3 top spots in North Cascades
For camping, learning or a simple backwoods escape, try these destinations.
Seattle Times outdoors editor
Northwest travel guides
Here are three top spots in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Here you’ll get a sampling of camping and hiking, learning opportunities and a backwoods escape:
Colonial Creek: A sprawling campground on both sides of Highway 20 is a favorite destination where park visitors can pitch tents (or park RVs) on the shore of Diablo Lake’s scenic Thunder Arm and hike trails that start at the campground’s edge.
Rise early to see bewitching mists swirl over the lake, one of the park’s trademark attractions because of its lush turquoise color caused by the reflective qualities of glacial silt deposited by wide and gushing Thunder Creek. The creek is fed by the greatest concentration of glaciers in the Lower 48 states.
From the campground, walk the easy Thunder Creek Trail just over a mile to reach a wide footbridge from which you can watch water ouzels (also called American dippers), tiny gray birds that flit over the stream surface and occasionally dive to the bottom after aquatic insects and larvae.
Or Thunder Knob Trail offers a 3.8-mile round trip with a bounty of views of snowy Pyramid Peak, ending with a high-in-the-sky view of Diablo Lake, its dam, and long rivulets of waterfalls tumbling down Sourdough Mountain in a perfect panorama of all that makes this park complex unique.
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center: Want education with your exploration? This modern waterfront retreat on Diablo Lake reached by driving across Diablo Dam — a cool thing in itself — can be your base. Sign up for a workshop or weekend program, or just stay the night when space is available. Affiliated with the nonprofit North Cascades Institute, the center includes three ADA-accessible lodges for 92 guests, a dining hall serving fresh, local and organic meals, a library, amphitheater and network of trails. There’s a professional staff of educators, naturalists and facilitators. Offerings range from Mountain School, for youth and their teachers, to this month’s Citizen Science BioBlitz in which participants help with research on subjects such as “Butterflies in the High Cascades” (Aug. 21). See ncascades.org/discover/ncelc.
Stehekin: This tiny community of about 80 year-round residents at the northern headwaters of Lake Chelan is reachable only by foot, boat or float plane, making it one of the more romanticized locations in the park complex. The name is based on a Salishan word meaning “the way through,” emblematic of the Stehekin Valley’s long history as a link between the rugged mountains and Washington’s high-desert interior.
Most visitors come by the Lady of the Lake or Lady Express, passenger boats making the 50-mile trip from the town of Chelan (August rates $40-$61 round trip; ladyofthelake.com). You can stay over in a campground (nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/camping-in-stehekin.htm) or small lodges (nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/accomodations.htm) or make it a day trip with layovers of 60 to 90 minutes. For park visitors, the Golden West Visitor Center can provide information and backcountry permits March to November.
From Stehekin, hop one of the big red shuttle buses for a two-mile trip to the Stehekin Pastry Company bakery ($2), or backpackers may take a 13-mile ($7) trip to the road’s end and the Pacific Crest Trail. Or rent a bike (stehekindiscoverybikes.com), walk the 0.8-mile Imus Creek nature trail loop, or take one of a dozen day hikes in the area. No ATM, no cellphone reception, lots of peace and quiet (especially after the last boat of the day heads back down the lake).
If you go
North Cascades National Park Complex
Get information at 360-854-7200 or nps.gov/noca.
This is the only major national park in Washington that charges no entry fee. Required backcountry camping permits are also free.
Visitor centers, ranger stations
The main visitor center is across the Skagit River from the North Cascades Highway (near Milepost 120 on Highway 20), just west of Newhalem. Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. May to November.
Another major information center is on Highway 20 in Sedro-Woolley. The park’s Wilderness Information Center is just off the highway in Marblemount.
Other smaller info centers and ranger stations are in Stehekin, Glacier, Chelan and Winthrop.
Skagit power project tours
Seattle City Light in cooperation with North Cascades Institute and North Cascades National Park offers popular tours of its Skagit River hydroelectric projects, in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
The long-popular “chicken-dinner tour” has evolved into an organic, locally sourced lunch at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center paired with a boat tour on Diablo Lake to learn about the area’s three dams as well as natural history (offered five days a week, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., July through mid-September; $18-$38).
Also available: powerhouse tours ($40) and a daily free 2 p.m. walking tour of Newhalem. Details and reservations: seattle.gov/light/tours/skagit/
Get gas and groceries before you go
Eastbound on Highway 20, Marblemount is the last stop for gasoline for 75 miles. The only store in the main park complex is the small Skagit General Store with convenience-store items, in Newhalem.
Hike with your dog
Unlike national parks, recreation areas in the North Cascades park complex allow leashed dogs on most trails. Dogs are not permitted on trails within the national park boundary.
• The park complex contains many climate zones and weather can change quickly at higher elevations. Take warm, rain-protective clothing with you in all seasons.
• Creatures from squirrels to bears can be attracted to your food. Store it securely in your vehicle if car camping, or use bear-proof boxes provided at many campsites.
Beware of wildfire danger in the dry summer season. A wildfire about 5 miles northwest of Stehekin closed the Boulder Creek Trail in July and early August, and campfires were banned in the Stehekin area. Check the park’s website for updates.