North Cascades Highway is a ripping good road trip
Here’s a milepost guide to attractions along what might be Washington’s most scenic pavement.
Seattle Times outdoors editor
Northwest travel guides
North Cascades National Park was created, in part, to preserve more than 600,000 acres of Washington’s most rugged mountain wilderness, which by its nature has no roads.
So driving routes are few. That said, the park complex is bisected by what is widely regarded as the state’s most wow-worthy major thoroughfare, the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20), which is designated a State Scenic Byway.
Some highlights along the way, driving east from Interstate 5:
• Beyond Sedro-Woolley, watch for wineries (Eagle Haven, near Milepost 69; Challenger Ridge, near Milepost 86; and Glacier Peak Winery, near Milepost 104); a craft brewery (Birdsview Brewing Co., near Milepost 81); Cascadian Farm organic farmstand, with picnic tables in a pretty flower garden (near Milepost 101); and miles and miles of “Elk Crossing” signs (and the occasional elk).
• Near Marblemount, make a stop for Tootsie’s Famous Cinnamon Rolls from The Eatery at the charmingly old-fashioned Skagit River Resort.
• Still hungry? Stop in Marblemount for chopped brisket sandwiches at the Que Car BBQ (in an old red caboose) or get exotic at the Buffalo Run Restaurant, where your burger patty can be made from buffalo (of course), as well as antelope, kangaroo, alligator, elk and — oh, yeah, beef.
• Just before Milepost 112 is the North Cascades National Park entry sign, an artful pile of rock worth posing on for a photo. Beyond here the Skagit River — heretofore a wide and open waterway glimpsed frequently along the highway — threads a narrow gorge along the winding roadside.
• Near Milepost 120 (just west of Newhalem) turn off the highway a few minutes to find the North Cascades Visitor Center, a good place to see informational displays about the forest and wildlife you’ll see (kids will love the banana-slug pillow on the floor). Pick up some maps, chat with a ranger and take your first hike: an easy 1.8 miles on the River Loop Trail, which offers an up-close introduction to the rushing Skagit River.
• Just around a bend, stop in the village of Newhalem, where the manicured lawn and tidy row of houses exemplify the “company town” that this is: home base for Seattle City Light workers, who eat communally at the tidy (not open to the public) Gorge Inn. In the park, pull the rope to ring the bronze bell on “Old No. 6,” a 1927 steam locomotive that helped build the electricity-generating dams. There’s a small visitor center for the hydro project, but more fun can be had skipping across a long suspension bridge over the river to paths and gardens (lit at night) at Ladder Creek Falls, above the Gorge Powerhouse at the east end of town.
• At a roadside stop in about 2.5 miles, walk across the highway bridge over spectacular Gorge Creek Falls. The bridge deck is built of metal gridwork, including the walkways, so you can look straight down between your feet at the creek in a narrow gorge far below. Not fond of heights? Just keep driving.
• One of the best viewpoints is one of the easiest to miss. Once you’ve passed Colonial Creek Campground and Highway 20 rises steeply above Diablo Lake, around Milepost 132 watch for a sign announcing the Diablo Lake Overlook ahead. But the sign is a good half-mile before the turnoff, and there’s no sign at the turnoff, which is to the left at the end of a long curve. It’s worth watching for. Get out of the car here for a head-wagging view of turquoise Diablo Lake, plus Sourdough Mountain; Davis, Colonial and Pyramid peaks; and the Skagit River drainage. Bonus: There are toilets.
• You’re soon out of the national-park complex and into Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, but that’s not the end of the road trip. As you transition from westside firs and cedars to eastside pines, Rainy Pass, at 4,855 feet (near Milepost 158), offers a picnic area and a pleasant wheelchair-accessible path to pretty Rainy Lake. A few miles farther east, Washington Pass Overlook, at 5,477 feet, has a network of paved paths (one wheelchair accessible) to a stunning cliffside promontory looking across to Liberty Bell mountain.
Highway closure: Don’t wait until winter. Because of avalanche danger and lots of snow, this highway typically closes to traffic between late November and May (see wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes/northcascades).
More information: cascadeloop.com (click on “North Cascades Hwy & National Park”).