The Cascade Loop

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. 

The 440-mile route known as the Cascade Loop runs through the Cascade Mountain Range.
US-20 spans the length of the North Cascades National Park, one of the few National Parks without an entry fee.  There are no gas stations or cell service (that I experienced) for about a 75 mile stretch between Marblemount in the west and Mazama in the east- this road runs through breath-taking wilderness! 
US-20, aka North Cascades Highway, runs parallel to the Skagit River for some sections through the park.

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 water of Diablo Lake was so blue it looked fake!  Here’s the science behind the color:  “In summer, the distinctive turquoise color of the lake is the result of suspended fine rock particles refracting sunlight.  These rock particles, called glacier flour, enter the lake when rock from the surrounding mountains is eroded by ice and flows into the water through glacial streams.  The color is most vibrant on sunny days in July, August, and September when seasonal glacial melt occurs.”  –NPS website

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!  

The Methow River runs right through downtown Winthrop, WA and provides a great base for summer water activities like tubing 🙂
Homestream Park is two acres of riverfront property “dedicated to the fish and rivers of the Methow Valley, and to the Native people, past and present, who have called this place home for thousands of years.”  The sign near the “9 Boulders” exhibit in this pic reads “Symbolic of the 9 dams that salmon encounter each way on their journey between the Methow River and the Pacific Ocean.”

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!

Another stranger turned friend on this journey.  John showed me all the great sites between Twisp and Stevens Pass on the Cascades Loop.  We rode over Pateros Bridge, out to Wells Dam, downtown Chelan, through Knapp’s Hill Tunnel for a stunning view of the Columbia River, Earthquake Point, and Leavenworth.
We stopped for a break along Lakeshore Drive in Pateros.  You can see the Pateros bridge beyond the pier and boat dock in the pic.
The hills above the Columbia River in this pic may look dead, but this whole region is chock full of apple, cherry, and pear orchards.  The hot summer sun, and abundant irrigation, make perfect produce-growing conditions.
John’s house sits along a creek fed by the Entiat River.  A tranquil setting this time of the year.
The Entiat High School kids are hardy!  Zoom in on the pic and you can see where each graduating high school class has painted their class year onto the rock.  Entiat Numeral Mountain, a 100-year old tradition, entails students descending down the rock face to paint their year, without disturbing the mark of prior years -well, not smearing old years is a new tradition 😉 –NCW Life News
US-2 makes up the southern portion of the Cascades Loop, and runs right through Leavenworth, WA.  Washington’s Bavarian Village, the town boasts outdoor dining with lots of German-inspired food and pastries, beer and cider gardens, souvenirs and local artwork.  During the winter, the town turns into a village of Christmas lights, complete with sleigh rides through the snowy wonderland.  It’s also purported to be a photographer’s mecca during fall foliage.
The hills were full of blooming wildflowers.
Stevens Pass is at an elevation of 4061 feet.  As you can see in the pic, construction crews were taking advantage of the small weather window of opportunity to get the roads in shape before winter sets in. Yep, that’s grooved road, that a few miles later, is covered in gravel :-/ If you want nice roads, you have to put up with the road construction!

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!

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