Pine tree branch with out of focus mountains behind
Mountains,  Squares,  Sunday Stills,  Washington State

A day in the mountains: driving the North Cascades

Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, is recognised as one of the most scenic drives in the North West, possibly in the entire US. It is the only real road through this vast wilderness of mountains, glaciers and lakes which constitute the North Cascades National Park.

The park is split into two sections, Northern and Southern. The road runs between them along a corridor that forms the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, providing the easiest access to the park. Much of the rest is inaccessible to all but the serious hiker, mountain climber or those boating on the extensive waters of Ross Lake. The casual day visitor, as we were, will be mostly confined to the area on either side of the highway. There, technically, you are not in the park itself for the most part. But that doesn’t mean there is any lack of things to do!

Its conifer-clad slopes make it the perfect place to share for this week’s Sunday Still challenge, Evergreen. And of course I have squared some of my photos for Becky’s Tree Squares.

Driving Highway 20

We had planned our route such that we would travel it east to west; this offers the best views as you drive. Leaving Winthrop where we had spent the night, we stopped first briefly in Mazama. This is a tiny community just off the highway with a wonderful general store selling an eclectic mix of travel goods, souvenirs, hardware, food and more.

River, pine trees and blue sky
The Methow River near Mazama

Washington Pass

After taking a few photos in Mazama we started the steady climb towards Washington Pass, the highest point on the road at 5,477 feet. We stopped for photos in a couple of spots before reaching that high point; the road was already pretty spectacular.

Road through a mountain pass
Highway 20

At the top we pulled over again and could look back at the road we’d just driven; it was a fabulous view!

Rainy Lake

Our first stop of any length was soon after Washington Pass, at Rainy Lake. Several trails of different lengths start here. We did the shortest, a one mile each way walk to Rainy Lake itself. This led mostly through mixed forest with a few patches of sunlit grass. We crossed two small waterfalls on wooden bridges quite near the start of the walk.

The walk ends on the shore of Rainy Lake. An information board explains that this lies in a cirque, a hollow carved out by a glacier. It is a lovely view; the water is clear, the lake surrounded by mountain scenery, and to the right a waterfall spills into it. One thing slightly mars this otherwise idyllic spot – the water draws clouds of biting insects!

Ross Lake overlook

Our next stops were at pull-outs offering views of the park’s two main lakes. The first was at the largest, Ross Lake, which stretches north from here right to the Canadian border. Indeed the distant mountains you can see from here are in Canada.

Diablo Lake area

From here we drove the short distance to a spot which provided the most breath-taking views of the day. Diablo Lake may be smaller than neighbouring Ross, but it is a most beautiful colour; and the tiny islands that dot it add to its picturesqueness. We spent quite some time here taking photos and admiring the landscape before us. There are also lots of information boards explaining the geology of the lake and mountains and something of its history too. We read about Jack Kerouac’s love of the North Cascades; and we learned that deep turquoise colour of the lake is due to the surrounding glaciers that grind rocks into a fine powder which is carried into the lake by the streams that feed it. The fine powder stays suspended in the water, giving it its vivid colour.

Diablo is a man-made lake. At its far end you can drive across the dam that holds back its waters, visible in the distance in some of my photos above. We did so and parked up at the far end for a closer look (stopping your car on it isn’t allowed, for obvious reasons given the narrowness of the road). From the parking area you can walk out along the dam to get some good views of the lake and of the sluices.

Here you become aware just how much man has shaped this landscape and continues to do so. The waters spill out of the dam’s sluices at a controlled rate, creating a man-made waterfall to rival the natural ones elsewhere in the area. It’s another reminder that here you are not actually in a national park, where this level of human activity would be unlikely to be permitted.

We also made a brief stop at Gorge Creek. Here you can walk out on to a bridge to see the falls of the same name and the narrow canyon that delivers their waters into Gorge Lake.

