For pristine wildlife and scenery, it doesn’t get much better than the divine views of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. North Cascades National Park is one of the lesser-visited but most stunning in the national park system, and Diablo Lake is an easily accessible attraction. Located 125 miles from Seattle, it’s worthy of a weekend trip (or longer if you can!) I often see appreciation for Canada’s Banff National Park and its beautiful landscape, but North Cascades National Park also offers expansive mountain views paired with turquoise-hued lakes without crossing the border.
The vibrantly-colored Diablo Lake is located in the Ross Lake Recreation Area within North Cascades National Park. Great views and photos are readily available off Highway 20 at the Diablo Lake Vista, but nothing beats the fun of getting your boots in the dirt and hiking it up close.
Hiking at Diablo Lake
There are several options for hiking views of Diablo Lake. During my two-night stay I tried two nearby trails. The Diablo Lake Trail starts at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and is about 7.5 miles out and back along Sourdough Mountain. The hike includes a handful of semi-steep climbs and offers views of the lake along the way, lakeside access, and an overlook of Ross Dam. The Thunder Knob Trail is a shorter, moderate, family-friendly hike at about 3.5 miles out and back. It leads through a creekbed, forest, and over a clear stream to an overlook on the south side of Diablo Lake with spectacular views of the surrounding peaks.
Camping at Diablo Lake
To plan your stay, camping near Diablo Lake can be done through drive-in, boat-in, or backpacking campsites. There are several options for drive-in campgrounds, but those that allow reservations book quickly in advance. During my August trip, I had luck finding a first-come, first-served RV spot at the Colonial Creek Campground thanks to the advice of a helpful park ranger. If you’re traveling in the summer season without reservations, be sure to get to the park by mid-morning. Thanks to its proximity to Diablo Lake and trails and its boat launch, Colonial Creek Campground is a popular spot. My next trip will include a paddleboard so I can take advantage of the easy access to Diablo Lake with the other kayakers and canoers.
An obvious draw to this memorable and photogenic landscape is the blue-green water color of Diablo Lake. Thanks to the crush of glaciers, rock sediment is ground into a ‘rock flour’ that feeds into Diablo Lake from glacial streams and is fine enough to be suspended in the water. The reflection of sunlight off the suspended particles in the lake creates a turquoise appearance. The lake is most vivid in spring and summer when it’s fed by more of the glacial melt.
Skagit River Dams
Another noticeable, but unnatural feature of the landscape is the towering overhead powerlines visible from the trail. These powerlines are carrying electricity to Seattle thanks to the Skagit River dam system. Diablo Lake, and the nearby Ross Lake and Gorge Lake, are man-made reservoirs formed by the dam system. The Diablo Dam portion was constructed in 1930. For decades, hydroelectricity created by water power harnessed through the dams has provided a significant source of electricity for Seattle. Experiencing the tranquility of Diablo Lake while knowing it’s helping power businesses, homes, and Zoom calls more than a hundred miles away was a striking way to appreciate the power of science and nature.
Editor’s Note: Interested in visiting the dams? You can drive across Diablo Dam to access the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Or hike the Ross Dam Trail and walk across Ross Dam for access to miles of backpacking trails and the Ross Lake Resort.
A trip to Diablo Lake can include a variety of other attractions and activities, including ferry boat rides, guided tours, educational programs, and more. (Many activities are currently canceled due to COVID restrictions.) But this gem is also perfect on its own as a simple weekend camping and hiking adventure. With its heavenly landscape, Diablo Lake is a must-experience.