Camping World’s Guide to RVing North Cascades National Park 491

North Cascades National Park, located in Northern Washington, is where the crowds are few, but the adventures are abundant. Steep, gray, snow-capped mountain terrain expands for hundreds of miles, and the park is just 2.5 hours from Seattle.  

Sometimes known as the “American Alps,” the North Cascades are surrounded by vast pine forests, vivid glacier lakes, and wildflower meadows. Elevation in the park reaches 9,206 feet. The North Cascade Mountains call every lover of the outdoors to come to visit its wild terrain.

This park boasts over 300 glaciers, which makes it the highest concentration of glaciers in a national park, second only to Denali National Park in Alaska. In addition to its raw beauty, it is less congested with people, even during peak season. North Cascades ranks in the top 10 least-visited national parks, making it a prize for many.

Why Visit North Cascades National Park in an RV?

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Photo by Michal Balada via Shutterstock

The North Cascades is meant to be driven. The North Cascades Highway, or State Route 20 (SR 20), is the only paved road through the park and the main means of travel. There are 30 miles of SR 20 that belong to the park, and an average drive-through takes about an hour. 

The rest of the highway continues for another 50 miles that comprise part of a 440-mile loop that has recently been named the “Cascade Loop Northern Scenic Byway.” There are numerous overlooks along SR 20, showcasing the park’s vibrant glacier lakes and alpine ranges. 

Taking an RV or trailer to the Cascades ensures a more personal experience when visiting the park. With six RV-friendly campgrounds, camping within park boundaries is easily done, allowing visitors a unique encounter with the splendor of the North Cascades. 

The Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area surround the park and are considered part of the North Cascades National Park Complex. 

Both are extensions of the park’s wilderness and magnificence, hosting more overlooks, lakes, and camping sites to stay in and enjoy the rugged terrain. These areas are remote and require specific access through hiking or waterways.

When to Visit North Cascades National Park

Like most national parks, North Cascades is open year-round. Unlike most national parks, there are no pay stations at park entrances. Entry is free, and the peak tourist season is during the summer. 

SR 20 remains open from May through October. The biggest limitation to traveling in the park is the seasonal road closure during the winter. SR 20 shuts down because of heavy snow conditions and avalanche risk. 

Road closures can happen as early as November. The Visitors Center, Ross Lake Resort, and Lake Chelan Resort areas often start their season in late May.

North Cascades National Park in the Spring

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Photo by BlueBarronPhoto via Shutterstock

Spring in the Cascades marks the start of wildflower blooms. During the months of April and May, flowers bloom their most vibrant after waking up from a cold winter. Waterfalls and waterways like the Skagit River rage in the spring, oftentimes at their fullest because of the snowmelt.

Spring temperatures may be frigid, ranging from lows in the 20s to highs in the 40s. Around May, peak temperatures start to crest in the 50s. SR 20 is sometimes closed until May, depending on how long winter conditions remain in the park. Be sure to check road closures before planning a spring trip.

Hiking trails are usually covered in snow or are quite muddy from recent snowmelt. Make sure to bring proper footwear if you are planning on hiking. Winter layering is essential to staying warm.

North Cascades National Park in the Summer

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Photo by Checubus via Shutterstock

Summer is the park’s main season for activity. SR 20 and other dirt access roads are typically open, allowing full travel. This is the ideal season for hiking, boating, fishing, and alpine climbing activities.

Trails are in their best condition during the summer, although you still should expect snow in higher elevations. Temperature averages range from lows in the 40s to highs in the 70s. Temperature ranges cool off in higher elevations, which should be considered on trails with elevation gain.

North Cascades National Park in the Fall

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Photo by Tobin Akehurst via Shutterstock

Fall is known for its stunning color changes of cedar and larch trees. The foliage turns a shimmering gold, and snowfall coats high mountain peaks. This provides some of the most picturesque and vibrant hikes in the range, but temperatures cool down quickly when fall arrives in the mountains. 

Lows dip down into the 30s, and highs remain in the 50s or 60s. By late November, expect the highest temperatures of the day to be in the 30s. Snow is commonplace and should be expected on hiking trails. Be mindful of road closures and know SR 20 will shut down for the season at the first sign of avalanche danger.

North Cascades National Park in the Winter

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Photo by Peter Bowman via Shutterstock

The park is still open in the winter, but it is difficult to access. SR 20 is closed and reopens in the spring when conditions are favorable. Activities like backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating are possible, but only experienced individuals should attempt to recreate during the winter because of harsh winter conditions and avalanche risk. Average temperatures range from the low teens to the 30s during the winter months.

Where to Stay

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Colonial Creek North Campground Photo by NPS

North Cascades is rich in backcountry camping and even boat-in campsites, but many campsites also accommodate RVs. All are located along Highway 20. Below are a few details on each, with a link to further information.