Newhalem

By now we were almost at the far end of the park and had reached the visitor centre at Newhalem. We spent a little time here looking at the displays. We watched an interesting short film about plans to re-habituate grizzly bears to the North Cascades; and we took the short boardwalk to a beautiful view of the Picket Range, apparently named for its resemblance to a picket fence!

But there weren’t many evergreens here, so perhaps this is as good a spot as any to say farewell to the North Cascades!

Mountain peaks with snow
View of the Picket Range

I visited Washington State in 2017

37 Comments

  • Marsha

    Hi Sarah, Washington is such a huge state and as often as I went there as a young adult, we never made it on those roads. The views are stunning. This would be the perfect time of year to visit there. The turquoise water is gorgeous. It makes sense that the water is not clear with all the suspended particles. A wonderful trip.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Marsha – you’re so right, WA is huge and it was hard to decide what to leave out of this trip even though we had three weeks for it! In the end we decided to focus on the coast and central areas and leave the eastern part of the state out of our itinerary. This road was one of the many highlights so we were glad we’d ventured up here!

      • Marsha

        Even the coastal area is huge. It’s hard for people in the Eastern states or Europe to imagine how large these three western states are. Our county in California, one of 58 is the size of Connecticut, a mere 4,839 square miles. England is 50,301 square miles. Washington state is 71, 362 square miles. That helps put it into perspective for me.

  • mtncorg

    Of course, the North Cascades Highway is but a beginning point. 🙂 Some great hikes off the road with some of them not being too hard, but there are those waiting for you, too!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know, but with only a day to drive the full length we couldn’t do a lot. The short Rainy Day Lake one was all we really had time for. There’s nowhere to stay that I could find along the route and we didn’t have the time to back track 🙁

  • Pat

    These photos are so beautiful, Sarah. We drove 20 through the Cascades several years ago and I remember it as being drop-dead gorgeous. I would like to go back but it is a long trip, especially when we are towing a camping trailer.

  • BeckyB

    This is just stunning. What a wonderful drive, and a beautiful part of the country. It is a state I have yet to make it too, clearly I need to rectify that! Thank you so much for sharing this as part of TreeSquare

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Becky 😊 I’m glad you enjoyed this, and I’m sure you’d love WA if you can visit some time. It’s such a beautiful state on the scenery is so varied – coast, islands, rainforest, mountains, lakes, and a few cities really worth exploring too 🙂

  • Susanne Swanson

    A wonderful scenic drive indeed! We like to make it up there every year or two and it never gets old.. When I worked at Seattle City Light, it was a fun day when I had reason to go there for work in Newhalem, the original ‘company town’ for the hydroelectric project.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Wow Susanne, I would love to be able to visit this area regularly – and for work, what a bonus! We did see the dam at Newhalem and had a short walk, but didn’t have time to look around properly as we had to press on to our accommodation for the night in Marblemount.

  • Rose

    I love your spectacular photo of Highway 20, looking up at the mountains. My favorite road trips usually include a long straight roadway, with a view of either high mountains or low valleys. 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose 🙂 I love roads like that too, but I have to say that was a very rare straight stretch of road on this route! But so quiet I was able to stand in the middle of it to take this shot 😀

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    Wow, Sarah, you’ve got me drooling over this trip to the North Cascades. I’ll have to look it up on the map. We’ve had so much to do this summer that we haven’t ventured far and wide quite yet. As soon as I saw the Diablo Lake I knew it was glacier-fed. Truly amazing and surprisingly not very clear! So glad you could share your photography for Sunday Stills!

  • SoyBend

    Gorgeous photos of that area, Sarah! Isn’t the color of Diablo Lake almost unreal? We drove the North Cascades Highway (a very fun road to drive) every September to go camping in the northeast corner of Washington state. Our honeymoon was supposed to be in Mazama, but upon arrival learned they double booked our room. 😐

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Siobhan 🙂 How wonderful to be able to drive that road so regularly! A pain about that room in Mazama however, and on your honeymoon too! Where did you end up staying?

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