The road into the park is a beautiful drive along the banks of the Skagit River, past the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Your last connection with civilization, and the last chance to stock up on groceries, is Marblemount, the oldest town in the region. From here, you can head south or east. South is the Cascade River Road, and east is Wash. State Rte. 20.
The Cascade River Road is a 23-mile stretch of mostly gravel road that leads to Cascade Pass. The road, at the very beginning, crosses the Skagit River and then passes near a fish hatchery before terminating at the Cascade Pass trail head, where you can see a majestic tableaux of glaciers and waterfalls. Many folks hike the 3.7-mile one-way trip to the top of Cascade Pass, which leads the hiker up a relatively modest set of switchbacks to beautiful views of glaciers and subalpine meadows.
If you're not up to the unpaved twisting of the Cascade River Road, continue on Wash. State Rte. 20 to Newhalem, where the North Cascades Visitor Center has exhibits and regularly scheduled ranger-led walks and talks. This is a good place to get information about the many short walks and hikes in the immediate vicinity. A short boardwalk trail (Sterling Munro Viewpoint) begins behind the visitor center and affords beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. In addition, if you're there late enough in the day, check out the trail to Ladder Creek Falls (which is not on National Park Service property but is owned by Seattle City Light), which is fun in a most decidedly touristy manner.
The National Park Service recommends the short, accessible Newhalem Rockshelter Trail to an archaeological site near the visitor center, as well as the River Loop Trail from the visitor center.
Next up is the little town of Diablo, at the foot of 389-foot-high Diablo Dam, which holds back the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake. A tour operated by Seattle City Light's Skagit Tours (tel. 206/684-3030; www.seattle.gov/light/tours/skagit) takes you out on Diablo Lake. Tours last 2 1/2 hours and cost $25 for adults, $20 for seniors over 62, $12 for youths 6 to 12, free for children under 6. Reservations are recommended. A 4-hour dinner tour is also available.
As the road loops south from Diablo, look for fantastic views of Neve Glacier. In fact, beautiful views spread out from a plethora of turnouts along the road. Between Newhalem and Diablo is the new, universally accessible Gorge Overlook Trail, with great views and interpretive signs.
At the Ross Lake Dam, the lake begins its 24-mile dogleg up the eastern side of the park complex to the Canadian border. For views of the lake from the dam, stop the car and take the steep, 1-mile walk down the Ross Dam Trail. This trail leads over the top of the dam, eventually winding its way to the Ross Lake Resort and the North Cascades backcountry. Several longer hikes lead along Ross Lake, including the West Bank and the Happy-Panther trails. Another good choice is the accessible Happy Creek Forest Walk, a quarter-mile past the Ross Dam trail head, a .3-mile boardwalk stroll through old-growth forest, with interpretive signs. Farther along Wash. State Rte. 20, take the turnout at the Ross Lake Overlook, where you can see the Ruby Arm (leading to Ruby Creek), as well as Ross Lake proper, heading north toward Canada (with Hozomeen Mountain in the distance).
The Stehekin Area, at the head of Lake Chelan, is not accessible by car. To get there, you have to hike in and take a passenger ferry or floatplane from the southern resort town of Chelan. A ferry ride up the lake from Chelan is the only quick and relatively affordable way to the Stehekin Area. (A floatplane is the quickest, most expensive option.)
Once you make it to Stehekin, you can rent a bike to ride the roads in the area, but bikes are not permitted on trails. Give yourself enough time and strength for the hike out.
If you wish to visit the northern sections of the park, you have a couple of options. From the Ross Dam area, park the car and hike the trail into the Ross Lake Resort. You can hike around the general area or, better yet, catch a water taxi up the shores of the lake. Call the Ross Lake Resort to arrange for water taxi service (tel. 206/386-4437). The taxis will drop you off at any of the trail heads that intersect both sides of the shores of this lake all the way to Hozomeen, the northernmost part of the lake in U.S. territory. Ross Lake Resort also rents small outboards, canoes, and kayaks for those who want to fish or explore the lake on their own.
The only practical way to get near the northwest section of the park by vehicle is to head east from the Mount Baker Wilderness Area, which is popular and easily accessible because of the Mount Baker Ski Area. Beyond the Mount Baker area, take Hannegan Road (Forest Service Rd. 32), which is accessible by two-wheel drive. As usual, it's a good idea to call ahead for road conditions. Beyond the end of the road lie the Hannegan Pass, Copper Ridge, and Chilliwack trails. These are popular trails in the summer, but they are multiday hikes and require a permit for camping overnight. Backcountry permits are available at the Glacier Public Service Center in Glacier. Permits are issued in person only, on the day of your trip or up to a day in advance. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. The trails offer views of glaciers spreading southward through the park, especially the Nooksack Glacier along the ridges overhanging the Nooksack River. The Northwest Forest Pass is required for all trail head parking on U.S. Forest Service lands in Washington and Oregon.