Few people outside the state of Washington know about the Cascade Loop, but tourism folks there are beginning to get the word out. If you like driving long stretches of gorgeous mountain scenery without meeting another vehicle, boating in and float planing out of a national park, or visiting a carefully preserved Old West town, this is a route for you. And prices along much of the way are a decade behind the rest of the country, like $66 and up per room in a posh resort, depending on the season.
It's easy enough to drive the 440 miles in three days, but five or six is better, and a week is perfect. Using Seattle as a base, you drive through nine different regions, ranging from the waters of the Puget Sound to the dramatic mountain peaks and spectacular views around every bend of the road on the North Cascades Highway.
I recommend driving the route clockwise, starting from the Emerald City, passing through the Snohomish River Valley across Stevens Pass to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, where a charmingly ersatz "Bavarian" village named Leavenworth will do its best to entertain you and fill your stomach with schnitzel, pretzels and beer. Have breakfast at the Enzian Hotel, where Alphorn Bob will stand on the balcony railing and herald the day ahead with his ten-foot-long, curved horn. The all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast (including a made-to-order omelet) costs $7.50.
You pass then along the Columbia River through acres of orchards and vineyards until you reach Lake Chelan, one of the prettiest bodies of water in the country with a resort at the south end (Campbell's, standard rooms from $66 to $176, depending on season), and an unreachable (by car) North Cascades National Park ranger station in Stehekin at the north. The economical way to reach Stehekin and the park is by boat, the Lady of the Lake being the best known (509/682-4584, www.ladyofthelake.com).
As much fun as it is to take the boat one-way (from $16.50, roundtrip from $26), a floatplane back is even more enjoyable ($80 one way, $120 roundtrip). I flew with Nick Nolen, owner of Chelan Airways (509/682-5555) and highly recommend it. His aircraft of choice is a 6-passenger deHavilland Beaver purchased from the Royal Canadian Air Force (it still had "Bomb Jettison" button on the instrument panel."
From here, it's a short hop to the Methow Valley, where the town of Winthrop's main street looks much as it did when Owen Wister stayed there about the time he was writing the great western, The Virginian. If you have money to spare, try spending the night at the super deluxe Sun Mountain Lodge (standard room $85 to $225, depending on season; 800/572-0493, www.sunmountainlodge.com), where deer and rabbits abound on its 3,000 acres.
The highlight of the journey is the North Cascades Highway, Route 20, best experienced driving from east to west. Be sure to stop at historic Newhalem, a company town owned and managed by Seattle City Light, and dating back to 1918. In addition to its own walking tour (buy the homemade fudge at the General Store), City Light operates Skagit Tours, boat trips on Diablo Lake's emerald waters. ($17, selected dates from June through September). More info at www.skagittours.com or phone 206/684-3030.
At the northwest end of the Loop, you will have a chance to visit the Skagit Valley, home to bald eagles and the world's biggest producer of daffodils, as well as the second largest collection of tulips (after Holland). Open year round is Roozengaarde, where they grow not only tulips, but daffodils (March is best) and iris (May). Contact them at www.tulips.com or 866/488-5477.
Food and wine along the way are remarkable, especially the latter. Many boutique wineries produce excellent varieties, but in amounts scarcely big enough to sell to friends and neighbors. At the Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, however, you'll find plenty to buy. While you're at it, if the timing is right, drop in at the nearby Barking Frog, which has an amusingly titled wine list. Among the headings are these: Loud & Wooly (for reds), Lush & Jammy ("pajama wines"), Bright & Easy, and my favorite, "Archaic, Dusty & Expensive as Hell" (from $78 a bottle).
For more details about the trip, visit www.cascadeloop.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 509/662-3888. For details on the North Cascades National Park visit www.nps.gov/noca, phone 206/386-4495.
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