Our state’s varied landscape is a surprise to some: the lush green of Washington’s west side and the arid brown of its east side, with the dense forests and startling peaks of the Cascades in between. One scenic drive captures it all, beginning with a tour through the bountiful farmland of Skagit Valley and then up and over the icy-clear contrasts of the North Cascades. It’s a testament to the unique beauty of our region that you can see this all in one, albeit long, road trip, with a few small-town stops along the way.
Begin by heading north on Interstate 5 toward the Canadian border. While the real scenic portion of this trip begins when you leave I-5 at exit 230, there are pop-up visual treats along the way: In Everett, as you’re crossing the Snohomish River, gaze out at Spencer Island Park and the Snohomish River delta. Farther north, around exit 218, the highway dips a little, and the rolling emerald farms and vast fields of the Skagit Valley open out in front of you.
You’ll leave the last “big” town when you travel through Mount Vernon, and at exit 232 begin making your way east to Sedro-Woolley on State Route 20, also known as the North Cascade Highway. This is one of the most breathtakingly scenic portions of the Cascades, with dramatic views of pristine lakes and jagged peaks that are covered with snow for much of the year. (The highway closes because of snowfall around November 1, not to reopen until about May 1.)
This is not the time to rush your drive; meander and take advantage of scenic pullouts as you go—there are plenty of Instagram-worthy vistas you’ll want to capture. At Newhalem (a tiny company town owned by Seattle City Light, which manages the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project), turn right on Main Street, park at the Skagit Information Center, and walk to and across the suspension bridge to the easy and accessible Trail of the Cedars, a 1-mile loop of grand forest and the powerful Skagit River. (Pop into the general store right by the visitor center, well-stocked with convenience store staples and then some, including locally made Skagit fudge—it’s the last such stop for about an hour.)
Once you’ve returned to SR 20, other worthy pullouts include a couple of opportunities along Gorge Lake and, farther on, Diablo Lake Vista Point—a must for a classically beautiful view of the lake, forest and mountains. You’re on the other side when you cross Washington Pass, elevation 5,477 feet. Here, pause at the Washington Pass Observation Site, turn left at NF-500, a looped overlook that puts you in the heart of the mountains, and gaze in awe at the jagged peaks of Liberty Bell Mountain.
Delectable cinnamon rolls from Cashmere’s Anjou Bakery. Photograph by Anjou Bakery.
Some 30 miles farther, you’ll hit the kitschy yet cool, Old West–themed town of Winthrop—complete with wooden walkways. It’s a good place to stay overnight; lay your head down right downtown at Hotel Rio Vista, which offers rooms that have a lovely panorama of the Methow and Chewuch rivers. Eat and sip at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery Pub; or at Methow Valley Ciderhouse, where, in addition to the delectable ciders made with fruit from the cidery’s nearby orchard, you can get doughnuts made with emmer flour and sweetened with ciderhouse juice. A quick walk through town, and it’s time to get back on the road for the next leg of the scenic journey.
From Winthrop, wend your way south on SR 20, entering the Methow Valley’s sprawling farmland. The landscape narrows to orchards and vineyards as you continue onto State Route 153 to the popular vacation destination of Chelan and its namesake lake, so popular with summer visitors. It’s quieter this time of year, but all those apple trees and grape vines are now wearing their fall colors in autumnal contrast to the brown hills and gorgeously blue-hued lake.
It’s worth stopping here to visit a winery or two (Lake Chelan has more than 30 wineries; Tsillan Cellars and Nefarious Cellars are conveniently near your route). Then, continue on U.S. Highway 97 toward Wenatchee.
Enjoy views of the mighty Columbia—the highway follows alongside the river—until you reach Wenatchee, where you can rest and stretch your legs at Wenatchee Confluence State Park and gaze at the spot where the Wenatchee River flows into the Columbia. If it’s time for a meal, head to the acclaimed Pybus Public Market, a former warehouse that’s now home to restaurants and artisan food vendors.
Back on the road, you’ll leave Highway 97 to head west on Highway 2. In the tiny town of Cashmere, Anjou Bakery rolls out buttery pastries and pies in a former fruit warehouse.
Winthrop’s shops offer a taste of the Old West
Continue onward to Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, where there is an abundance of restaurants, shops and wine-tasting rooms. Once you pass through town, you’ll once again be heading into the mountains, where the golds, reds and remaining greens of stunning Icicle Canyon will envelop you as you continue westward on Hwy. 2 and over Stevens Pass.
Craving one last stop before you head home? The tiny mountain town of Skykomish is a former railroad settlement nestled along the Skykomish River. Follow the online walking tour to check out the 1904 Skykomish Hotel, the Olympia Tavern (built in 1905, now called The Whistling Post) and Maloney’s General Store (1893), now home to the Skykomish Historical Society.
Icicle Creek Road near Bavarian-themed Leavenworth.
A good place to access the Cascade Loop is at exit 232 from I-5. It’s about a one-and-a quarter-hour drive north from Seattle.
Scenic Drive Staff Favorites
“I travel to Whistler a lot. The entire drive on the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler is gorgeous, but I am awed by the stretch that goes along Howe Sound. It’s just breathtaking.” Virginia Smyth executive editor
Don’t Miss The 30-plus wineries in the Lake Chelan area open their doors in celebration of the fall harvest season for two weekends, October 6–7 and 13–14 (lakechelanwinevalley.com). The festivities include grape stomping and winemaking demonstrations, music, games and, of course, wine tasting.
Where to eat
Methow Valley Ciderhouse, Winthrop, 28 State Route 20; 509.341.4354
Old Schoolhouse Brewery Pub, Winthrop, 155 Riverside Ave.; 509.996.3183
Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, Winthrop, 207 Riverside Ave.; 509.996.3834
Anjou Baker, Cashmere, 3898 Old Monitor Road; 509.782.4360
Pybus Public Market, Wenatchee, 3 N Worthen St.; 509.888.3900
What to do
Skagit Information Center, Rockport, Main Street and State Route 20; 206.233.2709
Tsillan Cellars, Chelan, 3875 Highway 97A; 509.682.9463
Nefarious Cellars, Chelan, 495 S Lakeshore Road; 509.682.9595
Cashmere Museum and Pioneer Village (season closes November 4), Cashmere, 600 Cotlets Way; 509.782.3230
Wenatchee Confluence State Park, Wenatchee, 333 Olds Station Road; 509.664.6373
Skykomish Walking Tour,
Web extra: Read about this incredible detour to take before embarking on the Cascade Loop
Sip and snack in this inviting town
The tiny town of Lynden, near the Canadian border, is just 35 miles beyond the Interstate 5 turnoff toward the North Cascades. If time allows, take this detour, which will reward you with a peek into the state’s history.
As you reach Lynden, turn right on Front Street, which soon turns into a tree-lined boulevard of fall color as you enter downtown. A couple of waves of Dutch immigrants, one arriving in the 1880s and one after WWII, strongly shaped this town, as reflected by the giant, contemporary windmill that greets you on Front Street. The oldest buildings are concrete and have been given new purpose as eateries and shops. The historic Waples Building, a former department store, is now a one-stop shop for lodging (the Inn at Lynden), reading (Village Books and Paper Dreams), eating (Avenue Bread) and drinking (Overflow Taps, where you can sample a variety of beers).
Nearby, the Lynden Dutch Bakery serves oliebollen (Dutch doughnuts), strudel and other Old World baked goods, along with breakfast and lunch menu staples (eggs, sandwiches, soups); artists at the Jansen Art Center studios produce pottery, paintings, photography and more.
Lynden Dutch Bakery, 421 Front St.; 360.354.3911; lyndendutchbakery.com
Jansen Art Center, 321 Front St.; 360.354.3600; jansenartcenter.org
Overflow Taps, 105 Fifth St.; 360.778.2033; overflowtaps.com
Waples Building, 444 Front St.