By R. Norman Barrett
Fifteen-hundred feet of cold glacial meltwater lies under the bow of the Lady Express as she powers her way along Lake Chelan. Our journey ends fifty miles away in the isolated community of Stehekin (Stee-hee-kin). This far flung gathering of hardy souls, more than just another destination, has become a point of pilgrimage for those seeking refuge from trendy hot spots both sordid and tarnished. Due to the rugged terrain, no roads were ever built to this end of the lake, which is the reason the northern valley remains as pristine as the day man first laid eyes upon it. Some of Mother Nature’s finest work towers above America’s deepest fresh water fjord or the deepest gorge in North America as reckoned by some. More than just another excursion, this is an experience to be savored, encompassing majestic scenery, history and the indomitable spirit of pioneers past and present.
Lake Chelan is just one of the many regions along Washington State’s Cascade Loop, described by National Geographic Traveler as “One of Americas grandest, most spectacular drives.” The route which stretches over 400 miles from Puget Sound through the Cascade Mountains is a fun drive into the most complex and least understood geology in North America. It is also a journey into the heart of rural America with quaint old fishing villages, waterfront walks, rugged mountains, and story book theme towns as a backdrop.
The “official” starting point for the Cascade Loop is Everett, north of Seattle. Everett boasts a picturesque waterfront overlooking Puget Sound with magnificent views of the Olympic Mountains and the mansions of the timber barons lining the downtown avenues. Nearby in Mukilteo, the Future of Flight Aviation and Boeing Tour is one of the state’s most popular attractions. From the overhead gantry visitors watch their future flight being assembled on the huge floor below.
Before the highway ascends the Cascade foothills to Stevens Pass, antique aficionados will want to stop at Snohomish, a town aged to perfection. A Victorian essence is preserved in its homes and commercial buildings. Snohomish makes the claim to be the antique capital of the Northeast boasting more than 450 dealers in antiquities, restaurants and shops.
Outside of Gold Bar, Wallace Falls State Park provides the first opportunity to view nature at its best. A seven-mile loop winds through the timbered foothills to the brink of a tumbling 265-foot waterfall with stunning views of the surrounding area. For those dedicated to a sedentary lifestyle, Bridal Veil Falls and Sunset Falls can be appreciated without leaving the main highway. Deception Falls will not be ignored as it thunders beneath the highway and can be admired from a viewpoint accessible from the parking lot.
Though rare and elusive, mountain goats can sometimes be seen from the highway at 4,061-foot Stevens Pass. The pass, kept open – for the most part – in winter is the only one of the Loop’s passes open year around. Consider picking up food before arriving as the shops at the pass are only open during the winter season. There is an unusual hike from here that combines scenery with a glimpse into railroading’s past, the Iron Goat Trail, which traces the route of the old Great Northern Railway.
After cresting the pass, the route passes through several small resort communities before the Coles Corner cutoff to Wenatchee Lake. The mountain-clad recreation lake is a good option for RV camping (vehicles up to 60-feet in length) boating and fishing.
Highway 2 continues as it hugs the sheer walls of Tumwater Canyon which blazes with color in the fall, winding and twisting through the rocky gorge of the Wenatchee River. Suddenly around the bend there is award-winning Bavarian Leavenworth, shopper’s heaven with a frosty stein of beer.
Nestled tightly against mountains that rise to 8000-feet, Leavenworth transformed itself in 1963 from a sleepy logging village into a Bavarian village embodying all the charm and flavor of the Bavarian Alps. It has developed into a major tourist destination and home to more than 100 shops and restaurants. Half-timbered and balconied chalets line the flower-bedecked streets with merchants in traditional lederhosen proffering steaming plates of Wurst and Schnitzel.
