8 Easy Summer Hikes in North Cascades National Park

mountain and lake
October 18, 2023

Summer in the Pacific Northwest is the perfect time for hiking. And in my opinion, it's an especially great time to do some hikes in North Cascades National Park with kids!

We love the greenery of the Northwest. And our close proximity to mountains and water make it so enticing to be outside. 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 or Olympic National Park.

Enjoying our hikes in North Cascades National Park (September 2020)

But by far, one of the gems of Washington state (and in the western United States for that matter) is the lesser known national park, North Cascades National Park. It's full of easy hikes that are perfect for families! In fact, this park has some of the best hikes in Washington state for kids.

This post was originally published on June 19, 2018.

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Where to stay at North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located in central Washington state. If your family likes car camping like we do, 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. You can also look at campsites at Marble Creek Campground off of Cascade River Road.

Doing some trail hikes in North Cascades (September 2020)

There are also three boat-in sites at Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Diablo Lake, and Lake Chelan. Remember to follow the "leave no trace" philosophy and practice responsible and sustainable travel while visiting the national park.

You’ll find a lodge in Stehekin, just outside of North Cascades National Park, called North Cascades Lodge. Additionally, you can try booking a stay at Ross Lake Resort, but those rooms book up fast!

Alternatively, you can go to the town of Winthrop to find lodging, and do day trips into North Cascades National Park. Here are a few hotels in Winthrop that are highly rated.

Sun Mountain Lodge

Located near Patterson Lake, about an hour and 15 minutes away from North Cascades National Park, Sun Mountain Lodge is a great option for families looking for a lodge with a pool. The rooms can accommodate families of 3-4 people, and some rooms are pet friendly.

Rooms are equipped with WiFi, coffee/tea maker, mini fridge, air conditioning, and a safe. Breakfast is available for a fee, and there are also bike rentals available. Free parking is offered at the hotel, so it’s perfect if you’re just planning to do your hikes in North Cascades in a day.

Hotel Rio Vista

For lodging options right in the heart of Winthrop, consider staying at Hotel Rio Vista. This hotel is an hour away from North Cascades National Park. And there’s a hot tub on the property, so you can do a relaxing soak after your hikes in North Cascades.

Rooms at Hotel Rio Vista can accommodate families of up to 4 people. They come equipped with WiFi, refrigerators, coffee/tea makers, microwaves, and air conditioning. Some rooms have connecting room options, which is good for larger families. Free parking is available for guests with cars.

River Run Inn

Located about an hour away from North Cascades National Park, River Run Inn offers families homey cabin-style rooms. The inn has rooms that can accommodate families of up to 4 people. And if you’re part of a big group, you can also book their 6 room cabin, which can accommodate up to 13 people.

Rooms at River Run Inn have WiFi, air conditioning, and kitchenettes. Free parking is available, as well as bike rentals. There are barbecue grills available for families who want to barbecue after a day of doing hikes in North Cascades.

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Easy hikes at North Cascades

We love hiking in the outdoors, but we are by no means expert hikers! And when our kids were younger, they didn’t have the stamina to go on really long hikes. It was a struggle sometimes to get our kids to hike even a mile! And don't get us started on hikes that had major changes in elevation!

A child running along Gorge River Trail, one of the hikes in North Cascades National Park
Gorge Overlook Trail, one of the hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

So for us, finding easy short hikes was really important. Fortunately, many of the North Cascades National Park hikes are easy for young hikers. Many of the trails are also wheelchair and stroller accessible. This makes them super inclusive for all types of families. Bonus!

Take a look at our favorite easy hikes in North Cascades to get you out and about in the summer.

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 Douglas 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.

A boardwalk at Happy Creek Forest Walk, one of the hikes in North Cascades National Park
Happy Creek Forest Walk accessible trail, one of the hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

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 in 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.

A view of Diablo Dam, a nice pit stop for hikes in North Cascades National Park
Diablo Dam, a pit stop for hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

Though it's not a typical option for hikes in North Cascades, 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 trailhead 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 in North Cascades.

An overlook of Gorge Lake and Gorge Dam along the Gorge Overlook Trail, one of the hikes in 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.

Family travel resources for a famiy

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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.

Bird watching at Ladder Creek Falls Trail (June 2018)

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 in 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 hikes 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 the North Cascades Highway portion of Highway 20. I would even go so far as to say it's one of the best hikes in Washington state for really young kids.

Trail of Cedars suspension bridge, one of the hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

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

For families looking for learning opportunities during their hikes in North Cascades, 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.

Father and son enjoying their hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

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.

Learn more about the amazing family travel resources we use for worldschooling!

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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!

River Loop Trail, one of the hikes in North Cascades (June 2018)

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 afternoon hikes in North Cascades.

8. Thunder Knob Trail

For longer hikes in North Cascades, consider doing Thunder Knob Trail. This 3.6 mile hike is perfect for a long afternoon hike. There’s an elevation gain of 635 feet, but the hike offers mountain scenery and a creek.

Relaxing after doing some hikes in North Cascades (September 2020)

We haven’t done this hike yet, but we plan on doing this hike the next time we’re at North Cascades National Park. We like that it offers a variety of landscapes to see. From the hike, you’ll be able to see Colonial Peak and also views of Diablo Lake.

Bonus: Challenging hikes in North Cascades

If your kids can handle more of a challenge, consider some more challenging hikes in North Cascades for your trip. These hikes are either longer in trail distance, or have higher elevation gain. Or they have a combination of both.

Diablo Lake Trial, one of the hikes in North Cascades (September 2020)

Take a look at these hikes in North Cascades National Park for your next family outdoors trip:

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Getting to know more hikes in North Cascades

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 in North Cascades experience:

Best Easy Day Hikes North Cascades

Hiking The North Cascades

North Cascades National Park Trails Map

Taking a pause on the Happy Creek Forest Walk (June 2018)

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 in North Cascades, or just interested in some easy trails to spend your summer days, use the list of easy North Cascades National Park hikes that I've offered above!

Where is North Cascades 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!

Learning about hydroelectricity at the Gorge Powerhouse (June 2018)

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. It sits to the northwest of Wenatchee National Forest.

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.

Check out more parks US National Park Service.

Having fun with the hikes in North Cascades with kids

These easy hikes in 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!

Playing during our hikes in North Cascades (September 2020)

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!

More outdoor tips to complement hikes in North Cascades

Curious about other amazing national parks to visit? Take a look at these:

7 Must-See Sights When Visiting Yellowstone With Kids

7 Practical Tips for Visiting Arches National Park With Kids

Are you hoping to use your visit to North Cascades National Park as a jumping off point for a family gap year? Get my ebook, Hey Kids, Let's Go Travel! to gain valuable advice and tools for planning that trip.

Easy Summer Hikes at North Cascades National Park | The Wandering Daughter |
Ideas for easy hikes at North Cascades National Park that are perfect for kids.

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