Driving the Cascade Loop

by Adam Sawyer | Photo © Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce

The 400-mile journey visits nine distinct regions, each its own rich hue on Washington’s diverse palette. And the diversity is both scenic and social. The loop carves a path through metropolitan areas and charming small towns, breathtaking Cascade passes, fertile lowlands, and everything in between. Though it can be done in as little as a day or stretched out as long as a few weeks, the average trip on this—one of the nation’s most scenic highways—takes two to four days.

Cascade Loop had been on my radar for some time when I cleared my calendar and set off on a five-day vacation. At the time a friend remarked, “Bring all of your camera gear. This is a once in a lifetime trip.” Noted.

I began the loop in Everett with the Boeing Tour at the Future of Flight Aviation Center before heading into the fertile and farm-rich Snohomish River Valley region. A stop in the town of Snohomish was the first of what became a series of pleasant small-town surprises along the route. Not only did all of these hamlets possess their own unique charm, but they each seemed to be palpably thriving. Whether it was art, tourism or agriculture, or all three, each town was making its way, and people I spoke with expressed optimism about the future.

Continuing from Snohomish, the valley climbed to the Stevens Pass Greenway region of the loop. I find waterfalls irresistible, so I stopped at Wallace Falls State Park along the way. The leg-stretch to Upper Wallace Falls, with its lush forest environment and 265-foot waterfall, is the perfect “Welcome Wagon” for those heading into the Cascades.

After the hike, the route ascended through the pass, ending the day’s drive in the Leavenworth/Cascade Foothills region. The tranquil grounds of the Mountain Springs Lodge would be my home for the night. A fortuitous collaboration of the facilities at the lodge and Mother Nature made for one of the most memorable evenings I’ve had. I enjoyed a sublime duck dinner at the lodge, toured the grounds and then retired to my private cabin for a spectacular viewing of the Perseid meteor shower from the deck.

The next morning I headed into the town of Leavenworth. The Cascade-Leavenworth Foothills region of the loop is a confluence of all things awesome. The area is a hub for all-season outdoor pursuits, the scenery is top-tier, and then, of course, there’s incomparable Leavenworth. The Bavarian-style village is home to a bounty of seasonal festivals, as well as shopping and dining options. I spent a couple hours shopping in the eclectic collection of unique shops and wine tasting rooms, and then continued east on the loop.

With the Cascades in my rear view mirror, the landscape changed considerably from where I’d started the day. The Wenatchee/Columbia River Valley region sits along the rain shadow of the Eastern Cascades. This more arid section of the loop exhibits changes in flora and fauna accordingly. However, the Columbia River and its many tributaries flow through the region, making it prime for agriculture. For a first hand look at what at some delicious local enterprises produce, visit the Cashmere Cider Mill or take a tour of the Aplets & Cotlets kitchens, both in Cashmere.

Wenatchee has been dubbed the “Apple Capital of the World.” It’s also home to the Pybus Public Market—the offspring of private and public funding that’s rightfully the object of great civic pride. Housed in the exquisitely renovated Pybus steel warehouse, the market is home to artisanal shops and eateries and is the largest public market in the state after Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.

I traced the Columbia River north to Lake Chelan, a deep, 55-mile lake that snakes into the North Cascades. This region is one of the most popular freshwater recreation destinations in the Northwest. The valley that holds Lake Chelan is revered for more than just water sports; its farm-fresh fruit and vegetable markets, standout wineries and lakeside lodging options are worth lingering for a few days before continuing the loop. A stop at the Sunshine Farm Market as I rolled into the town of Chelan supplied me with all the locally produced delicacies I needed for a perfect picnic at Lake Chelan Winery, one of the region’s many wineries. Before leaving Chelan, I sampled the hearty, home cooked fare at the legendary restaurant at Blueberry Hills Farms (save room for fresh-baked pie).

Back on the road, I left the Columbia River behind and began the steady climb into The Methow. Here, the road and the Methow (pronounced met-how) River intertwine in a dance that leads through scenic farmlands, offering glimpses of the craggy North Cascade summits. In the eclectic town of Twisp, the citizenry is boosting their own once-battered economy with not only tourism but other enterprises, such as TwispWorks, whose mission is providing access to meaningful work and education. (Tip: While in town, be sure to stop at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, 166 North Glover St., for a goodie break. Also stop at Glover Street Market, 124 North Glover St., for a well-curated selection of Methow Valley food products.) A good spot to bed down for the night in Twisp is Twisp River Suites.

