The North Cascades: Riding Highway 20
Made up of smooth roads with tight hairpin curves, straights made for passing, two mountain passes and some of the most stunning sights you can see in North America, Highway 20 in Washington state is a rider’s paradise. This is the kind of ride you want to plan a day around, a ride that you want to share with someone—another rider or passenger looking to see some of the “real” Pacific Northwest. As long as you pick the right time of year!
In November the highway closes to traffic, as it has turned into a treacherous, icy ribbon that you can’t tackle unless you have a very reliable snowmobile. Rock slides and avalanches occasionally litter the roadway, so the big gates come down across the road just east of Diablo in the west, and on the east side of the mountains, 14 miles west of the town of Mazama. Local riders are out of luck, waiting for the following April to roll around when Washington’s Department of Transportation clears the last of winter away and opens the highway. The early part of the season features cold temperatures, constant cloud cover, rain and some really nasty sidewinds, so it’s usually only the hardy who brave the highway on a bike. For a couple of months in the middle of Washington’s summer, however, it’s what every dyed-in-the-wool rider is looking for.
Highway 20, also called the North Cascades Highway, is part of the Cascade Loop, a 400-mile tour through the northernmost parts of the Cascade Range. Our ride was the day-trip version, very close to 200 miles, especially if you are departing from the Seattle area. From the western side of the Cascade Mountains in Burlington, we tackled the hairpins of the foothills, crossed over the mountain passes, and then zoomed through the arid, desert-like expanse of the eastern foothills, into Winthrop. There, we stopped for a bite of lunch, a relaxing visit in town and a glimpse into what the West was like a hundred years ago.
Burlington sits just off Interstate 5, roughly an hour north of Seattle. It’s a busy place, where I-5 intersects Highway 20. Tourists head west to catch ferries to the San Juan Islands or Victoria, British Columbia, but we took a right, heading east out of town towards the mountains. It takes a little while to leave civilization behind while you thread your way through local traffic. We could see the mountains ahead, but they seemed a long way off. If you’re lucky enough to be traveling on a weekday as we were, you should find little traffic after leaving town. During the height of the summer, however, there are the usual trailers and RVs to contend with. The ride through the foothills is relaxing, with ample places to pass should you desire, and lots to look at—small farms, roadside displays with homemade jams and jellies made from local berries, and apple orchards and vineyards. The Electra Glide motored along nicely, not yet even breathing hard. Riders familiar with the route likely don’t notice the small towns along this stretch, with the probable exception of Concrete; the origin of the name is obvious after seeing the giant old concrete plant along the road.
As we passed through Rockport about 35 miles east of Burlington, it finally felt as if we were approaching the mountains. The road begins to get a little sportier, with mild rolling hills with nicely cambered corners, and the Skagit River making its way out of the mountains on our right. There’s a definite feeling to the road that says, “Let’s go a little bit faster,” but there are still too many distractions. Besides, we were nearly to Marblemount, the self-proclaimed “Entrance to the American Alps,” where you should check your gas level, as it’s the last stop for roughly 70 miles. It’s also the last place you will find a buffalo burger or a latte, should you need a little refreshment. There are numerous places in Marblemount that cater to the passing rider.
We opted for just gas and headed right back onto Highway 20. The speed limit creeps up to 55 just in time to roll into the beautifully kept company town of Newhalem. I say “company” town, as it is completely owned by Seattle City Light. It is entirely populated by City Light employees who work in the area’s three hydroelectric plants, or in other various government positions. The town is surrounded by the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The name Newhalem has its origin in a local Native American language and means “goat snare.” Although we watched closely, we didn’t happen to see any goats. We did see a picture-book town with a big locomotive on display on the tree-lined highway, a very pretty place to walk around or enjoy a picnic surrounded by towering peaks. Just to the east of town is the smallest of the three local hydroelectric dams, the Gorge Dam. This is where the real Highway 20 twisties begin. I think the engineer who designed the highway must have been a motorcycle rider.
From Newhalem, we passed by the small community of Diablo and into the really stunning scenery around Diablo Dam and the lake, where the highway begins its climb in earnest. It loops through wide, sweeping switchbacks to the viewpoint above Diablo Lake. We pulled in there for a brief respite from the saddle and to take in the view, which is beyond description, with Sourdough Mountain across the lake, Davis Peak to the left and Ruby Mountain behind. Views like this make a person on a bike feel very small indeed.
After leaving the overlook, we continued east on Highway 20, finally crossing Rainy Pass and then Washington Pass, flanked by the Liberty Bell and Silver Star Mountains, nearly 8,000 and 9,000 feet respectively. When we finally crossed the pass, it was as if someone flipped a big switch. It was immediately more desert-like, as eastern Washington is. Over the pass I was glad to be wearing leather, and once on the east side it was a big temptation to put the jacket in the tour pack. When you can see miles down the mountains to the road below, though, the temptation largely goes away. Steep grades and sheer drops from the shoulder of the highway for hundreds of feet make you want all the meager protection available!
It’s only about a 35-mile jaunt into Winthrop from the passes. As we wound our way out of the mountains, the highway slowly turned into a flat, hot stretch of road that reflected the sun’s heat like an oven. The vegetation consists of dust, dirt, rocks and occasional lonely trees. Normal summer temps range easily in the 90s and higher, and there is no shade for the last leg of the trip. It’s not a place to daydream, however, as the highway passes through the Methow Valley, right through the center of a deer migration path. We were passing in the middle of the day, and we still saw two large doe walking along the highway. Normally it’s more common to see them early in the morning or around dusk.
When we motored into the town of Winthrop, the first thing we saw was a line of bikes parked at the curb. Winthrop is a popular destination for bike rides. It happened that this last summer, Washington had a number of serious forest fires in the area and the Army was helping out, so we saw quite a few soldiers strolling the board sidewalks along with other visitors. Winthrop offers many places to eat and drink, tourist shops and even an authentic blacksmith shop where you can find some striking items. The wooden sidewalks and false-front buildings give the town an Old West flavor. We stopped in at a favorite local restaurant overlooking the main street, where we could sit outside in the shade and enjoy the sights.
Speaking from experience, there is a good chance that once you get to Winthrop, you’re going to want to continue the Cascade Loop and either head south towards Leavenworth, or even continue east to visit the Grand Coulee Dam. That means you’ll be looking for lodging, and you will find an abundance of great places in the area, from campgrounds to cabins along the river to the Sun Mountain Lodge a few miles out of town, where you can get a wonderful massage. Highway 20 is just the beginning of seeing Washington state.