Visitors heading into the backcountry for three or more nights may consider doing a more extended trip to experience a broad sample of the terrain, ecosystems, and biodiversity of the North Cascades. Below is a sampler of ideas for long-distance trips to get your trip planning juices flowing. Hike an east-west or north-south transect, a large "loop", hike in and out of the remote, wilderness-enveloped village of Stehekin, or come up with your own idea.
Long Distance Backcountry Trip Sampler
These trips require entering and exiting at different trailheads
North Park Unit
Hannegan Pass / Chilliwack River / Little Beaver / Big Beaver / Ross Dam
The northern unit of the park has the lowest trail density and is mostly a vast unbroken wilderness surrounding the remote Picket Range. This route crosses three mountain passes (Hannegan Pass, Whatcom Pass, and Beaver Pass), follows several wild, free-flowing creeks and rivers, and winds through the largest stand of massive old-growth western red cedars in the park.
49.3 mi. / 79.3 km (Hannegan trailhead to Ross Dam trailhead)
South Park Unit
Thunder Creek / Park Creek Pass / Bridge Creek
Thunder Creek / Park Creek Pass / Cascade Pass
These two routes cross Park Creek Pass and follow the length of the Thunder Creek and Park Creek drainages to/from the Stehekin River. The Cascade Pass option includes a second mountain pass while the Bridge Creek route includes a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail as it passes through the park.
Walk with the ancients! Humans have been using this route to cross the North Cascades for many centuries. It was part of a trade route between the Puget Sound and interior tribes and is part of the route used by the first documented Euro-American to cross the North Cascades as he was guided to the Skagit River drainage by Indians from the Washington Territory interior.
The Great North Cascades Traverse
Hannegan Pass / Whatcom Pass / Big Beaver Creek / Ross Dam / Panther Creek / Thunder Creek / Bridge Creek / Stehekin River / Lake Chelan
See a broad swath of the wild, majestic, rugged, and beautiful country that inspired the creation of North Cascades National Park! This northwest-southeast traverse crosses five mountain passes (Hannegan Pass, Whatcom Pass, Beaver Pass, Fourth of July Pass, and Park Creek Pass) to connect the temperate rainforests of western Washington, in the shadows of volcanic Mount Baker, to the dry interior climate of eastern Washington at the northern end of Lake Chelan, an inland fjord that is the third deepest lake in North America and largest natural lake in Washington State.
Hannegan Pass Trail (Forest Service Trail #674), Chilliwack River Trail, Brush Creek Trail, Little Beaver Trail, Big Beaver Trail, Happy Panther Trail, Panther Creek Trail, Fourth of July Trail, Thunder Creek Trail, Park Creek Trail, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail, Old Wagon Trail (PCT) and the Stehekin Shuttle.
105 mi / 169 km (Hannegan trailhead to Stehekin Shuttle stop at High Bridge)
There are few true loop hikes in the North Cascades. Most of these selections connect the "loop" with a section of road.
Easy Pass / Park Creek Pass / Bridge CreekThis loop begins and ends at two different trailheads on State Highway 20.
Purple Pass / Boulder Creek
This loop starts and ends in Stehekin.
McAlester Pass / Stehekin / Old Wagon Trail / Bridge Creek Trail
This loop starts and ends at the Bridge Creek trailhead on State Highway 20 and would include using the Stehekin Shuttle to complete the loop. It combines the "Stehekin via McAlester Pass" and "Stehekin via Bridge Creek" routes (listed under "Stehekin Treks" below) in addition to the Shuttle service.
Hilgard Pass / Ten Mile Pass
The overwhelming majority of this "loop" is in the Glacier Peak Wilderness on National Forest lands, but it begins and ends in the Stehekin Valley of Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The scenery is spectacular and the country is wild. The trailheads are about 0.5 miles apart. Note: The trails are not maintained as frequently as most and the trail tread can be narrow in places.
The village of Stehekin is a rarity in the lower-48 states: a settlement that is not connected by road to the rest of the world. Besides using a float plane, boat, or passenger ferry, there are many ways to hike or ride to Stehekin and the northern end of Lake Chelan. Mix and match to create your own Stehekin adventure!
Stehekin via McAlester Pass & McAlester Lake
McAlester Pass is a broad, flat, wide pass at 6,000 ft (1825 m), which is highly unusual for the North Cascades. The large meadows on the pass are a-bloom with alpine wildflowers through mid-summer.
Stehekin via Bowan Pass & Rainbow Lake
Stehekin via Cascade Pass
If you want to see glaciers up-close and personal on the way to Stehekin, going over Cascade Pass is the way to go.
Stehekin via Bridge Creek
This route does not cross any mountain passes and tends to be the best early season route to reach Stehekin from State Highway 20
Stehekin via Lake Chelan Lakeshore Trail
This is a very popular route in early season since it is the first snow-free land route into Stehekin in spring and also follows along and above the Lake Chelan shoreline. The Lady of the Lake II ferry can drop hikers off or pick them up (reservation required) at the southern end of the trail, at Prince Creek.
Stehekin via Purple Pass
From Purple Pass, the views are wide, form the mountains bounding the Okanogan River to the heart of the Glacier Peak wilderness, including Lake Chelan nearly 6,000 ft below. There are two ways to reach Purple Pass. The War Creek Trail approaches from the northeast and the Chelan Summit Trail approaches from the southeast.
Other Long Treks
Below are some suggestions for those who want to do a long trip with a "highlight" destination that must start and end at the same trailhead.
Thunder Creek to Park Creek Pass
The Thunder Creek drainage is the most glaciated drainage in the park, and therefore the most glaciated drainage in America outside of Alaska. From Thunder Basin, just below Park Creek Pass, the trail winds through alpine meadows below the imposing and impressive northeast face of Buckner Mountain and the Thunder Glacier.
Bridge Creek / North Fork Bridge Creek and/or Goode Ridge Trail
Goode Mountain, at 9,220', is the highest peak in the park, and the fourth highest non-volcanic peak in Washington. Even more impressive is that it rises more than 6,000' above it's base, covering that gain in only 1.6 horizontal miles from the North Fork of Bridge Creek. Goode Mountain is not visible from any road, but it is impossible to ignore while hiking through North Fork Meadows. The Goode Ridge Trail climbs to the 6,700' site of a former fire lookout and is the closest any trail gets to the summit.
Alternate start/end point: This trip can also be done from Stehekin. Add the Old Wagon Trail (PCT) to the list of trails included on the route.
Alternate distances (round trip from the Stehekin Shuttle stop at High Bridge):
30.6 mi / 49.2 km (to end of North Fork Trail)
East Bank / Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak hosts one of the three remaining fire lookouts in the park, and the Desolation Lookout is the only one that is still actively used to spot fires. In 1956, the author Jack Kerouac spent the summer working as the fire lookout on Desolation Peak and wrote about it in two of his more famous works. More than fifty years later, his fans still hike to the lookout in his memory. The views are fabulous and expansive even if you have never heard of Kerouac.
Last updated: August 7, 2017