THE CIRCUIT FORMED by Highway 2, Highway 20, and assorted state routes is like Washington’s “greatest hits” of scenery: Stevens Pass, Lake Chelan, Methow Valley, Skagit River Valley, Snohomish River Valley, and countless hamlets that reflect the state’s unique temperament. It’s a truly eye-popping tour in and around the Cascade Mountains, but to see it all, you’ve got to embrace the open road—at more than 400 miles, this trek is a multi-day undertaking. Plan to tackle the route between May and October, because these roads are subject to weather-related closure, some all through winter.
Get your motor running in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island and head out on Highway 20, which crosses onto the mainland and follows the Skagit River into the mountains. This storied route, also known as the North Cascades Highway, traverses jaw-dropping mountain scenery before descending into to the Methow Valley. Highlights along this 165-mile leg include some great hikes in Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, the turquoise waters of glacier-fed Diablo Lake, and awe-inspiring views more than 5,000 feet above sea level at Washington Pass.
From the Wild West atmosphere of Winthrop at the top of the Methow Valley, head south past the resort playground of Lake Chelan to the fruit orchards of Wenatchee. Bring a rod and reel, because there are plenty of places to cast a line along Highways 153 and 97, but save room for a bushel or a peck of apple country’s finest.
From Wenatchee, head west on Highway 2 through the dense greenery of Stevens Pass and the fertile Snohomish River Valley, before jumping on Highways 526 and 525 (and the Mukilteo ferry) bound for Whidbey Island. Before you reenter the Interstate 5 Corridor, consider parking in Snohomish for a while—with more than 400 antique dealers in a four-block radius, the town may just harbor the perfect souvenir to recall your scenic roadshow.
> EAT MT. INDEX CAFÉ, GOLD BAR
Locals venerate this tiny roadside eatery near Stevens Pass as the motherlode of loaves. If you’re swinging in for breakfast, order up the French toast, or at lunch, go for a sandwich. Either way, you can’t lose. 360-799-1133
> SEE SKAGIT RIVER INTERPRETIVE CENTER, ROCKPORT
Drivers heading east into the Cascade foothills from December to February are in for some highflying patriotic action. Bald eagles, our majestic national bird, scan the Skagit for dying salmon, and guided tours out of this interpretive center can help you spot them. www.skagiteagle.org
> PLAY EARLY WINTERS OUTFITTING, MAZAMA
If you’re going to explore the West, you might as well experience it the way a true cowboy does—on horseback. Featuring pack trips through the Methow Valley, this outfitter caters to old-fashioned adventurers, as in, you may reel in your own dinner and cook it over a campfire.