Have you ever explored Newhalem, WA in Whatcom County? Home to the North Cascades Visitor Center, this unique mountain town serves as the gateway to North Cascades National Park. Most visitors stop by for last-minute camping supplies (and a restroom break) on their way to hiking, backpacking, climbing, and paddling adventures in the park. But there’s more to Newhalem than roadside conveniences. Unaffected by seasonal highway closures, Newhalem is a year-round destination for interpretive information, history, and easy day hikes.
Stretch your legs with a family-friendly stroll to learn about the area’s history and visit illuminated Ladder Creek Falls. In the evenings, a colored light show provides entertainment from dusk till 11 p.m. year-round. Featuring a suspension bridge over the Skagit River, gardens, and a 1920’s powerhouse, the trail to Ladder Creek Falls is an excellent micro-adventure for all ages.
Getting To Newhalem
Head east from Burlington on Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway). Drive to the town of Newhalem at milepost 120. Turn right onto Main Street, pass the General Store and restrooms, then turn left onto the one-way road. Continue 0.25 miles to the Ladder Creek Falls trailhead at the east end of town. Parking is available in a gravel lot next to the river.
- No parking pass required.
- Restrooms are available at the Skagit Information Center on Main Street.
- Dogs must remain on-leash. Please pick up after your pet!
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
- 0.5 miles round trip
- 200 feet elevation gain
- GPS Tracks
The trail begins beside the Skagit River, where interpretive signs explain the history of the Gorge Powerhouse in front of you. The powerhouse was constructed in the early 1920’s to produce electricity for homes in Seattle as part of the Skagit Hydroelectric project.
The Seattle City Light company town of Newhalem was born from this project — employees needed a place to live while they worked in the remote North Cascades. Superintendent and “Father of Seattle City Light” James D. Ross (after which nearby Ross Lake is named) originally built the trail to Ladder Creek Falls to showcase the area to visitors.
Begin by walking across the passenger suspension bridge to your right (south). Originally built in 1920 to provide access to the powerhouse construction site, the bridge has since been rebuilt twice. Across the bridge, enter the Ladder Creek Falls Garden next to the powerhouse. This area was hot in the 1930’s — literally. JD Ross heated the grounds to grow tropical trees and orchids while playing music and lighting up the gardens to showcase the power of electricity.
Continue along the trail to enter the forest. Dusk is a particularly interesting time to visit — just as the light show is about to begin. Colored lights illuminate the creek and falls till 11 p.m. daily. Today’s light show — restored in 2011 — lacks music and tropical plants, but uses energy-efficient 1,000-watt spotlights to light up the night.
The falls themselves drop a total of 108 feet over three tiers. Visibility is partly obstructed, and you can’t get very close to the falls, but it’s worth the short walk to see the show. Part of the trail is via staircases with handrails. Turn your hike into a loop by following the path around the backside of the powerhouse. You’ll pop out of the forest onto a powerhouse service road. Continue around the side of the powerhouse to cross the 1935-built service vehicle bridge, and return to the trailhead.
Accommodations Near Newhalem
Want to stay longer and extend your hike? Camp at nearby Newhalem Creek Campground (open May – September). The Trail of the Cedars connects the campground to the town of Newhalem, so you can walk from camp to Ladder Creek Falls for the evening light show. Don’t forget to bring a flashlight for the return trip in the dark! Lodge-style accommodations are also available at the North Cascades Learning Center, just 8 miles to the northeast on Highway 20.
Additionally, ranger-guided walks are offered during summer weekends at Ladder Creek Falls.
Check out Todd’s article, Get Onboard with Skagit Tours – Gorge, Diablo and Ross Dams, for more information on tours in the Newhalem area.
Also, see our Hiking page for more information about trails throughout Whatcom County and the Bellingham region.