It's a tall boast, yet "one of America's most spectacular drives" is the reaction heard from most tourists who drive Washington's Cascade Loop, a 400-mile circuit dissecting the verdant lowlands of Puget Sound, the glacier-carved peaks of the North Cascades and the sun-baked hills of the Columbia River Basin. It's a drive encompassing such dramatic geo-diversity, it bedazzles all.
Washington is, of course, Boeing country, so in Everett (30 miles north of Seattle)-where the drive begins and ends-see how jumbo jets rivet together (tours: 800-464-1476). Then gather the makings for a picnic lunch and follow Interstate 5 north to Burlington. Turn east on Highway 20, the nation's first nationally designated Scenic Highway.
As you follow the turquoise waters of the Skagit River, look for bald eagles in the snags along its banks. Before entering Marblemount, stop for a raspberry milkshake that is second to none at the Cascade Farms kiosk. Beyond Marblemount, the mountains squeeze and rubberneckers risk missing a curve. Use the pullouts to photograph this topographic maelstrom-and to prolong life.
Half a mile before Washington Pass, the 5,400-foot apex of this snaking highway, turn into the Blue Lake Trailhead for a walk to a crystalline tarn on a 2.3-mile path that cuts through hemlock forests, below granite spires and past flowered meadows. Enjoy your picnic lunch along the way.
Back at the car, cross Washington Pass and watch the landscape dry out on the 30-mile drop into the Old West theme town of Winthrop, a wintertime nordic-skiing nucleus and summertime mountain biking hub (rent bikes and obtain trail maps at Winthrop Mountain Sports, 509-996-2886). Bunk here for the evening, and dine at the Winthrop Brewing Company (downtown) or the Fiddlehead Bistro (in nearby Twisp).Leave Winthrop the next morning after some Eggs McDuck at the Duck Brand Restaurant. Drive southeast through grass and sage country to Lake Chelan, following highways 20, 153, 97 and 97A. Swim at one of the parks on the south end of the lake, visit the local water park (Slide Waters, 509-682-5751) or ride the hydrofoil up this 55-mile freshwater fjord (Lady of the Lake Boat Tour, 509-682-4584). Next, drive to Wenatchee, following 97A through the heart of orchard country, sampling the roadside fruit stands. Lunch on traditional Vietnamese noodles at the downtown Cuc Tran Café (509-663-6281), then pedal the scenic 11-mile "Loop," a paved trail bordering Wenatchee's riverfront.
Begin the last leg by driving west on Highway 2, following the Wenatchee River, the state's most popular rafting run (Osprey River Rafting, 800-743-6269). At the faux Bavarian village of Leavenworth, stroll the town and contemplate what implausible events created this storm of knick-knack capitalism. Continue driving west on Highway 2, cross over to the wet side of the state at Stevens Pass and roll down mossy mountain slopes to the trip's beginning at Everett. It's a rapid metamorphosis from desert sages to rain forests and, like every segment of the drive, another spectacular display of geo-diversity. -Andy Dappen
Drive Length 400 miles
Drive Time 7.5 hours
Try To Avoid Seattle's heinous rush-hour traffic to Everett. Enjoy a cup of coffee, Seattle's fuel, and leave after the commuters.
Don't Miss The Serpentarium in the town of Goldbar with its snakes, lizards and turtles from around the globe, 360-793-2000.
Get Out Of Your Car At North Cascades National Park visitor center just west of Newhalem, milepost 120, 206-386-4495.
Contact The Cascade Loop Association: 509-662-3888, www.cascadeloop.com. Ask for the Cascade Loop Travel Guide.