The Cascade Loop in Washington’s northwest corner weaves together a breathtaking quilt of Pacific Northwest scenery: Salish Sea cobble beaches and saltmarshes to glacier-mantled massifs, supersize temperate rainforest to pine parkland and bunchgrass, bustling cities and charming towns to some of the wildest country in the Lower 48.
Let’s take an outdoor-lover’s virtual tour of its nine designated regions, from Whidbey Island to the Methow Valley: a circuit around the sublime mountain kingdom of the North Cascades.
The Snohomish River Valley (Region 1) & the Stevens Pass Greenway (Region 2)
The Cascade Loop officially kicks off in Everett, set where the Snohomish River eases into Puget Sound’s Port Gardner Bay. The Snohomish Estuary—aka the “Everett Everglades”—offers extensive flatwater paddling opportunities among its tide-pulsed sloughs, and there’s a darn good chance you’ll eyeball a bald eagle along the way.
And speaking of paddling, the mighty Skykomish River—which merges with the Snoqualmie to form the Snohomish—is a truly legendary whitewater route with roughly a dozen Class III-plus rapids; the greatest, Boulder Drop, can qualify as Class V when the Sky’s running full-throttle. The little town of Index just north of Highway 2 serves as a major put-in; it’s also a springboard for rock climbing on the walls of Mount Index as well as the infamous north face of Mount Baring.
The drive to Stevens Pass takes you near some great waterfalls: Wallace Falls on the Wallace River, for instance; Eagle Falls on the South Fork Skykomish; and Deception and Alpine falls on the Tye River. And then there’s Steven Pass itself, both one of the great portals through the Cascades and one of the range’s recreational hubs: Stevens Pass Ski Area offers prime downhill and cross-country skiing as well as summertime mountain biking, and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail threads through the gap.
Leavenworth/Cascade Foothills (Region 3)
Dropping down to the Bavarian-themed city of Leavenworth, you follow rugged east-side Cascade gorges (culminating in Tumwater Canyon) as subalpine timber grades into sunny stands of larch, ponderosa, Douglas-fir, and grand fir.
Leavenworth’s a springboard to the ravishingly beautiful Enchantments (in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness), one of the most celebrated backpacking and climbing destinations in the Pacific Northwest: batholithic jags, cloud-tattooed tarns, alpine larches turning the whole scene into dream come autumn. Then there’s Nason Ridge with its vast vistas, hiking and rock-climbing up the high-walled glen of Icicle Canyon, and the whitewater challenge of the Wenatchee.
Wenatchee/Columbia River Valley (Region 4) & Lake Chelan Valley (Region 5)
From Wenatchee to Lake Chelan, you’re in the wide-open, sunshiny eastern flanks of the Cascades, with the even wider-open Columbia Plateau unspooling to the east. Wenatchee’s famous for its fruit orchards, but the city also boasts limitless outdoor-recreation opportunities in its hinterland: hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, rafting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and the downhill thrills of the Mission Ridge Ski Area, to name some of them.
Follow the Columbia upstream to reach Lake Chelan, a 50-mile-long glacial trough ranking as the Evergreen State’s biggest natural lake and a regal gateway to the North Cascades. Wineries, orchards, and the cosmopolitan attractions of Chelan mark the southeastern shores of the lake; on its remote upper reaches, meanwhile, the farflung town of Stehekin—reachable only by foot or boat—provides a jumping-off point for sublime backcountry: the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth and Glacier Peak wildernesses, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and North Cascades National Park.
The Methow Valley (Region 6) and the North Cascades (Region 7)
The drive up the Methow Valley into the heart of the North Cascades ranks up there among the most stirring in Washington. The deer-riddled Methow combines charming towns with a lovely mosaic of flanking steppe and foothill forest, with high peaks brooding in the distance; here you’ll find some of the most extensive cross-country skiing trails in the country.
Highway 20 then climbs into increasingly gob-smacking country to the iconic vantage of Washington Pass, where you’ll gape at the huge granite towers of Liberty Bell and the Early Winter Spires and the spiky blocks of Kangaroo Ridge and Silver Star Mountain.
Follow the North Cascades Highway northwest to Ross and Diablo lakes, fjord-like waterways vivid with glacial-powder blue-green and cupped by the notoriously sharp slopes of the North Cascades: easily one of the steepest major mountain ranges in the Lower 48. The scenery’s spellbinding from the highway and switchback-heavy dayhikes reveal more of it, but this mostly roadless wilderness is best appreciated by backpackers—and boat campers, too, who enjoy remote shoreline campsites sprinkled along Ross Lake all the way up to the British Columbia line in the shadow of mythic Hozomeen Mountain.
Skagit Valley & Fidalgo Island (Region 8)
From raw, severely vertical wilds to fertile tidewater farmland: The Skagit escapes the tight gorges of its North Cascades passage to spread out in the broad coastal flats of the Skagit Valley. This agricultural powerhouse—also major wintering grounds for snow geese and other waterbirds—frames its pastoral fields, vintage barns, and friendly towns against the iced-up wall of the North Cascades to the east and the rumpled green islands of the Salish Sea to the west.
Over on Fidalgo Island, meanwhile, Anacortes has the age-old appeal of an adventure port: the fabled San Juan Islands (and, beyond, Sidney, B.C. on Vancouver Island) beckon just a world-class ferry ride or sea-kayak paddle away.
Whidbey Scenic Isle Way (Region 9)
Whidbey Island—one of the biggest in the United States—makes a kind of bridge between the Salish Sea archipelagoes and the urbanized Puget Sound mainland. This final leg of the Cascade Loop takes you over the astonishing Deception Pass Bridge—stop here to admire the powerful tidal currents sweeping between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands—to cruise the woods, farms, coves, and artsy towns of Whidbey all the way down to Clinton, where a 20-minute ferry passage brings you to Mukilteo.
Fine hiking destinations include Deception Pass State Park in the far north and South Whidbey State Park (with remnant old-growth) in the southwest, while paddlers can have a heyday. And along the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way, if it’s clear, you’ll admire views of Mount Baker and the North Cascades and, to the west, the equally impressive ramparts of the Olympic Mountains.