Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock
The Best Road Trip In Washington
This has been an undeniably difficult year for anyone in the travel industry. International travel from the United States is all but nonexistent. Plans have been canceled. Jobs lost. And for a long time, it felt as if there was no light at the end of the tunnel. But by the time Quin finished his most recent van build in early September, some of the local adventures that had been lingering on my bucket list for far too long became more feasible. And there was one in particular that I had my eyes on!
The Cascade Loop is a 440-mile scenic byway that winds its way through some of Washington’s most stunning regions. A good old fashioned road trip seemed to be precisely what my wayward soul was crying out for. The Cascade Loop technically covers nine different regions in Washington, but given our propensity toward outdoor adventures, I broke the classic road trip down into what I consider to be the best seven. While I’d never completed the entire Loop before, I’ve spent time in each region the loop covers, so I had a good idea of where I wanted to prioritize my time. With a loose itinerary set, the only thing left to do was hit the road!
The Perfect Cascade Pass Itinerary
1. Stevens Pass Green Way
As late afternoon approached, Quin and I headed north out of Seattle toward Highway 2 and its not-too-distant mountain peaks. The road follows the Skykomish River as it winds its way through the western slopes of the Cascade mountains. Between stretches of dense evergreen forests, you’ll find a handful of tiny historic mountain towns, including Gold Bar, Index, and Skykomish, to meet all your road trip snacking needs. We stopped at The Espresso Chalet to quench my coffee fix. It’s the areas longest running espresso stand with gourmet coffee & espresso drinks located at Mile Post 36 in Index.
The Stevens Pass Greenway, a National Scenic Byway in its own right, serves up plentiful helpings of jaw-dropping views and hiking opportunities. There was no way we were leaving the area without sampling a few! We tackled Minotaur Lake and Lake Serene on this trip. But I’ve named a few more of my favorites below. Hikes in this area are extremely popular, so I’d suggest exploring this section of The Cascade Loop during a weekday if possible.
After a long day on the trails, we drove to Sky Haus for a much needed hot tub. The owner of this quintessential Pacific Northwest A-frame owns two other neighboring homes, all with their own unique cozy charm. All of them can be reserved on Airbnb or through the Tye River Cabin Co. website.
HIKE: The area around Index is full of excellent hiking opportunities. Easy options include Heybrook Lookout and Barkley Lake. For more of a challenge, try hiking to Lake Serene or Melakwa Lake. Minotaur Lake is short but steep, making it a good compromise between the two!
Oh, and if rock climbing is your thing, then Index is your scene!
STAY: Rent one of the Tye River Cabin Co.’s quintessential PNW A-frame cabins.
2. Leavenworth/Cascade Foothills
After saying a final goodbye to our little cabin in the woods, it was time to head further east to the quirky Bavarian town of Leavenworth. Yes, you read that correctly. Turns out, there’s no need to travel to Europe; you can experience a little slice of Germany right here in the Pacific Northwest!
In the 1960’s Leavenworth was on the brink of extinction, so the town leaders gathered together and decided a drastic makeover was needed to revive the dying logging town. Inspired by the Alp-like mountains surrounding the town, the city went all-in on the Bavarian theme. The result is an immersive Bavarian experience complete with seasonal festivities and all the sauerkraut your heart desires. Quin and I embraced the occasion with a stroll down Front Street and then stopped in at one of the many traditional taverns for some dinner.
It wasn’t Leavenworth’s kitschy Bavarian charm or juicy brats that kept us in the area. We had our hearts set on re-visiting one of Washington’s most beautiful wilderness areas – The Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Specifically The Enchantments. Spending a night under the stars in the alpine paradise requires one of Washington’s most coveted permits. Unable to secure one, we decided to day-hike to Colchuck Lake. The first and most accessible Enchantment Lakes, Colchuck Lake, is arguably also one of the most beautiful.
HIKE: Any hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is bound to impress, but it’s pretty hard to beat Colchuck Lake. You won’t be alone at Colchuck, and again it’s best to avoid weekends, but it’s worth it to experience The Enchantments.
