Washington state is one of the most beautiful in the nation, and the North Cascades Highway exemplifies much of what the region has to offer. In the fall, the brilliance of fall colors among often clear blue skies and towering rocky peaks will take your breath away.
If you’d like to experience a road trip through this spectacular autumn scenery, here is your guide to the optimal adventure.
Where to Start
Technically, Highway 20 starts in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, but most people will begin the scenic route off Interstate 5, where it officially gains the name “North Cascades Highway” at Sedro Wooley, Washington. Here it begins the slow climb through the Cascade Mountains, traversing through small towns and farmland and following the Skagit River along the way.
Stops Along the Way
Concrete is often a base camp for those traveling into the North Cascades National Park and makes a great stop for coffee and taking time to enjoy the scenery — it only gets better from here.
Marblemount State Park includes an old-growth forest, and it’s a perfect place to get out of the car and enjoy a short hike with few other people on the trails. The Evergreen Trail is a 3-mile loop around the park with an interpretive display throughout the trek.
Eight miles past the park, you’ll find your last chance for gas and other services for the next 90 miles at Marblemount. Just 6 miles east, you’ll want to stop for pictures, with the Ross Lake National Recreation Area especially breathtaking. The water is the most brilliant turquoise color I’ve ever seen, and there are many great vantage points to capture those picture postcard moments.
Nine miles farther in, stop at the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem, open through late October. Here you can learn more about the area and take a 200-foot trail for more spectacular views and brilliant fall foliage.
The breathtaking views continue with the Gorge Creek Falls, which pour into the dazzling emerald green Gorge Lake, with the colors coming from the glaciers creating a powder when moving over the rocks. When the right concentrations come together, the sunlight reflects off the powder, resulting in this glorious color.
The drive from Sedro Wooley to the town of Winthrop is about two and half hours — longer if you stop frequently. Winthrop makes a perfect place to stay overnight before returning in the other direction. Modeled after the old American West, it’s a fun and picturesque town that offers lots of outdoor activities from hot air balloon rides over the Methow Valley to horseback riding through golden meadows.
From inexpensive mom-and-pop motels to rustic cabins and resorts, there are plenty of accommodation options. If you want to treat yourself, head to Sun Mountain Lodge. This is a perfect place to relax after a long drive, with an extensive wine cellar, two heated outdoor pools open year round, and a full-service spa.
The surrounding area is incredible in the fall, covered with bright yellows and glowing orange, and a number of biking, hiking, and horseback trails to take it all in.
K.C. Dermody is a freelance writer and a Featured Contributor for Travel. She has traveled to nearly all 50 states and many countries worldwide and has a passion for imparting what she has learned from her experiences to others.
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