10 Amazing North Cascades Backpacking Trails Calling Your Name

One of the hardest parts about backpacking these days is the permit roadblocks. While necessary to keep places from being overrun, they put you in a bind if you don’t land a treasured permit (such as the Enchantments). But when it comes to North Cascades backpacking, many of the amazing destinations actually fall outside of the North Cascades National Park boundaries.

This means you’re free to decide the night before on a backpacking trip. (Though, maybe don’t do that!) Additionally, you’re not sacrificing views as these options below have some of the most magnificent scenery in the entire state and, some would say, county.

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The charming trails you can take while doing North Cascades backpacking.
Looking north into Canada at American Border Peak and Canadian Border Peak.

A Guide to Backpacking the North Cascades

Below we dive into a few questions you might have planned your trip and then ten destinations that will blow your minds.

Related: 1, 2, or 3 Day Seattle to North Cascades National Park Itinerary

Helping Plan Your Trip Backpacking North Cascades

Do I need a permit to backpack in the North Cascades?

Hikers only need a permit when backpacking in North Cascades National Park or Ross Lake Recreational Area. You can find specific destinations here. You do not need a permit for those in the general North Cascades range.

It’s what makes this area so great; you encounter fewer people and get more alone time with nature.

Can you camp anywhere in the North Cascades?

If you’re in the National Forest or Wilderness, your options greatly expand and are almost unlimited. Some places limit how close you can camp to a lake (usually 0.25 miles), but that only applies to specific cases.

If you have a North Cascades National Park backpacking permit, you have to camp within the boundaries of the permit. But if no permit is needed, pick and choose a great campsite as you, please.

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    Do I need bear canisters in North Cascades National Park?

    Yes, all backpackers in North Cascades National Park must have a bear canister when recreating in the National Park. This helps keep hikers and bears safe.

    A black bear eats blueberries surrounded by fall colors on the Sahale Arm trail

    Do I need bear spray while backpacking North Cascades National Park?

    Bear Spray isn’t mandatory nor really needed while backpacking in the North Cascades. The reason why is all the bears you’ll encounter are Black Bears. They are usually skittish, smaller, and less likely to attack than Brown Bears (aka Grizzly Bears). This, however, does not mean they cannot be aggressive. A mama bear will do all she needs to do to defend her cubs.

    If a black bear does attack, get as big as possible and fight back.

    In saying this, do what you feel is best when backpacking the North Cascades. If it brings you peace, bring it.

    Related: How to backpack with your camera.

    What areas should I be looking at for North Cascades backpacking?

    • Mount Baker region off the 524
    • Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway)
    • Eastern slopes of the North Cascades past Washington Pass and near Mazama (Great for fall colors)

    What Gear should I bring while backpacking in the North Cascades region?

    There’s a good chance you’ll cover significant elevation gain for your North Cascades backpacking trips. Due to this, having lightweight gear will make your life much easier. (However, this is not a comprehensive list.)

    If you want a complete list, sign up for my FREE Backpacking E-Book.

    The view from Maple Pass in the North Cascades. Lake Ann is visible below.

    10 Great Routes For Backpacking in the North Cascades

    You’ll notice that most of these are out-and-back routes instead of intricate loops or meanderings. Furthermore, most of these are not within the National Park boundaries, so you do not need a permit.

    1. Wing Lake

    • Distance: 10 miles, 4,500 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Permit: None

    You’ll start at the famous Maple Pass Trailhead and hike a couple of miles before deviating from this route toward and then past Lewis Lake. After a boulder field, you’ll find yourself at Wing Lake and under the watchful eye of Black Peak.

    This has one of the higher elevations on the list, so it’s best to do it in August or September (fall colors hot spot here).

    Black Peak rising to the heavens on the right side of the image. The North Cascades at sunset is truly a gem.

    2. Cutthroat Pass

    • Distance: 12 miles, 2,500 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Permit: None

    This one is great for fall colors but can be done all backpacking season. It’s a pretty gentle climb, as the first two miles to the lake are more or less flat. Then, the four miles to the pass are gradual switchbacks.

    You can either sleep at the pass (Pros: Great views – Cons: Windy) or down below about 1.5 miles. We chose down below and had it to ourselves.

    Enjoying the early morning light on the east side of the North Cascades.

    3. Sahale Glacier Camp

    • Distance: 14 miles, 4,000 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Permit: Yes, in North Cascades National Park – and one of the hardest to secure

    The crown jewel of North Cascades backpacking. Of the locations on this list, Sahale Glacier Camp is by far the best location you can reach backpacking the North Cascades without any technical gear.

    But, as you can expect, it’s highly coveted, which is why it’s one of the most challenging permits to secure in the National Park. It’s worth it, though. The views are magnificent and make for an unforgettable experience.

    One of the best North Cascades backpacking locations Sahale Glacier Camp offers 10/10 views of the mountains.

    4. Winchester Mountain

    • Distance: 3 miles, 1,300 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Permit: None, but inside Mt. Baker Wilderness

    This isn’t much of a backpacking journey, but more so for those starting out or wishing to wake up on top of a mountain with gorgeous views. The road to Twin Lakes is terrible, but if you have a 4×4 to make it up and want to kick off your backpacking life with an easy one, this is it!