Interested in more information about Colchuck Lake? Check out My Favorite Hikes In Washington!
STAY: Post Hotel. I’m going to be completely honest here. . . I’ve never stayed at the Post Hotel. BUT if anyone wants to take me, I’m totally game! Seriously though, everyone – from the lady that cuts my hair, to old high school acquaintances, to former bosses – raves about this adults-only spa resort. That’s right, people I barely know are so excited about their experience at the Post Hotel that they feel duty-bound to tell me about it. So if you feel like a splurge on your Cascade Loop road trip, this might just be the spot!
What we did do is stay in the van.
3. Lake Chelan
Next, we were off to Lake Chelan. Easily the largest natural lake in Washington, Chelan is known for its fun in the sun. Water sports, beach parties, and a burgeoning vineyard scene combine to create a pretty ideal spot for warm-weather recreation just east of the Cascades. And while that may all sound like a fantastic time to many, this particular trip I had something a little more off the beaten path in mind – Stehekin.
Stehekin is a small village located at the far north end of Lake Chelan and only accessible by boat or float-plane. This remote destination, known as the gateway to the North Cascades, had occupied a fairly vivid spot in my imagination for years. Of course, the thing that makes Stehekin so appealing—its remoteness—was also the thing that prevented me from making the trip until now.
We booked round trip tickets on the passenger ferry run by Chelan-based Lady Express for about $68 each. The ferry leaves Chelan at 8:30 am and arrives in Stehekin about 2.5 hours later. Once we arrived, we checked into our private cabin at North Cascades Lodge. The Lodge isn’t fancy, but it has everything you could want! After dropping off our bags, we decided to take advantage of a break in the piss-poor weather that had been stalking us for days and spent the rest of the afternoon paddle boarding out on the lake. The next day we rented bikes from the sweetest man ever at Discovery Bikes. We rode up valley to Rainbow Falls and then stopped at the Stehekin Pastry Company to partake in some of their “world-famous” baked goods before catching the ferry back to Chelan at noon. World Famous might be a bit of hyperbole, but some really tasty goodies, none the less.
Having temporarily checked Stehekin off my bucket list, our departure felt more like an “until next time” than a “goodbye forever.” But only time will tell. If I make it back, I’d like to hoof it via the 26-plus-mile hike into Stehekin from the Cascade River Road trailhead near Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park. It takes most hikers from two to three days – but I can’t imagine a better ending to a long trek.
HIKE: Rainbow Loop Trail or Hunts Bluff
STAY: North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin
4. Methow Valley
I’m not sure I can speak impartially about the next region on our Cascade Loop adventure. The simple truth is the Methow Valley, particularly Mazama, is one of my favorite places on earth. It doesn’t have the most epic mountains, awe-inspiring alpine lakes, or big views. But there’s just something about it that keeps calling me back. Plus, all that other stuff. . . the EPIC stuff. . . that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away! Almost entirely surrounded by National Forest, State Game Range, and Wilderness areas, the upper Methow Valley beckons adventurers of all kinds.
But before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk about Winthrop. Remember my little history lesson about Leavenworth? You know, the town that transformed itself into a thriving Bavarian-themed tourist destination? Well, in the early 1970s, when State Highway 20 was nearing completion over the North Cascades, the fine people of Winthrop decided to steal a page out of Levenworth’s playbook – albeit with a slightly more WestWorld bent. They even hired the same architect and designer that Levenworth had used a decade earlier to implement their western-themed renovation
The end result is an exceedingly charming town that preserves the old west mystique that is still part of the Methow Valley experience. Some of my favorite shops along Winthrop’s quaint main street include the Trails End Book Store, Gathered, and of course, Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe. There are also two friendly, well stocked outdoor stores, and an excellent bike store to supply any of your outdoor recreational needs.
Fifteen miles further up the Cascade Loop, you’ll find the small town of Mazama, home to my all time favorite country store. The store basically is the town of Mazama. Even if you’re not staying in Mazama, make sure to stop by the Mazama Store for some freshly baked bread or one of their amazing pastries. You’re gonna want a snack to enjoy while you take in the views on the next leg of the Cascade Loop!
