Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Learning Center?

North Cascades Institute operates the Learning Center, which opened in 2005, in partnership with the City of Seattle and the National Park Service. It is located in the heart of North Cascades National Park just off of Highway 20 on the north shore of Diablo Lake. Facilities include overnight lodging for up to 92 participants; multimedia classrooms, a library and meeting spaces; a lakeside dining hall with a recycling/composting center; an amphitheater, outdoor learning shelters, trails leading into the surrounding wildlands and a dock on Diablo Lake for paddling adventures.

See images of our facilities on Flickr.

What happens at the Learning Center?

North Cascades Institute is responsible for all of the programming at the Learning Center, and there are a wide variety of activities and gatherings for people of all ages in support of the Institute's mission to "conserve and restore Northwest environments through education." Youth programs include Mountain School and Youth Leadership Adventures, while family opportunities include Base Camp, Family Getaways and Skagit Tours. Adults visit the Learning Center to participate in a wide variety of classes and retreats focused on the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades. The Learning Center is also used as a base camp for a variety of backcountry excursions and hikes in the surrounding mountains. Finally, as the educational calendar allows, the Learning Center is available to meet the needs of groups who want to experience the North Cascades through educational retreats and conferences through our Retreats & Conferences program.

How long does it take to get there?

The Learning Center is located approximately 75 miles east of Burlington, at milepost 127.5 on the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20). We suggest allowing three hours of  travel time from Seattle, two hours from Bellingham and one-and-a-half hours from Winthrop.

How far is the Learning Center from definitive medical care? What if I get hurt or sick when I am at the Learning Center?

The closest hospital is in Sedro-Woolley, 90 minutes away. The closest advanced life-support ambulance comes from Concrete, one hour away. Emergency Medical Technicians that work in the national park and/or the Learning Center may be available sooner. If you have a medical condition and are concerned about being more than one hour from definitive medical care, please consult your physician.

What are the temperatures like at the Learning Center?

The Learning Center sits at 1,200 feet, so temperatures are not as extreme as you might imagine. Summertime is moderate with temperatures often in the 70-80s. Spring is warm and wet and fall brings warm days with chilly, crisp mornings and evenings. Winters are cold and wet and occasionally bring significant snowfall. Rain is a possibility in all four seasons. We believe that "there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing choices" and encourage you to bring clothing for the whole range of weather so that you will be comfortable no matter what comes!

Are there bears or cougars near the Learning Center?

We are fortunate to have black bears and cougars living in the Learning Center's neighborhood (there are no grizzly bears). These animals are rarely dangerous unless provoked and we have never had an incident. Cougars are very elusive and you'll probably never encounter one; however, we occasionally see black bears on the trails near the Learning Center. Don't feed them, don't surprise them and don't approach them and chances are an encounter will become a memorable part of your visit. Instructions on how to behave if you see a bear are available from your host during bear season.

Can I bring my dog to the Learning Center or for a hike?

Due to our cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, dogs are not allowed on the Learning Center campus, with the exception of aid dogs. Dogs on leash are allowed on all trails within the surrounding National Recreation Area, and the Diablo Lake Trail, accessible from our parking lot, is a great dog-friendly hike.

Can I launch my personal canoe or kayak from the Learning Center dock?

The Learning Center dock is for the use of Learning Center watercraft and programs only. You are welcome to bring your personal watercraft, but please launch it just south of our parking lot (south of Sourdough Creek) or else drive to Colonial Creek Campground (three miles east on Highway 20) and use the public dock there.

Accommodations at the Learning Center

What are the Learning Center accommodations like?

The Learning Center has three beautiful, eco-friendly guest lodges, each with seven to eight rooms and gender-specific restrooms; two of the lodges also have comfortable group lounges with gas-lit stoves. Each room has four twin beds (in the form of two bunk beds), at least one desk, a reading lamp and a wardrobe with lockable compartments.

How big are the rooms?

Our rooms have two sets of bunk beds, enough to comfortably sleep four people.

Is there a key to my room?

While we don't provide keys to the lodge rooms, you can lock your room when you are inside it. There is a lock box in each room for your valuables with enough room for a purse, camera, laptop or other small valuables. We have padlocks to loan out.

Is there heat in the rooms?

Yes, there is radiator heat in each room with a thermostat so you can control the heat for individual comfort.

If I forgot a sleeping bag or towel, will they be available at the Learning Center?

Yes. While we encourage everyone to bring what they need for their stay, we have limited linen supplies for rent. The cost is $10 for each complete set of bed and bath linens.

Will my cell phone work at the Learning Center?

