If you are trying to visit all 419 national park units like we are, then North Cascades National Park offers the perfect trifecta – three park units in one. North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Established in 1968, all three of these units are administered together.
In fact, if you are trying to visit North Cascades National Park, it would be almost impossible to get there without going through Ross Lake National Recreation Area or Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Try to access North Cascades National Park from the south, and you pretty much have to come through Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Arrive from the west, perhaps from Bellingham, WA, and you will drive right through Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
There is a sign just west of Newhalem on Highway 20 and there is a North Cascades National Park Visitor Center, but technically this is not actually in the national park. It is physically located within Ross Lake National Recreation Area. A few hiking trails off highway 20 will take you into the national park, but you have to be up to a fairly tough hike.
Another way to access North Cascades National Park is via Shehekin, a tiny village at the top of Lake Chelen. Shehekin falls within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, but from there you can take a shuttle, bicycle or hike to High Bridge. That’s the border of Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and North Cascades National Park; and there is a sign for both. Step onto High Bridge, enjoy the cascading Shehekin River and you’ll physically be in North Cascades National Park.
The only catch… the only way to get to Shehekin is to fly, hike or boat. No roads take you there. There is a daily ferry from the town of Chelan at the south end of the lake.
You can stay in Shehekin. There is a national park lodge, as well as a North Cascades National Park visitor center for getting your passport stamped. There are some rental cabins and a guest ranch, plus a few shops and the Bakery (great food!)
We accessed North Cascades National Park at High Bridge and also a bit farther into the mountains north of Lake McAlester. Out on the trail there was a sign – one side was North Cascades National Park, the other was Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Jump from one side to the other and instantly “park travel”.
About North Cascades National Park
This park is hard to get to; perhaps intentionally. It protects 789 square miles of rugged wilderness – jagged peaks, glacier topped mountains and untamed forest. It was everything we expected, and more.
Clear cold alpine lakes, rushing waterfalls, meadows full of wildflowers, lots of wildlife (although we did not spot any bear), lush green forests and really well marked hiking trails.
We had fun watching the picas scrambling around the rocks and the big fat marmots in the meadow.
You can backpack. There are hiker camps throughout – all you need is a permit. We opted to do something different. We joined a horse pack trip, offered by Shehekin Outfitters. They’ve been taking folks into the mountains for over 40 years and we highly recommend them. It was an awesome experience. The horses carry your stuff – so you can bring a few more luxury items than you would if you were carrying it yourself.
And, they do all the cooking! We called it “gourmet hiking” – baked salmon, fresh trout, steak, and fresh fruit and salad every day. All we had to do was take a daypack and go exploring!
There were lots of lakes. We got in swimming and we did some fishing. Two of the lakes we were at, we were the only people there. So peaceful and beautiful, with amazing views any direction you looked.
It is hard to get to, but well worth the effort.
About Lake Chelan National Recreation Area
We accessed North Cascades National Park from Shekehin; that is in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area at the head of Lake Chelan. Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in US.
Most of the lake falls within the Wenatche National Forest. Only the top part is in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. And because the national park was not established until 1968, there were already houses and businesses in Shehekin, plus lots of cottages and private homes along the lake. These are still there, but the surrounding lands is all governed by the National Park Service as a National Recreation Area. That means that they restrict activities and manage permits to protect the wilderness, but they also allow recreation – water and land based.
About Ross Lake National Recreation Area
Ross Lake National Recreation Area is entirely different. The only development on this lake is Ross Lake Resort and this is just a few cabins where you bring your own food. They also rent boats, but you have to hike 1 mile down the mountain via switchbacks. When you reach the bottom, you call the resort and then send over a boat to pick you up.
Once out on the lake, there is nothing in any direction. The lake is surrounded by thick forest, with crazy views of the snow capped peaks of the North Cascades and tons of waterfalls.
The lake is 23 miles long, taking you right up to the Canadian border. It was easy boating north, but as we were warned, the wind picked up in the afternoon and made it much wavier on the return.
All along the lake there are boat-in camp spots, most with permanent docks and outhouses. It is possible to reach some of them by hiking down from Highway 20. You do need a permit to camp, but it would be pretty incredible to camp on that lake with not a soul around for miles!
A Perfect Trifecta
All three of these national park units are administered under one umbrella but each offers a totally different experience. Not only did we get to check off three more national park units (bringing our total to 390), we had an amazing week of boating, fishing and hiking. A perfect trifecta.
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.