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Washington National Parks Road Trip

The State of Washington is home to many breathtaking natural parks and landscapes and the best way to explore them is by taking a road trip! This Washington National Parks Road Trip will take you to Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and North Cascades National Park, as well as other beautiful areas in Washington State.

Where to Go

Seattle

An international hub for the Pacific Northwest, Seattle rests on Puget Sound and provides a fantastic starting point for your trip. With a population of around 780,000, Seattle is the largest city in Washington State. Ever since it hosted the 1962 World Fair, Seattle has thrived as a cultural, technological, and outdoor recreation mecca. The 605-foot Space Needle remains the proud symbol of the Pacific Northwest metropolis and enchants visitors with incredible views. Snow-capped peaks and temperate rain forests characterize the city, luring hikers, cyclists, and other adventurers.

Olympic National Park

Just two-and-a-half hours from Seattle, Olympic National Park is the next stop along your road trip. From the rugged Pacific coast to snow-capped peaks, the diversity of Olympic National Park is off the charts. Beachgoers can marvel at the miles of driftwood and sea stacks dotting the coastline. Campsites along the shoreline allow you to watch mesmerizing sunsets and spend the evenings stargazing. Venture through the lush rainforests that boast Sitka spruce, western hemlock, ferns, spike-mosses, and other unique plant species. Find solitude at Lake Crescent by kayaking on its sparkling waters or climb the adjacent peaks. The temperate rainforests eventually give way to the mountains, and Mount Olympus sits proudly above the landscape. Hurricane Ridge offers year round recreation and enchants visitors as one of the park’s most iconic vistas. 

Mount Rainier National Park

Under a three-hour drive from Olympic National Park lies Mount Rainier National Park, the next stop on your road trip. Paradise is the word that best describes the natural beauty of Mount Rainier National Park. Its namesake peak rises 14,411 ft into the sky, the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. The Paradise Area gives visitors the best view of the famous mountain and its eye-popping alpine meadows. Gain more elevation by driving to Sunrise and explore the hiking trails that offer incredible views of the Cascades. The quick trek to Tipsoo Lake and the 6.3-mile Crystal Lakes Trail each include alpine lakes and blooming wildflowers. Thousands of mountaineers attempt to summit the mighty peak, but the sheer elevation gain of over 9,000 feet makes this a monumental challenge.

Hanford Reach National Monument

Just over two hours from Mount Rainer National Park sits the Hanford Reach National Monument, the next stop on your journey. Wildlife abounds in the last free-flowing, non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River. Established in 2000, the Hanford Reach National Monument brings visitors face-to-face with elk, coyotes, birds of prey, and other incredible species. More than 200 bird species inhabit the refuge, and anglers can catch bass, salmon, steelhead, and walleye. Hanford Reach features rare traces of sagebrush grassland that have remained untouched due to the security around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The B-Reactor at Hanford Reach was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, and the landscape set aside for the Manhattan Project retained its immense diversity of plant and animal life.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Just about two hours away is your next stop, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. More than 4 million acres of pristine wilderness lures nature enthusiasts searching for solitude from the crowds. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest straddles the eastern side of the Cascades and gives hikers hundreds of miles of trails to explore. Spruce, lodgepole pine and Douglas-firs adorn the subalpine forests and scattered lakes offer serene fishing holes. Methow Valley provides a sanctuary for numerous species such as lynx, grizzly bears, wolves, and beavers. Recreation seekers share the landscape with wildlife and partake in activities like mountain biking, fishing, rafting, and Nordic skiing.

North Cascades National Park

Continue on for two-and-a-half hours to reach North Cascades National Park. The park boasts over 300 glaciers, the most you’ll find anywhere in the Lower 48. Its untouched wilderness includes turquoise lakes, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful alpine meadows. Diablo Lake is the star attraction with its stunning mountain vistas and old-growth forests hugging its shores. The nearby Ross Lake Resort is a prime spot for recreational activities such as boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Hikers gravitate to the Cascade Pass for the jaw-dropping views of granite peaks and forested valleys. Situated at nearly 5,500 feet, the Washington Pass Overlook inspires nature lovers with its immense spires rising up towards the heavens. Although it requires serious effort to get to, the remote village of Stehekin is a magical lakeside hideaway engulfed by snow-capped peaks.