The remote location of the Learning Center campus is not conducive to cell phone reception. You can call out on our phones – Seattle calls are considered local, but for all other calls, please bring a calling card with you.

How is Internet access provided? How many power outlets are in the room?

Internet access at the Learning Center is supplied by wireless router in each dorm, classroom, library and dining hall. There are also internet-connected computers in the library, bookstore and each classroom available for your use. There are two power outlets in each room.

Can we bring our own snacks? Beer or a bottle of wine?

Yes, you can bring your own snacks provided they are stored in airtight containers to discourage any little critters from moving into guest lodges. You are welcome to bring your own adult beverages and consume them in your room.

Is there a place I can store my own food?

All of your meals during your stay are provided, but if you would like to bring some of your own snacks or beverages, there is some cold storage available in the lounges of the lodges and in the kitchenette in the dining hall.

Is there a place nearby to purchase food, snacks or supplies?

Newhalem, eight miles west of the Learning Center, has a small seasonal convenience store. The nearest gas station to the Learning Center is in Marblemount, 20 miles west of the Learning Center. Marblemount also has a small convenience store, post office, overnight accommodations and several eateries. Concrete, approximately 40 miles west of the Learning Center, has the nearest full-service grocery store.

Is the campus wheelchair-accessible?

All of the buildings and campus pathways are ADA-accessible and we have an ADA scooter available too. The Learning Center campus is built on a hillside, so we recommend assistance in navigating beyond the central campus.

Meals at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute strives to deliver the highest quality meals for all participants at the Learning Center because the food choices we make impact not only our bodies, but our planet too. Our kitchen staff create delicious meals made from healthful, organic ingredients whenever possible.

We recognize that some of our guest participants manage dietary restrictions that could have medical consequences and our kitchen staff takes these conditions seriously. Our kitchen team is equipped with ingredients to accommodate the following food restrictive diets:

  • Vegetarian
  • Vegan
  • Pescatarian
  • Dairy Free
  • Gluten-Free*

    *Our Gluten-free items are prepared in a common kitchen. While we take steps to minimize the likelihood of gluten exposure, we cannot guarantee that any menu item is completely gluten-free. Customers with celiac or extreme gluten sensitivities should exercise judgment in deciding whether to consume these items or bring their own food. 

    We are a nut-free facility.

What if my child or I have a food allergy?

If you have a dietary need beyond the diets we are equipped to accommodate, we will do our best to provide you with a filling alternative. However, we strongly recommend that you bring shelf stable food to supplement your meals with.

If I bring my own food because of a dietary restriction, will there be a place for me to store it?

We have a fridge in the kitchenette for storing additional food for those with dietary restrictions. Make sure to label all food with the participant name and date. Please note that we are a nut-free facility, and any food or food products with nuts are not allowed in the dining hall (including nut milks such as almond, cashew, etc.). There is also a microwave and hot water heater available for you to use. 

What if I have celiac disease or another severe food allergy?

All our food alternatives are prepared in a common kitchen. While we take steps to minimize the likelihood of cross-contamination, we cannot guarantee that any menu item is completely clear of cross-contamination. Customers with celiac or other extreme sensitivities should exercise judgment in deciding whether to consume these items or bring their own food.

Participating in a Learning Center program

When do I check in and check out? What will I need to bring?

Check-in and check-out times vary program to program. A detailed letter will be emailed to you before your stay at the Learning Center with all the information you will need to be prepared for your stay with us, including check-in/check-out times, supplies list, class roster, directions and an activity agenda.

If you are attending a program with folks you know, please consider carpooling. While we do not arrange carpools or give out participant's personal information, you will be provided access to a Google Sheet where you may choose to share ride information with others.

Is there any need to bring money to a class at the Learning Center?

The store at the Learning Center sells items such as t-shirts, jackets, hats, water bottles, postcards and field naturalist supplies. The store does not sell food, phone cards or stamps. There may also be a no-host bar available during dinner; your class letter will specify if this is the case. We accept cash, Visa, MasterCard and personal checks. There are no ATM or vending machines on campus.

Can my partner or friend stay with me even if they don't want to attend a class?

Our Base Camp program is a flexible, inexpensive way for people to stay at the Learning Center. Your family member or friend could enroll in the Base Camp "Learning and Lodging" program while you are taking a natural history class or art retreat.

Can I come the night before a class starts, or stay an extra night?

Our Base Camp program is a flexible, inexpensive way for people to stay at the Learning Center. You could sign up for a night of Base Camp before or after your class to extend your stay. Other options include camping at nearby Colonial Creek Campground or a staying at one of the motels in Marblemount or Concrete.