Whether the road is a highway or a dirt track, driving tours are one of the most popular ways to experience our incredible National Forests. Thanks to support from Ford’s Bronco Wild Fund, the NFF is helping ensure our National Forests stay beautiful and healthy for all users of our public lands. Through this blog series, we’re highlighting just a few of the incredible routes Bronco owners and all drivers can take to connect with their National Forests. Remember to know before you go by checking with local managing agencies for updates and restrictions. When going off-highway, keep to designated OHV routes to limit impacts on water resources and wildlife habitat. And consider planting trees with the NFF to help offset the carbon footprint of your trip: planting two trees can mitigate 1 ton of CO2 over the trees’ lifetime!
About the Route
Route Distance: 440 miles
Suggested Duration: 3-4 days--or longer!
Nearest Cities: Seattle, Washington; Bellingham, Washington
Starting Point: Everett, Washington
Ending Point: Everett, Washington
This scenic byway is a drive of a lifetime through some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Washington: picturesque coastal islands, cool temperate rainforest, the glaciated peaks of the North Cascades, fruit-flowering valleys along Columbia River, and the hay fields of the state’s lush farm lands. From Seattle’s north country and Stevens Pass to Leavenworth and the Skagit Valley, the route passes through both the Okanogan-Wenatchee and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. All roads are paved and maintained except the North Cascades Highway (which is also closed in winter).
There are myriad options for stopping to explore on foot, bikes, boats, and 4x4 roads on this expansive loop; the below are a few suggestions, but drivers should leave plenty of time for side trips.
Stevens Pass, Leavenworth, Wenatchee Valley
Although drivers can get on the Cascade Loop anywhere along its circular length, for our purposes, the road begins in Everett and heads east on the loop through the Snohomish and Skykomish River Valleys. When passing through the town of Gold Bar, stop at Wallace Falls State Park to watch the 265-ft waterfall spilling into the center of the park. As Highway 2 climbs and threads over Stevens Pass, stop at Deception Falls and Alpine Falls on the west side of the pass. Stevens Pass boasts a ski resort and great vistas for those who want a lift into the alpine.
Heading eastward through the Wenatchee Valley, stop in Leavenworth to get a taste of a (quite touristy, be warned) Bavarian village. Continuing on through the Wenatchee, stop in Cashmere for a delectable fruit treat—this valley is referred to as “The Apple Capital of the World”—or visit the Cashmere Museum with its pioneer village for a glimpse into the town’s settler history. Lake Wenatchee Lake State Park makes for a good stopover for picnics, camping, hiking, and boating.
Columbia River Valley and Lake Chelan
This section of the Cascade Loop is a stretch of superlatives: it parallels a long portion of the mighty Columbia River, the largest river system in the Northwest. At the town of Chelan, take a short detour to Lake Chelan, one of the deepest lakes in the US, which is dotted with both drive-in and float-in campgrounds. Floatplanes or ferries can be taken to Stehekin, a remote town at the head of the lake, which extends into the North Cascades. This lake is fed by the same glaciers that carved the valley centuries ago.
This valley is home to the small frontier-reminiscent towns of Twisp and Winthrop, the latter of which is famous for receiving over 300 days of sunshine per year. Both are spectacular jumping-off points for hiking, mountaineering, boating, biking, backpacking. Hikers can try the Twisp Pass Trail, a 4.8 out-and-back trail that winds into the subalpine Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness and offers soaring mountain views and wildflower meadows. River enthusiasts can float the whitewater stretches of the Methow River. Mountain bikers can ride any number of the myriad trails in the Methow Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
North Cascades Highway & Hart’s Pass OHV Road
This section of Highway 20 between Mazama and Newhalem is closed in winter due to elevation and the amount of snowfall it annually receives. Just past Mazama, check out a junction with Forest Service Road 5400. This 4x4 out-and-back road, that was built to access gold and silver mines in the 1800s, leads to Hart’s Pass—the highest point in Washington. The road climbs above treeline at 6000 feet and overlooks magnificent glaciated peaks and canyons in the heart of the North Cascades.
Driving down out of the North Cascades, Hwy 20 goes by Sedro-Woolley and Burlington before crossing Swinomish Channel and leaving the mainland, taking a bridge to Fidalgo Island. Traverse the length of Fidalgo and then catch a ferry to venture over to the San Juan Islands or take Deception Pass Bridge over to Whidbey Island, the longest island in the continental U.S., that’s iconic for its beautiful pastoral countryside, coastal mountains and state parks. Camp in Deception Pass State Park, known for sea coves, rugged cliffs, tidepools and one of the state’s largest remaining old-growth stands of forest. At the south-eastern tip of the island, catch another ferry to Mukilteo and then on to Everett to complete the Cascades Loop.
Cover photo by Lance Oditt.
Did this blog get your adrenaline going for some National Forest adventure experiences? We hope so! Your support is crucial to ensuring the National Forest Foundation can complete dozens of projects each year that keep the adventure coming. Please click here to make a much-needed unrestricted gift today. And, happy (safe) adventuring!