The summer months in the Pacific Northwest are the perfect time to be in the outdoors. It’s an especially great time to get in some summer hikes! We love the greenery of the northwest, and our close proximity to mountains and water make it so enticing to be outside.
One of our favorite things to do here in Washington state is explore all the great parks in the area. We’ve had fun visiting several of the state parks in Washington state, and have also enjoyed spending time in the national parks as well. This past weekend, we had a chance to visit one of Washington’s lesser known national parks, North Cascades National Park, and took the opportunity to get in some easy summer hikes too!
North Cascades National Park is tucked away in the north central part of Washington state. Compared to its sister parks, Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, which respectively get 3.4 million and 1.4 million visitors annually, North Cascades National Park sees a paltry 30,000 visitors per year. But this small number, I recently discovered, is what makes North Cascades National Park one of the best kept secrets in Washington state!
Stretching from the Canadian border down to central Washington, North Cascades National Park includes the area around Mount Baker and also Lake Chelan, two popular recreational destinations for Washington locals. The park is partially bisected by Ross Lake in the north, which turns into Diablo Lake, Gorge Lake, and finally the Skagit River, as it flows south. Many of Seattle’s hydroelectric power comes from the dams and powerhouses that punctuate the national park’s bodies of water.
North Cascades National Park also has a lot of great easy summer hikes for families with young kids. We love hiking in the outdoors, but we are by no means expert hikers! It can be a struggle sometimes to get our kids to hike even a mile. And don’t get us started on hikes that have major changes in elevation!
Fortunately, North Cascades National Park has several hiking options that are easy for young hikers like our kids. And many of these trails are also wheelchair and stroller accessible, making them super inclusive for all types of families. Bonus!
If you’re wanting to get your kids into hiking in the outdoors, or just interested in some easy trails to spend your summer days, check out my list of seven easy summer hikes for exploring North Cascades National Park!
Happy Creek Forest Walk
Just across from Ross Lake, on Highway 20, is the Happy Creek Forest Walk, a .3 mile trail of boardwalk and gravel that takes hikers through a forest of Douglass Fir, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, and Maples. The trail also goes along Happy Creek, which looks and sounds exactly what you might imagine a babbling brook to be. Our kids loved picking up the pine cones along the trail, and trying to distinguish which tree each pine cone came from. The quietness of the forest really does give you space to pause and reflect on life. This is a really easy trail, with no elevation gain, and is a great option to put on your list of easy summer hikes.
To the southwest of Ross Lake is Diablo Lake, a small reservoir lake created from the construction of Diablo Dam in 1927. Diablo Dam is one of three dams comprising the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which supplies approximately 20% of Seattle’s electricity. A walk along the 1,180 feet long dam is a great way to catch views of Diablo Lake, the Skagit River, and the Cascade Mountains. If you choose to walk along the dam, just be cautious of passing cars as there is no separate walkway for pedestrians.
Gorge Overlook Trail
Another great place to catch views of the Skagit River is the Gorge Overlook Trail. The trail head for this .5 mile round trip trail can be found along Highway 20 near the bridge crossing Gorge Creek. This fully paved trail is completely accessible for strollers and wheelchairs, but it does have a bit of an elevation gain (though not anything too strenuous). Be sure to pause and take in the views of the Gorge Dam, Gorge Lake, and some waterfalls.
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
One of the things that surprised me most about North Cascades National Park was its history. The dams and hydroelectric powerhouses in the area were built in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and I can imagine how much of a marvel these structures must have been at the time. J.D. Ross, creator of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, created the Ladder Creek Falls Trail as a testament to man’s power over nature. Located behind the Gorge Powerhouse, the .4 mile trail winds through gardens designed by Ross himself. In the trail’s heyday, Ross had music playing in the trees through strategically placed phonographs. Lights were installed throughout the trail to illuminate the path, and parts of the ground were even heated to accommodate exotic plants! These days, the sounds you hear tend to be the natural chirping of birds, but there are still occasional light shows happening throughout the year that drape Ladder Creek Falls in a rainbow of colors. The trail is mostly gravel, but there are some rock steps and stone and gravel staircases, so it’s not fully accessible. But in terms of a serene retreat, the Ladder Creek Falls Trail is surely a winner. A visit to the Gorge Powerhouse is a must as well, to learn more about the hydroelectric energy that powers much of Seattle.
Trail of the Cedars
In terms of accessible trails to explore in North Cascades National Park, one trail worth mentioning is the Trail of the Cedars, just on the edge of the small community of Newhalem along Highway 20. Consisting of a .3 mile gravel loop that takes hikers along the Skagit River to the Newhalem Powerhouse and back, the trail is an easy stroll through trees and brush. Informative placards dot the trail, educating hikers about the trees and plants in the area, as well as the logging history of the national park. The highlight of the trail is the suspension bridge, that crosses the Skagit River from Newhalem.
Rock Shelter Trail
A super easy and accessible trail for young hikers to try is the Rock Shelter Trail, which starts near the North Cascades Visitors Center. This .3 mile trail begins with a gravel path, which then leads to a boardwalk that takes hikers to a historical archaeological site. The Rock Shelter is a 1,400 year old hunting shelter near the Newhalem Creek that was used by the Native Americans who once hunted the wild mountain goats in the area. We loved learning about the indigenous cultures who once lived in the area, and it helped remind us to be mindful of the history of the places we visit.
River Loop Trail
For young hikers wanting a more challenging hike, the River Loop Trail, which also starts near the North Cascades Visitors Center, is a great option. This loop trail stretches 1.8 miles and takes you by the Newhalem Creek Campground, along the Skagit River, and eventually back to the visitors center. There is a slight elevation change, but nothing too dramatic. It’s a good trail for doing an afternoon hike.
These easy summer hikes are perfect for getting young hikers out and about in nature. We did all of these hikes over the course of the two days we were at North Cascades National Park. Tallying it all up, we hiked approximately 4.3 miles!
Breaking our hikes up into small manageable chunks made it easy for our kids to enjoy these summer hikes. If your kids are like ours, then these easy hikes will be perfect for your family.
Now that I’ve let you in on the best kept secret of the Pacific Northwest, go out and explore North Cascades National Park for yourself! If you and your family discover an easy hike that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know in the comments. Happy hiking!
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