This Wild, Winding Highway Is 140 Miles of Pure Natural Awe
Roaring rapids. Sky-high peaks. Pacific Northwestern mystique.
Spanning the wilds of upper Washington, the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20, if you want to be boring) is an encapsulation of the mysterious, sprawling allure of the Pacific Northwest. It's an outdoor wonderland of stunning mountain vistas and lush coniferous jungle. Small mountain towns punch above their weight in charm, food, and drink. Kitsch, romanticism, and weirdness reign supreme. And its magnetism extends to daytrippers, weekend warriors, and hardcore cyclists alike.
While the full route covers some 436 miles from Puget Sound's Whidbey Island all the way to the Idaho border, the 140-mile middle stretch called the North Cascades Scenic Highway is the greatest-hits collection. Running through North Cascades National Park (one of America's most underrated national parks) and linking the stunning valleys of Skagit and Methow, the highway provides ample opportunity to camp, hike, shop, climb, indulge, or simply relax and take in a healthy dose of the great outdoors.
This is almost solely a pursuit for summer or early fall—the scenic portion of the highway closes for about half of the year, usually opening mid-May then closing whenever the snow hits, which can be anytime between mid-November to mid-December. But during that window, you’ll be completely spellbound by some of Washington State’s most beautiful sites. Here are the highlights.
Start with a pit stop at Diablo Dam
If you’re coming from the Seattle region, by the time you reach Newhalem you’re probably in need of a break. Tucked into the foothills of the Cascades, Newhalem is a tiny community established by Seattle City Light to house employees of the nearby hydroelectric project. You’ll find public restrooms; a little general store for coffee, ice cream, and the like; and an old decommissioned steam locomotive that kids love to climb on.
Just up the road is Diablo Dam, from which you can enjoy stunning views of the frigid green waters it holds, as well as the densely forested hills of the surrounding canyon. For the historically inclined, there’s also a small museum providing some backstory about the hydro project.
Immerse yourself in an outdoor-lover's paradise
The primary draw for the region is its abundance of gorgeous outdoor spaces and the wide-ranging opportunities afforded to those seeking natural adventure. Virtually any outdoor activity is at your disposal.
Hikers of all skill levels will be drawn into the forests, whether it's just for a quick stretch of the legs or a days-long immersion. Highlights include Chickadee Trailhead, Patterson Mountain Trailhead, Goat Peak Lookout Trail, or the Falls Creek Trailhead. The Falls Creek area also has a slew of nearby camping options that are both tent and RV friendly.
The area surrounding the town of Mazama (more on that later) is something of a rock-climbing hotspot, with plenty of crags located just to the west. But perhaps my personal favorite activity involves tubing the Chewuch and/or Methow Rivers. You can rent tubes from Methow River and Kayak then float the eight-mile stretch between the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. Or buy a tube at the general store or hardware store in Winthrop, drive up along the Chewuch, and find some of the little rapids to zip down.
If you’re looking for a sort of all-in-one outdoor experience, stay at or visit the Sun Mountain Lodge, where there are plenty of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and even horseback riding. Guests of the resort can also use canoes, kayaks, sailboats, and other watercraft on the private lake.
Want to sleep outside? Your options are limitless.
There are a slew of quality campgrounds along the way, some of which can only be reached on foot, and others that are designed for cars and RVs. While few if any will leave you disappointed, I’m of the opinion that two stand out.
Colonial Creek Campground is an ideal choice if you’ll be camping out of a car or RV. Nestled into a lush forest, you’ll have plenty of access to trailheads and the shores of Diablo Lake. And since it’s located somewhat centrally along the route, it’s a perfect jumping-off point to visit other sites over the duration of your stay. During peak season it can fill up fast, so consider making a reservation.
If you’re not opposed to hoofing it to your destination, check out Thunder Knob Trailhead. After a relatively easy, hour-long hike you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The campground at the end of the trail is first come, first served, so arrive early if you’re going on a busy weekend.
Once you’ve gotten to the far side of the hill, there are plenty of options whether you’re looking to camp or find a room. In town, you can camp in the Pine Near or KOA campgrounds, or stay in a number of hotels or mini-cabin rentals such as the River’s Edge Resort. Outside of town, you can find many small camping areas in the national forest or head over to Pearrygin Lake Campground where you’ll have access to showers and water activities.
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Take in stunning view after stunning view
The highway runs through majestic landscapes from start to finish, with flatland meadows, forests, and riverbanks giving way to expansive jungles of cedar and dramatic mountain faces and peaks before descending into the drier, rolling high-desert sweeps of the Methow Valley. In other words, you’ll enjoy natural beauty every inch of the way. There are, however, a few standout vantage points that should be emphasized.
Ross Lake is a long, turquoise pool hemmed in by Diablo Dam, around which are several campgrounds that can only be reached by shuttle or boat. The lake and its surrounding area define the word “breathtaking,” and if you’d like to see them in all their glory, there’s a convenient viewing area alongside the highway.
The highest point in the journey is at Washington Pass and Rainy Pass, which are essentially right alongside one another. A brief drive off the highway will bring you to a short, paved path leading to an overlook that provides a stunning vantage of the passes. If you’re prepared to do a solid bout of hiking, Maple Pass will provide you with a glorious backcountry view of the Cascades. Start at the Rainy Lake Trailhead off Rainy Pass, which will bring you to the Maple Pass Loop. The loop is nearly eight miles around with some pretty steep elevation at some points, so while it’s not overly difficult it is a view that doesn’t come without effort.
If you’re a Jack Kerouac fan with gumption, Desolation Peak provides an outdoor challenge combined with literary history. Kerouac spent a summer as a fire lookout on the peak in 1963, an experience he wrote about in both Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Access is not easy, however. You can either hike some 20 miles or take a boat part way starting from the Ross Lake Resort.
Get a taste of small-town Cascades life
Once you’ve made it over the pass, you descend into the dry heat of the Methow Valley where you’ll find three towns, each of which is worth exploring.
Mazama is almost purely residential, or perhaps it’s barely residential as it has a population of just 200. This tiny community is built around the simply named Mazama Store, which offers—as they put it themselves—"a little bit of everything.” That includes fresh, cafe-style food, gourmet cheese, local crafts, outdoor gear, and more, making it a great place to gas up and pursue the wares.
Next along the highway is Winthrop, which is where you’ll likely end up spending most of your time. It's a tiny, weird, one-street town featuring Old Western facades on the buildings and plank board sidewalks. Here you can clunk along the wooden sidewalks while shopping for local art and other memorabilia or stop for a bite along the river. Grab your morning coffee and pastries at the Rocking Horse Bakery, and if you’re in the mood for pizza, East 20 Pizza's thin crust is outright delicious.
Eight miles down the highway you’ll find Twisp, and while it’s primarily geared toward serving the locals, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a visit. Saturday mornings there’s a small farmer’s market where you can get local produce and handicrafts. Cinnamon Twisp Bakery is a great little coffee and pastry spot. And the Glover Street Market provides a surprisingly good selection of wellness products and a cellar where you can taste and procure finely aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil.