The Definitive North Cascades Elopement Guide

Couple climbs on rocks at Artist Point during north cascades elopement

There is nothing quite like the American Alps. The rugged landscape of spires that extend throughout the North Cascades National Park and the surrounding National Forest are unique among the lower 48. If you want to get married after a long hike to a mountain pass, underneath vibrant orange larch trees or on top of a mountain peak, North Cascades is an epic spot for your Pacific Northwest adventure elopement.

Why Have a North Cascades Elopement?

The beauty of the North Cascades is truly unparalleled. As I’m writing, I want to have another wedding, but this time in the North Cascades. (I’ll talk to Erika; maybe it’s time for a vow renewal!)

Let’s start with the mountains. That’s the most obvious thing about the North Cascades. Whether you want to enjoy them at a distance or climb them (check out my friend Scott Kranz’ 50 peaks project), they are craggy, tall, and beautiful. No matter where you go, you will be in constant awe of these peaks that continue to scratch the sky in every direction, and the reality is a lot of these peaks are reasonable to climb—even for novice mountaineers. There is so much to enjoy!

The crowning jewel of the area is Mt. Baker. It’s the third-highest peak in Washington state and can easily be seen as far south as Olympia. This epic mountain (also known as “Kulshan”) is a popular hiking destination and overlook from viewpoints like Artist Point. 

sunset on mountains with clouds below during north cascades elopement

With the mountains above, it’s easy to forget about all the lakes in the area. They range from small, seasonal alpine ponds to massive glacier-dug lakes like Baker Lake, Ross Lake, or Lake Chelan. Everywhere you go, you’ll run into a place that is full of the coldest and most beautiful (and sometimes teal-colored) water you’ve seen.

If you’re in the North Cascades in July and August, you will be blown away by the mountain flowers. Because of the altitude and the amount of snow, they have a short growing and maturation season. That means when it’s time to enjoy the bluebells, they’re abundant and beautiful, but those summer flowers will also turn into delicious mountain blueberries come September!

The highlight of the flora in the North Cascades are the larches. Although they look like normal evergreen trees during much of the year, they’re abnormal because they’re conifers (like pines and firs) but are also deciduous. That means come October, they turn the most brilliant yellow and orange, blanketing the forests with bold colors that jump out from the normal rich greens. It’s a time of year when everyone tries to get up to the mountains just to have a few moments around these beautiful saplings. (See David and Michelle’s sunrise engagement shoot in the snow with larches.)

As with everywhere in the world, it’s most epic to be out at sunrise and sunset. Although you may need to hike under a headlamp, there is nothing as magical as seeing the alpenglow of twilight with a thousand feet of mountains above and below you. You will see the most incredible pink-to-teal gradients and the shadow of the Earth on the atmosphere as the first or last stars of night twinkle above.

The North Cascades are a great spot for all kinds of hiking. Whether you’re looking for your elopement, or something fun to destress in the days before, the whole area is full of hikes that will bring you to lakes and peaks. I’ll be honest; stuff can get steep up there, so a little training beforehand will go a long way, but it’s worth it. Just don’t forget to bring a clean shirt for the summit, as well as a craft beer!

Cabin and reflecting lake in north cascades

The main highway that cuts through the North Cascades and North Cascades National Park is Highway 20. Although it is closed in the winter months (usually Thanksgiving through April), it’s a beautiful drive to access some wonderful areas, many of which are just off the road. It’s even a great day trip to see the whole area—especially in the fall for the larches and all the other colors. Sightseers often do the loop of Seattle – Highway 2 – Leavenworth – Winthrop – Highway 20 – Bellingham – Seattle.

One of the most unique towns in the area is Steihiken. This old mining town sits at the head of Lake Chelan. There are no roads to access this village. Visitors come via boat (from the city of Chelan) or seaplane (from either Chelan or Seattle). Once there, you’re about as far off the grid as possible. Also, the bakery is delicious! Don’t worry; there are shuttle buses run by the National Park that will take you all around the village.

Couple poses in front of mountain during north cascades elopement

Rad days worth remembering

Choosing a Location for Your North Cascades Elopement

Although anything is accessible if you want it enough, it is important to know that most of North Cascades National Park is inaccessible during the winter months. Highway 20 closes from around Thanksgiving until spring, which limits access to much of the area. However, although you may not access the park, there are lots of other winter-elopement options in the North Cascades.
I do also want to mention that a lot of these elopement locations are also really awesome locations for engagement photos. So, even if you’re planning a different wedding location, know that many of these spots are still epic ideas for pre-wedding photos, as well. Note: Remember, I offer free engagement sessions for every all-day wedding or elopement package.

