Top Cascades Experiences

11 Unforgettable Cascade Mountain Range Experiences

Formed and shaped by volcanic eruptions spanning millions of years — most recently at Mount St. Helens — the Cascades define the Pacific Northwest in profound ways. They are home to many of our most precious natural resources and our most dramatic natural settings. They dominate our landscape from near and far, and provide boundless opportunities to experience the exhilaration, invigoration and therapeutic benefits of the pristine outdoors. They attract people from all walks to recreate and explore. The following experiences offer a range of exceptional activities that we can’t wait to explore again.

Because of COVID-19, please take recommended safety precautions and practice social distancing if you are planning a future trip, and always check for road closures and the availability of services and amenities before you go.

An old Douglas fir stump in the forest at Washington's Rockport State Park
An old Douglas fir stump in the forest at Washington’s Rockport State Park (photo courtesy of Washington State Parks)

1. Rockport’s Rainforest Delights

Discover the winter charms of a temperate rainforest at Rockport State Park, about 35 miles east of Burlington, along the Washington State Route 20 North Cascades Highway (drivers from the east side of the Cascades should check for winter highway closures). Trees along the half-mile Sauk Springs Trail or 3-mile Evergreen Trail rival those found in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest, with puffy carpets of moss and Methuselah’s Beard lichen hanging in drapes from 300-year-old trees. In the winter months, the Skagit River sees hundreds of bald eagles congregating to feast on salmon — some birds migrating as far as 1,700 miles to get there. Guided trips are available through Skagit River Guide Services, or you can see them from several viewing areas near Rockport.

Best time: Winter

–Jeff Layton
Green vineyards and the blue waters of Lake Chelan with mountains beyond
Lake Chelan vineyards (photo by ARSimonds, Getty Images)

2. Lake Chelan’s Growing Wine Scene

As if there are not already enough reasons to resolve to visit Lake Chelan, consider the region’s maturing wine scene. Already producing a bevy of varietals, area vintners and winemakers are discovering conditions suitable for pinot noir, available in limited quantities at Tunnel Hill Winery, Karma Vineyards (on its own or in the sparkling wine blend) and other wineries. Spring through fall is time to sign up for an Electric Bike Winery Tour to combine lakeside sightseeing with tastings at area wineries — and a dip in the lake. Take it to another level on a tandem wine jump with Skydive Chelan. With the drop zone located on the lawn at Tsillan Cellars, dropping in for a glass of wine has never been more exhilarating. Note: Because of COVID-19 wine tasting and other activities may not be available. Remember to check before you go.

Best time: Year-round/spring through fall for cycling and skydiving.

–Rob Bhatt
Sunset Illuminates Colchuck and Dragontail peaks Over Colchuck Lake in the Enchantments near Leavenworth
About 11 miles southwest of Leavenworth is Colchuck Lake, pictured with Colchuck and Dragontail peaks in the Enchantments region of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. (Photo by Tobin Akehurst, Getty Images)

3. Outdoor Fun in Leavenworth

In addition to its Bavarian-themed downtown, Leavenworth is an all-season hub for outdoor fun. In summer, you can experience a different side of the picturesque mountain town from a raft or inner tube. River Riders trips begin just outside downtown and include shuttle service. The Upper Wenatchee River has become a great place for paddleboarding and kayaking, while a network of mountain bike trails and rock-climbing spots are a few miles from downtown. Winter brings a plethora of snow sports to area trails, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

Best time: All year

–Jeff Layton
Paulina Lake viewed from Paulina Peak, the highest point in Oregon's Newberry National Volcanic Monument
Paulina Peak is the highest point in Newberry National Volcanic Monument, offering this view of Paulina Lake, a crater lake in Newberry Crater. (Photo by Matthew H. Irvin, Getty Images)

4. Newberry’s Volcanic Charms

About 12 miles south of Bend, Oregon, Newberry National Volcanic Monument showcases a hit parade of volcanic wonders. Visitors can hike through a huge lava tube, drive to the summit of a cinder cone and admire landscapes of lava rock as far as the eye can see. Stretch your legs on the mile-long Trail of the Molten Land or on a .9-mile stroll through the Lava Cast Forest, where old-growth trees were encased in lava. The quarter-mile loop around the Lava Butte cinder cone rim is doable for most little legs, while the mile-long subterranean Lava River Cave (temporarily closed for COVID-19) is an excellent option on rainy days.

Best time: Spring through fall

–Jeff Layton
The Dee Wright Observatory on McKenzie Highway is built out of Cascade Range lava rock
The Dee Wright Observatory on Oregon’s McKenzie Highway is built out of Cascade Range lava rock. (Photo by Dee Browning, Getty Images)

5. McKenzie Highway Marvels

Get a taste of pioneer life on the historic McKenzie Highway, a former wagon trail in Central Oregon. The winding, 38-mile stretch of Oregon Route 242 between Sisters and Belknap Springs only opens to cars in summer. Wildfires in recent years destroyed portions of forest along the highway, but a stop at the Dee Wright Observatory in Blue River offers a spectacular view of jagged black lava rocks, covering about 65 square miles. The observatory, constructed of lava rock, affords views of all three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and on clear days, Mount Hood. Expect spring/summer 2021 delays on Oregon Route 126 between Belknap Springs and Springfield as crews continue fire recovery efforts (check online before you go).