Leavenworth has become a year round shopping destination. A personification of that is an amazing store on Front Street called Kris Kringl. Its two floors are brimming with Santas of all descriptions, grazing reindeer and delicate tree ornaments. It’s a visual experience to say the least. If your sweet tooth wants to be stimulated, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has been a fixture in town for 18 years. Even the mailman makes it a regular stop on his route eating upwards of half a tray of free samples.
The vast acreage surrounding Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee provides ample recreational opportunities with four seasons of activity and adventure. Flowing east, the Wenatchee River offers the most popular river rafting in the state especially the section to Monitor. The Wenatchee, with stretches of calm water, can provide a big roller coaster ride on its class 5 rapids. There is even rock climbing on nearby Icicle Canyon and Peshastin Pinnacle during the summer, sometimes creating minor traffic jams.
While in Leavenworth we stayed at the Pine Village KOA, a premier RV resort providing all the amenities. The early morning pancake breakfast was satisfying and filling. Wenatchee Confluence State Park, another great campground in the Washington park system, is north of the town of Wenatchee. The park has full hookups and can accommodate rigs up to 65-feet in length.
Wenatchee, the Apple Capital of the World, is the next stop on the Cascade Loop. Its enormous annual crop of apples is greater than the number produced by any other apple-growing locale. In spring, mile after mile of orchards are suffused with delicate white-pink blooms; in fall the trees hang heavy with red and golden globes. The mighty Columbia River flows through Wenatchee. The best vantage point to view the river valley and mountains is Ohme Gardens, perched high on a rocky bluff. Situated on nine acres of rock outcroppings, the gardens are a harmonious blend of evergreen, alpine flowers, stone paths, and tranquil pools.
Leaving the serenity behind, the Cascade Loop makes an abrupt turn north towards Lake Chelan, on Highway 97. Driving through arid central Washington, one can not help but notice the extraordinary geological panorama. This terrain was dramatically reshaped by the Lake Missoula Ice Age Floods. These catastrophic floods scoured the landscape and broke loose enormous chunks of rock, which rolled and tumbled along for miles creating the Washington State scablands and the Columbia Gorge.
A scenic alternative route through this dramatic area to the Grand Coulee Dam is well worth the 200-mile detour. The coulees and channeled scablands were carved more than 15,000 years ago by Ice Age floods. The dam is one of the largest concrete structures in the world and is illuminated by a laser light show during the summer evenings.
Tempted by the Grand Coulee Dam or not you will need to arrange in advance for the morning passage to Stehekin at the Lake Chelan Boat Company. A longer stay in Stehekin is possible by booking the faster Lady Express for the northbound passage and the slower return on the Lady of the Lake II. A three-hour layover allows time to board the Rainbow Falls bus and the most important stop at the Stehekin Pastry Company, one of the best bakeries on the planet! The bakery is an easy walk back to the boat dock or a 5-minute bicycle ride. Bicycle rentals, available at Stehekin Landing, make possible the exploration of the 9-mile valley road past the beautiful falls. Overnight lodging opens up opportunities to hike, swim (B-r-r-r-r-r!), fish or to become acquainted with a modern-day pioneer.
The farthest point an RV can be driven is to Twenty Five Mile Creek State Park or Lake Chelan State Park, both on the south shore of Lake Chelan. The maximum length for the two parks is only 32-feet. The Lakeshore RV Park has 163 full hookup sites with a large marina and can accommodate longer vehicles. Limited parking is available at Fields Point Landing, the only other stop for the lake boats.
Chelan should not be given short shrift as the region has garnered a reputation for award-winning wines with tastings offered through-out the year. The resort areas warm summers draw large crowds to its beaches. Enthusiastic onlookers report there are more skimpy bikinis here than any resort area in Washington. The lake is also prime year-around fishing, yielding record lake trout.
