Are you headed to “The American Alps” in Washington? North Cascades National Park has jaw-dropping glacier-blue water, rivers, mountains, and some of the most beautiful hikes. It has all the things you want to see in a national park but often gets overlooked because of Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park. We have compiled a guide to help you explore North Cascades National Park with pets and kids.
North Cascades National Park is free to visit. In 2021, it was the least visited park in the lower 48. People are missing out on an amazing park with a lot to offer.
The jagged peaks of the Cascades are breathtaking. The more than 300 glaciers are responsible for some of the most beautiful water and the landscape we’ve seen. A fun fact is that the park has the largest amount of glaciers in the United States, except for Alaska. As you explore the park, you won’t need to go far before hearing the cascading water flowing into the valley and the beautiful blue lakes.
The best part is that the park’s ecosystems are home to many different animals, from wet to dry forests. You may see Columbia black-tailed deer, Douglas squirrels, or pikas. Sometimes you can see elk, moose, mountain goats, black bears, wolverines, river otters, cougars, bobcats, and coyotes. The park is even home to gray wolves, grizzly bears, and Canada Lynx, although it’s a special treat if you see one.
Looking to the sky, you may also see bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, or even a golden eagle. At dusk, you may see one of the eight types of bats found in the park.
North Cascades Visitor Center is located across the Skagit River and next to the Newhalem Creek Campground. This visitor center was closed when we were at the park. The Golden West Visitor Center is located near the passenger ferry at Stehekin Landing. We visited the Park and Forest Information Center in Sedro-Woolley along the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). We got the Junior Ranger books here and information for the park.
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Where to stay when visiting North Cascades
North Cascades is between two and three hours (depending on traffic) from Seattle. We suggest getting a tad closer so you can go multiple days or spend longer in the park. However, staying in Seattle, you can easily see the park’s beauty in a day.
We stayed 45 minutes from North Cascades National Park at Grandy Creek, a Thousand Trails. It was a great little park that had fun things for the kiddos. Starlink will work at some campsites. We used all 75 feet of the cord to have a clear view but could get it to work. We also didn’t have full hookups, but since we were only at the campground for five days, it didn’t bother us too much.
However, there are a ton of campgrounds in the area, and if you plan out a little bit, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding the perfect spot.
If you plan on camping in the park, you can reserve campsites along the North Cascades Highway during the operational season ending in September in advance (and we recommend doing this as early as possible to improve your chances). After the season closes, the sites will be winterized, but you can still find open campsites. Check out the NPS site for spots still open all year. However, these campgrounds are tent-only and not for RVers.
How do you get to North Cascades?
The campground we stayed in is right off North Cascades Highway, the road you will take into the park. This campground is about 40 minutes from the park.
If you’re not RVing and traveling from outside Washington, flying into the international airport in Seattle would be a good option.
Best time to visit North Cascades National Park
The best times to visit North Cascades National Park are June through September. We visited in the first part of August, and it was warm but not too hot.
The Fall and Spring are popular times for the beautiful colors. If you’re going in the Fall, try for early to mid-October, the weather gets a tad moodier and colder after that, and you will start running into road closures due to snow.
North Cascades National Park Guide with Dogs & Kids
Like at most National Parks, dogs are prohibited in the North Cascades National Park except on the Pacific Crest Trail and away from the roads. Service animals are allowed. However, dogs are allowed on a leash within the Ross Lake, Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, national forest lands, and within 50 yards of the roads.
There are approximately 30 miles of exploring you can do right on North Cascades Highway. You will still experience old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls right off the highway, super blue water lakes, and mountain views that seem to go forever. You will spend a few hours driving this road and stopping at all the pull-offs.
Let’s start this journey through North Cascades National Park with your dogs. We will leave the Grandy Creek campground and head east on North Cascades Highway.
You must first grab a quick photo of the massive “Welcome to Concrete” painted in giant letters across super tall cement silos. Don’t forget to take a picture like we did even though we passed the sign multiple times. We kept saying we’ll take it next time. Maybe next time we’re in the area, we’ll grab the photo first! 😉
You will be on the one paved road, North Cascades Highway, that travels through the park. We’ll be traveling west to east through the park. The highway follows the river, and the views will make it hard to keep your eye on the road. Therefore, take advantage of the many pullouts to get out, stretch your legs, take photos and let your dog use the bathroom.
If you visit the North Cascades Visitors Center, next to Newhalem Creek Campground, you will find a small trail behind the visitor center, Sterling Munro Trail. It’s a small 0.3-mile out-and-back trail on a wooden boardwalk that leads through the forest to a big overlook deck with benches. Dogs are allowed!
The Trail of Cedars Nature Walk is another short hike where you can take your dogs. It’s a flat 0.6-mile out-and-back trail that includes a suspension bridge.
The Gorge Powerhouse is a plant that has been producing power since 1924. The sign at the overlook states, “The rushing water underneath the powerhouse has just produced up to 170 megawatts of power, enough to light up almost 9,000 homes.” The small suspension bridge you see was built initially for the construction workers working at the powerhouse.
You can take this bridge to the Ladder Creek Falls Garden. There is a small hike here named Ladder Creek Falls Trail. We didn't do this trail because of timing, and we didn’t know you could take dogs on the trail. However, All Trails says dogs are welcome. It’s a quick 0.5-mile loop trail that has minimal elevation. I’ve seen fun photos and videos showing the trail lit with colorful lights at night. However, some recent comments have said the trail and lights have not been maintained and are not all working.
Next up on the North Cascades Highway is the Thunder Knob Trail. This trail is a little longer at a 3.5-mile out-and-back. The trail has about 685 ft of elevation, with benches viewing Diablo Lake and many high peaks.
Speaking of Diablo Lake, the overlook is next on our list. If you get here right at the right time when the sun is shining on the lake through the valley. You will also see the sharp snow-capped mountains circling the beautiful lake. Fun fact, the color comes from glacial flour when the surrounding mountains erode from ice and flow into the water. The color is most vibrant from July through September when the glacial melt occurs. Diablo Lake Overlook is a quick overlook where you can walk your dogs around the area or even leave them in the car for a quick photo.
Washington Pass Overlook Trail is a dog-friendly 0.3 loop that starts and ends at the parking lot. Amazing views and worth the stop.
There are a few great dog-friendly hikes that are from 2 to 4.6 miles, have great views, and are worth checking out. The views on Blue Lake Trail are calendar ready. This trail is a moderately challenging 4.6-mile out-and-back trail near Stehekin. Lake Ann Trail is a 3.4-mile out-and-back trail and is easier than Blue Lake Trail with less elevation gain. Cutthroat Lake Trail is a 3.8-mile out-and-back trail. Rainy Lake Trail is an easy 2.0-mile out-and-back trail near Stehekin. You will need a $5/daily or $30/annual Northwest Forest Pass for Rainy Lake Trail.
North Cascades National Park is gorgeous, and driving through still has much to offer. The views of the lakes and rivers are breathtaking. However, getting in nature is what makes this park so unique.
The first time we visited the park, we had a lot of things on our minds, including our beloved dog, that passed shortly after this trip, and sadly didn’t get a lot of time to get in and explore the park. After visiting Mount Rainier, we fell into the same trap as most tourists and pushed North Cascades to the bottom of the list. Even going as far as saying we probably won’t visit again. However, we have since been thinking more of The American Alps and have already started making plans for next summer. We encourage you to try the North Cascades National Park as well, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Listen to the Podcast
We talk about North Cascades National Park on our podcast in episode 40. We discuss the park in an update post about other Washington things we have done.