Best time: Early summer, after the threat of inclement weather has passed. Better yet, resolve to bicycle the route from the Sisters side after the snow clears, before the roads open to motorists, usually in mid-June

–Jennifer Burns Bright
A woman canoes on Ross Lake in Washington
Ross Lake in Washington (photo by vndrpttn, Getty Images)

6. North Cascades Boat Camping

Resolve to take your car-camping game to the next level by boat camping in the North Cascades. Enormous Ross Lake is home to 19 boat-in campgrounds that dot the shoreline all the way to Canada. Powerboats can launch from Hozomeen at the Canadian border (beware of sharp rocks on the road to Hozomeen and check to see if the border has reopened; Hozomeen is inaccessible by car if the border is closed). On Diablo Lake, you can launch small craft such as canoes, kayaks and light motorboats, and portage (or hire portage service) around Ross Dam onto Ross Lake, where emerald waters teem with trout, and small islands, hidden coves and secluded bays front majestic peaks.

Best time: Summer (the North Cascades Highway closes in winter)

–Jeff Layton
The International Space Station passes over Mount Rainier in this multiple-second photo exposure
The International Space Station passes over Mount Rainier in this multiple-second photo exposure. (Photo by Tom Wachs, Getty Images)

7. Mount Rainier Stargazing

If the 2017 solar eclipse and 2020 comet whetted your appetite for celestial matters, head to the south-facing slopes of Mount Rainier to see the Perseid meteor shower and International Space Station passes through starry skies in summer. The meteors are expected to peak around Aug. 12, 2021. The Jackson Visitor Center (temporarily closed for COVID-19) at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park hosts an astronomy program throughout summer Wednesday–Sunday nights (check online for 2021 programming).

Best time: Summer

–Jennifer Burns Bright
The Bumpass Hell hydrothermal area in Lassen Volcanic National Park
The Bumpass Hell hydrothermal area in Lassen Volcanic National Park (photo by NNehring, Getty Images)

8. A Favorite Lassen Trail

In Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, the 3-mile (round-trip) Bumpass Hell Trail offers a beautiful and strange descent into a geothermally active world of bubbling, burping, steaming ponds, pits and fumaroles surrounded by multi-hued soils. Wear sturdy hiking boots to secure your footing, and stay on the trail (the waters are not suitable for bathing).

Best time: Summer through early fall; winter snow typically keeps the trail closed until early July

–Jennifer Burns Bright
Sunrise over Lake Chelan viewed from Stehekin
Sunrise over Lake Chelan viewed from Stehekin (photo by jmacarthur, Getty Images)

9. The Remote Charm of Stehekin

Near the northern end of Lake Chelan, Stehekin is a place so rare, whimsical and beautiful that everyone should resolve to trek out here at least once. And a trek it is — the only ways to reach Stehekin are by boat, plane or foot (via multiday backcountry hike). Hiking, boating, fly-fishing and horseback riding are big draws in summer, and electric bike rentals at Stehekin Valley Ranch provide a new way to explore the valley’s 13 miles of roads. Stopping for the sticky buns at the Stehekin Pastry Company is a Cascade rite of passage. The Lady of the Lake’s Lady Express offers a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Chelan.

Best time: Summer and early fall

–Jeff Layton
The Kendall Katwalk section of the Pacific Crest Trail near Snoqualmie Pass on a foggy day

The Kendall Katwalk section of the Pacific Crest Trail near Snoqualmie Pass on a foggy day (photo by Jeff Goulden, Getty Images)

10. A Super Slice of the Pacific Crest Trail

With so much great terrain along the Pacific Crest Trail it’s hard to choose highlights, but many through-hikers claim the 71-mile stretch from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass is one of the best. That’s because it surveys high mountain scenery, while bouncing over mountain spines, past pristine lakes and through patches of wildflowers. Since it takes a solid week, with lots of ascents and descents, it’s not for beginners, but the payoff is traveling through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness without encountering a road for days. For a smaller taste of the trail’s wonders, try the shorter option from Scenic to Surprise and Glacier lakes (11 miles round-trip).

Best time: Midsummer through early fall

–Jeff Layton
A hiker in the Pasayten Wilderness in fall
Hiking the Pasayten Wilderness in fall (photo by Cavan Images, Alamy)

11. Awesome Settings in the Pasayten Wilderness

The vast Pasayten Wilderness stretches from the Cascades’ eastern slopes to north-central Washington along the Canadian border and contains some of the most scenic and diverse high country in the state. The 80-plus-mile Boundary Trail leads over gnarly passes and past alpine lakes, while shorter trips treat you to huge playgrounds of rolling meadows. Access Horseshoe Basin and the Boundary Trail from the Irongate Trailhead northwest of Loomis (the road to the Irongate Trailhead is maintained for high-clearance vehicles only) to find scrambles up easy summits that will have you feeling like a mountain goat. One of the best is Armstrong Mountain, an approximately 8,100-foot peak from which you can admire a scenic stretch of the Canadian border, just a cut in the trees running up and down hills as far as the eye can see.

Best time to visit: Late summer and early fall 

–Jeff Layton
Salt Creek Falls in autumn
Salt Creek Falls in autumn (photo by svetlana57, Getty Images)

Bonus Experience: Spectacular Salt Creek Falls

Fall fun in Central Oregon’s Willamette National Forest includes foraging for the area’s prized mushrooms. Join a foray with the Cascade Mycological Society to learn about edible specimens, or hike the trails at Salt Creek Falls, about 65 miles southeast of Eugene. The view from the observation deck of the 286-foot plunge falls — Oregon’s second-highest single drop after Multnomah — is worth the drive and short but steep climb.

Best time: Fall

–Jennifer Burns Bright

–Top image of Dewey Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail east of Mount Rainier by Jeff Goulden, Getty Images

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey, and was updated in November 2020.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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