At Pateros, Highway 153 departs from the Columbia River and follows the Methow River Valley toward Winthrop. Hold on to your Stetson! The Wild West has ridden into this town. Aged-looking storefronts, Old West-style signage, a saloon and dance hall plus a wealth of Western-themed paraphernalia give Winthrop its distinctive character. Do not expect to rub elbows with Gabby Hayes or Hopalong Cassidy. During the warm summer months more loud motorcycles pony-up to the hitching posts than do characters out of old western movies. Winthrop has not yet become a Sturgis but helmets outnumber ten-gallon hats.
The town was founded in the late 1800’s by Yale graduate and author, Theodore Winthrop, and seems to have retained its frontier appearance. The downtown motif was the result of a decision to revitalize Winthrop in the manner of Leavenworth. Winthrop bustles with visitors while Highway 20 is open, usually mid-April through mid-November. The eastern gateway to the North Cascades National Park provides the only opportunity to obtain fuel for the next 90-miles.
One of the most memorable campgrounds in the region is Pearrygin Lake, 5-miles northeast of Winthrop. The 578-acre state park flanks a spring-fed lake with a bright, sandy beach and the Big Valley Ranch, a former cattle ranch turned into a wildlife preserve. Another plus, RV’s up to 60-feet can be accommodated.
A short drive from Pearrygin Lake is the Sun Mountain Lodge, one of the states finest vacation destinations with panoramic views of the Cascades at every turn. The 5,000 bottle wine cellar complements the fine dining. The lodge leaves a lasting memory of the Cascade Loop whether it’s for a stay or an evening meal.
A narrow road leads to Slate Peak, 19-miles northeast of Mazama. Reaching an elevation of 7,400-feet, the road offers a grand view of the North Cascades. The gravel track, leading to the highest elevation in the state accessible by automobile, is open from July until first snowfall. It is not suitable for trailers or large RV’s.
Leaving the Methow Valley, the North Cascades Scenic Highway, one of the nations most spectacular mountain drives, climbs up the eastern approach to Washington Pass. The counter-clockwise direction provides the most dramatic views of the approach to the pass. Savor each vista and viewpoint as it is more incredible than the last. The North Cascades National Park contains some of America’s most beautiful mountain scenery – high jagged peaks, glaciers, and countless cascading waterfalls. No wonder it’s known as “North America’s Swiss Alps”.
Near Washington Pass (5,477-feet), the massive bulk of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires appear to block any passage. Indeed, it was not until 1972, following years of proposals and explorations, that the modern road traversed the North Cascades. The best view is from the Washington Pass Overlook with Liberty Bell towering overhead and the approaching highway ascending a series of hairpin turns. The beautiful overlook includes a natural rock platform perched high above the highway where a billion dollar view can be admired.
Also on the North Cascades Highway is the Rainy Lake Trail at Rainy Pass. A paved trail contours along the mountainsides to enter a glacier-carved cirque that bears Rainy Lake and the impressive waterfall that feeds it. Here also the highway crosses the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail – a hiker’s paradise that extends from Canada to Mexico.
Descending down the west slope, Ross and Diablo Lakes offer lovely forest and mountain highway lookouts. From the Ross Lake Overlook, one can see the southern arm of Ross Lake as it snakes some 25-miles through the mountains to the Canadian border. The distinctive color of each lake (Ross is teal; Diablo is jade) is caused by finely ground glacial rock dust suspended in the water that reflects the green of the forest and the blue of the sky.
Constructed by Seattle City Light, the Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Dams supply Seattle’s electricity, harnessing the Skagit River. Skagit Tours, located in Newhalen, offers a 2.5 hour boat trip aboard the ‘Alice Ross’ on Diablo Lake. The trip includes a ride on an incline railway that inches its way up steep Sourdough Mountain. The Diablo Dam Good Dinner Tour offers all the above and includes an all-you-can-eat buffet. Reservations are recommended during the busy summer.
Two miles from Diablo Lake Overlook, the Colonial Creek Campground is the most vehicle accessible in the Park. As is the case for National Park campgrounds, hookups are not available and if needed the Steelhead Park (37-miles away) in Rockport is your answer. For a hiker’s perspective, take the Thunder Creek Trail which begins at the Colonial Creek Campground and weaves through miles of dense forests all the way to Stehekin Valley.
