Diablo Lake: 66 miles E of Burlington (I-5), 65 miles W of Winthrop; Mount Baker Ski Area: 62 miles E of Bellingham
Wolves and grizzly bears still call this wilderness home, and names such as Mount Fury, Mount Terror, and Forbidden Peak are testament to the rugged and remote nature of this terrain. Much of the region is preserved within the two units of North Cascades National Park, one of the least visited national parks in the country. This lack of visitors is easy to understand when you realize there is but one gravel road within the park boundaries, and it originates in the community of Stehekin on the north shore of Lake Chelan. Stehekin can only be reached by hiking trail, floatplane, or boat, which severely limits the number of vehicles that use this road. However, passing between the two units of the national park is the North Cascades Scenic Highway, which does provide access to viewpoints and trails that lead into the national park. While there is very little road access in this area, there are plenty of hiking trails, and day hikers and backpackers can explore vast wilderness areas in this region.
Though numerous attempts were made over the years to build a road through the craggy, glacier-sculpted North Cascade mountains, it was not until 1972 that Wash. 20 finally connected the Skagit Valley communities on the west side of the North Cascades with Winthrop on the east side. Today the road is known as the North Cascades Scenic Highway, and it's one of the most breathtakingly beautiful stretches of road anywhere in the United States. Unfortunately, because of heavy winter snows and avalanches, the road is open only from April to November (depending on the weather). The scenic highway begins east of Sedro-Woolley, with more than a dozen campgrounds along its length.
Lying just outside the northwestern corner of North Cascades National Park is 10,778-foot Mount Baker, which on a clear day dominates the skyline to the east of Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. This is the northernmost of Washington's Cascade Range volcanoes, and, as such, rises high above the surrounding North Cascade peaks, which are geologically unrelated to Mount Baker. Because it is open to the winter storms that sweep up the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, Mount Baker usually receives more snow than any other Cascades peak, and in the winter of 1998-99, a world record of 1,140 inches fell at the Mount Baker Ski Area.
The North Cascades Scenic Highway, with its mountain vistas and excellent hiking, attracts most people to this area, but Mount Baker's slopes are equally rewarding (and actually much more accessible than mountain slopes along the North Cascades Scenic Hwy.). In summer, hikers explore alpine meadows, and in winter, skiers and snowboarders sample some of the most legendary snows in the country.