I have endless love for autumn in the Pacific Northwest: subtle fall color, lingering blue skies, and abundant harvest bounty at the local markets. It’s enough to make the drizzly winters all worthwhile.
But you have to make the most of autumn because before you know it, there will be drizzle and grey skies for days.
That’s why you should hit the road. Take an autumn road trip.
There’s something magnetic about the varied scenery here that draws us out onto the open road. If you’ve got a cooler packed with snacks, a road map and a tank full of gas, you’re ready to take a drive. The scenery steals the show, but leave time to get out and stretch your legs at some recommended stops along the way.
The North Cascades Scenic Highway
From the tulip fields of Skagit County to the wild west town of Winthrop, Highway 20 cuts across the rugged North Cascades and delivers an unrivaled variety of scenic beauty. Fall color heightens the scenery all the more – look for red maple along the lower Skagit River and spot golden larches near Rainy Pass. This highway closes in winter, usually sometime in November.
To begin this scenic drive, head east from I-5 through the town of Sedro-Woolley. You will start to see lush foothills of the North Cascades.
Next is the small town of Concrete, named for its economic history as a cement factory town. The cement factory is closed, but Concrete’s cute downtown remains. Leonardo DiCaprio fans have flocked here for nearly 20 years; Concrete was the setting and filming location for a movie he starred in called This Boys Life, based on a memoir of the same name.
Got a kayak atop your car? Just to the north of Concrete is Lake Shannon providing pleasant kayak paddling with stunning views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. If you love to paddle, this spot is fabulous.
If it’s a picnic spot you’re looking for, wait for Howard Miller Steelhead Park just up the road in Rockport where you can enjoy your lunch along the Skagit River. After lunch, cool off with a stop at Cascadian Farm’s roadside stand for a cone of ice cream made from their organic berries (Open daily, May – October). It’s the best.
From here, the landscape becomes more forested as you begin your ascent into the North Cascades. Along the Skagit River, fishermen cast for steelhead, the same salmon that draws hundreds of Bald Eagles to this corridor each winter. Navigate the sharp twists and hairpin turns as you increase in elevation, keeping your eye on the road as you steal glances at the stunning Cascade peaks and the aquamarine Diablo Lake.
Highway 20 bisects North Cascades National Park, so the scenery here is wild and pristine. Get up close to this wildness with a short hike along the Thunder Creek Trail near Diablo Lake. Back on the highway, continue east and watch for the turnout viewpoint at Washington Pass (elevation 5,477 feet), not to be missed for the views on a clear day.
As Highway 20 descends into the Methow Valley, the granite, glaciered peaks of the North Cascades give way to open Ponderosa Pine forest. Your scenic drive ends in the Western-themed town of Winthrop, just in time for dinner on the Chewuch River at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery.
For overnight accommodations in the Methow Valley, check out our Methow Valley TripFinder.
View North Cascades Highway Scenic Drive in a larger map