On this uniquely Washington road trip, you’ll encounter historic, working towns and some of the most spectacular scenery the Northwest has to offer. Pack plenty of provisions for your journey on the North Cascades Highway (State Highway 20) that passes through the North Cascades Complex, northeast of Seattle. Once an old wagon route, the North Cascades Highway is part of the Cascade Loop National Scenic Byway, just recognized in 2021 as one of America’s most outstanding roads. The North Cascades Highway is only open in the summer due, to impassable offseason snow accumulation and threatening 2,000-foot avalanche chutes.  

You’ll drive north on I-5 for about 64 miles to exit 230, then go east on Highway 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway. Sedro-Woolley is a fine first stop: The origins of the town’s unusual name are up for debate, and likely dependent on whichever version you like best. A resident eating a slip of paper to help win the town’s naming contest is questionable but compelling.

Today, the town is known for a remarkable collection of chain-saw art made from cedar stumps on many corners and is home to the “Logerrodeo,” a July rodeo for loggers (postponed this year). Greet the cedar-styled Sasquatch at the front door of the Sedro-Woolley Museum, then head inside for unusual exhibits — like a chain-saw tree, a replica jail and general store, and an extremely comprehensive salt-and-pepper shaker collection (2,334 and counting).

From Sedro-Woolley, it’s 24 miles to Concrete, Washington — mostly known as the working-class childhood home to author Tobias Woolf. The town seems almost preserved in an earlier time and is worth a drive-through.

A picnic for the journey can be gathered from a few places. Bibimbap, bento boxes and other Korean fare can be collected at Miga Asian Cuisine, while 5b’s Bakery serves coffee and gluten-free baked goods and meals, including potpies, bagel dogs and lasagna. 

By Rockport, 12 miles east, the mountains start gathering steam on either side of Highway 20, next to the Skagit River. On a typical year, the tiny hut of the original Cascadian Farm’s Home Farm offers berry-flecked ice cream next to fields of u-pick berries. Unfortunately, the farm is closed this year — but keep an eye on the farm’s Facebook page in case there’s a sudden change of heart and the doors open again.

Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (Getty Images)

North Cascades National Park

About 20 miles further, Newhalem is where you’ll stop at the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center to get in-the-know tips and advice on your trip or watch a short video presentation on the park. Don’t miss the lifelike, contoured map of the park and surrounding area to get an airplane’s window view of the terrain you’re about to traverse. In all, it’s only about 18 miles from Newhalem to the park’s eastern border, but the stops-and-views per mile are impressive.

The North Cascades National Parks Complex is three parks knit together: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Glacier-carved valleys and snowcapped peaks surround lakes that glow with unusual color. The diverse ecosystem features more than a thousand species of creatures. The mammals, birds, insects, fish and other wildlife roaming mountains and valleys, which flourish with 1600 species of wildflowers, grasses, ferns, old-growth trees, shrubs and lichens.  

Highway 20 follows the Skagit River while a “sea of peaks” rise to surround you, with crests reaching altitudes of 9,206 feet. For a challenge, try spotting the gorgeous stunners sporting foreboding names: Mount Despair, Damnation Peak, Forbidden Peak, Mount Terror, Poltergeist Pinnacle, Mount Fury. Writer Jack Kerouac spent time as a fire lookout at Desolation Peak’s still-accessible panoramic viewpoint near the Canadian border, although a strenuous hike is required.  

But the Trail of the Cedars is a gentle, one-mile introduction to the scenery ahead or just a good place to stretch your legs. More than 400 miles of hiking trails are found throughout the complex, with difficulty ranging from toddler-friendly rambles to multiday, steep-ascent backpacking trails. In fact, hikers traversing the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada pass through North Cascades National Park. 

The national park contains two showstopping bodies of water: the turquoise-hued Diablo Lake and Ross Lake. Neither are actual lakes but formed as reservoirs after the Skagit River was dammed. Glacial meltwater from the surrounding mountains seemingly dyes the waters vivid colors — turquoise or emerald green. The two lakes have their own overlooks for gawking and Instagramming: Diablo Lake Overlook (Mile 131) Ross Lake Overlook (Mile 136).

Diablo Lake (Getty Images)

Many of the complex’s campgrounds lay within beautiful old-growth forests, including Goodell Creek Campgrounds, Gorge Lake and Colonial Creek. But some visitors like to take a more unusual approach — literally — with the park’s boat-in campgrounds. However, campgrounds are one of the few overnight stay options available to visitors.

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But a unique — and coveted — stay can be found at Ross Lake Resort, where visitors must ferry or hike to the floating cabins and bunkhouses. You’ll have picturesque views of local wildlife and birds, and towering, 7000-to-8000 foot mountains, including Colonial Peak and Paul Bunyan’s Stump. Caveat: The resort is so popular that people make reservations one year in advance, or get on the spring waitlist. However, last-minute opportunities do pop up sometimes. Visitors also stop by the resort for the day to hike, fish, boat and paddle the lake.

More guided services are given the authorization to operate inside the North Cascades National Park Complex. Guides can take you backpacking, climbing, cycling and horseback riding through the mountains, or rafting, floating, fishing and paddling through lakes and rivers. One stalwart advocate and representative for the region is the North Cascades Institute, at Milepost 127.5 near Diablo Lake. The Institute’s programs include family getaway weekends and Diablo Lake Boat Tours — interpretive cruises to the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. 

Washington Pass Overlook (Getty Images)

Washington Pass Overlook is at the road’s highest point, offering a 400-foot-long paved trail to an endpoint view of surrounding granite spires and peaks. As you move east, forests fall away, and Eastern Washington’s arid landscape becomes your roadside companion. At the complex’s eastern border, you can turn around for another view of the same stunning scenery back to Seattle, camp in the complex — or keep going to the towns of Mazama, Twisp or Winthrop. 

Notes: Check the North Cascades Park’s current road conditions and SR-20 road conditions for updates on closures, including those due to wildfires. North Cascades Scenic Highway closes for winter. Campfires are currently banned in the North Cascades. To camp overnight in North Cascades National Park, you’ll need a backcountry permit, which must be picked up at one of the park’s centers or stations. A Northwest Forest Pass may be required to park at some locations (including Washington Pass Overlook). There are no gas stations in the park and not many places to eat en route, so fuel up. 

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