With that in mind, most North Cascades elopements happen between May and October. That is when Highway 20 is open and you have access to more of the park. You’re going to have more snow in the early parts of that season, flowers in the July/August timeframe, berries in September and Larches in October. You really can’t go wrong, no matter which season you pick.

Brides look off into the distance North Cascades Institute Weddi

Best spots for an elopement in the North Cascades

Artist Point

Best season: July—October

Drive time from Seattle: 2.5 hours

Picture yourself on a ridge at 5,100 feet above sea level, right between two giant volcanos with beautifully sparse trees, reflecting pools, and granite rocks. All that with easy walking access from the parking lot! (See Page and Stephen’s Artist Point elopement.)

Diablo lake

Diablo Lake Overlook

Best season: April—October

Drive time from Seattle: 2 hours and 45 minutes

One of the most epic viewpoints in Washington State with rich, teal-colored glacier waters held back by the Diablo dam. This popular vista is a wonderful mixture of sky, mountains, and water.

Maple Pass Loop

Maple Pass

Best season: June—October

Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours and 15 minutes 

One of the most popular hikes in the area. Although it isn’t the longest hike in the world, a 2000’ vertical change over seven miles adds up quickly! However, you will be rewarded with the most open and beautiful views around. You will see peaks in every direction, pass numerous larches, and have wonderful views of Lake Ann below. (See David and Michelle’s Sunrise Maple Pass engagement.)

Fire Lookout

Best season: June—October

Drive time from Seattle: 2-3 hours

There are a few fire lookouts in the area. (You can see the list here.) Most are first-come, first-served, but they are a wonderful way to feel connected to the history of Washington State. Just go early to use the space for a bit during your elopement. (See Ali and Joel’s backpacking engagement to a fire lookout.)

fire lookout in north cascades

Methow Valley

Best season: April—October and December—February

Drive time from Seattle: 4 hours when Highway 20 is open, 6 hours when closed

Whether you want to have a snowy celebration in the winter or spend time along the river in the summer, there are few places farther off the grid or more joyous than the Methow.

Steihiken

Best season: May—October

Drive time from Seattle: 3-hour drive to Chelan, boat/plane will vary

It’s so special to be out in a town that can’t be accessed by car. Whether you are using it as a starting point for a hike or just to enjoy a pastry by the lake, Steihiken is unforgettable.

Boat from Chelan | Seaplane options

Washington Pass Overlook

Best season: May—October 

Drive time from Seattle: 3.5 hours

Washington Pass is a unique U-turn in the middle of Highway 20. With Liberty Bell Mountain overhead, and a huge overlook that looks out on the entire valley, it’s an unforgettable spot—especially if you come in the fall, during larch season. It’s also where the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) crosses the highway. It’s the last major highway crossing for northbound hikers before the trail terminus at the Canadian border.

guests paddle on diablo lake during north cascades elopement

Ross Lake Paddle

Best season: April—September

Drive time from Seattle: 3 hours

Rent a canoe from Ross Lake Resort or bring your own and see all the tranquil and untouched beauty the area has to offer. Bring your provisions and start paddling up to your adventure elopement!

copule climbs up mountain in sunset during north cascades elopement

What Permits Do I Need for My North Cascades Elopement?

If you’re planning to get married in North Cascades National Park, you will need a Special Use Permit. I know that sounds like a lot, but it’s super easy. Just follow the link below and pay for the permit. You don’t need to have your date picked out before paying for the permit, which is good if it’s weather dependent. Also, be sure to purchase these permits as soon as possible, just to make sure that you have the document with you on your wedding day. They’re valid for a year.

This is the link for the permit.

Keep in mind that the permit is only good for the ceremony. If you need to pay for parking in the area in which you’re eloping, then parking passes will need to be purchased per car. All parking can be covered by an America the Beautiful Pass from the National Park Service, though you do not need to pay for individual entrance to the park, like you do at other national parks in Washington State.

If you’re hosting the elopement outside national park grounds, then you will not need a permit for the wedding. Most hikes or National Forest areas are covered by either the Northwest Forest Pass or the America the Beautiful Pass. 

If you’re looking to get married at a state or other local park, then you should reach out to the administration of the individual park. There may be a necessary fee for reservations or access. State park access is usually given via the Discovery Pass.

woman looks off into distance northwest backpacking engagement

How to Choose a Photographer for Your North Cascades Elopement

Whenever you are considering a photographer for any adventure elopement, you need to pick someone who knows their stuff. I’ve lived in Washington my whole life; I spend as much time in the mountains with my VW van as possible, and if snow comes around, then I am AIRE-1 certified. 

