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I’d never heard of North Cascades National Park when I set out to write this. Not that that’s entirely surprising. It’s one of America’s five least visited national parks. It’s only three hours from Seattle and yet the park only draws 20-30 thousand visitors per year. For comparison sake, Washington’s more popular parks, Mt. Rainier and Olympic get two and three million visitors per year, respectively.
The knee-jerk reaction might be to wonder if this park is just a little blah, but one photo banishes that thought. It’s not just beautiful, North Cascades is almost unreal — composed entirely of sweeping landscapes, looming mountains, and ethereal bodies of water. Those who visit the park in person seem to have an almost cult-like obsession with it.
“I did a backpacking trip up there a few years ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since,” Uproxx’s Lisa Dunn says. “It grabs hold of you and truly won’t let go.”
This kind of rabid fandom for an un-visited national park is exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to get under the skin of this month on Uproxx. We’re trading the well-known travel favorites for less-famous experiences and locales. To help us explore North Cascades, we enlisted adventure photographer, Nathaniel Wise — whose stunning photos truly capture the scope and large-scale beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
For Wise, who moved to Washington from Georgia a little over three years ago, North Cascades isn’t just his favorite park, it’s an example of the type of scenery that made him take up photography in the first place. Glaciers, waterfalls, crystalline lakes, towering snow-capped mountains — his photos of the park are epic in scale and raw in beauty, two qualities that any bold adventurer ought to be intrigued by. Check out Wise’s guide to North Cascades National Park below, then start making plans for your own trip.
FROM WISE: Washington can get a little crowded sometimes, there are a ton of people out hiking in the summertime. So anywhere I could go that was less accessible I was more excited about. I found North Cascades by exploring around, but the reason I was drawn to it was because of that lack of crowds.
If you’re just passing through there are some cool lookouts that you can drive to on North Cascades Scenic Highway — it goes through the park and loops around to another part of the cascades. That’s always cool to do.
DETAILS: To get to North Cascades from Seattle you can take I-5 to exit 230 (North Cascades Highway/State Route 20 East). Highway 20 is the scenic byway and will take you right through the park. Another (super cool) way to get there is by train, the Amtrak Cascades arrives twice daily.
If you decide to drive the scenic byway, make sure to stop for pictures at the Diablo Lake Overlook, Gorg Creek Falls, and Washington Pass. If you’re traveling in late July or early August, consider making a detour to see an incredible wildflower bloom in Hart’s Pass (Turn off Hwy 20 and follow signs to Mazama. Forest Service Road 5400 will take you to Hart’s Pass. This is best done in a vehicle that can handle gravel roads).
FROM WISE: Since I started camping and backpacking, I realized that I don’t really need much. You really realize how little you need once you start camping and carrying everything on your back.
In North Cascades, there are crazy trails that go up into these amazing alpine environments. Like there was one trip that we did up there that was a 40-mile roundtrip backpacking excursion up to these unnamed lakes that sit up at seven thousand feet. And you’re just surrounded by peaks and glaciers and wilderness. There’s no one there.
DETAILS: Some great hikes to try include East Bank Baker Lake (9 mi. round trip), Horseshoe Basin Via Boundary Trail (12.5 mi. hike that takes you past many waterfalls), and the East Bank Trail to Desolation Peak (31 mi. one way — you can take a boat there as well or hike there and boat back).
FROM WISE: I’m a huge fan of traveling very slowly and really intentionally — just really taking time to soak places up and get to know them. I understand that many people are on much more of a time crunch than I am, but I think that there’s a lot of value to just staying in one place and really getting to know it. A lot of people, when they go on vacation, they’ll be like, “Oh, we get to go to all these seven national parks in a week!” or something. But I think it’s cool to just take your time and go to one and really experience it.
DETAILS: Some of Wise’s favorite experiences on his trips to North Cascades include snowshoeing and kayaking. For snowshoeing, try hiking to Artist Point via Mount Baker Highway trail for a 5.4 mi. roundtrip adventure. Kayaking? For a rental, hit up Ross Lake Resort Rentals and they’ll hook you up for a trip on Diablo or Ross Lakes. And if you’re into climbing, some of the cliffs and mountains you can climb have names like Mount Torment and Mount Terror so… have fun with that.
FROM WISE: There’s are a bunch of cool fire lookouts that you can hike to and sleep in, which is a really unique experience. They’re just decommissioned fire lookouts — since back in the day it wasn’t as easy to detect wildfires, so they would have rangers stationed up in the fire lookouts. But now, they have other means, so they’ve all been converted into these cool little places you can stay for free. They’re usually on top of a mountain with 360-degree views. They’re covered. They just look like little square cabins. Just windows all the way around, it’s really cool.
Getting out and sleeping in the wilderness with crazy views and literally no one around, it’s the best.
DETAILS: Fire lookouts are dotted thoughout the park; you can find a map of them here. Desolation Peak’s lookout is where Jack Kerouac spent a summer in 1956, it has beds, a kitchen, and has been the temporary home for many a pilgrim looking to see the same views he did for inspiration. For something slightly less rustic, Ross Lake Resort’s cabins were built on log floats so you can stay suspended and floating on the lake which is an incredibly cool experience.
DETAILS: For a super unique experience consider signing up for an evening tour and dinner at the Gorge Inn, near a series of cascade dams, for a “Dam good chicken dinner” followed by a night tour of Ladder Creek Falls. $19.