Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Along the Cascade Loop: North Cascades Scenic Byway

Come along for a virtual road trip over Washington's scenic North Cascades Highway.  It's a "windshield tour" across this designated Scenic Byway that traverses the North Cascades National Park Complex through stunning mountain terrain.

By December each year, this stretch of State Route 20 in far northern Washington is usually closed for the winter, subject to avalanches and rockslides when storms roll in off the Pacific and dump heavy rain and snow in the North Cascades.

Up until the 1970s, there was no road across these mountains beyond present-day Ross Lake. The North Cascades are still vast and mostly roadless. There's deep wilderness lurking beyond the peaks, where wolverines breed and grizzlies are known to stray.

We're heading east-southeast from Newhalem, where we leave the upper Skagit Valley and enter the much more narrow Skagit River Gorge.  

Yes, the windshield needed a good scrub. :)

If you see the river flowing free (as in the photo below) in this canyon, consider yourself very lucky. Over 100 years ago portions of this Wild and Scenic River  above Newhalem were tamed by a series of hydroelectric dams developed for the City of Seattle.  Nowadays the river only flows free above Newhalem when the dams upriver are being drawn down. Above this gorge, the river is a series of dammed lakes (Diablo, Ross).

Skagit River
When it's raining, waterfalls course down the canyon walls.

Skagit River Canyon above Newhalem
This portion of the highway traverses a steep slope as it meanders up and down above the narrow Skagit gorge, with a few viewpoints and tunnels.

Be very careful along this highway and don't speed! On this trip traffic was stopped by an SUV that flipped while going too fast around a blind curve. Fortunately the driver was okay.

I've slipped in a couple lake shots from a summer trip across the highway because I didn't get any decent shots on this trip.

The highway crosses Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake just past Colonial Creek Campground.

After passing above the southern edge of Ross Lake, there's a lot of this for a good 20+ miles:

The highway gradually climbs (you really notice the ascent when bicycling) toward two passes. Mountains are now visible above the surrounding hills that bracket the highway.

Rainy Pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway, is the first and lower pass at elevation 4,875 feet. We stopped at Rainy Pass for a break when I bicycled over the North Cascades on a summer weekend.  This solo bicyclist had guts going it alone on a damp October weekend.

Rainy Pass

When we clear Rainy Pass and approach Washington Pass 4 miles beyond the Cascade crest, rain gives way to bits of blue sky. It definitely rains more at Rainy Pass.

Washington Pass

This is as far east as we go before turning back, but the Washington Pass Overlook just off the highway is worth the stop for the stunning views of the granite Liberty Bell spires and the glacially scoured valley below.

Liberty Bell spires

From here, after a dramatic switchback of the highway, it's all downhill for about 20 miles to the upper Methow Valley. Next trip...

The highway below heading northeast from Washington Pass Overlook.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
Here's a map of most of the route pictured, but starting farther east than Newhalem, just above Ross Lake. From where we started at Newhalem to Washington Pass is about 45 miles. There are no gas stations or public amenities along the North Cascades Highway between Newhalem and Mazama in the Methow Valley.


JoJo said...

This is another trip i never made in the 12 years I lived up there and then ran out of time after I decided to move back east. kicking self.

jill said...

Glad you could at least take a virtual trip JoJo. Although of course no sounds and smells. Right now snowing at the passes.

Anonymous said...

I love this drive. I took this route last weekend on my way to Winthrop. We had partly cloudy skies until Washington Pass, which was socked in. Not a view. Sigh. Nice photos, Jill.


Lesley said...

Such an awesome area... and relatively in the backyard for those of us in Wenatchee!