In a milepost guide to Washington's scenic Stevens Pass Highway, outdoor writer Mike McQuaide spotlights waterfalls, climbing walls, roadside eats and other treats, from Monroe to Leavenworth.
On a recent west-to-east Cascade-crossing excursion, I realized that the Stevens Pass road, Highway 2, offers more than just a stunning alpine setting of waterfall-streaked mountains and rushing, gushing rivers. It offers time-traveling opportunities, too: the chance to shoot forward about two or three months.
Case in point: In Skykomish, at milepost 48 (48 miles east of Everett), skies were overcast. Temps were in the 50s and it was damp, dark, drizzly and dreary. Coulda been April. Coulda been May. Coulda been June. Coulda been pretty much any month in 2011 so far.
Forty minutes later — and just 35 miles east — after an up-and-over of 4,061-foot Stevens Pass, I’m at the rest stop near Coles Corner and I’m burning up. It’s a bluebird sky, the sun is blindingly bright and temps are in the 80s. It’s the very definition of what we on the Wet Side would call the dog days of August. And given our wet, chilly spring, it felt glorious!
The entirety of Highway 2 stretches almost 2,600 miles, from Everett to St. Ignace, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. On its way east, the highway passes through Leavenworth and Wenatchee, then across the great wheat fields of Eastern Washington and on through Spokane. The 90-mile segment from Monroe to just past Leavenworth has been designated the Stevens Pass Greenway Scenic Byway and is part of the popular Cascade Loop Scenic Highway. Along with its already discussed scenery and time-traveling, this stretch of roadway scrolls past rich farmland and through a number of unique byway towns and communities.
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Here are some of the highlights from the Stevens Pass Greenway, with corresponding milepost markers.
With chain-and-franchise strip malls sprawling across both sides of the road, one could easily get the impression that Monroe is the New Jersey of Highway 2. A place where you just hold your nose, put your head down and try to get through as quickly as possible.
But take a right on Lewis Street (Highway 203) and in a couple blocks, a right onto Main Street and surprise, surprise — you find yourself in a cute, walkable little town with charming storefronts and eateries. At the south end of town, about a half-mile from Highway 2, 90-acre Al Borlin Park offers wooded trails, picnic tables and access to the Skykomish River. (See www.ci.monroe.wa.us/citygov/depts/parks/parks/alborlin/alborlinpk.php.)
Gold Bar and Wallace Falls
On a roadway known for its waterfalls, among other things, Wallace Falls is the biggest. Located about two miles north of Highway 2 at Wallace Falls State Park (www.parks.wa.gov) this plunging horsetail of water — visible from Highway 2 — plummets some 265 feet. The park has about 12 miles of hiking trails including the Woody Trail which offers some up-close-and-personal views of the falls at several of its more dramatic spots.
Gold Bar itself is one of a handful of sleepy towns and communities — Sultan, Startup and Baring are others — bisected by Highway 2 and chock full of local flavor. Lots of drive-through espresso spots, drive-in burger joints and opportunities for roadside picnics.
Mount Index Road
The trailhead for popular and way-scenic Bridal Veil Falls and Lake Serene is one-third of a mile down this road. Info: 360-677-2414 or www.fs.usda.gov/mbs.
Index Galena Road
Located a mile north of Highway 2 on the North Fork of the Skykomish River, the small town of Index boasts a truly incredible setting. To the west is Index Town Wall, much lusted over by rock climbers from near and far, and to the south are stunning views of 5,979-foot Mount Index. For those who like to get their feet wet, Adventure Rafting Company (www.wavetrek.com) offers guided rafting trips as well.
The Pickett Index Interpretive Museum (Fifth Street and Avenue A; 360-793-1534), which details the area’s mining and railroad history, deserves a peek as well. It’s open from noon until 3 p.m. on weekends.
Bigfoot … sorta
In 1992, when Sandy and Mark Klein opened the Espresso Chalet, a distinctive espresso stand in a converted travel trailer, they decided to play up the fact that scenes from the 1987 film “Harry and the Hendersons” were shot on the site. They installed Bigfoot wood carvings throughout the grounds, including a strapping 10-footer holding a snowboard who stands sentinel by the side of Highway 2. They also highlighted the green Quonset hut behind the chalet, which in the movie served as the Artifacts Museum.
“About four or five times a year, I’ll have people tell me they’ve actually seen the real Bigfoot,” Sandy told me, a bit skeptically.
“There’s a spot up by Scenic (an abandoned resort-town site about seven miles west of Stevens Pass) where they say he migrates throughout the year.”
Good to know.
In the midst of a massive cleanup effort, since 2006 this town has essentially been lifting its feet up so that BNSF Railway and the Department of Ecology can sweep the floor underneath. That’s because decades of the town’s railroad activity contaminated the ground with oil and heavy metals. The fix? Pick up the buildings, excavate the oil and other muck from the dirt on which they were standing, replace it with uncontaminated dirt and put the buildings back down in their original spots. Cleanup should be completed sometime next year.
Skykomish is the last spot for fuel and food until Coles Corner, about 35 miles away on the east side of Stevens Pass.
