Top Cascades Experiences

From Easy to Extreme, 12 Great Things to See and Do in Our Epic Mountain Range

Formed by volcanic eruptions spanning millions of years, 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 bring people from all walks together to recreate and explore, and here are 12 great reasons to heed their call.

1. A Favorite Lassen Trail

In Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, the 3-mile Bumpass Hell Trail offers a beautiful and strange descent into a geothermally active world of bubbling, burping, steaming ponds, pits and fumeroles 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

2. 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 Lava River Cave, a mile-long subterranean lava tube, is an excellent option on rainy days.

Best time: Spring through fall.

–Jeff Layton


3. 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 alone from the observation deck of the 286-foot plunge falls—Oregon’s second-highest single drop after Multnomah—is worth the drive.

Best time: Fall.

–Jennifer Burns Bright


4. McKenzie Highway Marvels

Get a taste of pioneer life on the historic McKenzie Highway, a former wagon trail in Central Oregon. The winding, 40-mile route between Sisters and Belknap Springs only opens to cars in summer. Last summer’s wildfires destroyed portions of forest along the highway, but the stop at 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.

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


5. Mount Rainier Stargazing

If last summer’s eclipse whetted your appetite for celestial matters, head to the south-facing slopes of Mount Rainier to see the Perseid meteor shower this summer. This year, the meteors are expected to peak in the wee hours of Aug. 13. The moon will be a mere sliver then, so bundle up for what should make for excellent viewing. The Paradise Jackson Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park hosts an astronomy program throughout summer (Wed.–Sun. nights), and when the Perseid’s show comes into view, Crystal Mountain Resort hosts viewing nights atop its summit (tickets sell out fast).

Best time: Summer.

–Jennifer Burns Bright

6. 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 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


7. Outdoor Fun in Leavenworth

In addition to its always-lively 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. 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


8. Rockport’s Rainforest Delights

Discover the winter charms of a temperate rainforest at Rockport State Park, about 35 miles east of Burlington, along the North Cascades Highway. Trees along the half-mile Sauk Springs Trail or 3-mile Evergreen Trail rival those found across the Sound 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. From December through mid-February, the guided Deep Forest Experience is a way to learn about the lush ecology and then get warm with hot cocoa by a wood stove in the cozy Discovery Center. 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


9. 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. 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.

–Jeff Layton


10. The Remote Charm of Stehekin

Near the northern tip 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). In summer, hiking, boating, fly-fishing and horseback riding are big draws, and electric bikes, available for rent 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, early fall.

–Jeff Layton


11. 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, Chelan Estate 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.

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

–Rob Bhatt


12. Awesome Settings in the Pasayten Wilderness

The vast Pasayten Wilderness, which stretches from the Cascades’ eastern slopes to north-central Washington, along the Canadian border, contains some of the most scenic and diverse high country in the state. The 70-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 Canyon and the Boundary Trail from the Irongate Trailhead, west of Loomis, to find scrambles up easy summits that will have you feeling like a mountain goat. One of the best is up to 8,100-foot Armstrong Mountain, where 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. (The road to the Irongate Trailhead is maintained for high-clearance vehicles only.)

–Jeff Layton

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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