The Best Things in Life Are Free — At Least in the North Cascades

Highway 20 is Washington State’s longest highway. Known as the North Cascades Scenic Highway and part of the Cascades Loop, it runs right through the heart of North Cascades National Park, earning its billing as “The most beautiful mountain highway in the state of Washington.”

The drive through the park along Highway 20 is stunning.

The drive through the park along Highway 20 is stunning.

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Since this major thoroughfare also doubles as the “park road,” the only access through the National Park, there is no entrance fee for North Cascades. One can gawk fee-free to their hearts content. (Yes, I know, nothing about our government is “free,” but at least in this case, I don’t have to pay twice!)

I personally feel that North Cascades is a highly underrated National Park. I had never even heard of it until I began my quest to see all 59 NPS areas designated with official “Park” status. Only a 3 hour drive from Seattle, you would expect it to be mobbed given the scenery, hiking, and kayaking opportunities. After all, the NPS bills the North Cascades as “the wildest and steepest mountains in the lower 48 states.” Within the park boundary are over 300 glaciers, the wild and scenic Skagit River, ice blue glacial lakes, and old growth forest. Yet many of the facilities, including the largest campground, Newhalem, are already closed despite the fact that we have arrived in the midst of fall splendor.

View of the Pickett Range from the Sterling Mundo boardwalk trail at the Newhalem Visitor Center.

View of the Pickett Range from the Sterling Mundo boardwalk trail at the Newhalem Visitor Center.

Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake is part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and managed by Seattle City Light.

Diablo Lake is part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and managed by Seattle City Light.

Thankfully, there were still a couple of the smaller campgrounds still open for the season. But with services turned off already, they were also fee-free. We found two beautiful spots in the Goodell Creek campground located side by side amidst the falling leaves. With all the rising campground prices inside the National Parks, it almost feels like stealing to be staying here alongside the beautiful river for free.

Another aspect that’s “free” at this time of the year is freedom from crowds. After jockeying for campground spaces all summer, it feels almost surreal to pull into a National Park without a reservation and be able to get a spot! The park is quiet, trails are empty, and even though the weather is perfect, the Newhalem Visitor Center is open on weekends only.

Goodell Creek Campground, only 21 sites but very scenic.

Goodell Creek Campground, only 21 sites but very scenic with nice sound effects from the Skagit River.

Skagit River

Skagit River

River Loop Trail

River Loop Trail

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Trail of the Cedars Loop through old growth forest.

Trail of the Cedars Loop through old growth forest.

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I spent a good bit of time in North Cascades last time I was in the PNW. I did some great hikes, took in all the exhibits at the Visitor Center, and visited the Seattle City of Light exhibits. But turns out, I missed the best part. Thanks to a tip from fellow full-timer Laurelee, I learned about the incredibly scenic Cascades River Road. I knew the road would be steep and rough, which I typically hate to do to the little Tracker, but Laurelee assured me the drive would be worth it. However, I started to have doubts after asking the woman at the Shell station in town for directions and conditions of the 23 mile road. “It’s just a long road with a bunch of trees. No view until the very top.” Good thing we didn’t let this discourage us!

First glimpse of what's to come from Cascades River Road.

First glimpse of what’s to come from Cascades River Road.

Many photogenic spots along the road...

Many photogenic spots along the road…

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The road is paved for the first third. But then for the second third, it turns into the worst washboard road I have ever been on before, and I have been on a lot of farm roads! The vibration was so extreme that at times we were vibrating sideways rather than forward! And the final third is quite steep. My apologies to the little Tracker, but he took it like a champ!img_7482

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The drive was spectacular! We stopped frequently on the way up, as there was an abundance of photo opportunities, not only of mountains, but of the many “cascades” that give the park its name. There were several lovely Forest Service Campgrounds along the way, but they were all closed for the season.

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Cascades River Road dead ends at the Cascade Pass trailhead, where it’s 3.7 miles to Cascades Pass, or another 31 miles all the way to Stehekin. Another reason to return to North Cascades National Park one day!

Cascades Pass Trail

Cascades Pass Trail

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19 thoughts on “The Best Things in Life Are Free — At Least in the North Cascades

  1. Another interesting and excellent post. You don’t have to go to Alaska or Canada to find a glacier. A great find.

  2. Unbelievably beautiful. Sorry we missed you when you were on the Olympic Peninsula. We just moved to Port Ludlow, just west of the Hood Canal Bridge. Where are you headed now?

  3. Last year camped near the Visitor Center in Newhalem Campground a nice walk along the Skagit River to join with the Trail of the Cedars. Ladder Creek Falls from the east side of town is a short/steep hike, but well worth a stop. Competition for campgrounds will be harder next year now that you’ve such a beautiful blog of showing this secret to the world :)

    • I know, Jeff, I know. I am my own worst enemy. (I did that same loop from CG up Ladder Creek Falls to Trail of Cedars. It was lovely, and a good way to make all those trails with a 0. in front of the mileage a little more fulfilling!)

  4. Amazing photos Suzanne, just stunnning! You make me want to pack in my amazing times in DFW and explore! Thank you for sharing! ❤️

  5. Somewhere in that spectacular scenic area is a beautiful 18 carat gold hoop earring along the side of the rode! About ten years ago we were on a motorcycle trip through this area and I had my helmet ear flaps on because of the cold. A bee flew in the narrow opening where my glasses held the flap away from my face and proceeded to sting me (three times). I started trying to get it out with my finger and snagged the earring in the process. I watched it roll across the road as John pulled over to the side of the road. I searched the other side of the road the best I could (not a friendly edge) and never found it. I was heart broken. The earrings were from Egypt where my parents lived and not replaceable here $$$$$. But despite that experience the area was amazing and a motorcycle is the best way to experience this beauty. We were there in Mid June so there was still lots of snow on the mountains. One day we need to return to do some serious hiking. Your photos capture the beauty so well. Glad you had the area to yourselves:)

  6. I would love to go back to North Cascades NP and travel that road in the fall. What fantastic views! Terry would not have enjoyed that ride. It must have been somewhat reassuring to have someone else along for the ride.

  7. You were in my home territory, I see more recent posts that get you even closer. Of course I’ll comment!

    I was sent on a YMCA-sponsored canoe trip down Ross Lake when I was 14, as the NC Hwy was being built, so we accessed the lake by driving to Hope, BC, and a little road that took us down to the head of the lake. Little did I know that I would be choosing Western Wash U (at that time, State College) in Bellingham as my destination as soon as I could get out of Oroville (way out of your way, but lovely beyond telling). Turns out my parents ferried me over the highway to my freshman year the fall that the highway opened. Since then I’ve traveled it many times between to get from north Seattle or Bellingham to Oroville, and have loved showing it off to my friends, most recently getting a thrill from Pete’s reactions when we traveled east to west a couple of years ago (and yet sad as we traveled immediately after the set of devastating fires/mudslides/windstorm in 2014, and even managed to see the aftermath of the Oso disaster near Burlington).

    As always with familiar places you visit and write about, I learn there is much more to enjoy than I ever thought! And as many of us say time and time again, your photos are fabulous as is your story-telling. Delighted that you enjoy “my home turf” as much as you do. I’ve been smiling with every entry.

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