If you're looking to experience the natural beauty of the North Cascades, then a drive along the North Cascades Highway is a must!
The North Cascades Highway (also known as Highway 20) takes travelers through the stunning North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. Whether you're looking for a weekend getaway or an extended road trip, the North Cascades Highway has something for everyone. From breathtaking views of Diablo Lake to picturesque mountain passes, this highway is sure to provide you with an unforgettable experience.
The Best Time to Go
When it comes to the North Cascades National Park Road, the best time to drive is during the late spring and summer months to the beginning of fall. From late May to early October, the North Cascades Highway is open and fully accessible. During this time, you will have the chance to take in the scenic views, clear blue lakes, and majestic mountains of the region.
However, the highway is closed during winter months due to hazardous conditions. The North Cascades Highway closure typically starts in mid-November and ends in late May.
Drivers should also be aware that road conditions during winter can vary greatly from day to day.
It is important to check the local weather forecasts before planning any trips along the North Cascades Highway, as snow and ice can make driving dangerous. High winds and snow can cause road closures and delayed openings, so be sure to be prepared for unexpected changes in road conditions.
What to Expect
Stretching across northern Washington, Highway 20 is a winding well-maintained road that takes you through the majestic landscapes of North Cascades National Park. Along the way, you'll be treated to views of snow-capped peaks, emerald-blue alpine lakes, and vistas that will take your breath away.
One of the highlights of the highway is Washington Pass Overlook (read more about Washington Pass below!), where you can get a stunning view of Liberty Bell Mountain.
Further along the route, you'll pass by Diablo Lake and its postcard-perfect setting, surrounded by steep cliffs, mountain peaks and deep green forests. Take a break from driving to explore the shoreline or rent a boat to explore the lake in greater detail.
In addition to these natural wonders, you'll have a chance to visit several charming small towns along the route.
Stop in Newhalem for some local treats, or continue on to Winthrop for an old west experience complete with wooden boardwalks.
North Cascades Highway Highlights
Traveling the North Cascades Highway is a beautiful way to experience the North Cascades National Park in Washington State (and often the only way most people see the park!).
Technically, Highway 20 begins all the way west on Fidalgo Island and ends in Omak. But, the section that's most commonly driven (to see the national park) starts in Sedro-Wooley and ends in Okanogan. Along the way, you'll pass several small (yet well-known towns) like Winthrop and Mazama, as well as all of the North Cascades Highway Highlights, mentioned below.
A small, well-loved town along Highway 20 that's a popular spot for rock climbing, hiking, and pit-stopping before embarking on multi-day adventures. It's home to the famous Fly Boys route, one of the longest multi-pitch sport routes in North America.
Cutthroat Pass Trail
The spectacular Cutthroat Pass Trail offers hikers an incredible view of Cutthroat Lake and nearby mountain peaks.The trailhead is just outside of Mazama before reaching (or just after reaching) Washington Pass.
Washington Pass Overlook
The overlook is accessible just after or before the famous hairpin turn at the base of Liberty Bell Mountain. It has a parking lot and accessible trails to help you explore the area more deeply. From this vantage point, you can take in sweeping views of jagged mountain peaks, lush meadows, and ancient forests.
Diablo Lake is a stunning deep blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Here you can take pictures, enjoy some of the best views in the region, and even go fishing. The lake is visible from the road as well if you don't have time to stop. A popular trail takes you from the Ross Dam Trailhead all the way to the Diablo Lake Trailhead (or in the other direction). We also recommend driving across the 389-foot Diablo Dam.
Make sure you also check out the Ross and Diablo Lake Overlooks.
Cascade River Road
This road is easily accessible in Marblemount, just before where the highway closes in the winter (Cascade River Road will also close in the winter).
The road runs for a few miles paved before turning into gravel. It dead ends at the Cascade Pass Trailhead, a very popular jumping off point for those hoping to hike to Cascade Pass, Sahale Peak, or even start the famed Ptarmigan Traverse across the North Cascades.
Reccomended Trails Along North Cascades Highway
The highway has a number of hiking trails which offer views of glaciers, mountain peaks, and waterfalls. Our recommended hikes include:
Wing and Lewis Lakes from Rainy Pass
A gorgeous trail that gains minimal elevation before providing a gorgeous, expansive view of Wing and Lewis Lakes with Black Peak dominating the distant skyline.
This is another moderate-hard trail that takes you up to a fantastic viewpoint above Thornton Lakes (and onward to Trappers Peak if you want a little more of a workout).
Easy Pass Trail
This is a hard, 8+ mile hike that ends in another spectacular viewpoint along the North Cascades Highway.
Tips for the Trip
Traveling the North Cascades Highway is a great way to explore the beauty of northern Washington. However, it is important to be prepared for your trip, especially when it comes to getting gas and food and knowing when to expect closures.
Gas Along Highway 20
When it comes to getting gas, there are a few different gas stations to choose from and long sections of roads where there is no gas available. There are two gas stations in Marblemount and no other options until you get to Diablo, about 40 miles away. From there, you'll need to make it all the way to Mazama, where there is a single gas station. You're in the clear after Mazama as you'll quickly pass through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp.
Food and Drinks
As for food, there are several small towns along the highway where you can find some great places to eat. Marblemount is the last best place to stop if you're traveling from west to east. After Marblemount, you'll be driving at least 20 minutes before you reach Newhalem, a small town based around an electrical plant. and Mazama both offer restaurants and cafes serving up local cuisine as well as more traditional American favorites.
Winter Conditions on Highway 20
When it comes to driving on the North Cascades Highway, it is important to know when to bring chains and when not to bring them. During the winter months, chains are often required due to snowy or icy road conditions. It’s a good idea to check the North Cascades Highway "Open" or "Closed" status before heading out in order to know what to expect.
During the summer months, however, chains are typically not necessary unless a closure has been issued due to rock slides or other natural hazards.
Overall, a trip along the North Cascades Highway can be a great way to explore the beauty of Washington state. Be sure to take some time to plan ahead by checking on gas and food options, as well as the current road conditions, in order to make the most of your journey!
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