HIKE: Early spring brings a litany of wildflowers to the Pipestone Canyon Rim Trail. But not to worry if you decide to forgo a hike on this stretch of the Cascade Loop. The North Cascade National Park is just around the corner! Also, Goat Wall just up the road from the Mazama Store is a major climbing area. Stop by the Goatsbeard for climbing info.
STAY: There are so many unique places to stay in the Methow Valley, I couldn’t pick just one! For an off the grid, rustic experience, check out the Rendezvous Huts. For a more traditional Mountain Lodge complete with swimming pool and spa, the Sun Mountain Lodge is hard to beat. Or book one of renowned architect Tom Kundig’s Rolling Huts. If you want to stay right in Mazama I’d suggest the Mazama Country Inn, Ranch House, or Freestone Inn.
Pro tip: There is no gas between Mazama and Marblemount 85 miles away. It is a mountain road, so you will burn more fuel than average, so make sure you have an adequate tank. The Mazama Store sells gas (and diesel) at usually the lowest price in the valley (pumps run 24 hours).
5. North Cascades
I could write an entire blog about the North Cascades. Or more accurately, I should write one! But for now, let’s just say that this is my favorite area of Washington. Winding roads, historic fire lookouts, and layers of jagged peaks are only a few of the reasons this area has become world-renowned for its alpine pursuits. And while there are endless hiking opportunities, you don’t have to hit the trails to enjoy the scenery. Highway 20 (commonly referred to as The North Cascade Highway) slices through this formidable mountain range, bridging the dry arid eastern half of Washington with its evergreen western slope. And along the way, it offers up some of the best roadside views you’re likely to ever come across.
Shortly after departing Mazama, we made our way up Highway 20 to Washington Pass. A short wheelchair-friendly, quarter-mile excursion takes you to an overlook with expansive views of the surrounding mountains dominated by Liberty Bell. You’ll also have a fantastic view of the hairpin turn in Highway 20 that you just drove.
From Washington Pass, it’s a short drive to either the Heather Maple Pass Loop or Blue Lake trailheads. If you have the time, Heather Maple Pass Loop (about 7.5 miles) is the preeminent hiking trail (for good reason) in this part of the Cascades. Otherwise, take the shorter trail to Blue Lake. Both can be very busy on nice weekends. I once spotted a Car2Go (out of Seattle) in the Maple Pass loop parking area. That’s three hours of driving each way in a car that charges by the minute, but indicates the popularity of this hike!
About 45 minutes further west on Highway 20, don’t miss the Diablo Lake Overlook! I’ve driven past this overlook probably 50 times in my life, and it never gets old. Plus, it’s a great place to stop and use the bathroom.
HIKE: There are too many options to list just one! Check out my Favorite Hikes in Washington for a few options.
STAY: If you want to stay somewhere along Highway 20, your best option is probably to camp. If you’re not set up for camping, then the best access points to the North Cascades National Park are either Mazama or Marblemount. The best one for you will depend on which side of the mountains you want to prioritize. If the hikes you are interested in are on the eastern slope, than Mazama should be your go-to. If you are more interested in trails on the western slope and around Cascade River Road, then Marblemount is a better option.
Pro Tip: A backcountry permit is required to camp overnight in North Cascades National Park. Call the Wilderness Information Center located in Marblemount at (360) 854-7245 the day of or the day before your trip to obtain a permit.
Highway 20 closes every year once weather conditions in the North Cascades become too treacherous to safely maintain the road. Although it varies every year, the byway generally closes sometime in November and opens in May. So, if you come between these months, you will NOT BE ABLE TO COMPLETE THE CASCADE LOOP.
6. Skagit Valley
As you continue westward on Highway 20, the once looming Cascade Mountains will begin to fade in your rearview mirror as the landscape gives way to rolling hills and agricultural land. The main attraction in this next region of the Loop is The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Beginning in March and continuing through May, the valley is one giant tapestry of blooms. Unfortunately, this timeline doesn’t work very well with the seasonal closing of Highway 20. And for that reason, Quin and I skipped over the Skagit River Valley region on this trip and headed straight toward Deception Pass, and the final section of our Cascade Loop road trip – Whidbey Scenic Isle Way.
