The Ultimate Washington Road Trip
The Cascade Loop Scenic Highway quickly became one of our favorite road trip adventures to date! We’ve embarked on some pretty incredible road trips throughout our travels – the North Coast 500 in Scotland and Ring Road in Iceland quickly come to mind. In fact, scenic drives are our preferred way to see the world! As you’ll soon come to find out, we take A LOT of pictures, so it’s nice being able to take our time and really enjoy the scenery as we travel. As one of the best scenic drives in Washington State, the views along the Cascade Loop clearly didn’t disappoint!
Why the Cascade Loop?
A few years back, we did a road trip around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington and completely fell in love with the region. As we started planning our next visit to the Pacific Northwest, we enlisted the help of our friend, a Washington native, to give us some suggestions. We already had a few days planned in the San Juan Islands in order to cross another item off of our bucket list – seeing orcas in the wild, so she suggested the nearby Cascade Loop Scenic Highway and boy, are we glad she did! Now that we’ve done the drive ourselves, we can wholeheartedly recommend it to you. So if you fancy scenic road trips, like we do, you’ll want to go ahead and put this one on your list!
Cascade Loop Scenic Highway
The Cascade Loop is a scenic 440-mile drive through some of Washington State’s most spectacular landscapes! The journey starts in northern Washington near Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle. Head east on Highway 2 and you’re on your way! Could the drive be done in a day or two? Technically, yes, but you would miss out on soooo much! We’ve put together this guide to 1) showcase the endless things to see and do along the route and 2) to convince you that this Pacific Northwest road trip is a vacation destination in and of itself! Our ultimate goal is to persuade you to start planning your own trip along the Cascade Loop in Washington, so by the end of this post, we’ll see if we’ve met that goal!
In late September, we spent 9 glorious days driving and exploring the loop, and as such we were able to pack in quite a lot! Spending an average of two nights in each place gave us adequate time to explore the surrounding area. If your schedule doesn’t allow more than a week, you could stay in each of our recommended destinations for just one night, but you really wouldn’t want to spend any less than 5 days on the route. (Stay tuned until the very end to see our recommended accommodations along the Cascade Loop.)
Things to Do Along the Cascade Loop
In this post, we’ll cover all of the wonderful things we experienced along the route! Because there is way too much information to cover in just one post, you’ll notice several links to other posts we’ve written from our adventures on the Cascade Loop. So, without further adieu, let’s start the drive on this incredible Washington road trip!
Snohomish River Valley
Coming from Seattle, the road trip officially begins when you peel off from Interstate 5 onto Highway 2 in Everett. You’ll first pass through the Snohomish River Valley. If you’re into antiques, it’s important to note that the town of Snohomish is known as the Antique Capital of the Northwest. Or maybe you’re more of a water enthusiast – be sure to visit the town of Monroe where you’ll find plenty of opportunities for fishing, rafting, and other water sports. Got a sweet tooth? You’ll definitely want to stop by the Sultan Bakery for a delicious snack. And to work off that tasty treat, you can take a hike to the 265-ft Wallace Falls.
A must-stop in the town of Index is the Espresso Chalet (Milepost 36). Here, you will find plenty of beverage options and even more scrumptious eats. Just beyond the chalet are scenic views of Bridal View Falls. And don’t miss the opportunity to take your picture with (wooden) Sasquatch, marking the location where Harry and the Hendersons was filmed in 1987.
Beautiful Washington scenery is present throughout the entire drive, but the natural beauty really starts to pick up during the journey through Stevens Pass. In the early summer months, this region becomes a go-to destination for whitewater rafting. And in late September/early October, when we visited, the leaves are beginning to turn beautiful shades of red and yellow. Come winter, Stevens Pass becomes a popular snow resort destination. (Washington state highways can close frequently during the winter months, so visit the Washington State Department of Transportation website before setting out.)
After passing through the oh-so-scenic Tumwater Canyon, you’ll come to the charming town of Leavenworth, resting at the foothills of the Cascade mountains. Leavenworth is set up like a Bavarian village in Germany complete with alpine-style lodging, beer gardens, and a plenty of events and festivities taking place throughout the year. To read more about our two-night stay in this adorable German-themed village, check out our post Leavenworth Events & Activities – Bavarian Fun in Washington.
Leaving Leavenworth behind, we continued on toward the town of Cashmere. Once in Cashmere, we stopped by Liberty Orchards, a candy factory where they make Aplets & Cotlets (fruit and nut candy similar to Turkish delight). Liberty Orchards has been giving free samples and free tours since 1920! It was a quick stop, but a tasty one nonetheless.
