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Discovering the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway

Friday, September 17, 2010
Another stunning view from the Cascades...
Our CM400-equipped correspondent is back, this time prepping her vintage Honda for a ride on the scenic North Cascades Highway.

I inflate my tires to pavement specifications after descending the high-adventure driveway.
The first thing I noticed about my new summer hometown of Tonasket, Washington, was the remote beauty. But second were the motorcycles, and not just because I ride -- it was the sheer number of them. Harleys, vintage road bikes, sport touring rigs, dual-sports, you name it - they covered the nothing-special, working class town and surrounding area like flies on fruit salad, almost all of them loaded with traveling gear.

The roads in this part of northernmost Washington are undoubtedly sweet – that much I’ve seen from the month I’ve lived here. Twisties abound, roller coastering the rider through orchards and ranch land before hurling them into alpine desert and forests. But were they enough to draw a far-flung mob of bikers to this remote area? My curiosity piqued, I approached the bikers I encountered and asked them where they were headed with the shamelessness of a telemarketer.

In my survey, one road stood out: the North Cascades Highway. This route over North Cascades National Park draws people from Canada and across the county to ride its hairpin turns over jagged, glacial, jaw-dropping terrain. The Internet informed me that it is one of the best rides in the state. It can be connected with the lower, parallel US Highway 2 to make a 400-plus mile loop through river country, over farmland, up towering mountains, over open water and islands, and back over yet more towering mountains.

An example of the sort of road you can end up on in the Okanogan -- my fiancee John and I rode this one on his bike.
An example of the sort of road you can end up on in the Okanogan - my fiancee John and I rode this one on his bike.
“Enough said,” I told the computer, and prepared to take the trip as soon as I could get a couple days off of my summer sheep farming job. So, on a recent Sunday morning, I dropped some clothes into the trunk of my scrappy 1981 400cc Honda and set out on the toughest technical part of the voyage – the driveway.

The Okanogan

The place I’m staying for the summer is situated up a mile-long dirt road, whose ruts and squirrely gravel provide constant challenges for my clunky old street bike. But gravel roads are a fact of life in this region, the Okanogan. The Okanogan doesn’t comprise much of the official Cascade Loop, but it’s worth the side tour. Incredible, undiscovered roads abound here – undiscovered because, in order to enjoy them, you must invest in a giant map and take the gamble that the sweet road you’re on won’t suddenly turn to rutty gravel 30 miles into a national forest.

The Detour

Leaving the Okanogan, I followed some local wisdom and took Route 17 through Bridgeport and the ironically named Chief Joseph Dam rather than take the high-traffic, cooking-hot US Highway 97. Sweeping turns and roller-coaster hills took me through golden fields spotted with boulder outcroppings, scenic barns and advertisements for things like Dr. Pierce’s Anuric: “Cleanse Your Kidneys!” From Highway 17, I turned south and eventually intersected Highway 2.

Heres where I took Highway 17  the road less traveled  rather than cruising through orchards on Highway 97.
Here's where I took Highway 17 (the road less traveled) rather than cruising through orchards on Highway 97.
Buzzing on a strong brew drunk at a breakfast spot/art shop in Waterville, I followed 2 back to the recommended route at Orondo, on 97. From there, it was a quick ride through cherry and apple orchards, sparkling with ribbons to ward off birds, to Wenatchee.

Eastern Cascades and Stevens Pass

This is where I permanently left Highway 97 for Highway 2, which takes the southern route over the Cascades. It’s also where the fun really starts, especially upon leaving Leavenworth. Leavenworth models itself on a Bavarian village. Everything from groceries to hardware stores sports the word SHOPPE on the end of their names. All the buildings are decked out in red trim and shingles. On the Sunday I drove through, Leavenworth was very hot and swarming with tourists. After sweating through several stoplights, though, I found myself rewarded by the frothy sight of the Wenatchee River tumbling down a tree-lined canyon.

The Bavarian Village was full of tourists.
The Bavarian Village in Leavenworth was full of tourists.
The air cooled off almost immediately upon leaving Leavenworth and continued to chill as the bike chugged its way up about 3,000 feet of elevation to Stevens Pass. Traffic thinned out the further from Wenatchee and Leavenworth I drove, despite it being a summer Sunday.

While parked at Stevens pass, a Harley and a dual-sport stopped to chat up the glory of the ride. Meanwhile, a herd of vintage cruisers thundered past, followed by a mohawked rider on a yellow chopper. The spectacle of the motorcycles was almost as grand as the scenery, and almost everyone waved, as if to say, ‘Yeah, you found this sweet road too.”

Snohomish River Valley

The western side of Stevens Pass offered an array of trails, scenic vistas and waterfalls to take in. I chose one at random – Deception Falls. The falls are a short walk from the road and lovely enough to refresh the road-weariest of riders. Surrounded by ferns and other leafy plants, it was clear I was now on the rainy side of the cascades.