Pro Tip: If you happen to be in western Washington during spring, the Tullip Festival is stunning and well worth checking out. With tons of local art and cute shops, the little seaside village of La Connor is another worthy addition to any road trip through this area. And if you have a few extra days, you can hop on one of the ferries from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands.
7. Whidbey Island
Next to New York’s Long Island, Whidbey Island is the longest in the United States. Although it is 60 miles long, there are areas where it is barely a mile wide. There are a number of charming seaside towns, beautiful parks, and lovely water views with lots of exploring potential by car, foot, or bike.
Deception Pass is Washington’s most-visited state park, and it’s not hard to understand why. Rugged cliffs, secret coves, and emerald trees punctuate the shoreline far below. Stick around to enjoy the sunset, and you won’t regret it! If nothing else, make sure to park your car so you can walk out onto the bridge and snap some photos.
From Deception drive through Oak Harbor and in about 15 minutes you reach the adorable little town of Coupeville. Quin and I stopped at Captain Whidbey Inn for lunch, and if we hadn’t had the van I would have loved to stay there as well. Captain Whidbey harkens back to a simpler time and has an undeniably nostalgic atmosphere. Let’s just say it passes the vibe check. And it’s near my favorite hike on Whidbey – Ebey’s Bluff.
Another one of my favorite places on the island is Fort Casey State Park. Fort Casey is an immaculately preserved military installation that once protected the entrance to Puget Sound. Fly a kite or just lounge around the huge grassy area that used to be the parade grounds. Climb around the old concrete gun emplacements and catacombs.The views over the Sound and Olympic Mountains are amazing (kinda makes sense). While you’re there, check out the picturesque Admiralty Head Lighthouse. All along the West side of the island, beautiful sunset views can be had.
Continuing south on Highway 525, make sure to stop at Greenbank Farm and pick up one of their delicious homemade pies. My favorite is the marionberry! Grab a fantastic sandwich at the tiny Greenbank Deli. If it’s a Saturday, the Bayview farmers market is next on the agenda. Otherwise, travel straight to the “Village by the Sea,” the delightful town of Langley. Wander the charming streets full of historic buildings, lovely shops, and eateries.
And that’s it! From Langley, it’s a short drive to Clinton where the Washington State Ferries leave every half hour to the mainland and the town of Mukilteo. From there, your only 20 miles north of Seattle on 1-5.
HIKE: Ebey’s Landing is a relatively easy 5 miles loop trail. The trail follows a ridgeline (with amazing water and mountain views) above the water before cutting down to the beach to close the Loop.
STAY: Captain Whidbey Inn on the north end of Whidbey Island or The Inn at Langley on the south end. There are also a number of State Parks for camping.
When To Drive The Cascade Loop?
Plan on completing The Cascade Loop between June and October. While the dates vary with the weather every year, there’s a good possibility that Highway 20 and the North Cascades region will be closed between November and May. Additionally, due to their elevation, many of the best hiking trails in Washington are covered in snow during these months, making them inaccessible to all but the most experienced alpine climbers. The fall is a gorgeous time with all the colors in the mountains.
How Many Days Does It Take To Do The Cascade Loop?
The amount of time you should plan on spending on the Cascade Loop depends a lot on how many stops you want to take, how long you want to spend in each spot, and how many hikes you plan on doing. Quin and I completed the Loop in a week. We didn’t feel rushed, but it would have been nice to have time for a few more hikes along Stephens Pass Greenway or in the North Cascades. By the same token, if you’re more interested in wandering around the little mountain towns and taking in the roadside views, you could probably complete the entire 440 mile Loop in 3 days.
Please note that this blog post includes affiliate links from Backcountry.com. If you do choose to purchase something, I may earn a small commission – at no additional cost to you. Use JESS15 at checkout to get 15% off your entire first order! (*some exclusions apply). As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.
Thank you so much for your support! Happy Adventuring. – jess