When to Go

Despite the large crowds, July and August offer the best conditions to road trip through Washington State’s national parks. These are the driest months of the year in Olympic National Park, which provides amicable hiking conditions. Many roads inside Mount Rainier National Park are closed from November to May. Plus, the wildflowers dotting the alpine meadows are at their peak bloom during the summer. North Cascades National Park experiences similar roadway closures in the winter, and summer offers the most pleasant weather conditions. Although this route is doable within a week, you could spend a lifetime exploring these miraculous landscapes. Give yourself at least two weeks, or longer, for a rewarding road trip.

Staying Safe at North Cascades National Park

Located in Washington State along the US/Canada border, North Cascades National Park is a remote wilderness area with few available park services. Defined by breathtaking landscapes of mountains, water, and rock formations, it’s important to take the necessary safety precautions when visiting North Cascades National Park. 

Weather 

Inclement weather can happen suddenly and at any time of year, including summer snow storms at higher elevations, so it’s important to be prepared for anything when visiting the park. Be sure to stay on the designated trails to avoid any unforseen dangers. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring plenty of warm, water and windproof clothing with you to North Cascades National Park.

Wildlife 

North Cascades National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, so it’s important to view these animals from a safe distance and never approach them. Do not feed the animals. Bears, wolves, elk, mountain lions, deer, moose, coyotes, and mountain goats are common in the area, so keep your distance and be cautious never to come between a mother and her young.

Check yourself frequently for ticks during and after your visit to the park to avoid contracting serious illnesses.

Store your food safely to avoid any confrontation with the park’s wildlife, particularly black and grizzly bears which are common in the area.

Other Concerns

Due to the remoteness of the park, there are limited park services, meaning that you’ll need to be prepared to care for yourself in case of emergency. Bring everything you need with you, including extra food and water, layers, waterproof clothing, and emergency first aid. 

Do not depend on cell phones, as there is limited cell service in much of the park. Bring a physical map and compass with you and familiarize yourself with your route before you head out. 

Make sure to properly treat all water from lakes and streams before drinking it in order to avoid serious illness. 

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Safety- North Cascades National Park

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Points of Interest in North Cascades National Park

Situated in the Pacific Northwest, North Cascades National Park is home to a variety of gorgeous glaciers, lakes, rock formations, forests, wetlands, and more. This mountainous national park is incredibly scenic and there’s no doubt you’ll want to explore it all. Here are a few of North Cascade National Park’s highlights you won’t want to miss during your visit. 

Ross Lake Overlook 

A spectacular overlook over Ross Lake, there are few more scenic viewpoints in the park. The sparkling blue green waters of the lake against the backdrop of towering mountains is truly something to see. Simply pull off the highway and walk over to this stunning overlook, simple as that!

Diablo Lake Overlook 

Another incredible lookout point situated right off the main road, Diablo Lake Overlook is a must-see during your trip to North Cascades National Park. Diablo Lake is a man-made reservoir with a strikingly beautiful blue green color. Head down to Diablo Lake to spend the day canoeing and kayaking.

Blue Lake Trail 

A great hike for families with kids, the Blue Lake Trail leads through forests and meadows ending at Blue Lake. Though the glacial water is cold, you’ll have the opportunity to swim in the lake and take in the natural beauty of the surrounding area.

Cascade Pass Trail (Sahale Glacier Trail)

One of the top sights in North Cascades National Park, the Cascade Pass Trail is breathtakingly beautiful and leads to the Sahale Glacier. A relatively long but manageable hike, you’ll enjoy the gorgeous scenery of mountain peaks and glaciers all along the way. You’re likely to encounter your share of wildlife along this trail as well. 

