Follow this guide to the best of Washington's North Cascades Highway, Washington state's jaw-dropper summer road trip.
There’s an old saw that says the journey is half the fun. Which, if you’re making the schlep from Seattle to Portland on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, can be a bit hard to swallow.
Conversely, nowhere does the saying seem more true than on the cross-Cascades journey to the Methow Valley, particularly the 95-mile stretch of Highway 20 — the North Cascades Highway — from Rockport to Winthrop.
Before your eyes, the landscape transforms from one of moss-hung evergreens and cascading waterfalls that streak down the sides of snow-clad peaks to the dry-side feel of Eastern Washington’s high plateau. The westside’s Douglas firs and Western red cedars trade places with ponderosa and Western white pines; the west-flowing Skagit River with the east-flowing Methow; the west’s rain, fog and drizzle with the east’s sunshiny warmth. (Usually.)
Along the way, the highway passes a trio of lakes — Gorge, Diablo and Ross — affording some of the most jaw-dropping and accessible water-and-mountain panoramic vistas you’ll find anywhere. It’s safe to say that when it comes to the journey, the North Cascades Highway is worthy of being a destination itself.
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But go now. Or sometime in the next few months. Because of the North Cascades’ prodigious annual snowfall, the highway closes most years from late November to late April.
Here are the highway’s highlights from Rockport to Winthrop, with corresponding milepost markers:
Miles 96 to 105:
Old growth and
Visit Rockport State Park (www.parks.wa.gov), where you’ll find an intact ancient forest populated by 250-foot-high Douglas firs, some of which are 500 years old and create a forest canopy so thick and dark that little sunlight reaches the ground. Some are so old they’ve necessitated the closing of the campground lest visitors become harmed from falling limbs.
Nearby Sauk Mountain Road leads to the Sauk Mountain Trail, usually the first of the high-elevation mountain trails to be free of snow — and thus usually crawling with eager hikers this time of year.
About 10 minutes farther east is Marblemount, home to lots and lots of rabbits, as well as the Eatery Drive-In (famed for its cinnamon rolls and fruit milkshakes), the cafe at the charmingly funky old Skagit River Resort (www.northcascades.com).
Cross the street and poke your head into tiny Wildwood Chapel with its six pews, each of which can fit about one-and-a-half persons comfortably. Take a walk on the River Trail for a gander at the Skagit River, wild and free-flowing here, but dammed at several spots east along the highway as part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.
Note that Marblemount is the last place to gas up for 75 miles or to have a sit-down meal until the east side of the North Cascades in Mazama. (The Skagit General Store in Newhalem, 15 miles farther east, offers convenience store-type foodstuffs.)
Visitor center, a locomotive and more
Slow down (30 mph speed limit) as you enter Newhalem, the last bustling hub of activity (ish) along the North Cascades Highway for 60 miles. There are campgrounds, some gentle hiking and sightseeing paths, a spectacular walk-up waterfall, a restored steam engine and a couple visitor centers, all in a sort-of village setting.
Newhalem is a company town inhabited by folks who work for Seattle City Light and the Skagit Hydroelectric Project dams that provide about a quarter of Seattle’s electrical power. You’ll pass all three dams — Gorge, Diablo and Ross — over the next 15 miles along the highway.
At the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center (www.nps.gov/noca) here, learn all there is to know about this 684,000-acre park that boasts some of the most remote, mountainous, and stunningly beautiful wilderness in the United States. Cool factoid: There are 300 glaciers within park boundaries, about one-third of all the glaciers in the Lower forty-eight states.
Nearby Newhalem Creek and the smaller Goodell Creek campgrounds offer excellent car-camping and RV-ing opportunities; if those are full, try Colonial Creek Campground 10 miles farther east. And gentle, meandering trails such as River Loop and Trail of the Cedars offer short, easy-access deep-in-the wilderness experiences.
Also cool: Ladder Creek Falls Trail, a paved walk-up behind the Gorge powerhouse with several up-close vantage points of a gushing mountain stream squeezing its way through a boulder-choked gully. (Usually illuminated at night, the falls and the nearby botanical gardens are undergoing renovation and close at dusk.)
