A Look at Washington State’s Three National Parks
Having lived in Seattle my whole life, I often reflect on what makes this place so special and why I haven’t ventured away. If I had to sum it up in two words, I would say: “The Mountains.” Seattle is bordered by two mountain ranges – the Cascades to the east, and the Olympics to the west – and off in the distance to the south, we are anchored by the sublime Mount Rainier. All these mountains, in addition to their surrounding wilderness, make up the three unique National Parks in Washington State: Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park.
Part II: North Cascades National Park
Just about an hour outside of the city lies a plethora of hikes and trails in the Snoqualmie Pass area. Growing up, these were the hikes I frequented as they were easy to get to from the city and offered a variety of lakes, peaks, and ridges to trek. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I started to hear more and more about friends and family doing hikes in the North Cascades and raving about how scenic they were. After many years of wondering what the hype was all about, it seemed only fitting that a hike through these awe-inspiring mountains be added to the list for this summer. And, of course, I invited along my favorite hiking companions, Mom and Dad.
Maple Pass Loop Tail. Brittany Carchano
History of North Cascades National Park:
The North Cascades have drawn in people for hundreds of years for both its natural beauty and its resources. Native Americans were intimately connected to the natural environment of these mountains and frequently utilized trails and passes as trade routes between the Puget Sound and Columbia River Basin. Miners in the 1850s-1950s flocked to this region in hopes of being one of the lucky ones to find gold and silver. Fur trappers, loggers, builders, settlers, and explorers have also all come and gone, adding to the history of this rugged wilderness.
In 1968 North Cascades National Park was established with the goal of preserving the unique mountainous region it encompasses. Spanning from the Canadian border in the north to Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in the southeast, the sharp peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, wildflowers, and alpine meadows have earned this area the nickname the “North American Alps.” Although there was no sign of Julie Andrews or the von Trapp family on our hike, it was obvious why this particular section of the Cascade Range has earned that moniker. Without a monitored park gate or entrance fee, this national park stands out among the others as a place that encourages travelers and hikers to set their own path and freely explore the rugged landscape.
Views from Maple Pass Loop Trail. Brittany Carchano
Maple Pass Loop:
With over 500,000 acres of land, choosing which hike to do in the North Cascades can seem overwhelming. There are a handful of hikes, however, that are very well known in the area and can help to narrow down the choices. Some of these hikes include Diablo Lake, Cascade Pass, and Thunder Knob. For our hike, we decided to take on Maple Pass Loop. This trail sits just outside the official border of the park, but based on many positive reviews, we knew we’d be spoiled with stunning views of lakes and nearby mountains that would make the 7.2-mile hike and 3-hour drive to get there worth it. And one of the greatest appeals to this hike is that it is said to encompass everything you’d want to see in the North Cascades in one trail: jagged peaks, pristine lakes, wildflowers, meadows, waterfalls, dense forest, wildlife and more.
We were only in the forest for a short amount of time before the trees started to thin and we could see more of the area around us. Brittany Carchano
Pro Tip: Since the trail is a loop, you can either hike it clockwise or counterclockwise. If you choose to hike it clockwise, you will face the steepest parts of the trail on your way up and will stay in fairly dense trees for the majority of the time. If you decide to start going counterclockwise, you will have a more gradual ascent and your way up will cover less ground in the trees, but your descent will be very steep.
Knowing how steep going up would be if we chose to hike clockwise, we came to an agreement that a gradual incline was more in our comfort zone and our knees would be okay hitting the steep part on the way down.
The trailhead starts in the parking lot just off Highway 20 and NF-600. The first mile or so took us through second-growth forest with vibrant green moss and flecks of sunlight guiding us through. It wasn’t too long before we started to see delicate wildflowers of all colors pop up on either side of the trail (and of course we stopped along the way for Mom to take photos of each one!).
Pro Tip: Most wildflowers on this trail bloom during the summer months, but make sure to check out this hike during the fall if you want to see larches, a deciduous conifer tree that turns a golden yellow in the autumn months making it look like it could be in a Doctor Seuss book!