One of many scenic bridges that crossed the Snohomish River on the western Cascades side of US Highway 2.
(Above) One of many scenic bridges that crossed the Snohomish River. (Below, left) The western side of Stevens Pass. (Below, right) Bikers get a discounted rate and are able to load first on the 15-minute ferry to Whidbey Island. 
A refreshing break on the western side of Stevens Pass.Bikers get a discounted rate and are able to load first on the 15 minute ferry to Whidbey Island.
Things remained green as the road wound its way down some exciting turns into hillier farmland. Scenic old bridges crisscrossed sweeping rivers.

I was destined for Everett, near Seattle, that night. Between Skykomish and there, traffic was awful. For an hour, I idled between break jockeys and hormonal teens that seemed intent on smashing me into a Honda sandwich. There wasn’t any apparent way to avoid it, though I imagine traffic would be a lot calmer on a weekday.

My one regret is that I spent the night in a hotel in Everett. My night included being propositioned by a drunkard and watching a man sniff some high-cost stimulants while waiting out a red light. Having camped out all summer long, I was dazzled by the idea of a shower. But if I’d known how many wonderful, inexpensive campsites lay just a short ride ahead, I’d have pushed on to Whidbey Island.

The Island Experience

The next morning, I sipped coffee to warm up in the famous Puget Sound chill before crossing the ferry in Mukilteo to Whidbey Island. Bikers get a discounted rate and are the first vehicles to load, so my motorcycle had a front-row view of the fog-shrouded water and islands that lay ahead.

While crossing, I chatted with the Harley rider parked beside me, named Eddie. He was crossing over to take his mom to the hospital and recommended the town of Coupeville for a good taste of the island culture and delicious mussels. It was still early in the morning – too early, in my opinion, for mussels. But I did wander the small town’s waterfront main street and take in the sailboats. Heading back to my bike, I encountered Eddie, in a jeep this time, headed to the hospital with this mom. “Glad to see you made it!” he shouted after me.

This is a great place to get off the bike and take in the view from the bridge on foot.
This was a great place to get off the bike and take in the view from Deception Pass Bridge on foot.
I expected Whidbey and Fidalgo islands to be chock-full of condos, hotels and tourists attractions. Instead, I found slow-moving roads that wound through a nature reserve and farmland, dotted with old churches, funky roadside stands and gorgeous campgrounds. Again, I felt like kicking myself for shelling out $70 to sleep in Everett when $10 hemlock and rhododendron-shaded campsites beckoned.

Deception Pass Bridge was a highlight. It’s a long, narrow thing spanning a cliffy, vertigo-inducing channel. You can park on either side of the bridge and walk it in order to really absorb that stomach-dropping view.

After that, the island experience was basically over and stop-and-go traffic ensued, despite it being a Monday. I recommend moving quickly as possible from Anacortes to Sedro-Woolley and tackling it on a weekday. In fact, the whole Cascade Loop would be best done during the week unless you love sitting in traffic and your bike overheating. When you reach Sedro-Woolley, the best part of the trip is right around the corner – the Northern Cascades Highway. This is the part that people travel across the country for.

The Welcome to Concrete sign at the foothills of the Cascades.
The Welcome to Concrete sign at the foothills of the Cascades.
The North Cascades Highway

From Sedro-Woolley, kicking views of the Cascades appeared -- the kinds that cause you to lose focus on the road. Then I entered Concrete, which welcomed me with a massive sign made of… concrete. From there, the road started rising and winding. Waterfalls cropped up in the middle of turns, again causing me to compromise my driving as I took in the splendor. General fun ensued for the nest 30 or so miles: twisty roads, lush forests and waterfalls seemingly on every turn.

At the Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem, I learned that the Northern Cascades Highway, or State Highway 20 offers a bounty of gorgeous campgrounds. Hiking trails, side roads, scenic vistas and the occasional coffee shop or bar constantly tempted me to pull over. This loop could easily span a week for an outdoor-minded, adventurous sort of person, but I was trying to cram it into two days. It can be done in a day, as my fiancée John learned when he started with me but had to hurry ahead in order to be back at work the next day.

There were many tight turns on the North Cascades Highway.
There were many tight turns on the North Cascades Highway.
I like to measure how good a ride is by the number of times I whoop for joy inside my helmet. The biggest number of whoops on this trip definitely occurred between Newhalem and Winthrop, a 100-mile stretch of two-wheeled bliss. Hairpin turns, glaciers, towering peaks and glacial lakes – you ask for it, and Highway 20’s got it.

The roads were quiet, but a spectrum of motorcyclists was out enjoying the ride. I played leapfrog with a yellow BMW dual-sport rider as we took turns pulling over to drink in the views. I last passed him at the top of a hairpin turn that starts the descent into desert after cresting the highest pass. He’d parked his bike on a sliver of dirt and was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the cliff overhanging the road, gazing into the abyss.

