North Cascades Scenic Byway
About this byway
As the North Cascades Scenic Byway loops between massive peaks and along lakes colored turquoise by glacial silt, you’ll see why these mountains are called “the American Alps.” Many argue that the North Cascades Highway is the most scenic in Washington State. Of all the passes that traverse the Cascades, this is the most mountainous, with high hairpin turns and jaw-dropping vistas. It’s so rugged, it closes during winter months. And it’s so stunning that travelers line up before sunrise on the day it reopens in the spring in order to be among the first across.
Here you’ll find 1920s-era company towns, organic farms selling their produce and, at journey’s end, the recreational mecca of Washington—the Methow Valley. Load up your mountain bike, grab your hiking boots, bring your appetite and enjoy.
From Seattle, head north on I-5 for 60 miles and take Exit 230 onto SR-20 to get to Sedro-Woolley. Follow SR-20 east to the byway’s end at Twisp.
Sedro-Woolley to Concrete
The byway begins in Sedro-Woolley. You’ll see this town’s logging heritage in the chain-saw sculptures that decorate the historic downtown. Top off your fuel tank and head east toward Concrete, a town named for what it once produced. A row of hulking cement silos are still the community’s dominant feature.
A closer look will reveal quaint churches, antique stores and a town immortalized by the memoir (and later movie, which was shot here) “This Boy’s Life,” written by regional native son Tobias Wolff.
Winter fishing for steelhead and salmon and eagle-watching float trips are popular activities here, especially during the Skagit Eagle Festival in January. See www.concrete-wa.com.
Eagles, elk and organic berries
Continuing east on SR-20 from Concrete, you’ll find yourself in prime territory for watching bald eagles soaring above. This area has the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
For more wildlife, visit Rockport State Park, a camping park along the lower Skagit River. Elk sightings are commonplace as large herds reside in these woods and meadows. During fall, spawning salmon pack the river.
About five miles up the road, between Rockport and Marblemount, look for a farm stand. The original owners of this small stand and surrounding gardens widely considered to be industry leaders in the organic food movement. Be sure to pull over for a fresh raspberry milkshake or a jar of strawberry jam.
North Cascades National Park
Farther up the road is Newhalem, a community built by Seattle City Light to house dam workers. An old-fashioned general store and 1920s homes will take you back in time. Nearby is the North Cascades Visitor Center, which offers travelers more information about North Cascades National Park.
Pressed for time but looking for a hike? Try the Sterling Munro Trail, a 300-foot boardwalk right outside the visitor center that leads to a view of the Picket Range, the park’s signature mountains.
There are miles of outstanding trails here and further up the road, as SR-20 weaves among Gorge, Diablo and Ross lakes. These reservoirs and their dams are all accessible. If your timing is right, these lakes may be pale green, from silt washing down from the peaks above.
This is a protected area for elk, mule deer, gray wolf, mountain goat and moose, and sightings of wolverines, hawks, falcons and eagles are common. (See also: Cascade Loop Scenic Byway.)
Rainy Pass (4,875 feet) and, four miles east, Washington Pass (5,477 feet) bring travelers face-to-face with terrific views of Liberty Bell Mountain as well as a panoramic view of the Methow Valley far below. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway near Rainy Pass.
An unnerving but fun footnote: both of these passes were once at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean!
Descending into the Methow Valley
A popular hiking, biking and cross-country skiing destination, the Methow Valley includes the communities of Mazama and Winthrop. The 125-mile Methow Community Trail system connects these towns to the entire valley. Near Winthrop, this trail crosses the 275-foot Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge over the Methow River—look for harlequin ducks here in the winter. This pathway is a part of the Washington Birding Trail Cascade Loop. Birders should visit www.wa.audubon.org for information on other birds in the area.
Like to ski but find the trails too tame? A heli-ski operation near Mazama takes adventurers into terrain typically reserved for Warren Miller films.
The Old West town of Winthrop
You may feel as though you’ve entered a movie set when you encounter the wooden sidewalks and false-fronted buildings of Winthrop. This town gave itself a Western makeover in the early ’70s to attract travelers coming over the pass. It worked. But this town isn’t all kitsch: some of the buildings really are historical, the rhythm-and-blues festival that takes place here in July is one of the best in the state, and this area has a burgeoning and authentic local-food scene. Ask around and you’ll find fare made with organic wheat from nearby fields, cheese that comes from happy local goats, even regionally roasted coffee and handcrafted ale!
A sunset drive to catch the nearly 360-degree valley views from Sun Mountain Lodge is a perfect way to end the day.
Twisp and the smoke jumpers base
On a back road that connects Winthrop and Twisp, visitors are welcome, summer and fall, to watch the action at the birthplace of smoke jumping, the dangerous art of parachuting into timbered mountains to fight forest fires.
This teaching site was established in 1939 and remains a valuable school for smoke jumpers all over the western U.S.
The byway ends in Twisp, a tiny town that’s transforming itself into an arts community complete with a local acting troupe and galleries.
Gas, food and lodging
Indoor and outdoor lodging—from bed-and-breakfasts to luxury resorts to campgrounds—is plentiful along this byway. Dining ranges from resort extravagance to small places featuring regionally grown fare. There are gas stations in most towns along the route, but Marblemount is your last gas stop before crossing Washington Pass and dropping into the Methow Valley and Winthrop.
Driving Distance: 140 miles from Sedro-Woolley to Twisp.
Driving Time: Three hours, not including stops or scenic detours.
Actual Time: Plan one or two days for exploring, hiking and fishing.
Best Time to Travel: June through October. Portions of SR-20 close seasonally (typically from mid-November through early May). Check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions.
Connected or nearby scenic byways