Stretch your legs and see a watery wonder on your next road trip across the Cascades.
Chances are good that you’re going to drive across a mountain pass this summer.
Whenever I’m on a road trip, by the time I reach the mountains I’m usually itching to stretch my legs, so I’m always looking for quick little hikes to get a nature fix. But I also want locations that aren’t too far from the highway.
If that feels like you, here are three great waterfall hikes — one for each of Washington’s major cross-Cascades passes.
All are good options for families in need of a road-trip detour, and each of them will impress even the most experienced outdoor veteran.
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North Cascades Highway
Cedar Falls, off Highway 20 near Mazama
The North Cascades Highway is full of pit-stop marvels. Almost any pullout or trail is worthy of your time.
A hike to Cedar Falls is a nice sampling of the drier, eastern side of the Cascades, featuring an outstanding waterfall surging with snow runoff early in summer.
At 3.5 miles round trip, the moderate trail is ideal for hikers of almost any ability. And while it climbs a bit, it’s not so great that young legs can’t handle it.
Hike among tiger lilies, columbine and Indian paintbrush while being entertained by the antics of squirrels and chipmunks. Butterflies skitter in the valley as you climb to peek-a-boo views of the North Cascades.
Tree lovers will enjoy the blend of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and cedar — at one point you can see at least a dozen types of conifers growing in a single grove.
Just short of two miles into the hike, you reach what appears to be a riverside campsite, but explore a few dozen yards beyond and you’re suddenly peering over a precipice at a raging falls.
The torrent doesn’t drop in a single stream but rather a cascade of rippling fingers weaving around giant logs stuck in the drop, creating small grottoes beneath the surge.
You can scramble to a handful of viewing locations — some are easier to reach (and safer) than others. It’s possible to climb down to the base of the falls, but do so at your own risk. There are no guardrails and the footing can be hazardous.
• From Burlington drive 115 miles east on Highway 20 to the signed turnoff to the Cedar Creek Trailhead. Take Forest Service Road 200 for .8 miles to the trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required to park ($5 passes sold on site).
Deception Falls, off Highway 2, west of the summit
Deception Falls isn’t so much a single waterfall as an impressive collaboration of drops, rapids, twists and turns. Even a short visit is like an espresso shot of nature during a long drive.
To say that Deception Falls is “right off the highway” is an understatement.
The first .2 miles of ADA accessible trail reaches one of the best areas of river, where it travels directly under Highway 2. First the water drops through a pinball series of boulders before zooming under the highway and falling off a ledge beneath a footbridge.
It’s a shame that most people only make it that far, because the rest of the half-mile loop is a microcosm of Northwest mountain ecology.
The highway noise evaporates in seconds as you descend the trail. There is a good collection of big, older trees and evidence of the early logging days. Interpretive signs describe the cycles of rot and regeneration, stream life and biology.
Picturesque bridges and platforms allow you to get a safe, up-close perspective of the falls as they ramble downhill. The most unusual section of river does a sharp 90-degree turn in mid-fall, something rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest.
Watch for hummingbirds along the trail as you duck in and out of gladed hillside, popping out for views of rapids and back into the woods for quiet streams and bridges.
For such a short hike with easy highway access, this one is hard to beat.
• The parking lot is directly adjacent to Highway 2, east of Skykomish at Milepost 56 before you reach Stevens Pass. No parking pass required.
Franklin Falls, off Interstate 90, just west of the summit
The drive over Snoqualmie Pass is bursting with waterfall sightings. If you’ve ever been tempted to pull over and explore one of them, Franklin Falls is a great quick stop.
For young and novice hikers this is the perfect place to get your toes wet. The trail has undergone lots of maintenance in recent years (thanks, Washington Trails Association!) and it’s currently one of the best-maintained hikes in the state.
While only a moderate 2 miles round trip, this trail is one of the most scenic within easy reach of the city.
The trail starts next to the chattering Snoqualmie River and soon climbs atop an impressive canyon wall where overlooks give you a heart-throbbing perspective of the rapids below.
Cross little bridges and babbling streams as you walk among hemlock, huckleberry and occasional large cedars.
But all of that pales when compared to Franklin Falls itself — a pounding 70-foot cascade that crashes into a pool at the conclusion of the hike. Dance and play in the spray and dare your friends to get soaked in the mist.
High above the falls, an imposing section of interstate freeway seems more like architecture leftover from an ancient elfish kingdom. While driving above, you wouldn’t know that this natural gem was below — or that it was so easy to reach from the city.
• From Seattle take I-90 to Exit 47. Turn left and go over the freeway, then right at the stop sign. Drive Forest Service Road 58 and follow signs to trailhead parking just beyond the Denny Creek Campground. Northwest Forest Pass required to park ($5 passes sold on site).