The summer months in the Pacific Northwest are the perfect time for some of the best hikes in Washington state. In my opinion, it’s an especially great time to do some hikes at North Cascades! We love the greenery of the Northwest. And our close proximity to mountains and water make it so enticing to be outside.
One of our favorite things to do here in Washington state is to find places to hike in the parks around the area. We’ve had fun visiting several of the Washington state parks. We’ve also enjoyed visiting the national parks, like doing Mount Rainier hikes with kids.
One of the gems of Washington state (and in the western United States for that matter) is the lesser known national parks, North Cascades National Park. It’s full of easy North Cascades National Park hikes that are perfect for families!
This post was updated on January 13, 2020.
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An underrated national park
North Cascades National Park is tucked away in the north central part of Washington state. Compared to its sister parks, Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, which respectively get 3.4 million and 1.4 million visitors annually, North Cascades National Park sees a paltry 30,000 visitors per year. But this small number, I recently discovered, is what makes North Cascades National Park one of the best kept secrets in Washington state!
Stretching from the Canadian border down to central Washington, North Cascades National Park includes the area around Mount Baker and also Lake Chelan. These two places are popular recreational destinations for Washington locals.
North Cascades National Park is partially bisected by Ross Lake in the north. Ross Lake turns into Diablo Lake, Gorge Lake, and finally the Skagit River, on its way south.
Many of Seattle’s hydroelectric power comes from the dams and powerhouses that punctuate the national park’s bodies of water. So this whole national park is a great place for worldschooling as well. Plus, unlike the other two national parks in Washington state, North Cascades National Park does not have an entrance fee.
Want to learn more about the United States natural wonders? Click here to read about other US national parks we’ve visited.
Where to stay at North Cascades National Park
If you’re a car camping family like ours, you’ll be pleased to know there are several options for car camping sites around the park. There are five car camping campgrounds at the park that you can reserve ahead of time:
- Newhalem Creek Campground
- Goodell Creek Campground (plus group campgrounds)
- Gorge Lake Campground
- Colonial Creek North Campground
- Colonial Creek South Campground
Gorge Lake Campground and the Goodell Creek Group Campground sites do not have water available. There are also three boat-in sites at Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, and Lake Chelan. Remember to follow the “leave no trace” philosophy and practice responsible and sustainable travel while visiting the national park.
There are no lodges inside the national park, but there are 2 lodges just outside of North Cascades National Park.
Easy hikes at North Cascades
North Cascades National Park also has a lot of great easy places to hike for families with young kids. We love hiking in the outdoors, but we are by no means expert hikers!
It can be a struggle sometimes to get our kids to hike even a mile. And don’t get us started on hikes that have major changes in elevation!
Fortunately, many of the North Cascades National Park hikes are easy for young hikers. Many of these trails are also wheelchair and stroller accessible. This makes them super inclusive for all types of families. Bonus!
Having a guide of the trails at North Cascades National Park will make getting around the park much easier. Here are a few guides and trail maps you can buy to enhance your hikes North Cascades experience:
Tales of a Mountain Mama offers some excellent tips for how to hike with kids of different abilities.
If you’re wanting to test out those tips on some hikes at North Cascades, or just interested in some easy trails to spend your summer days, check out my list of seven easy North Cascades National Park hikes!
1. Happy Creek Forest Walk
Just across from Ross Lake, on Highway 20, is the Happy Creek Forest Walk. This .3 mile trail of boardwalk and gravel takes hikers through a forest of Douglass Fir, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, and Maples. The trail also goes along Happy Creek. This creek looks and sounds exactly what you might imagine a babbling brook to be.
Our kids loved picking up the pine cones along the trail.They also love trying to distinguish which tree each pine cone came from. The quietness of the forest really does give you space to pause and reflect on life. This is a really easy trail, with no elevation gain. It is a great option to put on your list of easy hikes at North Cascades.
2. Diablo Dam
To the southwest of Ross Lake is Diablo Lake. This is a small reservoir lake created from the construction of Diablo Dam in 1927. Diablo Dam is one of three dams comprising the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which supplies approximately 20% of Seattle’s electricity.
