North Cascades Scenic Byway
This scenic byway is one section of a route called the Cascade Loop, a circular drive connecting several remarkable roads north and east of Seattle. The North Cascades part is the most northerly and passes through a national park. This video essay starts outside the town of Winthrop and follows Highway 20 westward. It’s an excellent highway with numerous pullouts. Depending on the time of year, roadside waterfalls are usually plentiful. This alpine wonderland is one of the most ecologically diverse national parks in the U.S. with more than 1600 plant species. North Cascades spans the Cascade Crest, from the east side’s dry ponderosa pine ecosystem to the west’s temperate rainforest. In the middle are the jagged peaks of the park’s namesake, reaching heights of 9000 feet. The North Cascades are crowned by more than 300 glaciers and are frequently referred to as the “North American Alps” for their similar appearance to the mountains in Europe. This byway is easy to reach from two major metropolitan areas. The park’s western entrance is about a 2½ hour’s drive from both Seattle and Vancouver, BC. And the park is free to visit!
Best Time to Visit
This scenic byway is fully accessible mid-spring to late autumn. Prime avalanche area, the road closes about the time the first snowflakes fall, sometimes as early as late October. Once crews get the snow cleared, the highway reopens, usually in late April to early May. But even though you can’t travel the complete route in the winter, you can still drive partway up from either direction. It’s particularly pretty on the western side, from Rockport to about Diablo Lake. Check road conditions because you never know what might be closed or how far road crews have progressed to getting it open.
Routes & Maps
Spring, summer and fall when road is fully open: Winthrop to Rockport, WA Highway 20 west
Winter when road is closed: Rockport to Diablo Lake, WA Highway 20 east
96 miles, Winthrop to Rockport
31 miles, Rockport to Diablo Lake
2 hours, when highway is completely open
Winthrop, on the eastern side of the byway, is a destination unto itself. It sports an Old West theme with wood boardwalks, western-style buildings and the oldest legal saloon in Washington. To the west of the scenic byway are Sedro-Woolley, Burlington and Mount Vernon, offering all services.
The Washington State Department of Transportation maintains a webpage dedicated to Highway 20’s seasonal closures. The National Park Service provides history, tips and other information on its North Cascades site. The Cascade Loop is also worth checking out as it provides information on lodging, events, deals and more.