Trip Report: North Cascades National Park

July 18, 2022  |  North Cascades National Park, Washington

“Going to the mountains is like going home” – John Muir

Having been raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, I was never really exposed to the mountains. Sure, we had the Catskills nearby, and the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey, but let's be real, they pale in comparison to those mountains out west- the San Juans in Colorado, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. I don't know exactly what it is, but somewhere along the lines, despite the fact I had no early exposure to them, I became drawn to the mountains in a very strong way. So when my wife and I sat down to plan this year's road trip, which for me is always a work trip (she's happy to watch me work), it was a foregone conclusion that we'd be heading for the mountains. After originally making plans to head to Montana and the Beartooth Mountains, we were forced to change plans due to the flooding in southwestern Montana at the end of June. So, we decided to drive a little further west, to North Cascades National Park.

The sky glows with the last light of the day over Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Diablo Twilight

The sky glows with the last light of the day over Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park in Washington.

North Cascades National Park has been on my list for some time. The Cascades are stunningly beautiful, but not as accessible as other National Parks. While places like Yosemite, Acadia, and the Smokies all have numerous pullouts and viewpoints to allow people of all abilities to enjoy the natural beauty, North Cascades National Park is much more of a hiker's park, with some of the best views only accessible via the numerous hiking trails throughout the park. Don't get me wrong though - there are still some absolutely beautiful overlooks that you can pull up to and get out of the car to enjoy, such as Diablo Lake, shown above.

Liberty Bell Mountain rises above Washington Pass in the North Cascades of Washington.

The Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell Mountain rises above Washington Pass in the North Cascades of Washington.

Another beautiful overlook was at Washington Pass, where Liberty Bell Mountain rises above the road through the mountains. It's a short walk from the parking area, but it's paved and fairly easy. For my image of Liberty Bell, above, I climbed up on a rocky outcrop to change the view a bit, which gave me a slightly different view than from the overlook. When we pulled up, the sky was clear, but clouds made their way in as the sun rose, completing the scene perfectly and making for a beautiful morning before my wife and I hiked up to Blue Lake.

Snowfield Peak and Pinnacle Peak stand high above Thunder Arm at Diablo Lake on a summer evening in North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Summer in the Cascades

Snowfield Peak and Pinnacle Peak stand high above Thunder Arm at Diablo Lake on a summer evening in North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Another difference I found in North Cascades National Park was the lack of any kind of central hub, I guess you could say. For example, Acadia has the Park Loop Road. Shenandoah has Skyline Drive, Yosemite has the Southside and Northside Drives through the valley, and so on. In other words, there's one place to go and experience a good amount of the park even if you go nowhere else. North Cascades National Park is more spread out. It's a good hour from the Newhalem Visitor Center to Washington Pass, and two and a half hours from the Visitor Center in Newhalem to Heather Meadows Visitor Center on Mount Baker. This isn't a knock, but you can't visit North Cascades National Park and expect to see even a little of it in one day.

A long exposure captures Mount Shuksan as clouds swirl around its peak on a summer afternoon at Picture Lake on Mount Baker.

Mount Shuksan

A long exposure captures Mount Shuksan as clouds swirl around its peak on a summer afternoon at Picture Lake on Mount Baker.

Essentially, you'd want AT LEAST two days. One day to drive the scenic North Cascades Highway, and then one day to drive the Mount Baker Highway to Heather Meadows. At Heather Meadows, Picture Lake, shown above, is a must-see. While you can drive up and see the view of Mount Shuksan from the viewing platform, you can also walk around the lake and take in the view from all angles. It's worth a visit. Artist Point is also nearby, but unfortunately, the road was still closed due to excessive snow so we couldn't get there while we visited. Next time.

A small stream meanders through the woods in near Mount Baker in North Cascades National Park.

Woodland Cascades

A small stream meanders through the woods in near Mount Baker in North Cascades National Park.

Nooksack Falls was another area that was fairly accessible, though parking was limited and in short supply when we were there. It's about a mile off Mount Baker Highway, so if you head out that way, be sure to stop for a look. While we were there, we found this stream away from the crowds at the falls. I loved the peacefulness of the scene and quickly set about making this image.

It was an incredibly successful trip, and my first one with my wife tagging along, which made it all the more special. Unfortunately, the late season snow that was still hanging around limited our access to many spots in the park, so I definitely have a reason to head back again. Hopefully soon!