  • Newhalem Creek Campground
    • Seasonal potable water and dump station
    • No showers or electrical hookups
    • Maximum trailer and RV length is 50 feet
  • Goodell Creek Campground
    • Seasonal potable water
    • No dump station, showers, or electrical hookups
    • Maximum trailer and RV length is 20 feet
  • Gorge Lake Campground
    • No dump station, potable water, showers, or electrical hookups
    • Maximum trailer and RV length is 30 feet

Staying Outside the Park

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Grandy Creek RV Campground Photo by Good Sam

If sites are booked up, or you are looking for more amenities provided, there is one RV-friendly campground located outside the park: 

Invest in a Good Sam Membership and save 10% on nightly stays at Good Sam Campgrounds.

Tips for your Camping Stay

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Photo by Andrew Bertino via Shutterstock
  • All campsites must be reserved in advance. Reservations can be made online through Recreation.gov.
  • All campgrounds have a maximum visiting limit of 14 days. Wildlife is abundant in the parks and can be attracted to campgrounds by trash and food left outside.
  • Keep all food, toiletries, and other scented products (soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the bear-safe containers provided at each National Park Service campground.
  • Dispose of food properly in the bear-safe trash containers immediately after a meal.
  • Never feed or leave food behind for the wildlife to find. This will attract them to the campground, which will endanger the animals and other visitors.
  • Campfires are only permitted when wildfire conditions are low. Research current burning conditions and if a burn ban is in place before starting a campfire. If wood-burning fires aren’t permitted, a portable firepit may be an acceptable alternative.

How to Get Around North Cascades National Park

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Photo by arthurgphotography via Shutterstock

The North Cascades are great for scenic drives. SR 20 is known for having some breathtaking views and a relatively safe passage. It is a two-lane highway with an occasional passing lane. 

Remember that it is a mountain passage, so be careful when towing a trailer or driving a long RV through the mountains. Also, ensure you have adequate fuel before starting the drive through North Cascades National Park, for there are few amenities until you have exited the park, which is about an hour’s drive.

If you are looking for a different mode of travel, several ferries tour the waterways in the park. Ross Lake, Lake Chelan, and Lake Diablo have ferries available to book a ride from.

Ross Lake also provides water taxis from various trailheads. These taxis can be an amazing and exclusive experience, but they can be costly and require a reservation. Reservations are frequently booked over a year out, so plan accordingly.

Places to Go

Northern Cascades National Park has something for everyone. Whether you just want to experience the beauty of the rugged mountain terrain from the windshield of your car or you are looking for a backcountry adventure, here are some places to visit:

Newhalem Town and North Cascades Visitor Center

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Photo by Zack Frank via Shutterstock

The tiny town of Newhalem is located right off SR-20 and is home to the park employees. Besides having the opportunity to camp at the Newhalem Campground, visitors may also hike some of the many trails accessed in town, such as Ladder Creek Falls or Trails of the Cedars.

The North Cascades Visitors Center is an essential stop for anyone wanting to learn more about the park. Detailed information exists here about the park’s rich geological and ecological history. Guided ranger tours are also available during peak season. 

Ross Lake Resort

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Photo by Asif Islam via Shutterstock

Ross Lake Resort provides cabin, boat rentals, and camping spots that can only be accessed by water, making it a coveted spot by adventurers every year. Remember that if you do decide to take a ferry or boat for camping, you will need a backcountry permit.

The Ross Lake Resort is unique because it does not have direct vehicle access. Getting to the location requires a trek to an entry point where you can board a ferry across the lake to the resort. 

You may also hike to the resort. There is a small fee for the ferry ride, and the resort does not claim to have any restaurants or stores, so ensure you have adequate supplies before embarking on the adventure. 

Stehekin

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Photo by Amehime via Shutterstock

Like Ross Lake Resort, Stehekin is a remote destination for those who want to escape the noise of everyday life and spend some time out enjoying the wilderness. Unlike the Ross Lake Resort, Stehekin has more accommodations and activities to make it a wilderness retreat unlike any other.

Stehekin is reached by backpacking, plane rides, or ferry service. Information on how to reach Stehekin is available on their website. Once in Stehekin, you can rent a lakefront cabin, pitch a tent in the backcountry (remember to have a permit), or reserve a spot at the North Cascades Lodge.

Stehekin offers numerous activities to interact with the environment. Horseback riding, bike rentals, boat rentals, hiking tours, and a 55-mile catamaran tour are just a few of the offerings you can partake in for one unforgettable adventure.

Things To Do in North Cascades National Park

Here are several ways to engage with the North Cascades:

Hiking and Backpacking

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Photo by Marina Poushkina via Shutterstock

The North Cascades offers hiking for day trips, full-blown backpacking adventures, or a casual family stroll. There are over 400 miles of established trails in the park. Peak hiking season is from May to October. Here are some of the most popular day hikes:

  • Cascade Pass Trail (7.4 miles roundtrip): This is the most hiked trail in the park and must be done by first-time visitors. This trail is rated moderate and rewards hikers with one spectacular view of the Cascade Mountain Range.
  • Hidden Lake (9 miles roundtrip): Rated moderate-strenuous, this hike follows up a ridgeline to see a glacier lake and an old fire watch tower. Some break this hike up into two days, but many enjoy it in a single push.
  • Easy Pass Trail (7.4 miles roundtrip): Do not let the name fool you. Easy Pass Trail is rated strenuous and can require an ice ax for snowy trail conditions up until June or early July. This is another popular hike in the park for its breathtaking panoramic mountain views and wildflower meadows.
  • Diablo Lake Trail (7.5 miles roundtrip): This moderate trail takes hikers through a pine forest, catching glimpses of Diablo Lake along the way. It ends on a high bridge overlooking the lake. A ferry on Diablo Lake can take you back for a fee, or you can return on foot. 

