Visit North Cascades National Park with kids

Winding roads, brilliant teal colored lakes, rugged peaks, the occasional waterfall gushing down – for so much natural beauty, the North Cascades National Park is a very under the radar US National park, so much so that its free – one doesn’t even have to pay the usual National Parks entry fee to enter!

Located between Western and Eastern Washington state, U.S, it contains lush green forests on the western side and dry rugged peaks on the eastern side, and is wholly surrounded around Highway US-20 which traverses the Park as its main artery.

With just two days, and only one person in our group of three really keen on hiking, we really just scratched the surface of this beautiful National Park. Here is the list of places we stopped at.

Our first stop was the picturesque Visitor Center.

Diablo Lake Overlook: Whenever I plan for a hike, there is one thing I focus on even more than the weather, and that is Parking. I was worried about not finding parking here on a sunny Saturday mid-day, but Diablo lake overlook had a large parking lot, another big thing going for it. After parking the car, the overlook is mere steps away.

Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park

Diablo Lake, in of itself, is enough reason to visit the North Cascades. This green/ blue/ teal colored lake needs to be seen to be believed. Due to some road closures on Highway 20, we took a meandering route through some back roads and reached Diablo Lake overlook.

Diablo Lake: This teal/blue/green lake needs to be seen to be believed.

We waited patiently for the crowds to part (yes, it was crowded even in the pandemic or maybe because of it?) and took our time looking at the lake from many different vantage points. The lake gets in other-worldly color due to fine rock particles caused by erosion of the surrounding cliffs and brought down by creeks into the water.

Diablo Lake: Reason enough to make drive to North Cascades.

There was many other ways to enjoy Diablo Lake such as camping at nearby Colonial Creek campground, and doing the Thunderknob Trail, which we didn’t do. The Thunderknob Trail is an easy-to-moderate hike at 3.6 miles, with sweeping views of Diablo Lake as a reward in the end.

This viewpoint is sure to impress all ages.

Rainy Lake: We continued eastward on Highway 20 to the Rainy Pass parking lot. It is a very popular spot as it is the gateway to some iconic hikes, including the Heather Maple pass loop.

The easy paved Rainy Lake hike is perfect for families.

We chose to do the short 1-mile hike to Rainy Lake. The hike was lovely and was paved for almost the whole way, making is stroller and wheelchair friendly. Passing through lovely bridges, lush foliage and a decent waterfall got us to a beautiful alpine lake which is surrounded by mountains on two sides and a waterfall cascading into the lake. The trail ends at a paved area with benches next to Rainy Lake where you can catch your breath and eat a snack. We changed into water-shoes and got down to the rocks near the lake and cooled down by the refreshing lake. The hike back to our car was equally easy, though we were glad to have brought our bug spray!

The lovely Rainy Lake is a great reward for such an easy hike.
The clear waters of Rainy Lake are excellent for dipping the toes on a warm sunny day.
The short 1-mile fully paved hike to Rainy Lake is great with small kids.

Washington Pass Overlook: Driving about 4 miles east from the Rainy Pass parking lot, we stopped on the road to admire the beauty of soaring heights of the North Cascades. While not an overlook, this was a point where the highway took a dramatic curve, and you would be hard pressed not to park your vehicle and step out to enjoy this vista! Driving around this stretch, you experience the full beauty of the rugged Cascades mountain range.

The dramatic Washington Pass overlook.

If parking on the side of the road on this narrow highway feels dodgy, then you can get these and even better views by walking the Washington Pass Overlook trail, a short 0.3 mile hike with stunning viewpoints.

Highway 20 curving into Washington Pass Overlook

Cutthroat Lake hike: Spending the evening and night relaxing in the nearby cowboy themed town of Winthrop set the stage for the hike to Cutthroat lake the next morning.

The lovely Cutthroat Lake hike
With lots of encouragement and snacks, this hike is great for young kids.

At about 3.8 miles, this turned out to be the longest and most adventurous hike we have done as a family. This lovely hike had everything – the soaring rugged mountains of the North Cascades as a backdrop, bubbling creeks, and lovely bridges – one sturdy and one a log bridge that you had to cross over like a gymnast, and columbines – flowers that are native to the North Cascades. The Cutthroat lake itself was marshy and so we could not spend a lot of time sitting by it, but it was still and peaceful, quite and perfectly reflected the mountains framing it.

The peaceful Cutthroat lake framed by mountains and a lone hiker fishing.
The uniquely inverted Columbine flowers that we found on the hike.
Crossing a log bridge can be fun!

We drove back home after another stop at the Diablo Lake overlook and thus capped our shortest National Park trip yet. If you are in the Pacific Northwest, especially in fall, go the extra mile and drive into North Cascades. You will not be disappointed!

The trees perfectly reflected in Cutthroat Lake.

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