The North Cascades offer a rugged alpine expanse with spectacular peaks, panoramic views, old-growth forests, and arguably the best weekend recreation in the great state of Washington—not that the field isn’t already stacked. An adventure down Highway 20 brings camping, hiking, and climbing options to fill a few days away from the city in and around North Cascades National Park.
Camping options in the North Cascades run the gamut from spartan to civilized, and otherwise your choice will depend on geography. Rasar State Park Campground west of Concrete is well developed, ideal for car campers and RVs. Four miles of access to the Skagit River make it a haven for fishers, but it’s somewhat isolated from adventures deeper in the North Cascades. The Howard Miller Steelhead Park Campground outside of Rockport, Washington, is overwhelmingly ideal for RVs with 50 sites. It is close to Rockport State Park, whose 500 acres of old-growth forest remain relatively undeveloped and access a number of hiking trails, including a 5,541-foot summit hike to Sauk Mountain and the Wetland Wildlife Trail. In the town of Rockport, Cascadian Home Farm serves fresh-picked berries and organic ice cream from its roadside cart open daily during the summer. With only 10 walk-in campsites, tent campers will likely have to look elsewhere.
Goodell Creek Campground is one of the better bets in the North Cascades. Although it has only 19 campsites, its sites are large and private, and the campground is a popular put-in for floats down the Skagit and close to nearby adventures in the North Cascades. Technically a group campground, the scale scares away most campers—which means more for you. Let’s say the campground books up: The nearby behemoth Newhalem Campground has over 100 tent sites just in case, and 10 miles away, the sprawling Colonial Creek Campground is one of the more scenic campgrounds in the North Cascades. Options, options.
On the west side of the North Cascades, Anderson and Watson Lakes offer an easy 6-mile lope to a pair of subalpine lakes with views of Mount Baker. The trailhead starts at elevation, meaning that the elevation gain over the hike’s mileage is very manageable, and backcountry campsites offer the option to spend the night.
The Thornton Lakes Trail is one of the closest to this trio of campgrounds, and it is a leg-burner: over 10 miles total and nearly 3,500 feet. But you get bang for you buck with panoramic vistas of the North Cascades, wildflowers along the way, old-growth forest, huckleberries and blueberries to pick during the summer season, and the beautiful alpine lakes. It’s one of the best in the North Cascades. Thunder Knob is modest but respectable, a 3.5-mile there-and-back with views over Diablo Lake. Beginning from Colonial Creek Campground, it’s a great option for those camping there.
Farther east, near the Washington Pass Overlook, the alpine environment dries up and the hikes become more arid and open. Maple Pass Loop is a stirring 2,150-foot ascent over 6.5 miles with wildlife, vistas, and the occasional hiker-poet. Blue Lake is a great hike in the summer and fall, with wildflower meadows and larch that turn gold.
All this aside, the adventurous will gravitate to the Cascade River basin. East of Marblemount, Washington, the watershed has three of the most spectacular, if demanding, adventures in the North Cascades that are best reserved for experienced backcountry campers and recreationists. Climb more than 4,000 feet over 13 miles to Cyclone Lake and spend the night at its backcountry campsites sipping from a glass of whiskey under the stars alongside the North Cascades’ highest alpine lake. Across the Cascade River valley, climb to the Hidden Lake Lookout for another night at the first-come, first-served camping shelter near Hidden Lake Peak. Sporting snow well into July, you have the option to get in a few turns on spring and summer corn. Still, the shelter is open year round, meaning you don’t need to strap skis on your back to stay there. And dear lord, the views. Few other places in the North Cascades have this kind of spectacle, but Forbidden Peak in the nearby Boston Basin is one of them. Forbidden Peak is one of North America’s 50 classic climbs with solid rock, an Alpine Grade II (5.4 to 5.6 Yosemite Decimal), and arguably the best views from any composting toilet on the continent.