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Exploring the Back Roads of Washington State: The Cascade Loop Byway
To see some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the United States, few trips will be as rewarding as the Cascade Loop Highway in Washington State. You will be treated to breathtaking vistas, ragged peaks, a bounty of lakes and rivers, and the two tourist towns of Winthrop and Leavenworth.
The total driving distance is approximately 400 miles and yes, you could do it in one day, but anyone serious about absorbing the beauty of nature will want to plan on three or four days for this trip.
Finding motel accommodations is not a problem on this journey, and if you should choose to camp you will have no problem finding campsites throughout the four-hundred miles of forests and river valleys. Pack your fishing gear, swimsuits, cameras and binoculars. Whatever you enjoy doing on a vacation is available on this great trip.
From Everett, travel east on Highway 2 across Stevens Pass into eastern Washington to the city of Wenatchee. From there travel north on Highway 97 to Chelan, then north on SR 153 to Winthrop. From Winthrop you will drive west on Highway 20 through the North Cascades National Park to Burlington in western Washington, and then travel south on I-5 back to Everett.
Travelling East from Everett
Everett is about 30 miles north of Seattle on I-5. From there you will head east on Highway 2 and follow the Skykomish River into the Cascade Mountains. You will drive along the river valley past former logging and mining towns like Snohomish, Sultan and Gold Bar as you gain elevation. The opportunities for picnicking and camping are numerous along this road; in fact, it would be impossible to travel more than twenty miles on the entire trip without finding a camping spot to pitch your tent on.
If you are a whitewater rafter or fly fisherman, the Skykomish will test your mettle, and if you are a hiker you will not be disappointed by the many trails along this section of highway.
You will cross over into eastern Washington at Stevens Pass, elevation 4,061. During the winter this is one of the premier locations for downhill and cross-country skiing. Shortly after the Pass you will come to Lake Wenatchee. The State Park there offers a beautiful sandy beach as well as hiking, camping, boating and swimming.
Continue along Highway 2 through the Tumwater Canyon, along the Wenatchee River, and into the town of Leavenworth. This quaint Bavarian village will provide all the tourist opportunities you could hope for, and you would do well to spend your first night here to completely enjoy this lovely alpine town. Festivals are held year-round in Leavenworth, but even if there are no festivals when you are there, you will be treated to an abundance of German restaurants, shops, and a more than a few beer gardens.
Leaving Leavenworth, you will now travel to the city of Wenatchee, the “Apple Capital of the World.” There is certainly no shortage of fruit stands in this area, and some of the best wineries in the state are nearby as well. The mighty Columbia River flows through Wenatchee, offering still more opportunities to swim, water ski, kayak or river raft. You might want to consider stopping at the Ohme Gardens, located on a bluff outside of town. From there you will experience a fantastic view of the river valley.
Travelling North from Wenatchee
Now we head north on 97 and follow the Columbia River to the city of Chelan, a summer playground for many Washingtonians. Marvel at one of the deepest and clearest lakes in the United States. Enjoy the public swimming beaches, and if you have the time take the guided tour aboard the Lady of the Lake to Stehekin, the southern gateway to the North Cascades National Park. From Stehekin you can find numerous backcountry hiking trails, horseback riding and whitewater rafting. The 50 mile boat trip is narrated and is nothing short of spectacular.
Chelan will also give you an opportunity to gas up and enjoy a nice meal in one of the many restaurants.
Travelling West from Pateros
Once you leave Chelan you will continue north until you come to the town of Pateros where you will turn west and enter the Methow Valley. This river valley offers beautiful scenery, but don’t become so mesmerized by the sights that you forget to stop in the town of Winthrop. Strap on your six-shooter, pardner, because Winthrop is a Wild West town with boardwalks, hitching posts and gold panning. While there ask directions to the Sun Mountain Lodge where you can ride horses, mountain bike, and enjoy one of the best meals in Washington.
After you leave Winthrop you will shortly leave the valley itself as you enter the rugged North Cascades National Park. Known as the “Alps of the United States,” the North Cascades Wilderness offers some unforgettable views of jagged peaks and alpine lakes. Stop at Washington Pass, the highest road in Washington, and walk along the Outlook Trail for an incredible view of Liberty Bell and other Cascade peaks.
Shortly after Washington Pass you will begin to descend into western Washington. Great views of Ross Lake and Diablo Lake are available. You can book a tour on the Diablo Lake Boat Tour, or just pull off at one of the numerous trailheads and do some backcountry exploring.
Stop in the town of Newhalem and visit the North Cascades National Park Visitor’s Center where you can get more information on camping and hiking, and make sure you swing by the Skagit General Store to get a feeling of life one-hundred years ago.
Highway 20 will continue through the towns of Marblemount, Concrete and Sedro Woolley. You will be driving through the rich Skagit River Valley and some of the greatest eagle nesting grounds in the western United States. If you are there during the spring you will have to stop and enjoy the Tulip Festival. The entire valley explodes with color as tulips come into bloom.
Travelling South from Burlington
You will leave Highway 20 in the city of Burlington and from there you can catch Interstate 5 south and return to Everett where your trip began. If, however, you feel like a side-trip, continue from Burlington on Highway 20 and drive to Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The town of Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island and that is the gateway to the San Juan Islands. You can catch a ferry there and roam through the gorgeous San Juan Island archipelago. If you are a kayaker or just a shutterbug, this is a must trip.
Anacortes is also a charming town with numerous artist studios; so too is the town of La Conner.
Continue on Highway 20 and go over Deception Pass, a must-see trip over a high bridge spanning a natural inlet. From there Highway 20 will eventually return you to Everett.
And There You Have It
400 miles of some of the prettiest scenery a person could ever hope to see. This writer recommends spending a night in Leavenworth and a night in either Chelan or Winthrop to fully appreciate this journey. A third night could easily be spent in Anacortes or in one of the towns in the San Juan Islands.
Why rush? This is a trip to be savored and slowly appreciated, so take your time and drink in all that is Washington State.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)