Road Trip: North Cascades to Glacier

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Load up the car for a leisurely trip through the rugged Northwest wilderness and experience the breadth of the region’s natural beauty.

The Cascades and the Rockies bookend the Northwest.

Yet these dramatic peaks—and the parks that protect them—tell only part of the region’s story, characterized by a sprawling, often remote landscape of working ranches, wide glacial valleys and quiet foothills. This roughly 500-mile west-to-east road trip, from North Cascades National Park to Glacier National Park, showcases the breadth of the Northwest’s beauty, from subalpine spires to sagebrush and cedar groves. The trip can be done in a hard-driving day, but this route is best appreciated at a leisurely pace.

When out-of-staters—and many Washingtonians—picture Washington wilderness, the jagged alpine peaks and remote river valleys of the 500,000-acre North Cascades National Park Complex are probably what they have in mind. The park’s so-close-you-can-touch it grandeur—and its proximity to Puget Sound—belie its remoteness; North Cascades  National Park is among the least-visited in the national parks system. That’s in part because many of the park’s highlights require multi-day approach hikes and grueling travel on trails that crawl up lush river valleys and toil over glacier-scraped peaks. But there’s plenty to see for the road tripper on the two-lane North Cascades Scenic Byway.

Burlington, WA to North Cascades NP & Winthrop, WA

From Burlington, near Bellingham, it’s roughly two hours to the far side of the park, first along the wide, slow-moving Skagit River and then climbing into the ancient old-growth forests of the Cascade crest. Once in the park proper, services are few and far between, but there’s more than enough scenery on which to feast. Worthwhile stops take in the views of Diablo and Ross Lakes, with their strange turquoise hue from fine glacial silt.

Leaving the park, stop for one last—and perhaps the best—view of the North Cascades at Washington Pass. The sheer east-facing crags of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires are like those photogenic friends who always look good in photos; there’s no bad time of day to view these granite masses, but the summer sunsets seem to suit them best.

From the pass, Highway 20 descends the sunbaked east slope of the Cascades into the Methow Valley. Centerpiece of the Methow is Winthrop. At the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch Rivers, Winthrop has fashioned itself in an Old West aesthetic, complete with wooden sidewalks and old-time storefronts. Elegant enough for a night out, but relaxed enough that a t-shirt won’t look out of place, Arrowleaf Bistro (arrowleafbistro.com) makes an ideal stop after a day of sightseeing. Enjoy a steak and cocktail on the riverside patio overlooking the river. Refined yet relaxed, Chewuch Inn & Cabins (chewuchinn.com) is upscale lodging for adventurers: innkeepers Dan and Sally Kuperberg are avid travelers and can give local activity recommendations and current conditions. The inn boasts the valley’s best breakfast, too. Twisp River Suites (twispriversuites.com) in the nearby town of Twisp also offers excellent lodging in the valley.

Winthrop to Kettle Falls, WA

Leaving the Methow Valley, Highway 20 winds over Loup Loup Pass into the arid Okanogan foothills. Follow the Okanogan River northward to the community of Tonasket, a quirky mix of ranching and Renaissance faires. From here, Highway 20 climbs into the rolling Okanogan Highlands; to the north, Mount Bonaparte, anything but diminutive, towers more than 3,000 feet above the orchards and wheat fields at its base. From mid-May onward, myriad blooms—balsamroot, bitterroot, lupine and more—streak by in a Monet-like blur, the bleached fir boards of old homesteads a testament to a livelier history in this quiet corner of the state.
On the edge of the Okanogan Highlands, Republic preserves a vestige of that wild-west past in the creak of its wooden sidewalks and the clank of beer steins at Republic Brewing Company (republicbrew.com), where timbermen and tie-dyed back-to-the-land homesteaders share tables over a carpet of peanut shells.

From Republic, Highway 20 winds its way out of sagebrush country and into the Kettle Range. Named after the roiling falls where the Kettle River enters the Columbia River, eastern Washington’s Kettle Range is deceptively mellow. Sherman Pass, the highest maintained highway pass in the state, merits a leg-stretching stop; no cloud-piercing spires here, just a mosaic of old-growth forests and open sagebrush meadows, from which shimmer distant vistas of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains.

Descending from Sherman Pass, Highway 20 crosses the Columbia River near the community of Kettle Falls. At the Bull Hill Guest Ranch (bullhill.com) outside of Kettle Falls, guests can stay in deluxe cabins on a century-old working cattle ranch (there’s a two-night minimum stay, and most guests stay longer). Ranch owner Pete Guglielmino could pass for a 1960s-era western-movie lawman, but his quiet and hardworking demeanor typifies the rural culture of Northeast Washington.

Kettle Falls, WA to Sandpoint, ID

Leaving Kettle Falls, continue through the logging community of Colville; Highway 20 eventually joins up with the north-flowing Pend Oreille River. Just before entering Idaho, stop in Newport for a visit to Owen’s Grocery, Deli & Soda Fountain. The expansive, airy interior seems transported from a bygone decade, complete with jars of dime-store candy on the long wooden bar. Owen’s makes its own ice cream, a welcome treat on a road trip like this; huckleberry is hard to pass up.

