Tour the Rugged Beauty of Washington’s North Cascades
A 127-mile stretch of Washington’s state Route 20 (also known as the North Cascades Highway) takes travelers from Sedro-Woolley in the North Cascades’ western foothills to the Old West-themed town of Winthrop on the eastern slopes of the mountain range.
While driving this section of the scenic Cascade Loop, there are opportunities to experience old logging and mining towns, hydroelectric dams, wilderness and wildlife, glaciers, and food options from casual to fine dining.
Check with the North Cascades National Park for road and facility closures before you go, and call or go online to confirm the availability of specific attractions and services such as fuel, lodging, restaurants, seasonal events and gatherings.
Known as the Gateway to the North Cascades, Sedro-Woolley traces its history back to gold mines, logging camps and taverns of the pioneering days of the 19th century. The small town near the banks of the Skagit River has shed its rough and tumble image, but locals still commemorate their heritage. The Fourth of July is celebrated at the annual Loggerodeo Festival, featuring highly competitive chain saw carving contests.
Sedro-Woolley is worth a stop to check out the headquarters of the North Cascades National Park. There, helpful staffers have trail maps and can offer information about the summer conditions of hiking trails and camping areas.
Twenty-four miles east of Sedro-Woolley is Concrete, the aptly name upper Skagit Valley town defined by the towering Portland Superior Cement silos where much of the concrete was produced to build Baker Dam. Literary and movie buffs will be interested in the fact that the town was the setting for Tobias Wolff’s memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” which became a movie starring Robert De Niro and was filmed in Concrete.
Nearby attractions include Lower Baker River Dam and reservoir for camping and fishing. Hikers can explore the glaciers of Mount Baker National Recreation Area or manage the steep and narrow trail of switchbacks to the top of Sauk Mountain for a high-alpine view of the confluence of two wild mountain rivers.
Newhalem and Diablo
The North Cascades Highway passes Diablo Dam and the Seattle City Light company town of Newhalem, the nerve center of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Travelers who plan ahead can take part in Skagit Tours from late June into September. Tours include boat cruises on Diablo Lake, walking tours of Seattle City Light’s Gorge Powerhouse and evening strolls through Ladder Creek Falls.
Nearby attractions include Ross Lake National Recreation Area — the most accessible part of North Cascades National Park, with hiking, fishing, camping, kayaking, canoeing and powerboating — and the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, which offers classes, activities and accommodations for family retreats.
Be aware of the potential for strong lake winds and fluctuating water levels; check with the park service for lake and river conditions and always remember floatation devices and other water safety precautions.
Rainy Pass and Washington Pass
Southeast of Diablo on Highway 20, motorists climb two mountain passes within 5 miles of each other in the heart of the North Cascades: Rainy Pass (elevation 4,875 feet) and Washington Pass (elevation 5,477 feet).
Summer travelers are treated to spectacular views of the craggy North Cascade range, but heavy snowfall and an extended winter mean the passes are normally closed to highway traffic between November and April.
Winthrop and Twisp
Over the mountain passes, travelers continuing the classic Cascade Loop will pass through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp.
Winthrop is a year-round tourist destination, drawing campers and hikers in the summer and skiers and snowshoers in the winter. The town is known for its Old West theme, with boardwalk sidewalks that make a stroll past the downtown shops, restaurants and galleries feel like a walk on a Hollywood Western movie set.
Accommodations range from the rustic to the pampered. Campers who plan ahead and book early can choose Silverline Resort or Pearrygin Lake State Park.
Twisp is a small town at the confluence of the Twisp and Methow rivers on the edge of the Okanogan National Forest and Methow Wildlife Area. The quaint, quirky Confluence Gallery and Art Center (call or check online before you go) promotes local artists and is always worth a stop.
–Written by Greg Lamm, last updated in September 2022.