Beyond that, I love this world, and I love telling your stories. I want to help you find what the North Cascades mean to you and make images to show that connection. I seek to make art that tells the story of your day, while showcasing the beauty of the natural surroundings. We’re going to use film, be creative, respect the world around us, and make memories that will last forever.

It’s also okay to find someone else. A lot of folks in the Pacific Northwest are great adventure-elopement photographers; it’s just most important to find one who connects with you.

North Cascades Elopement Packages

I try to keep things simple. I offer two elopement photography packages for weddings in the North Cascades. The first is an all-day coverage package that starts at $4500, and the second is a three-hour short-ceremony package that starts at $2000. Note: There may be additional fees for permits, travel, or lodging, depending on what the elopement plan is, but just know that I’m here to help you choose an option that fits your needs and budget. Let’s chat more!

bride and groom stand together looking at mountains and sunset during north cascades elopement

Leave No Trace

Anytime you’re planning to go into the wilderness, it’s a good idea to review the Leave No Trace principles, but it is especially important when planning your elopement. The seven principles are:

  1. Plan ahead.
  2. Travel and sleep on stable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of others.

Keep all these in mind when planning your elopement. As we plan your elopement and during the celebration, I will do all I can to help you stay within these guidelines. We will take photos that celebrate the natural beauty of the North Cascades, but we will also take all precautions to care for the world while doing so. We’ve got this—together.

Milky Way over Mt Baker

How to Get to the North Cascades for Your Elopement

If you want to host a North Cascades elopement, then you’re going to need a car. The only exception is Steihiken, but I covered that above. Beyond that, you’ll need a vehicle. On top of that, some options are going to need a high-clearance vehicle. If it’s within the North Cascades National Park, you’ll be okay with a sedan, but some of the forest service roads are notoriously bumpy. So, if folks are flying in, then they should rent a car at the airport before heading out.

couple poses in front of mountain at sunset during north cascades elopement

Where to Stay During a North Cascades Elopement

Hotels:

  • Ross Lake Resort: Beautiful lakeside cabins and resort. Just jump in a canoe and go!
  • North Cascades Institute: More geared toward retreats or weddings, but this learning center has all the fun of camping in the middle of the woods.
  • Sun Mountain Lodge: One of Washington’s premier destination resorts. A getaway for ultimate relaxation.
  • Hotel Rio Vista: Just a step off the Wild West walkways of Winthrop, Hotel Rio Vista is a perfect getaway, buckaroo!
  • The Inn at Mazama: Easy access to first tracks and deep relaxation way off the grid.
  • North Cascades Lodge at Steihiken: Stunning views, easy access, and fun by the lake.

Airbnb/Cabins

  • Rolling Huts: Whether you’re there to bike, ski, or just relax, these unique huts are beautiful modern spaces in the middle of nature.
  • Silver Bay Inn: Beautiful and intimate locale on the lake in Steihiken.
  • Mazama Ranch House: A rugged ranch house in the Methow Valley.
  • Lost River Tiny House: It might be small, but it’s all you need to enjoy!
  • Three Brothers Cabin: A larger and more modern cabin great for groups/wedding parties in the Methow.
  • Log Home: Another larger home in the Methow area. Really fun and cozy space.
  • Cozy Yurt: I mean, it’s a yurt! What more do you want?
  • Glamping Airstream: A wedding photographer’s dream. The thought of making “getting-ready” images here is just awesome!

Campgrounds:

Nearby Cities:

If your guests want to do other things besides play in the mountains and need time in real towns, here are a few cities that are close to the North Cascades and offer additional options. I’ve also included how long it would take to get to the Diablo Lake Overlook, because that’s a centrally located spot to plan around.

  • Bellingham: – The City of Subdued Excitement is one of the true gems of the Pacific Northwest. With a lovely downtown area, a vibrant craft-beer scene, and easy access to highways and train lines going up and down the coast, Bellingham is a great option for additional activities. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes from Bellingham to the Diablo Lake Overlook.
  • Winthrop/Twisp : These two towns are just on the eastern side of Highway 20. Both are wonderfully quaint and cute in both winter and summer. Great places for food, drink, and access to XC skiing or river-rafting. Winthrop is about one hour from the Diablo Lake Overlook in the summer when Highway 20 is open.
  • Leavenworth: This Bavarian village in the Cascades is one of the most unique cities in the area. Leavenworth takes the feeling of being in the Alps to the next level. It’s a fun place to spend the weekend or Octoberfest. My favorite spots are Argonaut Coffee Bar and Pika Provisions. Leavenworth is about three hours from the Diablo Lake Overlook during the summer when Highway 20 is open.
  • Vancouver, Canada: Especially for international guests; flying into Vancouver, and then driving across the border into the US is a great option to attend a North Cascades elopement. It takes about three hours to get from the YVR Airport to the Diablo Lake Overlook. Plus, flying in and out of Vancouver allows time to enjoy this beautiful city. Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US-Canadian border is currently closed.
brides laugh during north cascades gay elopement

What Vendors Do You Recommend for an Elopement in the Cascades?

