Washington Pass Overlook on the North Cascades Highway has high alpine views, and a new steel safety railing to make you feel better about bringing the kids.
WASHINGTON PASS — From the Washington Pass Overlook, the Liberty Bell massif rises mightily from the forested hillside, a tight-knit family of rocky, 7,500-foot giants clustered together as if posing for their holiday-card photo.
It’s a view that’s so eye-catching, so dramatic and, when you approach it via Highway 20 from the west (Puget Sound side), so surprising that one can only shake one’s head in wonder at Mother Nature’s artistic handiwork. I imagine that when she was done, she stepped back, gave it a once-over and proclaimed, “Nailed it!”
Like the views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan from Artist Point, up Bellingham way, or of Mount Rainier from Paradise (from Sunrise, too), the vista from this 5,477-foot overlook costs just about nothing in terms of sweat and muscle power. Sure, you’ve got to drive a bit to get here, but the out-of-this-world views begin as soon as you pull into the parking lot.
Saunter out along the paved, mostly flat trail for a couple hundred yards and you emerge onto a massive rock outcropping where unobstructed views reveal not only Liberty Bell, but craggy Kangaroo Ridge — its slanted hillside funneling Western Washington down toward Eastern Washington — along with the Methow Valley, Mazama and Winthrop beyond. Far, far below, what look like toy cars and trucks make their way up and down the backward question mark formed by this sharply curved section of Highway 20.
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Scenery worth a drive
“This certainly is beautiful,” said Scott Ross during an early September visit with his wife, Belinda, and three children: 6-year-old twins Anna and Amelia, and Lucy, 11. From Wilbur, in Lincoln County, they were making their first visit to Washington Pass.
“We were just at Glacier National Park but I think we like this better; it’s more accessible for the kids. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to do something more strenuous, so this is perfect.”
Though not often thought of as a destination spot — more often it’s a leg stretcher, a place to breathe in fresh alpine air while breaking up the long drive to and from the Methow — the views at Washington Pass make it more than destination-worthy.
And in the coming weeks, those views will only get better. Sometime in October, the forests that frame those crags and spires will appear ablaze as the needles of the area’s alpine larches turn from green to gold. Visit after the trees have turned and the pass has received its first dusting of snow and you’ll have hit the Washington Pass trifecta: the snow, the larch, the Bell.
That window of visual opportunity closes quickly, however. Late October’s gusty winds will strip the trees of their golden needles and, come late November or early December, snow will close Highway 20 and the Washington Pass Overlook, not to open again until next spring.
But we won’t worry about that now.
Still steep, but safer
Following their daughters as they explored the overlook’s nooks and crannies, scrambling up and down the various stacked rock slabs, Scott and Belinda serenaded them with a continual chorus of “Come away from the edge girls,” “Stay back, kids,” and the like. I remember singing the exact same tune a few short years ago with my curious-as-heck 8-year-old.
It makes sense: Though the trail is paved and mostly flat, it does wind its way across the top of a sheer rock outcrop that drops 700 feet straight down to Highway 20 below. (Let me be clear: It’s completely safe; one would really have to make a concerted effort to fall off, but unfortunately, kids have a way of unintentionally making concerted efforts. Or at least scaring us that that’s what they’re going to do.)
But visitors can take comfort in a new 630-foot welded steel railing installed earlier this summer, which replaces the former wood post-and-rail affair. Built by Winthrop’s Alpine Welding and Equipment, the new railing is higher, its pickets are only 4 inches apart (so that little ones can’t squeeze through) and it takes advantage of the stunning setting.
“It was designed to flow with the changes in the rock,” says Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation and wilderness program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
“The new railing just kind of flows along with the trail, really complementing the overlook. Most important, it’s very safe now and it protects pretty much everywhere that you could potentially get into trouble.”
The railing is just one of a number of improvements and spruce-ups over the past two summers at Washington Pass. Along with repaving and general shoring up of the trail with retaining blocks where necessary, the pass features new outhouses that are quite nice (yes, you read that correctly) and various parking-lot improvements.