The last stop before exiting the Park is Newhalen, a company town for the employees who work at the dams. For those heading over the passes, the general store is the last point to stock up on supplies. The North Cascades National Park Visitors Center has the latest information on camping and hiking. Across the Skagit River, the short and easy Trail of the Cedars is a good introductory stroll among the giants of the forest. Fuel is still another 15 miles away at Marblemont.
Highway 20 follows the Skagit River through the gateway communities of Marblemont, Concrete, and Sedro-Woolley. Between Rockport and Marblemont, the highway passes the Skagit River Bald Eagle National Area. Fifteen-hundred acres have been set aside as a sanctuary for the hundreds of bald eagles that arrive in late fall. Visitors can view the birds from river rafts or from turnouts along the route. The Skagit Valley is prime farming and home to the largest commercial bulb industry outside of Holland.
Another side trip can be taken on Highway 11 to Baker Lake. The 9-mile long lake offers camping, boating and fishing. In spring, the lake attracts the state’s largest gathering of ospreys. Do not expect grand views of the nearby volcano unless you are willing to hike.
The Cascade Loop passes over I-5 and on to Fidalgo and Whitbey Islands. Unless you are taking the ferries from Anacortes to the three major San Juan Islands or Vancouver Island, the two “drive on” islands serve as an introduction to the San Juans. At the northern end of Fidalgo Island, the port town of Anacortes bustles with ferries and pleasure craft. Anacortes is delightfully decorated with 70 life-size murals. Its downtown is lined with antiques, art galleries and distinctive shops. Whale watching excursions can lead to sightings of the local Orca pods, seals, sea lions, Gray and Humpback whales. For landlubbers, stunning views of the San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker and the Puget Sound can be enjoyed by driving up the nearby summit of Mount Erie.
The Cascade Loop completes its scenic circle by traveling south the length of Whitbey Island, the second longest island in the U.S. Park, and walk across the bridge soaring above Deception Pass. Linking Fidalgo with its southern neighbor, the 1,487-foot steel cantilever bridge stands above a narrow neck of water where tides turn the passage into a boiling caldron. If your stamina permits it, make the descent to the rocky beach below the bridge to share another perspective with the locals. Deception Pass State Park has ample RV camping on Cranberry Lake with full utilities.
The largest city on the island, Oak Harbor, is the proud home to a large naval air station. This active, family-oriented town includes Historic District shops, two 18-hole golf courses, and a waterfront RV park complete with a life-sized windmill.
Tiny Coupeville is the second oldest town in the state. It boasts over 100 buildings on the National Historic Register. This “village of sea captains” is home of the famous Penn Cove mussels and the historic Coupeville Wharf.
Highway 20 veers to the west at Keystone where automobile ferries depart for Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula. Your route continues south on Highway 525. The Cascade Loop adventure ends at Clinton and the ferry to Mukilteo. The ferry chugs across Possession Sound with its cliff-backed coves as the turn-of-the-century lighthouse comes into view.
As the lighthouse gradually disappears into the horizon, the traffic choked freeway jolts our senses, reminding us what we all are trying to escape from if only temporarily. It is tempting to retrace the journey but at least the memories will remain as personal treasures. Memories of isolated villages and quaint towns, spectacular mountain scenery and thundering waterfalls, a crisp apple and a sparkling glass of chardonnay – the Cascade Loop is a road into nature and a thrilling ride through the heart of Washington State. Whether your perfect day includes a leisurely drive along a scenic byway or wandering trails with family and friends, the Loop will appeal to all.
For More Information
Lake Chelan Boat Company:
Washington State Parks:
(888) 226-7688 Reservations
Pine Village KOA (Leavenworth):
Sun Mountain Lodge (Winthrop):