North Cascades Visitor Center

Head to the visitor center to learn a bit more about the park, including information on the history, wildlife, and specific hiking trails in North Cascades National Park. This is a great place to speak with a park ranger to ask for recommendations and off the beaten path destinations you may not have known about otherwise.

Rainy Lake 

A magnificient lake surrounded by rugged mountain peaks, waterfalls, and alpine forests, Rainy Lake is another great destination for kids and families. Technically located just outside the national park, Rainy Lake offers some of the most spectacular views of the North Cascades. The hike here is only 2 miles round trip and is completely manageable.

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Watching Wildlife in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is a cherished American park located in the state of Washington. It houses more than 500,000 acres of land, making it one of the largest of the National Park Service units in the greater North Cascades National Park Complex. The park has a northern and southern portion that are divided by the Skagit River. The area is also home to protected national forests, wilderness areas, provincial parks, and other incredible outdoor activities.

The park is known for the rugged mountain peaks of the North Cascades Range, which encompasses the most expansive system in the greater contiguous United States.

Initially inhabited by the Skagit tribes, by the 19th century, the region had become a major fur trapping post managed by several British and American companies that were fighting for control of the fur trade. This went on for some years, until the area became more popularly accessed for logging and mining. As communities built out in the region, environmentalists lobbied to protect the land. By 1968, North Cascades National Park was established.

The park is not home to the most hospitable weather on the planet, with heavy snows, high risk avalanches, rain storms, and other icy conditions that make it hard to maneuver in the wintertime. Most access into the park is off of State Route 20, which follows the Skagit River. For those wishing to camp, almost all locations are accessed by hiking or horseback riding only.

Today, the park is home to a diversity of animal species, including 75 mammal species like coyote, bobcat, lynx, cougar, mink, river otter, and black bear. More than two dozen species of rodents can be observed in the park as well, from pikas to beavers, and ten species of bats. The endangered species of the timber wolf, as well as the threatened grizzly bear, can also be viewed in the park. In fact, the park is considered a primary habitat for grizzly bears, which is why the park was added to the National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan in 1997.

There are also 200 species of birds that pass through the park, including golden and bald eagles, owls, ducks, swans, and woodpeckers. Lastly, there are 28 species of fish that can be found in rivers, like the Pacific salmon and trout.

Note: the Great Cascades National Park has experienced glacial retreat the last 20 years. The retreat is causing adverse effects to the surrounding plants and animals.

North Cascades National Park’s Top Animals

  • Coyotes
  • Bobcats
  • Lynx
  • Cougars
  • Mink
  • River otters
  • Black bears
  • Deer
  • Elk
  • Moose
  • Bighorn sheep
  • Mountain goats
  • Beavers
  • Pikas
  • Bats
  • Wolves
  • Wolverines
    • Although present in small numbers, the park is still one of the best places to get a peek at this endangered North American mammal. Gray wolves and fisher foxes can also be viewed here.

Viewing Locations

Blue Lake Trail: One of the best wildlife viewing hikes in the park, you can see sheep, goats, deer, elk, moose, bears, and bobcats. Practice safe distancing on trails in the event that a grizzly bear is in the area.
Cascade Pass: One of the area’s longer hikes, you can see just about every common mammal in the park along this trail, but tread with caution.
Sahale Arm Trail: This is a great hike for spotting mountain goats. They can be hard to see at times, so if you manage to catch a glimpse, take a photo! Considered part of the Sahale Arm Trail, the “Arm” portion of the trail is a great place to spot black bears.

When Should You Go?

Winter conditions are too advanced for beginners in this park, which is why it’s recommended you visit the park between May and October. If you do go during the winter months, prepare for difficult road conditions, snow, and partial park shutdowns. If you want to catch many of these mammals mating or migrating, then the months of May and September/October are your best bet.

For summer hikes and park exploration, bring bug spray! The park is notorious for intense bugs and gnats.

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