From river valleys to jagged glacial peaks, Washington's 140-mile North Cascades Scenic Highway is packed with extraordinary sights and activities. The route follows State Route 20 from Sedro-Woolley in the west to Twisp in the east, passing through the North Cascades National Park complex, a sprawling wilderness area that extends from the north end of Lake Chelan up to the border of Canada. The North Cascades Highway is part of the Cascade Loop—a popular multi-day Washington road trip—and is perhaps the most encompassing way to take in this mountainous, lake-dotted national park. Keep in mind that the high-elevation sections of Highway 20 are closed during the winter season.
Sedro-Woolley and Concrete
Beginning in the small logging town of Sedro-Woolley, the western section of the North Cascades Highway parallels the Skagit River. Sedro-Woolley and its neighbor, Concrete (also called "Cement City" for its concrete manufacturing), offer the full range of visitor services, from fuel to lodging and grocery stores.
Stock up on your road trip snacks here, then head to the shore of the Skagit River for a picnic and some bird watching. This waterway is popular for rafting, wildlife spotting (the salmon are abundant), and in the winter, it becomes home to a significant population of bald eagles.
Rockport and Marblemount
After Concrete, the North Cascades Highway will lead you to Rockport, home to the old-growth forest that makes up Rockport State Park and Rinker Peak, part of the Colorado Sawatch Mountains. Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport is situated along the Skagit River and provides camping and picnicking spots right on the water. Further along, Marblemount offers even more in the way of hiking, birding, river sports, and more. These are your last opportunities to take advantage of commercial services before leaving the Puget Sound area for more remote road.
North Cascades National Park Visitor Center
The visitor center for North Cascades National Park is located along State Route 20, near the company town of Newhalem. Inside are rangers who are eager to help visitors plan hiking trips, scenic drives, and sunset photography sessions. If you'll be staying in the park for a while or you're planning to do any activities apart from driving, it would be wise to at least pick up a map and ask the ranger about the current conditions. You'll also find multimedia exhibits on the park's history, a bookshop, and restrooms. Interactive trails around the visitor center include the Sterling Munro Trail, which treats hikers to views of Pinnacle Peak, and River Loop Trail, a 1.8-mile loop through lush forest.
A stop in the small town of Newhalem along the North Cascades Highway will offer you access to fun activities like boat tours on Diablo Lake. Seattle City Light dinner cruises frequent this scenic waterway. To get there, you'll cross Diablo Dam, built in 1930 and once the tallest dam in the world. Newhalem is also home to the Skagit General Store, a historic road stop where you can stretch your legs and pick up a snack, and the "Old Number Six" historic steam locomotive, a restored Baldwin steam engine that serves as the meeting place for many Lake Diablo boat tours.
The visitor gallery at the Gorge Powerhouse includes photos and exhibits covering the construction of the Diablo Dam and its early days as a tourist attraction. On the wooded hillside behind the Gorge Powerhouse, you'll find a loop train that will take you to Ladder Creek Falls.
Hikers will enjoy the Trail of the Cedars, a short, family-friendly hike through the rainforest, and Ladder Creek Falls, a hilly loop trail located across a footbridge and behind the Gorge Dam Powerhouse.
Gorge Dam Overlook
Stop for a scenic view of the Gorge Dam and Gorge Lake at this overlook just a short hike from the highway pull-off. The first portion of this .8-mile (paved) interpretive loop is accessible, but able bodies can hike a little farther to get a different view. Because of vegetation, the views become more scarce year after year. Back on the highway, you'll head east of the Gorge Dam along the Skagit River, where it becomes a series of reservoirs along the road.
Ross and Diablo Lake Overlooks
Dams along the Skagit River form the major reservoirs of Diablo Lake and Ross Lake. The glacial silt in the water gives these lakes the stunning blue-green color that makes them highly photogenic. As you drive along North Cascades Highway, don't miss the opportunity to stop and enjoy the view from marked vista points. From the official Ross Lake Overlook, you'll be able to see the azure, mountain-rimmed watering hole from your car.
The eastern section of the North Cascades Highway descends from Washington Pass and Rainy Pass down into Methow Valley. At this part of the trip, you return to civilization. Methow Valley is home to a number of hotels, lodges, resorts, art galleries, restaurants, and coffee houses. It's also a wildlife corridor where passersby are likely to see bald eagles, osprey, or deer, depending on the season. During July, promptly after the snow melts, Methow Valley becomes blanketed by blooming paintbrush, lupine, larkspur, penstemon, goldenrod, and sandwort.