July 18, 2016
From Wild to Refined in the North Cascades
By Dutch Franz
Photo at right: A picturesque Mt. Baker is reflected in an unnamed snow melt pond. Photo by Andy Porter
Washington State’s North Cascades region has recreation and sightseeing opportunities for everyone. The recreational hub of the region is the North Cascades National Park, but outside the park the area comes alive with magical experiences from the wild to the refined.
We have highlighted a few special experiences here that visitors can enjoy when they travel to this gem of the Northwest.
Starting our trip approximately 31 miles east of Bellingham, outdoor enthusiasts will find the 10,781-foot snow-capped Mt. Baker. An active volcano in the Cascade Range and the second most active after Mt. St. Helens, the mountain is a favorite of climbers, hikers and snow-sport enthusiasts. Mt. Baker offers downhill skiing in the winter months with the season normally running from late November to early spring.
When ski season is over, the mountaineers arrive to attempt one of the premier alpine climbing experiences in the Northwest. Hikers and backpackers enjoy the unspoiled wilderness from late spring to early fall. Stop at the Glacier Public Service Center to plan your trip into the northern reaches of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
North Cascades Scenic Byway
After enjoying Mt. Baker, head south and catch the North Cascades Scenic Byway, also known as Highway 20.
The Byway winds 140 miles from Sedro-Woolley on the west side of the Cascades to Twisp on the east, and is part of the 400-mile scenic Cascade Loop. Stop at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount for the latest conditions and for help planning your adventure.
Continuing east, skirt the translucent green waters of Ross Lake before heading deep into the mountain range and the awe-inspiring vistas featuring rock spires, hanging valleys, waterfalls, and alpine glaciers that give this area the nickname, “North American Alps.”
After reaching the high desert of the Methow Valley, make plans to enjoy all types of outdoor recreation, charming restaurants and vibrant nightlife. The Byway is a favorite with cyclists looking to test themselves on the steep inclines. Many of the popular hiking and climbing routes in the area start on trailheads adjacent to the Byway. This road truly traverses wild places and is therefore a seasonal road. The Byway closes in late November and usually reopens in early May.
Our next stop is the Ross Lake National Recreation Area for water activities, camping, and a visit to the famous Ross Lake Resort. This lake is approximately 20 miles long from southern British Columbia south to Ross Dam in northern Washington.
There is no direct road access to Ross Lake; canoes, kayaks, and other portable craft can be launched on Diablo Lake and boated five miles to the end of the lake and then portaged around Ross Dam. Visitors can also hike to Ross Lake or take the Diablo Ferry.
Ross Lake Resort was established around 1952 from an old floating logging camp. Guests can enjoy the scenic mountain views and kayak from their front door at this one-of-a-kind remote resort.
The resort offers 12-individual cabins and three bunkhouses built on log floats. Accommodations are available by reservation from mid-June to Oct. 31. The resort provides portage and water taxi service on the lake and rents out small power-boats, canoes and kayaks.
Methow Valley Towns
Snaking down the North Cascades Scenic Byway, the road will take travelers through Mazama, Winthrop and Twisp. These towns serve as the cultural and recreational hubs of the North Cascades and offer outfitters and rental shops for almost every sport.
Mazama is a popular stop year-round to fuel-up with great food and supplies at the Mazama Store while cross-country skiing, mountain biking, fishing or hiking the Pasayten Wilderness.
The Old West town of Winthrop has great restaurants and eclectic shops. Catch the Methow Singletrack Solstice event in June and the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival in July.
At the confluence of the Twisp and Methow Rivers is the town of Twisp. This tiny town is home to a thriving artistic community that draws inspiration from the region’s natural beauty. Catch the Chamber Music Festival in late July and early August which attracts talented musicians from around the world.
Our tour ends at Stehekin, the quiet lake town nestled into the most northern shore of Lake Chelan. This remote village is connected to the outside world by foot, boat or float plane. The journey to Stehekin is part of the charm and ensures a quintessential North Cascades experience.
Early settlers established homesteads in Stehekin in the late 1800s and engaged in logging and agriculture. Today, there are several lodges and restaurants in town and approximately 78 campsites. Free backcountry passes are required for most campsites; check with the Golden West Visitor Center for details.
Stehekin serves as a hub to explore the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and offers hikes for all abilities. While visitors can also rent bikes, kayaks and horses in town, keep in mind, no trip to Stehekin is complete without visiting the Stehekin Pastry Company for mouthwatering pies and cinnamon rolls.
While it is possible to hike into the town, most visitors arrive on the Lady of the Lake ferry from Chelan. Lake Chelan is over 50 miles long and is the third deepest lake in the United States. Boats, water skis, wakeboards, tubes, scuba gear, paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks can be rented from local vendors in Chelan and Manson.
After a day playing on the water, try one of Lake Chelan’s 24 shore-side wineries and take in the majestic lake views while sipping some of the best wines in the country.
Ross Lake Resort: www.rosslakeresort.com
North Cascades Scenic Byway: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Traffic/Passes/NorthCascades
Methow Music Festival: www.methowmusicfestival.org
Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival: www.winthropbluesfestival.com
Methow Singletrack Solstice: www.methowevergreenmtb.org/p/2016-methow-singletrack-sols.html
North Cascades National Park Visitor Centers: www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm
Lady of the Lake, Lake Chelan Ferry: www.ladyofthelake.com
Dutch Franz is a Seattle-based journalist and outdoor adventurer who finds inspiration in the North Cascades. He has written extensively on the abundant climbing, hiking, and skiing in the region.