Escaping the Summer Crowds in North Cascades National Park

Escaping the Summer Crowds in North Cascades National Park

After a truly devastating year of loss and isolation, I was dying to go on a vacation and get away from it all. However, with a new job and little PTO under my belt, I was stuck taking time off during the most dreadful holiday weekend of the summer: Fourth of July. I knew the Utah, Wyoming and California National Parks were going to be oozing with humanity, and fighting for parking spots and waiting in long hiking lines sounded like my worst kind of vacation.

A quick google search soon had me scoping out North Cascades National Park in Washington state — one of America’s least visited National Parks with “only” 120,000 visitors per year (for comparison, Yellowstone gets 650,000 annual visitors). Turquoise lakes, majestic mountains, lush forests AND no tourists? This made North Cascades an easy sell to my husband and two close friends. Within minutes, we had plane tickets booked for a summer adventure that was (crossing fingers) relatively empty.

In short, Cascade was my summer dream come true. North Cascades met all my expectation and more with its ample parking, affordable accommodations, and of course jaw-dropping scenery.

Remote and Rugged

Hiking up to Blue Lake!
Look at that lake!

You may be wondering: if this place is so great, why don’t more tourists flock to it? Well, its location and weather have a huge role in steering the typical tourist away.

The closest “town” is Marblemount, and boasts a whopping number of three hotels, all of which are locally owned businesses with only a handful of rooms to rent out. Visitors with more creature comforts will have to stay in the city of Burlington, which is a 1.5 hour drive (one-way!) to the park entrance. This is the option that we ultimately decided on and, despite the long drive in and out of the park, was surprisingly doable (it helps that the drive is absolutely gorgeous). I must admit, due to its remote location, this National Park is best enjoyed by hardcore adventurers committed to camping and multi-day backpacking.

Plus, due to its geographic location, the park is covered in snow from November to July (!!!). In fact, some trails were completely snowed in during our visit over Fourth of July and we had to revise our itinerary.

Disconnecting in Nature

Glacial runoff
The water was unreal
Lunch with a view

There is something magical about sitting on a rock, eating a cold sandwich, and staring into mother nature’s majesty. The urban orchestra of exhaust engines and car horns are millions of miles away, and instead there is only quiet and calm. No emails. No text messages. No meetings.

I sat on our claimed rock on the lookout point, mesmerized by a turquoise blue lake of glacier runoff surrounded by a valley of mountains capped with a blanket of snow. In that moment, I only had one thing on my mind.

Nothing.

And it was glorious.

The cold-sandwich-lunch-with-a-killer-view became a daily ritual for us on the trip, and it was by far my favorite moment in North Cascades. Nothing is more satisfying than the ultimate reward after a brutal hike: lunch at 10,000+ feet with a view that leaves you breathless. For me, the epic reward at the end of Blue Lake and Thunder Knob trails were well worth the hot and strenuous uphill climb.

My Favorite National Park?

This photo doesn’t do the mountain range justice on our Blue Lake hike
Diablo Lake views from Thunder Knob trail

North Cascades National Park has all the things I love about nature: truly epic mountain ranges, colorful lakes, and lush forests filled with wildflowers. Despite my love for this park, however, I do have to say that while the scenery is stunning, it lacks a certain uniqueness that parks like Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Yellowstone bring to the table.

However, the solace this park offered to travelers was the true hidden gem. While the park wasn’t empty by any means, it was bliss to enjoy a National Park in peace and quiet without throngs of tourists — especially during a holiday weekend! Since the inadvertent surge in tourism due to COVID, there are few National Parks in the US where you can hike in peace and connect with nature — and for that reason, I really enjoyed North Cascades National Park. In fact, I would love to go back with camping gear in tow so that I could wake up to the glittering turquoise that is lake Diablo.

North Cascades Travel Tips

  • Cascade National Park is Free! You do not need a park pass to visit; however, some areas near Lake Ross require a $5 parking fee (which is covered by the national park pass if you have it). I suggest stopping by the visitor’s center to get acquainted with fees and parking.
  • Blue Lake & Thunder Knob were my favorite hikes — they were moderate in difficulty and were well worth the effort. Maple Pass Loop is also highly rated (especially in Fall!), but we did not go due to distance and timing. Cascade Pass is also highly ranked, but was snowed in when we arrived.
  • Stay at least 4-5 days if possible. If I had more time, I would have driven to the other end of the mountain range to Winthrop (the Eastern town) and back.
  • There is a lot of driving in this park. A lot. Keep this in mind when planning your daily hikes, whether you are staying outside in a hotel or camping inside the park.
  • Burlington city has a host of affordable chain hotels, but is located 1.5 hours (one way) away from the park entrance by car. If you want to stay closer to the park, the best option is to camp or RV.

What travels were you able to pull off in summer 2021?

5 thoughts on “Escaping the Summer Crowds in North Cascades National Park

    1. They weren’t too bad actually! The longest hike was 5 miles round trip and they were gradual incline, so while we were going up it wasn’t too brutal. Hikes in ONW are nice because there isn’t a lot of scrambling or loose gravely soil. Hiking in Utah again after being in PNW was culture shock: lots of scrambling and loose dirt — without poles or good shoes it was super hard!!

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