Wash. 20, the North Cascades Scenic Highway, is a bit slow in sharing its beauties. Though it runs along the Skagit River on the west side of the Cascades, not until the Ross Lake area does the scenery become truly grand. However, there are several distractions along the way before you reach the most scenic stretch of the highway.
North of Concrete, named for the cement it once produced, lie Lake Shannon and Baker Lake, the latter a popular summer camping and boating destination. From the road leading to Baker Lake, you can also access the Mount Baker National Recreation Area, which lies on the south side of Mount Baker. Several trails lead through lovely alpine meadows. The Railroad Grade-Paul Scott Trail is breathtaking.
Between Concrete and Marblemount, the highway parallels the Skagit River, and from December to February each year, hundreds of bald eagles descend on this stretch of the river to feed on dying salmon. Highway turnouts at the prime eagle-watching sites along this stretch of road provide opportunities to observe the eagles. To learn more about them, stop by Rockport's Skagit River Interpretive Center, Howard Miller Steelhead Park, 52804 Rockport Rd. (tel. 360/853-7626; www.skagiteagle.org). The center is staffed 10am to 4pm Friday to Sunday from early December to mid-February (eagle-watching season). This center also has information on the Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival that takes place each year in late January. The best way to do your eagle-watching is from a raft floating slowly down the river (no whitewater here). Eagle-watching float trips are offered by Alpine Adventures (tel. 800/723-8386; www.alpineadventures.com) and Wildwater River Tours (tel. 800/522-WILD or 253/939-2151; www.wildwater-river.com). Trips cost $74 to $79 per adult.
Right in the middle of the eagle-viewing area, you'll come to the town of Rockport. On its west side is Rockport State Park, where you can hike through a stand of old-growth Douglas firs, some more than 300 years old. Note that this park is only open in the summer. Three miles east of Rockport, keep an eye out for Cascadian Farm Roadside Stand, 55749 Wash. 20 (tel. 360/853-8173; www.cfarm.com), which is open May through October and sells fresh organic berries, blueberry muffins and shortcake, homemade ice cream, organic produce, and sandwiches.
Along this highway, you can also do a bit of wine tasting. East of milepost 85, near the town of Concrete, you can drop in at Challenger Ridge Vineyards and Cellars, 43095 Challenger Rd. (tel. 360/853-7360; www.challengerridge.com), which makes pinot noir from its own vineyard, as well as wines from vineyards in eastern Washington. The tasting room is open Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. May through October, you can also stop in at Glacier Peak Winery, 58575 Wash. 20 (tel. 360/873-4073; www.glacierpeakwinery.com), which is east of Rockport near milepost 104. The tasting room is open Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from 10am to 5pm.
In Marblemount, the next town you come to, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex Wilderness Information Center, Ranger Station Road (tel. 360/854-7245), provides backcountry permits and information.
In the town of Newhalem, a picturesque Seattle City Light company town at the foot of the Gorge Dam, you'll find the North Cascades Visitor Center (tel. 206/386-4495, ext. 11; www.nps.gov/noca), the main visitor center for the North Cascades National Park Complex, which includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The visitor center is filled with interesting exhibits on this remote national park. There are several short hikes in the area, and in the autumn, you can see spawning salmon at the base of the hydropower plant on the edge of town. Surrounding this powerhouse is an attractively landscaped garden reached by a swinging footbridge. Continuing east from Newhalem, the road passes through a deep, narrow gorge, where you can glimpse Gorge Creek Falls before reaching Gorge Dam, the first and smallest of the dams along this stretch of the Skagit River.
Beyond the Gorge Dam, Diablo, another Seattle City Light company town, stands at the base of Diablo Dam and is the starting point for one of the most fascinating excursions in this corner of the state -- the 2-hour boat tour on turquoise-colored Diablo Lake. In places, steep cliffs rise directly from the lake waters and stunted conifers cling to rock walls. At times, this scenery looks as if it were lifted from a Chinese scroll painting. Diablo Lake Adventure tours are offered on Saturday and Sunday in June and September, and Friday to Sunday in July and August. Tours cost $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $12 for children ages 6 to 12. For information, or to make a reservation (highly recommended), call Skagit Tours/Seattle City Light (tel. 206/684-3030; www.skagittours.com). Dinner tours ($55 for adults, $50 for seniors, $45 for ages 13 to 19, and $40 for ages 6 to 12) are offered Monday and Thursday in July and August.
Continuing on past Diablo, you cross the Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake and climb up to the spectacular Diablo Lake Overlook. When the sun shines, the glacier-fed lake displays an astounding turquoise color due to suspended particles of glacial silt in the water. High above the lake, you can see glaciated Colonial and Pyramid peaks.
At the Ross Lake Overlook, several miles farther east, the dammed waters of the huge Ross Lake reservoir come into view. The lake, and in fact this entire stretch of highway from east of Marblemount to east of Ross Lake, is designated the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The lake itself extends 24 miles north, with its northern shores lying 1 1/2 miles inside Canada. The only access to the lake from the U.S. is by trail or water, and with its many shoreline backcountry campsites and East Bank Trail, it's a popular backpacker destination. Boaters in sea kayaks and canoes also frequent these remote waters. Ross Lake Resort rents canoes and kayaks and has both a water-taxi service and a shuttle that will haul your kayak or canoe around Ross Dam. Trails lead down to the lake both at the dam (before the Ross Lake Overlook) and east of the overlook (access to the East Bank Trail).
Hikers in search of mountain vistas and wildflower-filled meadows should hold out for Rainy Pass (and hope that the pass is not living up to its name). Here you'll find an easy 1-mile paved trail to Rainy Lake, which can be combined with the strenuous, but astoundingly soul-satisfying, 7.5-mile Maple Pass Loop. The view from Maple Pass is one of the finest in the Northwest. The Pacific Crest Trail also crosses the highway at Rainy Pass. If you head north along the Pacific Crest Trail, you will climb to Cutthroat Pass, with more superb views. A few miles farther east, you'll find the trail head for the short, but steep, hike to picturesque Blue Lake.
Roughly 20 miles before reaching the Wild West town of Winthrop, you come to the most breathtaking stretch of the North Cascades Scenic Highway. Here, at Washington Pass (5,447 ft. in elevation), the granite peak of Liberty Bell Mountain rises 2,200 feet above the pass. Across the valley are the jagged Early Winter Spires, a full 200 feet taller than Liberty Bell Mountain. Below the pass, the road has been blasted out of a steep cliff face in one huge switchback. The Washington Pass Overlook, with its short walking trail, provides an opportunity to enjoy these last awesome vistas of the North Cascades. With its in-your-face view of craggy peaks, this is the North Cascade Scenic Highway's big payoff, and this sight alone makes the drive over the mountains worthwhile.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.