Biking

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Photo by D. Dixon via NPS

Biking is permitted on any paved road that supports an automobile. You can bike through SR 20 or bike in Stehekin. Bring your own e-bike or rent a bicycle from Discovery Bikes. Stehekin Valley is a popular bike path that is family-friendly.  

Paddling

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Photo by Checubus via Shutterstock

There are four lakes in the North Cascades National Park that are the perfect destination to paddle or boat under steep mountain peaks. Gorge Lake and Lake Diablo have main boating access along SR 20. They do not offer boating rentals, so you need to own them.

Lake Chelan and Lake Ross are also popular areas to rent watercraft. You can bring your personal watercraft to Lake Ross, but there is a ferry fee and reservation needed to bring extra equipment. Both non-motorized and motorized watercraft are available for rent.

Ross Lake and Lake Diablo offer boat-in camping. This is where you can use the waterways to arrive at campsites that would otherwise be inaccessible. Backcountry permits are required for any boat-in camping. 

Climbing and Mountaineering

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Photo by Tobin Akehurst via Shutterstock

The snow-covered peaks and massive gray walls of the North Cascades National Park enchant many to come and explore their vertical faces. Rock climbing and mountaineering (or alpinism) require trekking into the backcountry, specialized equipment, and expert knowledge of the environment. 

There are several guiding services available if visitors desire to see some of the North Cascades from the mountain’s edge.

What to Bring and How to Prepare

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Photo by Galyna Andrushko via Shutterstock

The North Cascades are remote and rugged. That is what draws in thousands of visitors every year. Because of this, amenities are few, and cell service is spotty at best. The best thing to do before visiting is to be well prepared.

  • Potable water is only available at some campsites, and there is little opportunity to purchase food once you are in the park. Fill a water container to supplement your RV’s fresh water tank, and stock up your refrigerator and a camping cooler on your way.
  • Make sure you have a map of the park that you can understand before getting out of cell service. Always let someone know where and how long you expect to be hiking if you are planning to hit the trails.
  • Bug repellant. Summertime can bring in merciless mosquitoes. Ensure adequate bug spray or nets to wear around your face and neck to keep those pesky insects away.
  • Trekking Poles. Most trails have considerable terrain with elevation increase. A good set of trekking poles helps hikers with balance and stability. Your joints will be thankful should you learn to use trekking poles before embarking on a hike.
  • Footwear. Keeping your feet happy is essential when planning for a hike. Sturdy, close-toed shoes are best for hiking, no matter the time of the year. If you plan a trip during the spring or fall season, make sure to have water-resistant footwear for snow on the trail.
  • Layer up! Even during the summer, temperatures can easily drop into the 40s during the evening. A three-layer approach is a good place to start: a top layer (jacket or coat), a mid-layer (long sleeve shirt or light jacket), and a base layer (sweat-wicking tank top or shirt).  

Brief History of North Cascades National Park

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Photo by John Lauriat via Shutterstock

Officially designated in 1968, the park opened a few years later when SR-20 was developed in 1972. The park was not alone, however, for Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area were also designated and protected along with the North Cascades. 

Before it was a national park, The North Cascades and surrounding areas were inhabited by the Skagit, Nooksack, and Sauk-Suittale indigenous tribes. It was not until the 1800s that fur trappers traveling from Oregon came to the North Cascades.

Miners followed soon after, seeking out silver and gold. Some timber and logging efforts were made as well but were not sustainable. The Northern Cascades have always presented a challenge because of the sharp and wild terrain. Those trying to take advantage of the resources are often left to find more forgiving territory.

In the mid-twentieth century, mountaineering groups started making alpine attempts to summit the peaks seen in the range. These recreation groups began to recognize the uniqueness of the Northern Cascades. The enthusiasm for the boundless adventure in the remote Cascade range led to its ultimate protection in 1968, preserving it to be the National Park it is today.


Plan your next trip to the national parks in an RV. Rent an RV, trade-in your RV, or buy a new or used RV and start traveling for less than $5 a day. 

Have you experienced North Cascades National Park? Share your tips in the comments below!

Rose Aldrich is an avid rock climber and outdoor enthusiast. Living in the Southeast, she spends lots of time in the Appalachian Mountains. Rose takes an average of six trips out West each year and is currently working on visiting every national park in the country. She knows a thing or two about camper life and considers road-living the American Dream.

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