Skykomish Ranger Station
Stop here for the latest information on nearby trails, Forest Service roads and campgrounds. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. Info: 360-677-2414.
Deception Falls Picnic Area
If you’re the type who loves the thrilling rush of river rafting, the excitement of gushing whitewater exploding through rock-choked gorges, the type who loves everything about river rafting except for maybe actually doing it, this is the place for you.
From the large roadside parking lot (restrooms, picnic tables and interpretive signage here), a short walk leads to viewing platforms where, just below Highway 2, Deception Creek plunges 60 feet in a thunderous display (accentuated in recent weeks by snowmelt from this heavy snow year). It’s got to be the closest you can get to whitewater rafting without actually stepping into a rubber boat. (It’s also cold, wet and slippery, so be sure to hold onto the hands of little ones.)
Along with the falls, the area offers a pleasant half-mile loop trail through dense wet-side forest and close-up views where Deception Creek meets the Tye River. Cool interpretive signage factoid: Late at night on Jan. 6, 1893, near here, the last spike was driven, completing the 1,800-mile Great Northern Railway, linking the Puget Sound area to St. Paul, Minn.
Iron Goat Interpretive Site
A super spot detailing more Great Northern Railway history. Interpretive signage fills in the dates and names, a big red caboose offers a hands-on feel, and the seven-mile, mostly flat (and largely ADA-friendly) Iron Goat Trail follows the route of the old railway. Offering spectacular mountain views, the trail passes through snow sheds and to the old Wellington townsite where in 1910 a massive avalanche killed nearly 100 people sitting in train cars that were delayed by heavy snowfall. It was one of the worst railroad disasters in U.S. history. Information: www.irongoat.org.
At 4,061 feet, the pass is the literal high point of the road and, of course, the site of beloved and bustling (in winters, anyway) Stevens Pass Ski Area. During ski season, it’s a hive of activity here — thousands of skiers and snowboarders and what seems like just as many cars, trucks and buses looking for parking. In summers, it’s none of that.
While the Pacific Crest Trail passes through Stevens Pass, for the most part there are not a lot of day-use opportunities save for picnicking near your car and ogling the surrounding mountains. Which, granted, are incredible.
“I’ve put a lot of time in on the Appalachian Trail, but I had no idea there were mountains like this in America,” said an out-of-breath Patrick Smith of Heathsville, Va., upon reaching the pass by bicycle.
“It’s epic up here.”
Smith, 23, along with his 19-year-old brother, Blake, were members of a group of 30 riding across the U.S. as part of a fundraising ride for the Fuller Center for Housing, a group that builds homes for the poor. They’d started the day’s ride in Skykomish and were to follow Highway 2 to Wenatchee.
“I was told the climb was seven miles long, but that’s not right,” Smith said. “It was really like 16; somehow I must’ve missed the memo.”
In bike-related news, plans are under way (and have been for a while) for a lift-access mountain-bike park to open at Stevens Pass with two trails, with hopes for an opening Labor Day weekend. See www.stevenspassbikepark.com for the latest updates.
Just like a freeway rest area.
The best of a couple worlds: the gastronomic, in the form of the kitschy 59er Diner (www.59erdiner.com), a joint where you can drop a few quarters in the jukebox and groove, as it were, to Elvis, Buddy, Chuck and Fats while enjoying burgers, fries, taco potatoes, peanut-butter milkshakes and the like.
Also, the natural splendor and outdoor-recreation world, for here’s where you pick up Highway 207, which leads four miles north to Lake Wenatchee State Park (www.parks.wa.gov). It’s a popular spot for camping, fishing, swimming and hiking in the shadow (sorta) of 6,250-foot Dirtyface Peak. A strenuous nine-mile (round trip) trail to the top of Dirtyface is accessed nine miles down this road, too.
This gentle riverside jaunt is a terrific place to watch the Wenatchee River as it cuts through Tumwater Canyon in its raging rush to get to Leavenworth. Also known as the Old Pipeline Trail — in days of yore, a pipeline ran through here to power electricity for the Great Northern Railway — the trail starts out by crossing the river via a historic iron bridge.
Here is Bavariaburg, hot spot for schnitzel, lederhosen, accordion music and one of the world’s largest nutcracker collections (www.nutcrackermuseum.com). A hot spot, too, for outdoor recreationists of all stripes. Mountain bikers head for Freund Canyon (www.dasradhaus.com), hikers and backpackers to Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Enchantments (www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee), rock climbers to the big walls above Icicle Road (www.mountainschool.com), river rafters to the Wenatchee River (www.ospreyrafting.com).
Plenty of places to stay and eat, too, including the Best Western Icicle Inn (www.icicleinn.com), Hotel Pension Anna (www.pensionanna.com) and Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort (www.sleepinglady.com). For eats, try München Haus (www.munchenhaus.com), Visconti’s Italian Restaurant (www.viscontis.com) or the Mountain Home Lodge Restaurant (www.mthome.com).
For general Leavenworth info, see www.leavenworth.org.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (both Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.