break-ins along State Route 20. Break-ins are not uncommon at trailheads along the road. Prevent smashed windows and theft by removing valuables and electronics and taking associated electronic cords.

**Construction Note: The roads and pullouts along North Cascades National Park are currently undergoing quite a bit of construction. Various areas are being closed on a rolling basis. You can get the latest update on the NPS website here.

Photo: Diablo Lake From The Campground

When we get to the Diablo Lake Overlook, shortly past the campground pullout, we are pleasantly surprised to find that it is actually back open! There is a large, easy access parking area adjoining the overlook. I’m surprised and so happy to find this is the case, and we slow down for a moment to take in the view. It is spectacular. We stand in awe for a few minutes, just taking it all in.

Photos: Diablo Lake Overlook

Per a plaque at the overlook, "as glaciers in the surrounding high country slowly wear down the mountains, the grinding of rock against rock produces a fine silt that meltwater streams carry into the lake below. This "rock flour" suspended in the water reacts with light to give the lake its blue-green color." It is a sunny day, so we get the full spectrum experience.

Photos: Diablo Lake Overlook

After we leave the Diablo Lake Overlook, we should next hit two pullouts with views of Ross Lake. However, we have now found the construction we expected to encounter at Diablo Lake. It has just moved down the road a bit. I’ll take it if that means Diablo Lake Overlook is open instead.

The construction wait is a bit lengthy (about 10-15 minutes). The road is currently one way in this stretch, and we have to follow a pilot car through the construction zone which stretches quite a way. We have to wait for the traffic coming from the other direction to get through before our line of cars is flagged through to follow the pilot car through the area.

Photos: Highway 20, North Cascades National Park

Once past this section, we have a fairly uneventful drive to the Rainy Lake Picnic Area. This is the only hike we are fitting in at the park due to our time constraints. It is a 2 mile (round trip) hike out to a VERY scenic view over Rainy Lake. The trail is supposed to be paved and handicapped accessible; so, I think if we move quickly, we can complete the hike in about 40 minutes and still make it to Winthrop by a little after 7pm.

When we get to the Rainy Lake parking area, I am shocked to see snow along the sides of the roadway. Up until now, snow has just been something we see in the distance on the mountain peaks. It’s definitely a little chillier here; the sun is already behind the surrounding mountains and there is quite a bit of tree cover in the area, as well. We carefully stow all of our belongings out of sight and take our valuables. (The park service warns of window smash thefts at the trail heads along Highway 20—no reason to tempt it.)

When we get to the trial, I find that there is still snow on sections of the trail, as well. It is certainly not handicapped accessible at the moment! We have to climb up little piles of snow in places and around the puddle-soaked trail in others. It’s not too bad, but it’s certainly more of an obstacle than I was anticipating! Still, we move at a very brisk pace. We pass two little waterfalls rushing under us (there are small bridges—the trail is quite ingeniously built to allow for all of the snow melt coming off of the mountains to flow under it rather than over it). We also encounter a few other groups* enjoying the relatively easy hike (in comparison to the rest in the park).

*Note: What we doing encounter along our hike is any animals. The North Cascades are home to animals ranging from moose and elk to mountain goats and bighorn sheep to black bears, coyotes, and bobcats. However, do not have any wildlife sightings.

Photo: Rainy Lake

When we get to Rainy Lake, I’m in awe. We can see two huge waterfalls in the distance with snowmelt roaring down the mountainside. There is still plenty of snow blanketing the mountainous walls surrounding the milky green lake. I wish it was just slight lighter out still so photos could better capture the beauty of the view, but we can’t have everything! This hike was MORE than worth it.

Photos: Rainy Lake

Additional North Cascades Area Hikes

Maple Pass Loop:

The Rainy Lake hike also marks the beginning of the Maple Pass Loop, a 7.4 mile, 3-5 hours, moderate to difficult hike (2,200 foot elevation gain). It’s a gorgeous hike that ranks as one of the top in the North Cascades, but we neither have the time for such a hike on this trip, nor the energy after a long day. You actually cross the park boundaries and exit the park for the hike, but it has some awesome mountain views. However, based on the current snow, I would bet there is quite a bit more snow to navigate a you cross into the higher elevations of this hike. (Tip: Plan for there to be plenty of bugs on this trail depending on the season--bring bug spray.)

Blue Lake Trail:

A second lake hike I had considered but we just don't have the time for is the Blue Lake Trail. Blue Lake Trail is a 4.6 mile hike, rated easy to moderate, and takes approximately 2-3 hours to complete (920 ft elevation gain). The hike is through a forest (not the most scenic), but it ends at Blue Lake which is--you guessed it--a deep blue. (The hike leaves from a parking lot along Highway 20, 2 mile west of Washington Pass Overlook.)

Cascade Pass and Sahale Arms:

A final scenic park hike that intrigues me is the Cascade Pass and Sahale Arms Trail. We most certainly don't have time for this 12.1 mile very challenging hike today, but it is said to have some of the finest views in the park. In fact, it is more often than not referred to as the best day hike within the park boundaries. If we ever head back this way, it will be at the top of my list. The hike takes approximately 6-9 hours and gains an elevation of around 5,000 feet (it is rated hard--and for good reason). Note: The trailhead is off of Cascade River Road which is 23 miles long (over half of which is unpaved). The road starts in the town of Marblemount and ends within North Cascades National Park. The final 3 miles of the road are only open July - October.

We complete the return trip from Rainy Lake at a fast clip. Dinner is waiting for us in Winthrop! It's an easy reversal of our prior heading. There's nothing new to see, and we've already navigated the route once; so moving quickly isn't a problem. For once, I'm not stopping every two minutes to take photographs.

The final spot we stop off at is the Washington Pass Overlook. The overlook is technically located outside of the park, but it provides one of the most scenic and unobstructed views we've taken in from Highway 20. It's well worth the quick pull-off.

Photo: Washington Pass Overlook

From here, the GPS says that our ETA in Winthrop is 7:08pm—only 8 minutes behind schedule—not bad! We're looking forward to sitting down to a meal after all of our adventures in Washington today. It's been an action-packed day, and we still have the little Western themed town of Winthrop to explore.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins


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