It’s a little wilder out there. So, not all vendors can make it out to various sites. It’s important to plan and pick vendors that can provide service in that area. The caterers and florists listed below are in Bellingham or the Winthrop/Twisp area, so keep this in mind when ordering perishable supplies.

Hair and Makeup: I wrote a full blog on this, but I definitely recommend talking to Symmetrie (Bellingham), Michelle Wright, Kendra Springer or Sarah Ren. It is always a good idea to make sure that your makeup artist has experience with your skin tone.

Planners: PinkBlossom Events, Pacific Engagements, Prive Events, Ever After Events (Bellingham)

Dressmakers: BHLDN, The Dress Theory, Grace Loves Lace, Emily Riggs

Videographer: Becca Neblock, Weiss Films

Live Stream: lovestream.io, Simply Eloped Note: cell service is pretty spotty in the North Cascades. Be warned.

Florists: Free Range Florals, Pozie by Natalie, Rebecca’s Flower Shop 

DJ: DJ Headsmile

Caterers/Food Trucks: Table Catering (seriously, the best!) and other food truck options 

bride walks with bridesmaids during north cascades wedding

Will Dogs Be Allowed at My North Cascades Elopement?

Oh, we all love our fur babies! They’re so fun and important to incorporate into your celebration. Unfortunately, dogs aren’t allowed on trails in national parks. So, if you’re planning an elopement within the park boundaries, they wouldn’t be welcome. They are also not encouraged in some of the locations in Steihiken, mostly due to the difficulty of bringing them up via boat or plane. 

However, dogs are welcome in national forests. They are supposed to remain on leashes, but you’re free to bring them along. That said, for all elopement photo sessions that include pups, I encourage you to have a designated dog handler. Of course, you’ll want to have your pup with you for photos and during the ceremony, but you’ll also need someone who is there to relieve you of them from time to time.

mt baker in sunset

How Many Guests Can I Have at a North Cascades Elopement?

Due to the ruggedness of the American Alps, it’s important to note that there are a lot of hills. Although you can pick out elopement locations that are more ADA-friendly (e.g., Artist Point or the Washington Pass Overlook), you’re still going to be in the mountains. So, it’s a good idea to keep that in mind when preparing for both the number of guests and which type of guests can attend. Most of the drive-up locations can easily host up to 20-30 folks, while the hike-in spots should be kept closer to 5-10. It is also important that we keep the Leave No Trace principles in mind. So if there is enough space for everyone to stand around without disturbing the area, then you’re good.

brides smile in sunset on diablo lake dam

What Do I Need to Bring for My North Cascades Elopement?

How many times have we stood around, looking at our bags, wondering if we severely under or overpacked? None of us want to arrive at our destination and realize we’ve gotten it wrong.

What you should bring to your North Cascades elopement will vary, depending on the kind of day you’re planning. An elopement along the shores of the Twin Lakes will require different supplies than one spent hiking to Maple Pass. But here are a few things that you should have with you, no matter what:

  • Marriage license 
  • Any needed passes/permits, such as:
    • National Park Pass
    • Special-Use Permit
    • Northwest Forest Pass
    • Discovery Pass
  • Snacks
  • Drinks
  • Garbage bags 
  • Layered clothing
  • Headlamps
  • Props, such as a “Just Married” sign
  • Good shoes
  • The 10 Essentials
  • Your sense of adventure!

I know we’ve covered a lot of these throughout the list, but they’re all important. Bring garbage bags to pack up all your trash. Be prepared for cold and wet weather. You’ll be in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, so the weather can change quickly. It’s annoying but having a lot of light layers to put on or remove is always more useful than one jacket that may be too warm or not warm enough!

Parting Thoughts

More than anything, know that I’m here for you. We’re going to plan for this adventure to be everything you want it to be. We’re here to tell your story and put art on your walls that will illustrate your love to everyone who sees it.

couple laughs while walking during north cascades elopement
North Cascades Elopement Guide by Joe Tobiason, Washington State wedding photographer based in Seattle.
North Cascades Elopement Guide by Joe Tobiason, Washington State wedding photographer based in Seattle.