The town of Wenatchee is known as the Apple Capital of the World and we could not believe the size of the apples we saw! We didn’t spend too much time in Wenatchee, though we did peruse the Pybus Public Market, which houses a few shops and restaurants within a renovated steel factory. After a quick bite, we relaxed along the shores of the Columbia River just behind the market, before making our way to our next overnight destination.
Columbia River Valley
One of the many things we loved about the Cascade Loop was that the scenery was always changing! One minute we’d be driving through a small town in forested mountains and the next we’d find ourselves in a seemingly more arid environment surrounded by rocks, orchards, vineyards, rivers, and lakes. Once you reach the Columbia River Valley, you’ll leave Highway 2 behind and hop on to Highway 97 for a short while.
Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the US and is a major attraction along the Cascade Loop. The lake has 50+ miles of shoreline, and while the town of Chelan may be more well known at the moment, we’d encourage you to visit the equally charming (and less crowded) town of Manson, just 7 miles further down the road on State Road 150. We regrettably only stayed one night in Manson, but between driving the Scenic Manson Loop and taking a helicopter tour of the area with Lake Chelan Helicopters, we’d say we fit in quite a bit! Be sure to check out our post covering the Top 5 Things to Do in Manson WA.
And wow, we thought the views were good before… the Methow Valley takes it to a whole new level! THIS is why you need more than just a day or two for this entire drive – you’ll want to keep pulling over to take pictures of the beautiful Washington scenery. Also, on a clear night in the Methow Valley, the stargazing will blow your mind!
Twisp is the Methow Valley’s largest town and is also considered to be the arts and cultural center of the region. The downtown is quite quaint and you’ll find creative pieces of artwork all over the town. Don’t miss a stop at Blue Star Coffee, as both their coffee and iced chai tea are delicious!
What would the arts center of the region be without a collection of artisan studios? Be sure to swing into TwispWorks, a 6+ acre campus supporting creativity, innovation, education, and the economic vitality of the community.
Just a few minutes down the road from Twisp, you’ll pass over the Spring Creek Bridge and cross into the western-themed town of Winthrop.
You’ll feel like you’ve taken a step back in time to the old Wild West as you stroll along the wooden boardwalks past several storefronts still maintaining their 1890 facades.
The main drag is easily walkable with many interesting places to explore. You’ll find several dining options, boutique shops, art galleries, sporting goods shops, and more! And if you couldn’t already tell, we love our sweets, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend a visit to Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe.
And oh man, does this drive just keep getting better and better! We leave the charming town of Winthrop behind and head out on the ridiculously scenic North Cascades Highway (also known as Highway 20).
There isn’t much to the town of Mazama; just a country store and a handful of lodging and dining options. Mazama Store is worth checking out and is the perfect place for stocking up on supplies for long hikes! They also offer a delicious selection of draft beer and fresh-brewed coffee. You may even run into some adventurous hikers during their journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. (Please note that Mazama is your last opportunity for gas until Marblemount – 75 miles away.)
Heather Maple Pass
Even with 9 full days on the route, we didn’t leave much time for hiking. We had read about Heather Maple Pass being one of the best hikes in the North Cascades and knew that this had to be our one big hiking adventure along the route. It was a longer and more strenuous hike than we were used to (7+miles, 2,000-ft elevation gain), but none of that really mattered when we were taking in the incredible views! For a more detailed look at our hike, check out our Maple Pass Loop post.
North Cascades Highway
Wow. Wow. Wow. There isn’t much more we can say about the insanely gorgeous scenery along the North Cascades Highway, other than be prepared to be AMAZED! It is recommended that you travel the Cascade Loop in a counter-clockwise direction, as the eastern approach into this region is not nearly as impressive when driving from west to east. Also, another thing we should definitely mention regarding the North Cascades Highway is that the road usually closes from mid November/December to around April. The exact dates can vary from year to year, depending upon the amount of snowfall, so again be sure to visit the Washington State Department of Transportation website for up-to-date information regarding Washington highway closures.
A special thanks to Mitsubishi for loaning us a 2016 Outlander Sport to test drive on our road trip. It turned out to be the perfect road trip companion, offering a smooth ride and handling the curves beautifully! The panoramic glass roof was ideal for gazing up at the towering mountains overhead.
For one of the most iconic views along the Cascade Loop, be sure to stop off at the Washington Pass Overlook. Here you’ll have breathtaking views of the Cascade mountain range, including Liberty Bell Peak, Early Winters Spires, and the Methow Valley, along with the winding North Cascades Scenic Highway below.
North Cascades National Park
The gorgeous scenery just… keeps… coming! The Cascade Loop Scenic Highway runs right through the heart of North Cascades National Park with scenic overlooks at Ross Lake and Diablo Lake. To read more about our wonderful time in the national park, including our stay at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, you’ll have to check out our post Washington Nature Abounds in North Cascades National Park.
