Visiting a glacier is something that's on many people's bucket lists, and they do exist in the U.S. While the most immediately thought-of glaciers are those that exist in Alaska, a hiker does not need to travel to this far-north state in order to see them. In Washington state, there's one national park that's home to the most glaciers in the country with the exception of Alaska - and it's more easily accessible than one might realize.
Washington state is home to a wide array of Alpine landscapes, one of which is glacial formations. High up in the state's mountains lie an incredible and vast array of landscapes, each as diverse in glacial features as the last.
Where To See Glaciers In North Cascades National Park
The glaciers in North Cascades National Park, high in the Cascades Mountains, are one of the most striking features of the park itself. While the weather remains somewhat winter-like for much of the year at this elevation, one needs only to drive to the park itself in order to witness its stunning snow-covered mountaintops. However, these aren't just high peaks covered with a layer of snow, they are glaciers that have existed since the last ice age. This icy upper region is part of why the North Cascades are so easily recognizable with their craggy peaks and jagged edges - and are also why this part is one of the least-visited in the U.S.
According to Road Trippers, only about 30,000 people visit this park annually as opposed to the four million that visit the country's more well-known parks. To be fair, the North Cascades mountains don't offer trails or treks that are exactly beginner-friendly, nor do they offer much solace in their barren, wild landscape. Despite that, seeing them in person is humbling - and being able to see a glacier without traveling to Alaska or even further north is truly a magnificent thing.
Driving Through The North Cascades To Spot Glaciers
The good news is that visitors to Washington state won't even need to hike through the park in order to get a good look at the North Cascades glaciers. Driving around the scenic highways surrounding the park - depending on the time of the year - is enough to elicit exquisite views of these incredible, practically ancient, natural landmarks.
- Note: While glaciers can be seen from the road, the most spectacular views are still those that can only be reached on foot.
There are three highways that flank North Cascades National Park, but only one of them cuts straight through the park itself: The North Cascades Highway, otherwise known as Highway 20. It's said that this highway offers some of the best views not only in Washington but in the entire Pacific Northwest. The highway itself was built in 1972, running parallel with the Skagit River and taking up roughly 57 miles of parkland. Along the way, visitors can find picnic stops, visitor rest areas, and scenic overlooks, and the drive takes roughly two to three hours in total - less with no stops.
- Advisory: Highway 20 is closed during the winter due to potential avalanche threats from a height of 2,000 feet, and hazardous weather that includes impassable snow accumulation.
Hiking In The North Cascades National Park To Glacier Overlooks
There are many hiking trails in the park that lead to stunning views of its glaciers, but not all are rated as beginner-level friendly. With that being said, hikers should come well prepared for Washington's wilderness and should always be ready to turn back if the hike becomes too much.
- Cascade Pass Trail: Starting with the most popular trail (which still is never guaranteed to be crowded on any given day), this trail spans a distance of 3.7 miles, with a total elevation of 5,392 feet. Switchbacks along the first three miles of the trail make it easy, and hikers will be rewarded with extensive views of the surrounding craggy Cascades peaks at the top.
- Maple Pass Loop: This loop trail goes on for a total of seven miles making it a solid day trip, with a total elevation gain of 2,000 feet. The trail is well-maintained and offers incredible views of Alpine vegetation, forests, and open ridgelines. After crossing into the park for a steep ascent, hikers will have views of nearby Frisco Mountain and the surrounding Cascade peaks.
- Fourth of July Pass: Both Panther Creek and Thunder Creek will lead hikers to the summit of the Fourth of July Pass, which grants views along the way of the waterways throughout the North Cascades. Panther Creek is shorter but both have an elevation gain of roughly 2,00 feet, and both trails are also considered difficult. At the top, though, hikers will have stunning views of Snowfield Peak, Colonia Peak, and the Neve Glacier.
- Copper Ridge: Copper Ridge allows hikers to get creative with their hike atop Copper Mountain. No matter which way hikers attempt it, the trail is rugged and rough, maintained mostly for backpackers who combine its 30 miles of trails. Among these miles, hikers will have unique vantage points of the Alpine landscape, subalpine meadows, and, of course, surrounding mountain peaks from its ridgeline trails.
- Desolation Peak: This peak has been given its name for a reason, and some who are familiar with famed author Jack Kerouac might recognize it from his writings. In order to reach this trail, hikers must first take either a boat ride across Ross Lake or opt to hike the 16 miles on the East Bank Trail. After that, the trail to Desolation Peak is only 4.8 miles, with a steep elevation gain of 4,000 feet. The dramatic views at the top, however, will make every single effort worth it.