Length: About 400 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: April through October. (The North Cascades Highway is closed between Ross Dam Trailhead and Mazama in winter.)
Not to be missed: Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (April): Burlington, LaConner, and Mount Vernon.
Nearby attractions: Boeing aircraft assembly plant, Everett. San Juan Islands (via ferry from Anacortes). Space Needle, Seattle.
Words to the wise: No fuel is available on the 70-mile stretch of highway between Marblemount and Mazama.
Further information: Cascade Loop Association, Box 3245, Wenatchee, WA 98801; tel. 509-662-3888; www.cascadeloop.com.
The route traced here was impossible until 1972, when the rugged northern Cascade Mountains were finally breached by a highway. Now the mountains serve as the first leg of a remarkably diverse loop that embraces serene wilderness preserves, charming towns, bountiful orchards, and gleaming waterways — all blending harmoniously over the course of an impressive 400-mile journey.
This logging town, whose enigmatic name combines the Spanish word for cedar (cedro) with the surname of one of its early settlers, serves as the gateway to the North Cascades. Known as America’s Alps, the mountain range is beautifully preserved in North Cascades National Park — 505,000 acres of fragrant forests, flower-strewn meadows, imposing mountain peaks, intriguing wildlife (bears, wolves, cougars, deer, ptarmigan — a subarctic grouse — and more), and 318 glaciers (about half the total to be found in all of the lower 48 states). A park information center on the western edge of Sedro-Woolley helps visitors get off to an informed start in their explorations of the region.
2. Baker Lake
At Concrete head north off the North Cascades Highway (Rte. 20) and follow a U.S. Forest Service spur to 9-mile-long Baker Lake. A recreational reservoir east of snow-capped Mt. Baker — a 10,778-foot volcano that on occasion still spews out clouds of steam — the lake is a popular place for hiking, sailing, canoeing, and angling for trout, salmon, and whitefish. In spring Baker Lake attracts the state’s largest gathering of ospreys, which return every year to nest.
3. Rockport State Park
A mecca for hikers, campers, and picnickers, Rockport State Park contains groves of old-growth Douglas fir up to 300 feet tall. More than five miles of trails crisscross the park, some allowing close-up views of wetlands and the forest understory, and others leading to sunny overlooks.
4. Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area
Between Rockport and Marblemount, Rte. 20 passes the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area — some 1,500 acres that have been set aside as a sanctuary for the hundreds of bald eagles that arrive in late fall. From their perches in cottonwood trees along the banks of the river, the birds eye the water, then dive for salmon and steelhead. Visitors can view the birds from river rafts (launched from Marblemount) or from various turnouts along the route.
5. Gorge Creek Falls
Emerging from a 500-foot-long tunnel, Rte. 20 rejoins the Skagit River and soon arrives at Gorge Creek, which cascades hundreds of feet over ledges and boulders. For a thrilling perspective on the stream, stand on the steel bridge and peer through the grating into the turbulent water 900 feet below.