As has been mentioned a time or two, I’m a bit of a fan of National Parks. Likewise, B and I are big fans of getting away for short weekend trips. These two likes came together last weekend when we ventured northwest to the North Cascades National Park in Washington. Read on to learn what we did and how much it cost to enjoy the beautiful ‘Alps of America.’
Why’d we go there?
We had several reasons, in addition to the two previously mentioned, for wanting to visit this park. In 2015, the North Cascades National Park attracted 27,000 visitors. Compare that to the 10 million visitors to the Great Smoky National Park, and you can see why we wanted to explore somewhere very few (by comparison) others have. The next reason we wanted to visit has to due with that comparison with the Alps. We figured anything that looks remotely like the Alps is probably worth seeing and boy howdy, were we impressed. Lastly, for being so infrequently visited, North Cascades is pretty easy to get to this time of year and, for us, conveniently located just one state over.
What is North Cascades National Park?
North Cascades National Park has a north unit and a southern unit, and these are combined with the Ross Lake National Recreational Area to form the North Cascades National Complex. This complex is in the northern center of the state and the edge of the park forms the border with Canada. The Park Complex is not an island in the middle of nothing, though, it is surrounded by Wilderness or Forest areas. Basically, everything in this whole region is mountainous, covered with trees and or glaciers, and gorgeous.
We had a few options to get to the park; the two that made the most sense were to drive east from Seattle or west from Spokane. Since we only had two days for this trip and I’m sick of flying through Sea-Tac, we opted to fly into Spokane and head west, young man. Luckily, Southwest has a direct flight from B-town up to Spokane that left in the evening (meaning we didn’t have to miss any work). The Southwest flight was a very reasonable $56.98 and took one hour, which with the time zone change meant we landed at the same time we took off. Go figure. The cheapest flight back in the evening was on Alaska for $61.10.
Advice: look around different websites like Expedia and Google Flights to see if you can get good deals for flights. However, it also helps to know what airlines fly direct to what cities from your hometown. Spokane is a pretty small airport, so we knew we’d probably have the best luck with Alaska and Southwest. You should be able to find out the direct flights to your airport by looking at the airport’s website. This is especially useful when you have a compressed amount of time for a trip and the flight schedule is more important than cost. Round trip for our jaunt to Washington: $118.08.
Once we arrived in Spokane, we picked up our rental car that we would be spending a lot of time during the next few days. I will typically check a few of the conglomerate websites like Expedia and Orbitz to see what the going rate is for rental cars, but then I’ll do a search on Hotwire. I would say four out of five times the Hotwire price beats the others. We opted for the midsize Nissan Sentra for our weekend for $70.66. We did a lot of driving over the next few days and our fuel costs were $42.00. Given the hill situation and my passing cars as we rushed to the airport on Sunday, I feel like the Sentra did a very good job for us on fuel efficiency.
In Spokane we stayed at the Red Lion River Inn, a very nice place for the amount of time we stayed there. This was another Hotwire purchase and it put us back $68.00. We’ve talked about how choosing hotels on Hotwire can be a bit of a crapshoot because you can’t really control certain things. In this situation, we made sure to get two beds, but because the Red Lion has a restaurant in it, the $68.00 didn’t include a complimentary breakfast. Luckily we found a great co-op and got some yummy eats for the road.
Advice: local co-op markets can have a lot of really good stuff; much more than just food. They typically try to promote the ‘buy local’ spirit in other areas and I’ve purchased many a cute jewelry items from co-op markets.
Airbnb gone bad
Our lodging the second night was a much bigger struggle for me to find. There’s really not a lot of options in these parts; what few inns there were in the small towns in the middle of the Cascades didn’t have any vacancies. I looked on all the youzh websites and came up dry, except for a single wide trailer listed on Airbnb for $100. Beggars can’t be choosers, so we went ahead and reserved it. The only other option would have been to backtrack to where we came from or drive an hour past the park, neither of which sounded appealing.
The main reason for wanting to take this trip is so we could get out and explore this beautiful area. I did some heavy research into moderate day hikes and came up with a highly recommended Maple/Heather Trail Loop. This trail is in the Okanogan National Forest, adjacent to the Northern Cascades Park. I found a really great website for Washington Trails at www.wta.org. If ever I plan to hike in Washington again, I’ll definitely head to that site as a first step. Here’s what they say about our trail: “If ever there was a hike to satisfy all a hiker’s desires, this one comes as close as any. A loop hike with many fabulous changing faces throughout the seasons, Heather-Maple Pass features ridgelines blanketed in wildflowers in summer, lakes ringed with golden larches in fall, and before the highway closes for the season, a dramatic place to experience early winter’s snows.”
Timing is everything
We seemed to have chosen just about the perfect time of year to do this hike because we saw a little of everything: the last of the wildflowers were in bloom, the trees were beginning to turn colors and in the distance we could see white from glaciers. The Cascade Highway does close when the snow makes it impassable, so it would be a gamble to wait until the fall colors were fully turning, but I can just imagine how incredible this trail would be then. Might be worth a second trip someday.
The Maple Trail Loop
The loop was about 7.5 miles and had 2,000 feet elevation change. Once we were high on the ridge line, B commented that it was much better she didn’t realize we were going all the way up to where we were when we parked the car and looked up. I agreed. Speaking of the parking lot, we were able to use my National Park pass to waive the trail use fee because this hike was on National land; just another reason to get an annual parks pass. Along the hike we saw many chipmunks, a kamikaze bird, and tons of other hikers. But wait, you might be thinking, how can that be if nobody visits this place? Well, it turns out loads of people visit this area, but only a few actually go into the park. So we aren’t quite as unique and cool as I was thinking we would be. That’s about how it usually turns out.
North Cascades National Park Visitor’s Center
On Sunday we went to the Visitor’s Center so I could get a stamp in my National Parks Passport Book (obvs.) and check out the offerings for sale. Typically visitor’s centers have a lot of the same swag, but the North Cascades National Park VC went above and beyond the call of duty. Maybe it is the proximity to the cool artists in Seattle? I’m not sure but B and I both bought some very cool, non-standard VC stuff. Afterwards, we went on a quick two mile loop down to the Skagit River and marveled at the old growth trees that were impressively tall. At this point we had to book it back to Spokane to catch our flight (frowny face).
How much did it Cost?
All in all, North Cascades National Park is a great way to get out and explore nature at its best. Here’s how we came out in the end:
Flight: 118.08 +
Car: 112.66/2 +
Lodging: 168/2 =
Sure it cost more than that because we had to buy food and cute stuff, but I’m not adding that in here because I would have to do that at home too. Food prices were a little more than Boise, but comparable to the Seattle area. Overall, it was a pretty cheap way to see a really beautiful place.
Weekend trips are the bomb. They do make Mondays a little rougher than normal (especially if you land at the airport and immediately go downtown to see Will Hogue perform like we did) but they are well worth it to get away. The North Cascades National Park and the Maple/Heather Trail Loop make an excellent destination for a quick weekend trip. The mountains are calling…….