Before the Idaho border, Highway 20 ends at its junction with Highway 2. Now in Idaho, Highway 2 follows the Pend Oreille River to its source at Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s deepest lake and the fifth-deepest lake in the continental United States. Occupying the crown of seahorse-shaped Lake Pend Oreille, Sandpoint has transformed itself from an intercontinental rail hub to a tourism destination. Visitors to this lively arts community will find it easy to explore its downtown on foot. On First Avenue, stroll shops selling rustic wood furniture and huckleberry treats. Sample local beers while classic cars cruise by. Or, lunch in hand, wander over to Sandpoint City Beach and linger on Lake Pend Oreille’s shores. Sleep’s Cabins (sleepscabins.com) offers six elegant yet rustic cabins on the waterfront. Best of all, the cabins are a two-mile walk to downtown Sandpoint via the pedestrian bridge paralleling Highway 95—perfect for an evening stroll.

Sandpoint, ID to Kalispell, MT & Glacier NP

From Sandpoint, Highway 2 continues north through the Kootenai River valley, its broad, fertile farmland flanked by the Idaho Selkirks to the west and the Purcells to the east. Outside of Bonner’s Ferry, Highway 2 curves eastward to follow the Kootenai into the far northwest corner of Montana.

Tucked in the thick mid-elevation forests of far northwest Montana, the community of Yaak makes for a must-see side trip. The tiny timber community is not on the way to anything; that alone is its appeal, but the scenery helps: a lonely country of thick forests, glacier-ground peaks and tiny lakes, a quiet neighbor to the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains. Aside from the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile on one side of the two-lane highway and the Dirty Shame Saloon on the other, nearby Yaak doesn’t offer much in the way of services, but the beer and bar-stool philosophizing are both abundant.

Back on the main route, follow Highway 2 along the eastern edge of the Cabinet Mountains. The Cabinets—so named by French fur trappers for the sheer shelfs of rock that loom over the rivers below—hide alpine lakes and centuries-old cedar stalwarts beneath their rugged, brushy peaks. The billion-year-old bedrock forming the Cabinets juts up out of the earth at a steep angle, like a layer cake sliding off a plate. And there’s no better place to see this bedrock laid bare than at Kootenai Falls, east of the community of Troy. The largest undammed falls in the state, Kootenai Falls rumbles insistently over steeply angled bedrock. It’s a must-see stop and only a 15-minute walk from the highway. For an altogether more sedate liquid accompaniment to the Cabinets, stop at Cabinet Mountain Brewing (cabinetmountainbrewing.com) in nearby Libby. The tiny patio is a great place to admire A Peak on the Cabinets’ skyline.

From Libby, continue on Highway 2 to Kalispell, at the head of the Flathead Valley. Stop for a snack and local gossip at Moose’s Saloon (moosessaloon.com), on the edge of downtown Kalispell. The peanut-shucking patrons, mostly locals, know that Moose’s is the place to go for good pizza; the sauerkraut-and-olive is a local favorite. (Three tips to avoid outing yourself as a tourist: don’t enter through the front door; don’t order food at the bar; and don’t try to pay with a card—this cash-only establishment has an ATM near the food-ordering window.) Another must-visit dining establishment is the often lively DeSoto Grill (desotogrill.com), where vintage-garage ambiance and Montana BBQ done right are on the menu. Bed down in the heart of downtown Kalispell at the historic (1912) Kalispell Grand Hotel (kalispellgrand.com), or, to sacrifice old-West authenticity for family-friendly amenities, like a pool, choose the Kalispell Hilton Garden Inn (hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com) at the south end of town.

Kalispell is the western portal to Glacier National Park. The Blackfeet Indians of the northern Rocky Mountains considered what is today Glacier National Park the backbone of the world. Today it is one of the pillars of the national parks system—the archetype of big, wild America. Life-list experiences by the backpack-full await the visitor to the park’s glacier-carved cirques and hanging valleys.

No drive to Glacier National Park would be complete without the signature drive through Glacier. The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road is perhaps the single most well-known activity in Glacier National Park, its hairpin turns and high-mountain vistas wowing—and occasionally terrifying—millions of visitors each year. Beginning at West Glacier, drivers enjoy the wet, fog-enshrouded forest of the west side of the park, where larches garland Lake McDonald. As the road climbs out of the McDonald Creek drainage toward Logan Pass, the road’s high point, cool birch forests transition to the colorful avalanche slopes high on Going-to-the-Sun Road. East of Logan Pass, the road passes Saint Mary Lake and Two Dog Flats, a broad, aspen-framed prairie. These vistas are typical of the Rocky Mountain Front, where the escarpments of the Continental Divide sweep into Great Plains prairie—a dramatic departure from the lush maritime forests at the beginning of this trans-Northwest road trip.