Explore the Cascade Loop National Scenic Byway
By Roni Freund | Photos courtesy of The Cascade Loop National Scenic Byway
Kick off your Cascade Loop experience in Seattle NorthCountry, which boasts 2,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, farmlands, and coastlines in Snohomish County. This part of the Loop starts at sea-level in coastal communities like Mukilteo and Everett, and travels through river valleys and the quaint towns of Snohomish and Monroe. The temperate climate year-round makes it an ideal destination for outdoor adventures and family memories in every season.
The Cascade Loop National Scenic Byway is a 440-mile love letter to Washington, praising her natural beauty and charisma. The route contains three officially designated scenic byways - the Stevens Pass Greenway, North Cascades Highway and the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way.
Heading east US 2 follows the Skykomish River winding through the western slopes of the Cascade mountains through historic towns of Sultan and Skykomish, where sport fishing is abundant. The Stevens Pass Greenway, a state recognized scenic byway in its own right, serves up wild, inspirational views and prodigious hikes. Ascend 4,061-foot Stevens Pass and find skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and a mountain bike park and scenic chairlift ride in the summer. In spring the snow melt creates amazing waterfalls you can see right alongside the highway.
View from Bridal Veil Falls, located off Hwy 2.
As you descend Stevens Pass you will soon reach the intersection of US 2 and SR 207, known locally as Coles Corner. Continue along Highway 2 and wind through the magnificent Tumwater Canyon on your way to Leavenworth. From late September through mid-October the canyon is awash with autumnal colors. Travelers and photographers from around the world trek to this part of the Loop to capture photos of the changing colors. Leavenworth is well known for its Bavarian theme, and multitude of festivals throughout the year. The pedestrian-friendly downtown core offers great shopping and outdoor dining opportunities.
Rafting the Wenatchee River.
US 2 follows the Wenatchee River as it winds through picturesque orchards and the community of Cashmere (home to world-famous Aplets and Cotlets®) on its way to the Wenatchee Valley. Wenatchee is located at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers at 778’ elevation, where hot summer sun and abundant irrigation create ideal produce-growing conditions. While the area has traditionally been known for the pears, and cherries and apples it grows, it also yields award winning wine grapes. Hand crafted beers and a growing number of hard cider and distilled spirit makers have also found their way to the three regions of the Cascade Loop that travel through Chelan County.
View of Saddle Rock near Wenatchee.
Head up the Columbia River’s west side (US 97A) to where it meets the Entiat River and the small town of Entiat. The confluence of these rivers invites boaters and campers to enjoy the amazing weather all summer long. The highway continues over Knapp’s Hill, to descend into the glacier-carved valley of Lake Chelan. Surrounded by rolling orchards and vineyards, this is one of the most stunning lakes in the world, drawing generations of families to its shores year after year. Water sports, beachside fun, hiking and trails, numerous vineyards and wine-tasting rooms combine to make the area an idyllic year-round getaway. Seven miles up the lake you’ll find the inviting town of Manson with quaint tasting rooms and restaurants, and several small lakes, as well as dog-friendly parks.
Overlooking Lake Chelan in springtime.
North from Lake Chelan, the Cascade Loop follows the Columbia to the mouth of the Methow River at Pateros and then heads north through Twisp, with its thriving art culture, and the Old West town of Winthrop. Recreation abounds year-round, thanks in no small part to North America’s largest groomed cross-country trail system, Methow Trails! In summer even more miles are available for you to explore on foot, mountain bike or horseback. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife! The Methow Valley is a regular wildlife corridor. Watch man-made posts for osprey nests during the summer, and the trees along the river for bald eagles year-round, but especially during winter migration. Mule and whitetail deer are also abundant throughout the area, so be especially cautious when driving at dawn and dusk.
Mountain biking at Sun Mountain near Winthrop.
As the road climbs toward Washington Pass, at the peak of the North Cascade Highway, views of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires will fill your windshield! Plan this leg of your trip before snow falls, as the highway closes annually, usually sometime in November, reopening in the spring. The North Cascades Scenic Highway is another of the designated byways located on the Cascade Loop. It is surrounded by jagged peaks and valleys, waterfalls and more than 300 glaciers within the North Cascades National Park. Several peaks rise well above 9,000 feet in elevation! Not surprisingly, hiking, climbing, and camping are hugely popular here. (A nice perk about North Cascades National Park is that there is no entry fee, a rarity among national parks.) As you travel up and over (elevation 5477’), you will reach the brilliant, turquoise-colored Ross and Diablo Lakes. Views from these glacier-fed lakes reach north to Canada and south into the most-glaciated valley in North America outside of Alaska. Read the interpretive panels at the overlook to learn what causes the unique color of these lakes.
US 20 leaves the towering peaks of North Cascades National Park taking you west again, along the Skagit River and passes through the tiny towns of Newhalem, Rockport, Marblemount and Concrete as you leave the national forest and enter the Skagit Valley. Sedro-Woolley is known for its logging history, and as the “Gateway to the North Cascades.” Acres of farmland around Burlington grow a variety of berries and other crops, and La Conner and Mount Vernon host month-long events each spring – Daffodil Festival and Tulip Festival respectively. Skagit Valley fields are dotted with rustic farmhouses and farmstands with spectacular views of 10,781-foot Mount Baker and the North Cascades. The Skagit Valley is home to the largest commercial flower bulb industry outside of the Netherlands. Visit during the winter and experience flocks of more than 80,000 snow geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans who spend their winters in the valley! A visit to Anacortes offers a glimpse of the maritime history of Fidalgo Island and the Salish Sea.
Skagit Valley tulip fields in springtime.
The Cascade Loop leaves the mainland when US 20 crosses the Swinomish Channel to Fidalgo Island, and then heads south across the iconic Deception Pass Bridge to our third independent designated byway – the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way! Locals dub the island, “The Shortest Distance to Far Away®” because of its mellow pace, natural beauty, and easy proximity to Seattle. Visitors enjoy a plethora of beaches and parks where you can beachcomb, picnic, enjoy sunrises and sunsets, and even surf! The laid-back communities definitely embrace the concept of “island time” and the art of sustainability.