A Day in the North Cascades

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good road trip. There’s something so be said about the freedom of an open road- a fresh playlist to jam out to, a selection of good snacks to munch on, and if you’re really lucky, a few companions that enjoy the spontaneity of venturing to new places as much as you do.

After gaining inspiration from Seattle Met Magazine’s “The Prettiest Road Trip in the Pacific Northwest” I figured what better way to see the fall foliage than a day trip around the Cascade Loop. I rallied a few friends and off we went.

This trip can be navigated in a handful of ways, but we decided to stick to the outline highlighted in Seattle Met’s article. We started from State Route 20 just outside of Burlington, a small city about an hour north of Seattle, and headed east.

We decided to make our first stop for a quick leg stretch at a picnic area just outside of Rockport State Park, a public recreation area home to over 600 acres of old-growth forest to hike through.

Views overlooking the Skagit Valley River and Northern Cascade peaks in the distance Alex Simon

The southwestern edge of this park was a highlight for me in its own right – after cruising past the soft rolling mountains that greet you at the foothills of the Northern Cascades, we turned around a bend and were immediately faced with views of jagged peaks off in the distance and the flowing Skagit Valley River. We took a moment to enjoy the crisp, fall air and then back to the route we went.

Close-up views of North Cascade Mountain peaks Alex Simon

Did you know the Northern Cascades extend north 700 miles from California, through Oregon and Washington, to southern B.C., Canada? Alex Simon

About 90 minutes and one U-turn later, we found ourselves on an unexpected, but greatly appreciated detour across the Diablo Dam. At 540 ft. high and 1,300ft. long, we were surrounded by stunning views of Diablo Lake’s turquoise waters.

Sunbeams shining down on runoff waters from the Diablo Dam Alex Simon

There is a small foot ferry located on the northern side of the dam that makes runs from Diablo Lake to Ross Lake twice daily. We arrived in-between crossings and instead of waiting for the next departure, we took the opportunity to soak up some sunshine alone on the dock before continuing on.

Views overlooking the west end of Diablo Lake Alex Simon

Fall foliage contrasting against turquoise waters at Diablo Lake Alex Simon

There couldn’t have been a better day to make this journey. The green, yellow and orange foliage in contrast with the blues of the water and sky was completely mesmerizing. Once back on State Route 20, we were only about 15 minutes away from “beach” access to Thunder Arm, a narrow extension of Diablo Lake. Eager to be up-close to the water, we pulled off into the gravel parking lot of Thunder Knob Campground and followed a path to the water’s edge.

Beach access at Thunder Knob Campground Alex Simon

We spent some time wandering around the lake, finding creeks of run-off water and enjoying how fortunate we had been to be one of the few small groups out there. Knowing that we still had another view of this lake to be seen from above, we continued east on our route and were soon greeted with a vista viewpoint that seemed to have called in travelers from all over.

Looking down on Diablo Lake from the vista point Alex Simon

Diablo Lake Vista Point was a highly informative stop with a handful of plaques that highlight the various peaks surrounding the lake and an insight to the different types of trout that live beneath the surface.

When we started this journey, Diablo Lake was to be the end of our trip; We had expected to circle back at this point and head home the way we had come. However, a desire for hot food (and the closest gas station calling us further east), we made the decision to fully commit to the loop. Much to our delight, we found ourselves headed west towards Winthrop, Washington; a small town reminiscent of days long-passed.

A friend to greet you outside of Sheri’s Sweet Shop in Winthrop, Washington Alex Simon

The whole town is something right out of a 1960’s western film. If you find yourself passing through, be sure to stop by their Shafer Museum and learn a bit about the history of the families that settled here long ago and the legacy they left behind.

We hung around the area until dusk, popping in and out of saloons and mom ‘n’ pop shops before we had to say goodbye and begin our 4-hour trek back to Seattle.

If there’s one piece of advice I’d leave the next traveler inspired by this journey, it would be to allow yourself more than a day to experience the full loop. Give yourself the flexibility to spend more time at your destinations! In eagerness to get home, we opted out of a small detour through Leavenworth, a Bavarian inspired village tucked into the foothills of the Cascades famous for their alpine-style buildings adorned with Christmas lights and bier gartens serving authentic German cuisine. I would have loved to stay and linger longer, but luckily for this local, Levenworth is just another day trip away and I know I’ll be back.

About the Author

Alexandra Simon

Alex is the Partner Services Coordinator at Visit Seattle. After graduating from the University of Central Florida, she left sunny South Florida and headed west. Now a West Seattle local for over 2 years, and always up for an adventure, you can find her as close to the water as possible in the summer and hitting the slopes in the winter.

More Posts By Alexandra Simon
Alexandra Simon

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