The Methow Valley and Home

I stopped to fuel up in Winthrop, a town aiming for a cowboy feel at the eastern base of the Cascades. Tourists and bikers abounded. From there, the road returned to rolling through dramatic farmland and by rocky rivers. Caution: it’s deer country there in the Methow Valley -- deer decorate the
A shot of downtown Winthrops wooden facades and cowboy feel.
A shot of downtown Winthrop's wooden facades that gave it sort of a cowboy feel.
sides of the road like lawn ornaments and a sign warns of 192 deer kills in 2010 alone. A little while after Winthrop, I entered Twisp. The lack of tourists and the presence of a brewery appealed to me.

The recommended Cascade Loop turns south at Twisp, following the Okanogan National Forest through the Methow valley to the long, deep Lake Chelan and then back to Wenatchee to complete the loop. I continued east on 20 instead, and found it to be a surprisingly fun stretch of road. It gained at least 2,000 feet in elevation and took some exciting turns through national forest before descending into more idyllic farmland and depositing me in Okanogan.

From there it was a relatively short ride through the river valley, back to my high-adventure driveway and home. All the while, side roads beckoned exploration and riders loaded down with gear zoomed by, headed to the North Cascades Highway or some other undiscovered gem of a road.
Discovering the Cascade Loop Photos
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Soloing Cross County on CM400
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Brian Bundridge -Amazing  September 23, 2010 01:02 PM
I've ridden this route only up to Diablo Lake and back. That was inspiring enough. One route that may rival this one would be Forest Road 25 between Randle, Washington and Stevenson, Washington. It is one of the few rides I know on a summer day that you can see Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood in a single day. Even on a some what steady pace our group did, we were all equally sore but full of smiles. Check it out on Google Maps and enjoy the twisties. Just be careful of the rocks and such... Hopefully old man winter won't take it out again this year with the State funding drying up for most of those FS's
Sumanster -Great ride & pics  September 21, 2010 05:09 PM
My favorite pictures by far are #s 22-24 in the gallery. Wow! That lake reminds me of a lake I saw in Glacier NP a few years ago. I've been thinking of riding the Pacific NW for years, and this report's only added to that desire. Thanks for the report, photos, and route suggestions.
Lee -Rated No. 1  September 18, 2010 09:10 PM
I try to ride it once or twice a year. Just drove over it in a vehicle last week with my wife. Destination Highways motorcyle guide books rate the North Cascade, from Nehalem to Winthrop as the No. 1 Ride in the state. They have a very detailed rating system.
L. Frank -cross-country trip  September 18, 2010 06:29 PM
After reading your article, I clicked on the link to your earlier article and read about your solo cross-country trip - what an adventure. Is this the same bike you used for your Florida to California trip? Amazing bike.
Vern -Helpful Hints  September 17, 2010 08:30 PM
Wonderful article, well written and photographed. A few pointers: Be careful on the ferries with your bike, they get about 1 biker a week slipping and dropping their motorcycle on the slick metal deck. Weekdays aren't necessarily better along Highway 2 on the west side of the mountains. As you get near Everett you will hit alot of commuting traffic especially going thru all the little podunk towns (follow the speed limits which change something like 35 times between the pass and Everett, no really!). If you really want to annoy the people in Twisp, pronounce it 'Meth-Ow' valley. Not the correct 'Met-How' Valley. Drives them nuts.
Keith -tons of bikes  September 17, 2010 06:33 PM
I just went over 20 to Winthrop for a wedding. I was drooling both ways for all the bikes going over as my kids fought in the back of the car.
Gritboy -Nice piece  September 17, 2010 04:23 PM
Nice loop for sure and excellent photos and article.
NevadaDave -Makes me want to go now!  September 17, 2010 02:29 PM
Most of my family lives up near that area (Puyallup/Tacoma). We used to go camping at Ft. Worden near Pt. Townsend in years past, but I've never ridden bikes up in that area. After reading your article, it makes me want to head up there right now! It's also nice to see that you're riding a mid-size bike - I have a Goldwing now, but my wife and I put a lot of miles on a 350 Honda twin back in the 70's. It handled the freeways fine, but the old drum brakes were a bit marginal two-up!
CW -want to do  September 17, 2010 01:38 PM
Well written and photographed - i LOVE your style of writing and hope you get the opportunity to do more/see more - I want to read about those when you get to them - I live in Alberta and the mountains are a stones throw away so I can relate to the gorgeous mountain scenery you describe - Well Done and hoping to hear MORE of your adventures/touring - I have a DS that I travel with in the area and hope to one day do some touring in the States. Thnx CW :-)
Rob -Rob n Ted went there  September 17, 2010 12:27 PM
The 20 starts on the peninsula. To do it right you need to ride the ferry across and check out Port Townsend. We like to start in Port Townsend and ride the 20 all the way to Glacier National Park. The North Cascades can be a little scary because of the wind.
Ken -Fun loop  September 17, 2010 10:15 AM
As a resident of NW Washington, I'm embarrassed to admit I've never done this famous loop. Thanks for the well-written, nicely-photographed piece, Jamie! I'm ready to ride it (when it stops raining).