    At the top, you’ll have 360-degree views of Baker, the North Cascades, and peaks residing in Canada. Winchester Mountain Lookout is the best bang for your buck hike in Washington.

    The view while hiking up Winchester Mountain while attempting some North Cascades backpacking. Twin Lakes are below.

    5. Yellow Aster Butte

    • Distance: 8.5 miles, 2800 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Permit: None, but inside Mt. Baker Wilderness

    On the same road as Winchester Mountain, but much easier to drive to. Yellow Aster Butte provides incredible views of the surrounding peaks. Not one I’ve done yet, but I will be checking this North Cascades backpacking trail off my list in 2023.

    6. Hannegan Peak Trail

    • Distance: 10 miles and 3,200 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Permit: None, but inside Mt. Baker Wilderness

    Another one that in the Mt Baker region. You can see Hannegan Peak from Winchester Mountain (and probably Yellow Aster Butte, too.) You’ll get great wildflowers and then a steady climb toward the peak. I also haven’t done this, but I have heard you can camp about halfway – though water could be questionable. (But if there’s snow, there’s runoff. Or filter at the bottom.)

    The famous jagged peaks of the North Cascades.

    7. Thorton Lakes Trail and Trappers Peak

    • Distance: 11 miles with 3,000 feet of gain
    • Difficulty: Hard but not overly challenging
    • Permit: Permit required (Starts in Ross Lake National Recreation Area, finishes in North Cascades National Park)

    One of the trails off Highway 20, Thorton Lake and Trappers Peak, is a lovely North Cascades backpacking trek with great views from the peak. If you only stay at the lake, you’ll only have lake views. I recommend making the extra 1,000-foot ascent to the summit!

    In the North Cascades mountain range. We have Mt. Baker in the back and wildflowers in the foreground.

    8. Lake Ann

    • Distance: 8.5 miles, 2,000 feet of gain
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Permit: None, but inside Mt. Baker Wilderness

    On the road to Artist Point, Lake Ann is a great way to ditch the crowds (though this is still a popular trail). You’ll have wild views of Mt Shukson and, if clear, perfect night skies. Remember that this part of the road melts out very late, so it’s only a July/August/September/October trek.

    This is a classic backpacking in the North Cascades trek, so be prepared for others to be on the trail with you.

    9. Chain Lakes Loop

    • Distance: 7 miles, 1900 feet of elevation gain if you complete the loop
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Permit: None, but inside Mt. Baker Wilderness

    During fall, this place is teaming with people. It’s one of the most popular trails due to its accessibility and relatively easy hiking. Many people backpack this trail, but it turns into a zoo on weekends.

    If you do plan this route, come early to claim your spot. Just know you won’t have much privacy, but the views will compensate for it.

    A view of Mt. Baker from the Chain Lakes Loop Trail. This is area is perfect for North Cascades backpacking opportunities.

    10. Hidden Lake Lookout

    • Distance: 7.5 miles, 3200 feet of elevation gain
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Permit: Yes, in North Cascades National Park

    On the same road to Cascade Pass and Sahale, Hidden Lake Lookout is a beautiful trail with amazing views at the top. The road is narrow and steep, so it’s advised to have AWD/4×4 with clearance.

    To backpack this, you need a permit and can sleep on the lookout if you arrive early. If not, there are other places to sleep in the surrounding area.

    A hiker stares out at the North Cascades from the top of Winchester Mountain. There's a green backpacking tent in the foreground.

    FAQ: North Cascades Backpacking Tips

    When will the snow melt around Artist Point?

    This is one of the last places to melt out in Washington. Unfortunately, due to its north-facing slope, the elevation of over 5,000, and being so far north, it takes a lot to melt the 55+ feet of snow they get. So some years, Artist Point may not be driveable until late July or even August.

    It means you can only access it for three months before winter hits again! But when it does open up, North Cascades backpacking is ideal and pristine here.

    When do fall colors start in the North Cascades?

    Fall colors start in the North Cascades mid-late September and go through October – depending on your elevation. Sahale Glacier Camp will see fall colors earlier than others, thanks to its elevation above 7,000 feet.

    How bad are the mosquitos?

    Ha! Mosquitoes can be bad in the summer while doing North Cascades backpacking. Bring plenty of bug spray, head nets, and long loose clothing to protect yourself.

    The view while North Cascades backpacking up to Sahale Glacier Camp. The fall colors are gorgeous here.
    Hikers on the Cascade Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park. If you keep going, you'll reach Sahale Glacier Camp (behind camera).

    North Cascades Backpacking – Wrapping Up

    Backpacking in the North Cascades is an adventure every outdoor enthusiast should experience.

    With its stunning alpine scenery, crystal-clear lakes, and challenging trails, this region offers an authentic wilderness experience that will leave you feeling rejuvenated and inspired. Whether you are an experienced hiker or a beginner backpacker, there is something for everyone in the North Cascades.

    So grab your gear and head on the North Cascades backpacking trails to discover all the natural beauty this area offers.

    You won’t regret backpacking in the North Cascades!

    Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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