Whenever we start planning a trip, I always take a few minutes to look at the National Park Service website to see if there are any National Parks or other park service units that we have yet to visit. Having been to Seattle previously, I thought we would have covered most of the sites, but I was wrong and had myself wondering how in the heck we had missed North Cascades National Park on our epic 10,000 road trip back in 2009?!

After I got over my initial shock, I immediately starting adjusting our schedule to see if it was possible to fit in a day trip to the park in to our August travels. Thankfully, Hubs was easily brought on board and we decided that we would catch a flight out on Thursday night after work, instead of Friday morning. We would then get to spend the good part of Friday in the park and still make it back to Seattle by dinner time on Friday to meet up with our friends.

Planning Our North Cascades National Park Day Trip

North Cascades National Park Sign

The main North Cascades National Park sign on Highway 20 in the North Cascades National Park Complex (aka Ross Lake National Recreation Area). Pardon the shadows!

When I started planning, I quickly realized that the main drive through the “park” (Highway 20) didn’t actually go through the park. How many casual travelers miss this when visiting to the park?!? Instead, the park was split into a North Unit and South Unit, with the Ross Lake National Recreation Area running through them, which as a unit creates the “North Cascades National Park Complex”.

For someone like me who is trying to visit all of the parks, the drive the the RLNRA wouldn’t cut it as an official visit to the park. We didn’t have time for a couple mile hike to actually get into the park and I was starting to get sad that we wouldn’t be able to truly visit the park this time around. However, thanks to an off-hand comment on a travel blog and a phone call to a friendly NCNP visitor center, I found out that you CAN drive into the park on a road called Cascade River Road.

Visiting the “Actual” North Cascades National Park

I highly recommending adding a drive along the Cascade River Road to any NCNP or RLNRA trip. As the numerous online reviews will tell you, it is a dirt road that narrows to one lane and it can be bumpy as hell if it has not recently been graded. However, it gets you into the park… which is what all of us National Park Geeks are looking for in a visit!

The photos below are from our drive along Cascade River Road:

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In closing, I am so glad we were able to fit the extra few hours into our trip to make this park happen. I do, however, wish that we would have had more time to hike. Some of the park trails looked amazing! Thankfully, we have friends in Seattle and will travel that way again in the years to come… and you can bet that we will make sure we have the time to hike!

Travel Tips

  1. Make time to visit the actual North Cascades National Park, whether by hiking, boating, or taking a drive on the Cascade River Road.
  2. Drive with care on the Cascade River Road. We only met a handful of cars on our drive, but even with the narrow road we were able to easily pass each other.
  3. Pack snacks and lunch/dinner. There are very few places to pick up food along Highway 20 once you get into the park complex.
  4. Bring your camera! There are so many photo opportunities along the way.