Though it’s not a typical option for places to hike, a walk along the 1,180 feet long dam is a great way to catch views of Diablo Lake, the Skagit River, and the Cascade Mountains. If you choose to walk along the dam, just be cautious of passing cars as there is no separate walkway for pedestrians.
3. Gorge Overlook Trail
Another great place to catch views of the Skagit River is the Gorge Overlook Trail. The trail head for this .5 mile round trip trail can be found along Highway 20 near the bridge crossing Gorge Creek. It’s one of the super easy hikes at North Cascades.
This fully paved trail is completely accessible for strollers and wheelchairs. But it does have a bit of an elevation gain (though not anything too strenuous). Be sure to pause and take in the views of the Gorge Dam, Gorge Lake, and some waterfalls.
4. Ladder Creek Falls Trail
One of the things that surprised me most about North Cascades National Park was its history. The dams and hydroelectric powerhouses in the area were built in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I can imagine how much of a marvel these structures must have been at the time.
J.D. Ross, creator of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, created the Ladder Creek Falls Trail as a testament to man’s power over nature. Located behind the Gorge Powerhouse, the .4 mile trail winds through gardens designed by Ross himself.
In the trail’s heyday, Ross had music playing in the trees. They came through strategically placed phonographs. Lights were installed throughout the trail to illuminate the path. And parts of the ground were even heated to accommodate exotic plants!
These days, the sounds you hear tend to be the natural chirping of birds. But there are still occasional light shows happening throughout the year that drape Ladder Creek Falls in a rainbow of colors. The trail is mostly gravel. Also, there are some rock steps and stone and gravel staircases, so it’s not fully accessible.
In terms of a serene retreat, the Ladder Creek Falls Trail is surely a winner among the hikes at North Cascades. A visit to the Gorge Powerhouse is a must as well. It will give your kids a chance to learn more about the hydroelectric energy that powers much of Seattle.
5. Trail of the Cedars
In terms of accessible trails to explore in North Cascades National Park, one trail worth mentioning is the Trail of the Cedars. The trail sits just on the edge of the small community of Newhalem along Highway 20. I would even go so far as to say it’s one of the best hikes in Washington state for young kids.
Consisting of a .3 mile gravel loop that takes hikers along the Skagit River to the Newhalem Powerhouse and back, the trail is an easy stroll through trees and brush. Informative placards dot the trail. They educate hikers about the trees and plants in the area, as well as the logging history of the national park. The highlight of the trail is the suspension bridge, that crosses the Skagit River from Newhalem.
6. Rock Shelter Trail
A super easy and accessible trail for young hikers to try is the Rock Shelter Trail. This trail starts near the North Cascades Visitors Center. The .3 mile trail begins with a gravel path. It then leads to a boardwalk that takes hikers to a historical archaeological site.
The Rock Shelter is a 1,400 year old hunting shelter near the Newhalem Creek. The shelter was used by the Native Americans who once hunted local wild mountain goats. We love learning about the indigenous cultures who once lived in the area. It helps remind us to be mindful of the history of the places we visit. This is also another one of the super easy North Cascades National Park hikes.
7. River Loop Trail
For young hikers wanting a more challenging hike, the River Loop Trail, which also starts near the North Cascades Visitors Center, is a great option. We liked doing this North Cascades National Park hike for our kids, as it wasn’t too far for them to walk, but still far enough to get them tuckered out!
This loop trail stretches 1.8 miles and takes you by the Newhalem Creek Campground. It goes along the Skagit River, and eventually back to the visitors center. There is a slight elevation change, but nothing too dramatic. The River Loop Trail is a good trail for doing an afternoon hike.
Get to know the rest of Washington state. Take a look at my posts about this wonderful and beautiful state.
Having fun with the hikes at North Cascades with kids
These easy hikes at North Cascades are perfect for getting young hikers out and about in nature. We did all of these hikes over the course of the two days we were at North Cascades National Park. Tallying it all up, we hiked approximately 4.3 miles!
Breaking our North Cascades National Park hikes up into small manageable chunks made it easy for our kids to enjoy these summer hikes. If your kids are young like ours, then these easy hikes at North Cascades will be perfect for your family.
Now that I’ve let you in on the best hikes in Washington for little kids, go out and explore North Cascades National Park for yourself! If you and your family discover an easy hike that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know in the comments. Happy hiking!
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