The following is a guest post from Susan Stephens, check out her bio at the end.
The cascade loop in Washington will bring you back to basics. You will gain a new appreciation for “leaving the grid”, for putting away your phone and just being in the moment. Out in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, the untouchable beauty of the Cascades will inspire you to rely on your own instincts to lead the way.
The Cascade Loop Scenic Byway is a 440-mile driving loop that traverses the North Cascade Mountain range. Following eight different highways, the loop covers gorgeous forested mountains, the massive bulk of Liberty Bell and Early Winters spires.
Most people drive up from Seattle to begin the loop, but you can also start your epic journey in Wenatchee from the east. Take your pick, either way you will be transformed by the beauty of the changing landscapes.
We stayed overnight in Burlington about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Early the next morning we set off east on Highway 20 towards the North Cascade National Park. Leaving civilization as our little car began to be swallowed up by dense trees on either side felt a bit like we were journeying into Narnia.
This is the northern part of the loop and the most remote. Every several miles we would drive through a blink-and-you-miss-it town (more like settlements with a bar), so were glad we filled up on gas before leaving town, as services get less and less the further you get into wilderness.
Ever watch that show Twin Peaks in the 1990’s? This is where a lot of that footage was shot, and it brought back vague memories of the show. Huge rolling hills blanketed in Evergreen trees soon gave way to snow-peaked mountains as we ascended in elevation.
First stop was the information center of North Cascade National Forest. The oh-so- friendly staff will give you hiking trail maps and information on where all of the best camping, fishing and other outdoor adventures are located throughout the area. Many of the visitor’s centers, campgrounds and trails along the northern loop will close around the first part of October
Within just 100 miles, there are so many different types of landscapes to explore. From the beaches of Whidbey Island, to moss-dripping old-growth forest, to daffodil fields in Skagit Valley and along Alpine ridges in the North Cascades, no one should tire of this land. There are hikes to satisfy the easy-going beginner to difficult mountaineering terrain that will challenge the most seasoned hikers. Throughout the forest, there are plenty of camping spots (mostly available during late spring through September.)
Visiting Diablo Dam
There are a series of three dams along the Skagit River. Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam and Ross Dam. The cascading waters of this river have been generating commercial electricity for the Seattle area since 1924. We hiked up to Diablo Dam, where the trail rises in elevation and you can view the dam far below. From here are a couple of other hikes that take you down a bit in elevation, and along the way you can learn about the history.
Diablo Lake Overlook is a great place to stop, and it is where we ate our packed lunch. A path along the cliffside had incredible views of the lake far below, and the boat launches looked like tiny pegs along the wooded shores. On the shores of the Lake is the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, and you can take a boat tour (with lunch!) as your guide tells of the early explorers and the challenges of building a dam in such a remote location.
This town’s main street has been restored to the era of the early 1900’s when trappers, prospectors and homesteaders ruled the town. Set in the Methow Valley, these early settlers carved a narrow-gauge wagon road across the Cascades, linking the valley with the Slate Creek Mining District. Today, many of the facades along Winthrop’s downtown area are reminiscent of the old mining era.
This isn’t a tourist trap. The sentimental facades do invite you to take your time walking down the wood-planked sidewalks and explore every one of them. But these are honest-to-gosh shops, restaurants, hardware stores…everything a charming little town needs, out in the middle of nowhere. We came upon a cute little red school house, complete with a recess bell at the top. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the most hoppin’ joint in town; the local brewhouse. And it’s where we had lunch.
Just down the road from Winthrop is the town of Twisp. It didn’t quite have the allure of Winthrop, but you must admit, the name Twisp is pretty cool. Here the art galleries abound, with public sculptures peppered throughout town. Stopping at the Methow Valley Interpretive Center, we learned about the local Native Americans and their important role in the shaping of commerce in the area.
Following the road south past Twisp, the town of Chelan was our last stop, and on the way to the southern part of the loop going west. Chelan is on the southern end of the long and skinny Lake Chelan, where you can take the Lady of the Lake boat to Holden Village (the only way to get there is by boat!) for a quiet day of rest and renewal.
To fully experience the entire Cascade Loop, you will want to take several days. Our journey was a little over two days visiting just the northern part, and I still feel like we missed out on some things. You will want to take your time and savor it, leaving room for the spontaneous.
Susan Stephens is a scientist-turned-travel writer and a transplant from the Midwest of the U.S. She lives in Portland, OR, and her blog, Explorer Sue, is dedicated to helping people discover the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her on: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest