A Scenic Drive Through the North Cascades

by Lauren Braden on September 21, 2012

in Trip Ideas

Diablo Lake

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. And a great road to do just that is the North Cascades Scenic Highway (State Route 20).

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. In summertime, it’s one of the prettiest drives in the country. 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 open in spring (usually May) and closes in winter, usually sometime in November.

North Cascades Scenic Highway by Austin M. Kramer

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.

Winthrop Washington

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.

MoreDay Hikes and Cheap Sleeps in the Methow Valley | Check conditions on the North Cascades Highway

View North Cascades Highway Scenic Drive in a larger map

So, what is your favorite scenic drive in the Northwest?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Marta September 21, 2012 at 5:54 pm

There are a couple of great drives but I have to say my favorite is the one mentioned in this post. If you want to stretch you legs – try the Blue Lake trail just before Washington Pass. Here’s some pictures: http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/marta/archives/010018.html. It isn’t too long and a great place to see sub-alpine larches.


Sabrina Smith September 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm

My families favorite drive is the Cascade Loop! We live in such a beautiful state who could actually pick one drive? I would love to take my Mom on this drive especially since it’s fall! My family and I were just saying we need to go for a drive for Fall.


Jennifer Johnson September 23, 2012 at 1:02 am

Oh my, it’s so hard to choose! I love the North Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula, and Whidbey Island, but I also really like going over Chinook Pass; the colors there can’t be beat, and looking back at Mt. Rainier is stunning. You can stop at Federation Forest to see the old growth and the interpretive center, The Dalles Campground for a little hike, and Tipsoo Lake. There is lots of hiking around Chinook Pass. Then going back down toward Naches is completely different scenery. Back up through Yakima and around by Ellensburg – or go in reverse from Seattle up I-90. All kinds of scenery in one loop.


Cathy September 23, 2012 at 10:08 am

I thought I left a comment but I don’t see it. So, I’ll submit it again. I love the drives around Lopez Island and, also, the one around San Juan Island and camping at San Juan Island County Park. The North Cascades Highway is right up there!


Mary Rieck September 23, 2012 at 11:07 am

One of my favorite drive in the fall is the driving on highway # 2 to Leavenworth especially when the trees are turning color and there is fall in the air. Many places to stop and hike or have a picnic in the fall color along side the stream/river.


Marla September 23, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Our favorite drive is the length of Whidbey Island. We like to stop and visit the old forts, then get out and walk across Deception Pass Bridge. We often go to the Anacortes for the art festival. We’d love to expand our repertoire of routes!


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