The only stop we made in Marblemount was at the Wildwood Chapel, across the street from The Eatery. We actually met a couple earlier in the day who told us about this little hidden gem, so we had to stop and have a look for ourselves. The chapel is so tiny and probably holds no more than 10 people!
Another stop recommended to us was Cascadian Farm in Rockport. Funny enough we knew of Cascadian Farm because of their organic granola bars and cereals sold in grocery stores, but we had no idea we’d be passing right by their farm stand. Of course we had to stop in to have a look at their (seasonal) pumpkin patch and to sample their homemade ice cream!
A few miles down the road from the farm is a wonderful park perfect for having a picnic and doing some bird-watching along the scenic Skagit River.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in the town of Concrete, though we did come upon 5b’s (a gluten-free bakery) and a cool abandoned train car. This more or less officially concluded our drive along the Cascade Loop. However, we have one more incredible place to tell you about!
Most people will finish their drive along the Cascade Loop with a stay on Whidbey Island, but we did the drive a little out of order and actually started along the route on Whidbey. Because the first part of our Washington trip included a visit to the San Juan Islands, it made more sense for us to visit Whidbey Island first, then continue on the route toward Leavenworth. Since most travelers end on Whidbey, we saved it until the end of our post. To read more about our time on the island, check out our post What to Do on Whidbey Island.
Lodging Along the Cascade Loop
We know this post is getting long and thanks for sticking with it! We hope it’s been helpful! Rather than putting together a completely separate post on where we stayed during the drive, we wanted to quickly highlight our picks for lodging along the Cascade Loop.
Hotel Pension Anna – Leavenworth
Hotel Pension Anna offers 16 unique rooms adorned with traditional furnishings and décor imported from both Germany and Austria. Start the morning with a Bavarian-style breakfast and experience authentic Bavarian lodging in Leavenworth.
Mountain View Lodge & Resort – Manson
Mountain View Lodge is a 31-room boutique-style hotel with all of the modern luxuries of a resort, including plush bath robes, a refreshing pool, a soothing hot tub, community BBQ grills, and an inviting fire-pit!
Mazama Country Inn – Mazama
Mazama Country Inn is located less than 30 minutes from the Maple Pass Loop trailhead and directly behind the Mazama Store. They offer 18 guestrooms at their cozy inn and have 30 privately owned vacation homes throughout the Mazama area. Without TVs or telephones in the rooms, it’s the perfect place to connect with nature.
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center – Lake Diablo
For a truly unique lodging experience, stay in dorm-style housing at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center within North Cascades National Park. It’s like summer camp for adults (of course, kids are welcome too)! Access miles and miles of hiking trails right at your doorstep.
Garden Isle Cottages – Whidbey Island
Garden Isle Cottages in Coupeville on Whidbey Island offers two cozy garden cottages, along with a three-bedroom home. Take a dip in the hot tub, relax on the garden swing, and take a walk into Coupeville’s historic downtown area.
So… have we met our ultimate goal?! Did we persuade you to start planning your own trip along the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway? Hopefully, now you can see why one or two days simply isn’t enough. With so much to do and see along the route, it’s clear as to why the loop drive can be a vacation destination all by itself. And keep in mind… this is just what we personally did on the drive. If you can believe it, there’s even more to discover along this incredible Washington road trip!
Want to tag along on this ultimate Pacific Northwest road trip with us? Check out our video below:
FINAL TIPS FOR DRIVING THE CASCADE LOOP
- Check the Washington State Department of Transportation website for up-to-date information regarding Washington highway closures.
- Because lodging can be somewhat limited along parts of the drive, you’re encouraged to make reservations ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
- If you drive an electric car, it’s important to know where to find charging stations along the route.
- Though entrance into North Cascades National Park is free, you’ll want to look into picking up a Northwest Forest Recreation Pass or Discover Pass if you plan to hike, camp, or access forest lands or parks.
- For the most comprehensive information about the route, please visit the Cascade Loop website. Also, be sure to order your FREE Cascade Loop Travel Guide!
- Oh, and don’t forget your camera! 😉
We’d like to thank the following for their support during our drive along the Cascade Loop: The Cascade Loop Association, Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Pension Anna (Leavenworth), Leavenworth Ziplines, Mountain View Lodge & Resort (Manson), Lake Chelan Helicopters, Mazama Country Inn, The North Cascades Institute – Environmental Learning Center, Whidbey & Camano Island Tourism, Garden Isle Cottages (Whidbey Island) and Mazda. As always, all write-ups are an accurate reflection of the experiences we had.