The old-west town of Winthrop is another of this region’s stops worth exploring along the route. I was craving a chef’s take on the flavors of the Methow Valley, so, on the advice of some friendly locals, I chose Arrow Leaf Bistro in Winthrop for a gourmet meal crafted with fresh ingredients sourced from the valley. I passed the night at the Mazama Country Inn, a comfortable and secluded spot located just off a stretch of road that might as well be labeled a deer superhighway. Other excellent Methow Valley lodging choices are the award-winning Sun Mountain Lodge or Freestone Inn.

When I woke the next morning my anticipation level was high. I was about to head into the rugged North Cascades. This region flaunts jaw-dropping, soul-singing, eye-widening scenery. Massive granite peaks, glacier-fed lakes, pristine forests and majestic waterfalls abound here. The North Cascades are special. How special? Montana’s Glacier National Park holds roughly 25 glaciers, the North Cascade National Park is home to more than 300. After a day filled with hiking, photography, and the stunning and wild drive-by scenery of Washington Pass, Rainy Pass and Diablo and Ross Lakes, I was tired but inspired. I relaxed with a sunset-lit view of Mt. Baker from Ovenelle’s Heritage Inn on the western slopes of the Cascades.

The next day, the route descended out of the Cascades and delivered me into the Skagit Valley. As fertile as any region in the Northwest, let alone this trip, the Skagit Valley is one big bloom outlined by mountain scenery come spring. Now back at sea level, I had one more region to explore—Whidbey Scenic Isle Way.

I traversed Fidalgo Island and crossed the Deception Pass bridge, located in Washington’s most-visited state park. The drive paralleled churning bays with views of not-too-distant islands too numerous to count—the San Juan Islands—before delivering me to an island landscape of rolling rural meadows punctuated with the occasional island town. Whidbey Island proved to be another of the loop’s distinctive region’s that merits a few days to visit the towns of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley, and explore its remarkable natural beauty and history at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. (Tip: For succulent local clams and mussels, check out Toby’s Tavern in historic Coupeville.) I spent that night on Whidbey Island at an enchanting little B&B, the Eagles Nest Inn, near the seaside town of Langley, and dined on local island fare at the popular Prima Bistro. Good lodging alternatives are Inn at Langley or Saratoga Inn, both in Langley.
After a wonderful breakfast sourced from island ingredients, the loop was nearing its end. I took the ferry back to Mukilteo on the mainland, near the starting point of Everett.

A journey along the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway provides a chance to experience all the things that typify the Northwest, all that we hold dear. It’s our past, present and future. It’s our culture, and a tangible display of beauty and bounty.

Without a doubt, my friend who suggested I bring along all my camera gear was right, it was a once in a lifetime trip. And it will continue to be, every time I take it.

The Nine Regions of the Cascade Loop
Cascade Loop Scenic Highway: cascadeloop.com

Snohomish River Valley
>> Snohomish County Tourism Bureau: snohomish.org
>> Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour: futureofflight.org

Stevens Pass Greenway
>> Wallace Falls State Park: parks.wa.gov/289/Wallace-Falls

Leavenworth / Cascade Foothills
>> Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce: leavenworth.org
>> Mountain Springs Lodge: mtsprings.com
>> Pine River Ranch: prranch.com
>> Sleeping Lady A Mountain Resort: sleepinglady.com

Wenatchee / Columbia River Valley
>> The Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce: wenatchee.org
>> Cashmere Cider Mill: gourmetcider.com
>> Aplets & Cotlets Tour: libertyorchards.com/tour
>> Pybus Public Market: pybuspublicmarket.org

Lake Chelan
>> Sunshine Farm Market: sunshinefarmmarket.com
>> Lake Chelan Winery: lakechelanwinery.com
>> Blueberry Hills Farm: wildaboutberries.com
>> Campbell’s Resort: campbellsresort.com

The Methow
>> Cinnamon Twisp Bakery: cinnamontwisp.com
>> Glover Street Market: gloverstreetmarket.com
>> Arrow Leaf Bistro: arrowleafbistro.com
>> Twisp River Pub: methowbrewing.com
>> TwispWorks: twispworks.org
>> Twisp River Suites: twispriversuites.com
>> Mazama Country Inn: mazamacountryinn.com
>> Sun Mountain Lodge: sunmountainlodge.com
>> Freestone Inn: freestoneinn.com

North Cascades
>> North Cascades National Park: nps.gov/noca
>> Skagit Tours: seattle.gov/light/tours/skagit
>> Ovenelle’s Heritage Inn: ovenells-inn.com

Skagit Valley & Fidalgo Island
>> Skagit Valley Tourism: visitskagitvalley.com

Whidbey Scenic Isle Way
>> Island County Tourism: whidbeycamanoislands.com
>> Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve: nps.gov/ebla