7 Easy Summer Hikes at North Cascades National Park

mountain and lake

Sharing is caring!

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.

This post may contain affiliate links. That means I may receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase something. But don’t worry, this will not result in any extra costs to you.
Two kids on a board walk during hikes at North Cascades
Taking a pause on the Happy Creek Forest Walk (June 2018)

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.

Learning about hydroelectricity at the Gorge Powerhouse (June 2018)

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.

Hiking on a trail at North Cascades National Park (September 2020)

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:

Best Easy Day Hikes North Cascades

Hiking The North Cascades

North Cascades Nation Park Trails Map

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!

A child running through some hikes at North Cascades National Park
Running along the Gorge Overlook Trail (June 2018)

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.

A boardwalk at hikes in North Cascades
An easy and accessible trail at the Happy Creek Forest Walk (June 2018)

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.

Diablo Dam hikes at North Cascades
The historic Diablo Dam (June 2018)

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.

An overlook during hikes at North Cascades
A view of Gorge Lake and Gorge Dam (June 2018)

Ready for a change? Take the first step to living a life of full time travel.

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.

Bird watching at Ladder Creek Falls Trail (June 2018)

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.

Crossing the suspension bridge into the Trail of the Cedars (June 2018)

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.

Hiking the Rock Shelter Trail (June 2018)

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.

River Loop Trail, one of the hikes at North Cascades
Informative signs along the River Loop Trail (June 2018)

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!

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.

Need help thinking through how to budget for a family trip? My Travel Budget Worksheet is just the tool you need! Click here to receive your free copy by signing up for my newsletter.

Want to connect with me on social media? Find me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. And for those of you who are dedicated to traveling more responsibly, sustainably, and ethically, join over 200 like-minded families on my Facebook group, Responsible Family Travel.

Related posts


36 Responses

  1. This is so beautiful! I can’t believe I haven’t been before. I’m adding this to my list this summer.

    1. Yes, we were blown away. It has mountains, water, and forest. Everything that the other Washington National Parks have.

  2. Your photos are incredible! We drove past here on our way to Winthrop and now I’m wishing we would have stopped! We’ll definitely plan for that next time!

    1. Thanks Marcie. We’re wishing we could have had time to go to Winthrop. Ha ha! We’ll just live vicariously through each others’ blogs.

    1. Thanks Tina. That sounds great! We saw a lot of folks doing backcountry camping and hiking over by the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center near Diablo Lake. Once the kids are older, we might try that too.

  3. Love how green and scenic the area is! I’ve never done any real hiking in the States, but this sounds so perfect. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, the Pacific Northwest stays pretty green all year long, so we’re really lucky in that regard.

  4. We’ve never been to Washington State because it looks a bit similar to Europe where we’re from. haha… But the moutains are taller, the cascades are bigger and I guess everything is just larger in general. Lately we’ve read many great things about Washington State, and then this post of yours too… makes us curious now! So perhaps we should visit someday! Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

    1. You should come for a visit. The state is pretty diverse, when it comes to natural attractions. We have ocean, lakes, forests, mountains, and even deserts and farmland!

  5. Absolutely love the walks you written about – I love a good forest walk (and that Gorge Lake looks stunning!) Its so good that they’ve made some that are accessible and fun for families, I think it’s so important to get kids outdoors and exploring!

  6. Thank you for the great collection of short hikes. Do you have recommendations for slightly longer hikes for older kids – 3-6 miles in length? And did any of the camping options catch your eye? I am so glad to learn about your beautiful and inspiring blog!

    1. Hi Lorelei! Diablo Lake has some longer hikes over by the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. And the Happy Creek Forest Walk has a trail that you can continue on along the creek. The same goes for the Gorge Overlook Trail. So you can easily turn these short hikes into longer ones if you want. Over by where we were camping, at Colonial Creek Campground, is the Thunder Knob Trail, which is a 3.6 mile hike that goes near Diablo Lake. Hope that helps!

  7. We have not been to North Cascades National Park, but it is definitely on the list. We love the national parks. I’m glad we’re not the only family with kids who complain of hiking at times. I love these hike suggestions and I love that they are easy and accessible hikes. We would start with the Rock Shelter Trail because of the length and proximity to the visitor’s center.

    1. It’s helpful to break the hikes up into manageable chunks, I think. What kinds of activities do your kids like to do? We had a lot of fun doing the Junior Ranger activities. That got the kids a bit more engaged in the hiking.

  8. This is so beautiful! The PNW is truly gorgeous in the summer. I’m in Oregon for the summer and the natural beauty around me is abundant.

    1. Thanks! I love the Pacific Northwest for its natural beauty. Oregon has some pretty places, for sure! Enjoy your time there!

  9. It looks and sounds beautiful, I like the name of Diablo Dam but the exotic plants on Ladder creek falls also sounds really nice. I’ve never hiked with children but all the kids I have seen hiking seem to have never ending energy – they might be good pace makers!

    1. I think it depends on the kids, ha ha! My kids have a lot of energy at first, and then tire out after about thirty minutes. We really have to pace ourselves.

  10. It’s certainly smart to introduce the kids to easy hikes (first). When I was a kid, two summers, I had to do this terrible hikes uphill in South Tyrol with my parents and I thought it was torture! Today, I even like hiking (uphill) from time to time, so, fortunately, I am not that traumatized

  11. These are great hikes to do this summer!! Heading there this August so adding this to my list to make sure I do 2 or 3 of them!

  12. The colors in these photos are spectacular! The PNW is one region of the US that I’ve yet to visit, but every day I read a blog post about it, I can’t wait to finally visit. I love hiking, so a trip like this would be right up my alley. I’d especially love to see those turquoise waters at Diablo Damn.

    1. Aww, thank you! I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the photos turned out, myself. Hope you get to visit the Pacific Northwest soon.

  13. Thank you so much for all of this information! I used to visit Washington most summers as a teenager and I’m going back this June as an adult. I am by no means a hiker so I’ve been trying to find “hikes” that are easy and don’t require equipment or several hours to complete. This list was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up to my email list and get your free Travel Budget Worksheet!