National Geographic Traveler rates the 650-kilometre Cascade Loop as “One of America’s grandest and most spectacular drives.” Best of all, this much heralded road trip starts so close to home, it can be sampled in a weekend, experienced in a week or indulged in a month. No ferries. No airports. No fuss. Just pack the car and head for the border. You’re now 120km, or a couple of easy-listening CD’s, from the start.

Follow “I5” to Everett – Congratulations! You’ve reached Ground Zero. It is time to leave the stressed, suited, SUV drivers on the Seattle commuter corridor, and enter a new world. Highway “2” takes campers piled high with kayaks, cartoppers and coolers east into the Cascade Mountains. Sultan, Gold Bar, Index, West Baring. No sign of a Starbucks, or even a person for that matter. A pair of hovering bald eagles search the meandering Snohomish River for lunch.

In Baring, there are signs of life. A fence festooned with shiny hubcaps. Low-set ranchers in manicured gardens. The 2000 census boasts a population of 233. Colourful birdhouses dangle from perfectly pruned fruit trees. Stars and Stripes slap against freshly painted flagpoles. A store and service station. Remnants of a community, once thriving on logging and gold mining, now sleepily surviving on passing sightseers, winter skiers and pension cheques.

On to Stevens Pass which, at 1500 metres, is the highest point on this stretch of the highway. Ski lifts; snow patches; a chill in the air; a stray marmot playing chicken with oncoming motor homes. Views are spectacular

.It’s all downhill to Leavenworth where the temperature can hit C30 degrees on a clear mid June day. Dirndls; lederhosen; piped music. Leavenworth is a “theme” town. Bavarian balconies crammed with giant geraniums protrude from heavily muralled walls giving the effect of a fully opened advent calendar. Oom-papa music permeates strudel shops; Christmas stores; Victorian-doll emporiums.

It’s early in the season. The horse-drawn buggy driver smiles benignly. She is the back-drop for a happy snapping mother, whose tetchy daughter is posing with a double-scoop, dripping on her dress, vanilla ice-cream cone. Business is slow.

Okay - it’s kitschy but the mountain setting, river walks and spirited enthusiasm of the locals will win over the toughest sceptic. Wiener schnitzels big enough to fuel a dogsled team, are served at The Tumwater Inn by a no-nonsense, ample waitress, keen to impart knowledge on the dizzying array of upcoming festivals: “bike and brew” “sausage” “accordion” “quilting” etc.

Sunrise brings an insistent haunting echo. The endangered spotted owl? Across the street, a man is perched precariously on the railing of a high balcony. Clad in lederhosen, he is clasping a 4 metre long ‘Alphorn’ to his lips. Is this his final farewell or just a dress rehearsal? Turns out he is advertising the best brunch – (all you can eat for US$7.50) - in town, and will repeat the performance in an hour to alert the laggards. A tough way to earn a buck!

The road continues another 30km down to Wenatchee. Apple orchards; vineyards; wheatfields. It’s hot and dry and irrigation hoses are working flat out, drawing water from the convergence of the Columbia and Wenatchee rivers. Packing sheds are piled high with empty crates. Tiny picker huts are grouped in Lego-like clusters awaiting their seasonal occupants. The influx of retirees has brought seriously neoprened senior cyclists and skaters to beautified riverside trails; and a new cultural energy to the place.

Towering mountains to the left. Smallholdings to the right, “The Loop” veers North East on Highway 97. Chelan sits at the bottom end of Lake Chelan which cuts a deep fissure into the heart of the Cascade mountains, fed by 27 glaciers, some higher than 2800 metres.

Three ferryboats are a lifeline for the Stehekin Valley; an 88 kilometre trip to the lakehead. The fast-cat is perfect for the weekend sampler who won’t spring for a flight on Chelan Airways 1954 Beaver. The freighter stacked high with stovepipes, mailbags, cottagers and tousle-haired hikers, makes random stops along the way. A  “mid speed” cruiser, with sheltered decks and a coffee bar, serves day-trippers in comfort, allowing a couple of hours for soft exploration and a bus-ride to the waterfall before returning.

Early tourists may find the 100 or so full-time residents of this isolated valley, a little “bushed”; much like bears emerging from winter hibernation. Eight meters of snow to shovel can turn a person temporarily inward. The Stehekine Lodge with simple accommodation from a room to a cabin - no phones or TV - is a great base for exploring hiking trails on foot or bike.

Cast a line. Rent a horse. Write a novel or just chill out at the newly enlarged bakery. The one-roomed schoolhouse is now a museum showcasing local gems such as the illustrated, pertinent words of Sabrina Winkel aged seven:  “Skunks smell very bad. They eat brown grubs, worms and bugs.”

On to Pateros, Carlton and Twisp. The Eastern leg of the loop is completed in open rangeland and cowboy country. Western facades and boardwalks of Winthrop are pure “Blazing Saddles” but its not all Hollywood. At the Winthrop Emporium you can stock-up on hard-to-find glow-bait and homemade sausage kits. Mounted pairs of dusty miniature ceramic cowboy boots make great stocking-stuffers?

The coffee counter is an ideal spot to watch cruisin’ pick-up trucks complete with gun rack, “Tidy” tank and a pacing mutt. Don’t ask for a latte and be sure to gauge the capacity of your mouth before committing to an elephantine, chocolate coated, cream filled doughnut.  Your favourite fishing story, true or false, will be an instant hit with the locals who are always keen to expand their inventory.

If you are cruising with that special someone and are out for a bit of wanton frolicking, just “rub the genie-bottle” and look skywards. Perched on a hilltop above Winthrop is the Sun Mountain Lodge. The Haub family achieved fame – and wealth – by inventing “Gummy Bears” (Dust off Aunt Nellie's praline recipe – you never know?). They pumped twenty million bucks into the place in 1990 and are currently completing a further two and a half million-dollar makeover.

A Robinson suite should do the trick. The wall-to-wall view is a watercolour from the old west that changes with the setting sun. Best of all, it can be indulged in privacy from the double Jacuzzi AND the king-sized twig bed. A glass of wine; Mozart; licking flames from the fireplace. It’s all thoughtfully provided together with snowy white bathrobes and heaps of thick towels The only snooper is a mule-deer grazing below the balcony. Oh -and there is room service!Time to move on. The highway begins to climb and twist and climb some more. Liberty Bell Mountain stands, a snow-covered insurmountable sentinel at 2500 metres, but somehow the road snakes through flower-filled alpine valleys and over the top. Washington Pass. Rainy Pass. Views of Diablo and Ross lakes made teal in colour by glacial dust. Eventually it drops down into the Skagit Valley. Hobby farms; horses grazing; bald eagles. Through the towns of Concrete, Sedro Wooley, Burlington and back to …….I-5 and the suited SUV crowd heading home. Reach for the CD player. Perhaps a little “Country and Western” this time?  


Depending on time, your experience can be enhanced with many activities: Whitewater rafting/kayaking/hot air ballooning/ bird-watching/hiking/ horseback riding – just to name a few. It can be easily extended to include Whidbey Island; the wineries around Woodinville and indeed Seattle itself.

There is accommodation for every budget: Tiny four room Inns; B&B’s, Best Westerns; Howard Johnson’s and stacks of pristine campsites. Most can be prebooked online.



Copyright © 2004 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.