The North Cascades are some of the most jagged mountain peaks in the U.S. To get the best view of them you must be willing to endure strenuous but rewarding hiking. There are several great hikes within the national park and even a few that lie just outside that park boundary that are outstanding.
One high on the list is Maple Pass, which is a 7-mile loop trail. It begins at the Rainy Pass trailhead by mile marker 157 on Highway 20. It's best to do this hike clockwise if you want to finish with a descent that's easier on the knees. Rainy Lake will be on your left after about an hour hiking. This lake didn't impress me with the early morning light, but I hear better photographs can be taken later in the afternoon. At the half-way mark of the loop trail you will be on the west side of Lake Ann. The surrounding mountain peaks and small island inside Lake Ann make it a gem to behold. It is the highlight of this hike, although it's worth mentioning the two brown bears I saw in the distance at different parts along the trail. I also spotted a golden eagle soaring overhead and a pair of ptarmigans.
If you're looking for a more challenging hike with many rewards, consider the hike to Hidden Lake. It is well worth the 10 hours time for this steep 9-mile round-trip trek. On this trail behold great views of Mt. Baker to the west, a partial view of Mt. Rainier to the south. And if the skies are clear, a view of the Olympic Mountains can be seen in the far western distance.
The best reward is an outstanding birds-eye view of Hidden Lake surrounded by many of the jagged peaks of the North Cascades National Park. Another half mile up the trail is a lookout fire tower anchored by cables at the summit. A great place to get warm, or retreat to if lightning should suddenly appear. If necessary, inside there is even a small stool with glass insulators for the legs that you can crouch on to minimize this potentially dangerous situation.
Be cautious on the middle portion of this hike as the trail is narrow and may be slippery. A misstep into the thick vegetation below would not be fun. In the morning I was glad to have the extra layers as the wind was strong for a small section of the trail. At the top, there are many large boulders to shield the wind. Fortunately for my hike, the wind died down later in the day, and it warmed up considerably. A nice treat along the trail was the many wild blueberries within arms reach. They were tasty, and I wish I had brought a plastic bag to store some.
If looking for a place to stay, I would suggest the Mazama Country Inn for the Maple Pass hike and the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount for close access to Hidden Lake trailhead. Book well in advance during the busy summer season as there are only a few rooms.The rooms are simple and small, but both lodges have excellent restaurants. I enjoyed outstanding smoked sockeye salmon at the Mazama Country Inn and a suptuous elk burger at the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount.
If you are cannot hike in the North Cascades, but sure to at least stop at Washington Pass for an overlook of Liberty Bell Mountain, located by mile marker 164 on Highway 20. Also easy to see is beautiful Diablo Lake with its turquois water. It is located next to the highway just east of Newhalem.