Newhalem is also where the Seattle City Light’s tours of the Skagit dams usually begin. However, because of budget constraints, they’ve been canceled for 2010.
Before continuing on, stop in at Newhalem’s Skagit General Store for various sundries or some homemade fudge. Yum.
Diablo Lake Overlook
If you’re going to make only one stop along the drive, make it this one. The unobstructed views of Diablo Lake’s turquoise-blue waters against the backdrop of forested ridges and snowy, ice-capped peaks is mesmerizing. Its distinct color is caused by glacial sediment carried down Thunder Creek and into the lake from all those glaciers (see above).
Colonial and Pyramid peaks dominate the sky to the southwest, and Davis Peak to the west, high above Diablo Dam and its dam-top road to Diablo, another tiny Seattle City Light company town.
“It’s lovely; I want to put my house right there,” Pam Rookus, of Grand Rapids, Mich., said a few weeks ago during a cross-state drive with her husband, Tim. She was pointing to an unspoiled forested glade high on a mountain fold between Colonial and Pyramid peaks.
“This is just too incredible.”
Far down below, tiny, tree-topped islands rise from Diablo Lake and appear almost San Juan-esque. The lakeshore is home to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center (www.ncascades.org), a 16-building campus where a wide variety of wilderness-related courses and seminars are offered.
Also a plus: The overlook has lots of parking, interpretive signage, and restrooms.
(Note: While pleasant, the Ross Lake Overlook at Milepost 135 doesn’t pack as impressive a visual punch. It’s more of a roadside pullout.)
Mile 158: A picnic stop
Rainy Pass Picnic Area is a pleasant stop where the aroma of alpine firs fills the air on a summer day. After your picnic, enjoy the one-mile amble to Rainy Lake, which has a cataract waterfall dropping hundreds of feet down a mountainside at the far end. It’s a paved trail, wheelchair accessible, with nature-trail interpretive panels. The picnic area is also the trailhead for the spectacular 7.5-mile Maple Pass hiking trail.
OK, if you’re going to make only two stops, make Washington Pass the second. At 5,477 feet, it’s the highest point on the highway and the hairpin turn just below the Liberty Bell massif is the pivot point where Western Washington becomes Eastern Washington. (By contrast, Stevens Pass’ elevation is 4,061 feet; Snoqualmie Pass is 3,022 feet.) Where dark forests, gushing waterfalls and stubborn snowpack becomes a wide sweeping valley topped by dry craggy peaks.
Though the Washington Pass Overlook is currently closed for reconstruction (as of press time, Forest Service officials were hoping for an early August opening date), the Liberty Bell views are as stunning as ever. Carefully pull over to roadside pullouts on the east side of the westbound lane. (The left side if you’re heading toward Winthrop; the right if you’re heading to Puget Sound.) Look up and ogle the 1,200-foot rock face of the Liberty Bell group, star of more Washington State photo calendars and coffee table books than probably any mountain save for Rainier. Lusted-after by rock climbers throughout the West, it’s actually a series of named peaks including South and North Early Winter Spire, Lexington Tower, Concord Tower, and Liberty Bell, the most prominent one.
Heading east on the highway, round the wide hairpin turn and begin the long descent.
Miles 179 to 194:
Meet the Methow
After dropping elevation for about 15 miles, Highway 20 mostly levels out in the high, dry and windswept Methow Valley. Smell the pines, squint in the sunshine, feel the warmth on your skin. It’s wide-open fields and ranches here, a bit of the Old West, especially the closer you get to Winthrop, famous for its false storefronts and board sidewalks.
The Mazama Store (www.themazamastore.com), a unique mercantile ‘n’ eatery (‘n’ gas station) just a short drive off the highway at Milepost 179, is the first place on the east side of the mountains to refuel, both one’s car and one’s person. But it’s certainly not the only game in town; the entire Methow Valley is busting at the seams with great places to eat (including the Old Schoolhouse Brewery, www.oldschoolhousebrewery.com, and Arrowleaf Bistro, www.arrowleafbistro.com) and stay, such as the Chewuch Inn and Cabins (www.chewuchinn.com) and Sun Mountain Lodge (www.sunmountainlodge.com).
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.