Mom admiring all of the wildflowers. Brittany Carchano
Some of the first wildflowers we saw along the trail. Brittany Carchano
The flowers and vegetation were so thick in some areas that the trail was reduced to a narrow pathway. Brittany Carchano
At 1.25 miles, a new trail splits to the left off the main one and takes curious hikers out to Lake Ann, a gorgeous teal blue lake nestled in a glacial cirque formed eons ago. Those who choose to take this trail to the lake and back will add about an hour on to their hike along the loop. We knew the hike was already going to take us around 5 hours to do, so we opted out of the detour. Luckily for us, gorgeous views of Lake Ann are visible throughout the hike as the trail snakes around the mountainside and ridges beside it.
Our first glimpse of Lake Ann as we headed counterclockwise on the trail. Brittany Carchano
As we hiked, we continued to see stunning views and new perspectives of Lake Ann. Brittany Carchano
While it’s easy to get lost in admiration of all the colorful flowers, meadows, views of lakes, and fascinating geological features, the most amazing part of this hike for me was the magnificent views of all the neighboring mountains. It seemed that at every turn, new peaks and mountains became visible, and each time I was more and more taken back by the beauty and vastness of what surrounded me. To put it simply, I have never said “wow” so many times in my life!
When we stopped to eat lunch, we could see another alpine lake and mountain tops as far as the eye could see. Brittany Carchano
Pro Tip: Peaks you will be able to spot nearby include Corteo, Frisco, Goode, Stiletto, and Black Peak. And at some points along the trail, mountains and jagged peaks will stretch into the distance as far as your eye can see.
As we started to reach the ridge and the summit of this trail, we began to feel the elevation a little bit (at this time we were standing at around 6,000 ft.) but going slow and taking small breaks made the last stretch manageable. At the top we finished up what remained of our snacks, took some deep breaths and a few moments to appreciate the wonder around us, and then started our descent back down. At that point, we truly felt like we were on top of the world.
This rock almost seemed intentionally placed to act as a pedestal for hikers to take in the views. Brittany Carchano
We started to encounter small snow patches as we neared the top, but only had to cross over one on the actual trail. Brittany Carchano
Standing at over 6,000 ft. and feeling happy about making it to the top! Brittany Carchano
As promised by the reviews, the way down was very steep and had many rocks to navigate which was similar to the way up. Having sturdy hiking boots and poles made finding solid footing much easier. The trail down quickly entered thick trees, but we were still able to catch glimpses of lakes and a large waterfall (although quite far away, we could hear the water rushing down before we could see the source!). At this point, our tired legs were eager to find the parking lot again, but we had fun reminiscing about the views on the way up and trying to guess the wildlife sounds we heard going down.
On the way down, we started to encounter more meadows which quickly turned into thick forest. Brittany Carchano
Once back on Highway 20, the scenic road that led us through the small towns and mountains of the North Cascades, we made sure to stop at Cascadian Farm for ice cream – a new tradition for us after our first hike to Mount Rainier in June!
Additional Photos from our hike on the Maple Pass Loop Trail
Other Things to Do in the Area:
There are many other activities to do in the area if you aren’t interested in hiking! From camping and boating on Diablo Lake, Ross Lake, or Lake Chelan to stopping for photos at the many scenic vistas along Highway 20, a trip up to the North Cascades is well worth the journey. Visit the National Park Service to learn more about bird and wildlife viewing, rangers programs, climbing, bringing horses on the trails, and Steheken, a small village on Lake Chelan that is only accessible by boat, plane, or foot!
Directions & Guided Tours:
Headed to the Maple Pass trailhead by car? Check out the driving directions below:
- From downtown Seattle, head north on I-5
- At exit 208, take ramp right for WA-530 toward Arlington/Darrington
- Turn right onto WA-530/WA-530 NE
- Turn left onto WA-530/WA-9/E WA-530
- Turn right onto WA-530/E WA-530/W Burke Ave
- Turn left to stay on WA-530 / Emens Ave N
- Bear right onto WA-20
- Turn right onto NF-600 just past mile marker 157
Pro Tip: There is no fee to enter North Cascades National Park, however many hikes do require a Northwest Forest Pass be displayed in the car. Make sure to check online before heading out to see what is required for the area you plan to visit! Click here to purchase passes online or to see local vendors that sell them.
Looking for a more guided experience, or shuttle to the park? Visit the resource below: