Billed as Washington’s Ultimate Road Trip, this 440-mile Cascade Loop takes you from “the ocean in western Washington, over the mountains, across the desert of eastern Washington, and through the lush valleys in between.” There was so much to see and do on this route that I took four full days to do it!
I covered the Whidbey Island section of the loop in my previous post (click HERE to read it), so I’ll pick up at Burlington, where I spent the night so I could get an early start on my clockwise journey through the North Cascades.
On a park ranger’s recommendation at a stop at the Park and Forest Information Center in Sedro-Woolley, I stopped by a well-known bakery in Concrete, but they weren’t open on the day I visited. Though I didn’t get a tasty pastry, I was fascinated with how a town embraced their connection to the three artificial lakes in the North Cascades by changing its name to “Concrete” in 1909 after discovering that the limestone and clay in the mountains were more profitable than timber in the age of dam building. –Town of Concrete
After a stop for park history and wilderness education, a National Parks passport stamp, and wifi access at the North Cascades Visitors Center, I turned left off US-20 at a sign indicating the entrance to Diablo Dam. The twisty road was obviously only meant for one vehicle at a time, so I cautiously proceeded until I found myself driving across the 389 foot concrete monstrosity built in 1930 (the tallest in the world at the time). Though it still provides a huge chunk of Seattle’s power needs, it felt old and like I shouldn’t be driving on it, so when I was met by a flagman on the far side after crossing, I wondered if I had missed a sign that said the dam was no longer open to vehicular traffic. He pointed to a large truck and said that they were about to shut down the dam for maintenance, and that if I didn’t turn around and go back right now, I’d be stuck on this side for at least 2 hours. Disappointed that I wouldn’t get to go to the education center on this side to learn more about the dam, and to snap a few pics of this incredible view, I made a tight U-turn and headed back up the narrow dam and twisty, narrow road. Oh look, now there’s a flagman waving away drivers from coming down the road No worries, the Diablo Lake lookout was just up the road!
The scenery and weather (except for Washington Pass) had been glorious the whole ride, but once again, road construction dampened the ride enjoyment a bit. Just about the whole road was undergoing a process called “chip seal.” Cheaper than pavement overlays, this process helps fill in cracks and seal the road surface to help minimize aging. It involves spraying an asphalt/water mixture onto the road, applying a layer of crushed gravel (chips), rolling the gravel to push it into the asphalt/water mixture, letting it cure for several days, then brushing it with sweepers for several rounds to brush off excess gravel. Different sections of the road were in various stages of the process. Loose gravel for 70+ miles means several sections of one-lane traffic with pilot trucks (ie, backed up traffic), asphalt covered gravel kicking up and hitting you and your bike, and no leaning into curves that are begging to be leaned into. Overall, it was still a great ride though- I mean, look at that scenery! The view from Washington Pass, at an elevation of 5477 feet, was amazing, but I didn’t stop to get a photo because the temp dipped about 20 degrees and it started raining. I snapped a pic with my brain and quickly made my way down the mountain 🙂
After dropping out of the mountains, I entered the Methow Valley and the Wild West of Winthrop. In the summer, this town looks like something out of an old Spaghetti Western movie that I used to watch with my dad when I was a kid, but in the winter, it boasts the country’s largest network of cross-country ski trails. I lucked out and got upgraded into a swanky cabin at the Chewuch Inn (which included a delicious breakfast!), that was within walking distance of downtown Winthrop as well as Homestream Park. Winthrop also lays claim to the birthplace of Smokejumping, but I wasn’t able to fit in a visit to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base while I was there. Guess that means a return visit some day!
During the week it took me to get my bike situation sorted out in Missoula, MT, I spent a fair amount of time hanging out at Grizzly Harley-Davidson, so I met quite a few folks while I was there. With the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally just finishing up, there were lots of folks riding through on their way back home. I sat with John and Jameson for lunch at the cafe at the dealership on the day they were making their way home from the rally, where we talked about their Sturgis experience and my cross-country trip. John lives on the Cascade Loop, so he gave me his contact info in case I ended up doing the ride once I was back up and running. I hoped he was sincere with the offer as I hit the send button on my homestay request about a week and half later. He was! Not only did he house and feed me, he played tour guide for his area of the loop 🙂 Such a gracious host and genuinely awesome guy – I’m once again humbled by the caliber of people I meet on this journey. Another friend made and, hopefully, another rider I’ll get the opportunity to host in North Carolina some day!
John and I said our good-byes at Stevens Pass, then he headed east towards home and I made the westward descent towards Everett. Even with road construction, this 440-mile route was well-worth the time and effort. The diversity of scenery, the culture and history of the area, and of course, the people, made this scenic byway one for the books!