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!
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.
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.
At the top we pulled over again and could look back at the road we’d just driven; it was a fabulous view!
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.
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!
I visited Washington State in 2017