Adventure or Bust: Washington’s Scenic Byways

This Summer, satisfy your wanderlust on Washington’s scenic byways

You have many great reasons to hit the road in the evergreen state this year–twenty-eight, in fact. That’s the number of Washington’s scenic byways stretching through every corner of Washington. They climb to 5,474-Foot Sherman pass, journey along wild coasts and visit vibrant small towns like Othello, the starting point for the gorgeous Coulee Corridor scenic byway.

“In Washington, we’re hugely lucky,” said Annette Pitts, executive director of the Cascade Loop Association, one of the state’s most popular scenic routes. “People here take a lot of pride in how beautiful our state is.”

Scenic roadways are as old as cars themselves. The first automobile to make it over Snoqualmie Pass in 1905 was on a route that would later become the Mountains to the Sound Greenway.

Official governmental designations for scenic highways started during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In 1988, the first National Forest Scenic Byways were named, and in 1991, the National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads programs began. e next year, Washington began to designate roads as scenic, taking into account not just beauty, but cultural significance.

Does anyone really care if a route is an All-American Road or a state-designated scenic byway? Pitts doesn’t think so. “What people are really after is the feeling you get on the ‘Great American Road Trip,’” she said.

So, hit the road. Here are five essential Evergreen State routes to explore right now:

#1 Pacific Coast Scenic Byway

WHY DO IT? You’ll experience one of America’s wildest national parks, traveling on U.S. Highway 101 through lush rainforest to pristine coastline along a 350-mile route around the Olympic Peninsula to the mouth of the Columbia River.

HOW LONG? Four to six days

Adventure Plan

Make a beeline for Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, home to some of the best bivalves in Puget Sound. Next, take in historic Port Townsend and then Sequim, in the Olympic Range rain shadow, to explore Dungeness Recreation Area and the shores of a 6.5-mile spit jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

From Port Angeles, climb to mile-high Hurricane Ridge for dramatic views of the Olympic Range and the Salish Sea far below. Continue west to pristine Lake Crescent, one of the clearest lakes in Washington, tucked among the coastal mountains.

Near the logging capital of Forks, made famous for its werewolves and vampires in Twilight, head west to wild Rialto Beach. Afterwards, explore the otherworldly Hoh Rainforest and then take in picturesque Kalaloch with its long, secluded stretches of sand.

Venture through Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen (motto: “Come as You Are”)
to Willapa Bay, where you’ll find seafood. Hit the Long Beach Peninsula and Cape Disappointment State Park for an oceanside ramble or climb to one of two lighthouses for a view of the Columbia as it empties into the sea.

#2 Whidbey Island Scenic Isle Way

WHY DO IT? The largest island in Washington is less than an hour from Seattle, but a pastoral world away. The 54-mile route becomes more dramatic as you travel north through historic Coupeville to Deception Pass.

HOW LONG? One to three days

Adventure Plan

It’s just a 20-minute crossing from Mukilteo. First stop is Langley, a town filled with galleries and shops overlooking the whale-friendly waters of Saratoga Passage. Grab a casual meal at Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar and continue to the hippie-ish enclave of Freeland and Greenbank Farm, another place to enjoy walking trails, galleries and shops.

The picture-perfect town of Coupeville on Penn Cove is home to the best mussels on the Pacific Coast. Dig into a bowlful at Toby’s Tavern on the waterfront.

You’re in the heart of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, so first head to the former defensive fortress at Fort Casey State Historical Park overlooking Admiralty Inlet, the main shipping route into Puget Sound. Inspect the extensive tunnels and gun emplacements (said to be haunted) and visit nearby Admiralty Head Lighthouse for more sweeping views.

Finish by driving north through Oak Harbor, home of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and the commercial hub of the island, to Deception Pass State Park with 38 miles of trails and beaches that overlook the frenzied tidal comings and goings of the narrow waterway.

#3 Cascade Loop 3 Scenic Byway

WHY DO IT? Stevens Pass Greenway (U.S. 2) and North Cascades Scenic Highway (SR 20) are the two northernmost cross-Cascades routes in Washington. Along with the Whidbey Island Scenic Isle Way, they make up the 440-mile Cascade Loop Scenic Byway. Each mountain pass features remarkable peaks and thundering rivers through dynamic canyons.

HOW LONG? Three to five days

Adventure Plan

Head east along the Stevens Pass Greenway, following the route of the Great Northern Railway along the tumbling Skykomish River to Index, a tiny foothills town under the gaze of dramatic Mount Index and equally dramatic Bridal Veil Falls. For a quick river fix, visit Deception Falls Nature Trail as the route starts climbing to the 4,062-foot pass.

Take in the stunning views of the Wenatchee River rumbling through Tumwater Canyon as it descends into Leavenworth, the Bavarian-themed village and a great base for mountain biking, river sports and hiking. Take a rafting trip or hike up nearby Icicle Creek, then stop for a beer at Icicle Brewing Co. and a brat at München Haus.

Follow the fruit trail into Wenatchee and then north to the vineyard-lined waters of Lake Chelan, a summer recreation playground for boating and swimming. The long, narrow lake stretches 50 miles deep into the North Cascades, accessible on the Lady of the Lake excursion boat.

Winthrop and Mazama are great bases to explore this gorgeous valley along the North Cascades Scenic Highway. Take a hike on the exceptional trails near Sun Mountain Lodge or mountain bike throughout the valley. Post-activity burgers are calling at the lively Mazama Store.

Visit 5,476-foot Washington Pass Overlook for a view of the Early Winters Spires on the Liberty Bell massif. Stretch your legs on the nearby 2.2-mile trail to Blue Lake, in a spectacular high-mountain basin, or consider the more challenging 7.2-mile Maple Pass Loop, one of the best day hikes in the state. Continue through the canyon country past the huge Seattle City Light dams that create Ross and Diablo lakes, eventually heading down the Skagit River Valley into Mount Vernon.

#4 White Pass Scenic Byway

WHY DO IT?  You have a rare opportunity to visit two volcanoes as you cross the Cascades on U.S. 12 from the wet side to the dry canyon country, starting in the broad Cowlitz River Valley and ending in the eastern-slope town
of Naches.

HOW LONG? Two to three days

Adventure Plan

Follow the mighty Cowlitz as it spills from the southern Cascades. At Randall, go south to Windy Ridge for an eerie view overlooking the blast zone from Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Continue east through habitat for one of Washington’s largest elk herds to the Stevens Canyon entrance of Mount Rainier National Park for a hike on the 1.5-mile Grove of the Patriarchs trail.

Grab breakfast at Mountain Goat Coffee Co. in Packwood—you just might run into a park ranger doing the same thing. Then head east for more mountain views of Mount Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Then it’s up and over 4,500- foot White Pass to Rimrock Lake nearby. Take in the dry-side canyon views along Tieton River Nature Trail. In Naches, toast your adventure at Bron Yr Aur Brewing or go wine tasting in the Naches Heights AVA.

#5 International Selkirk Loop

WHY DO IT? Explore beautiful corners
of two states and a Canadian province on this 280-mile route as it follows major rivers and lakes of the wild and remote Selkirk Mountains, visiting historic towns along
the way.

HOW LONG? Three to four days

Adventure Plan

Starting in Newport, drive along the Pend Oreille River through the historic mining town of Metaline Falls, and then on to the international border. On the Canadian side, travel north to Nelson, British Columbia, an artsy community filled with Victorian-era buildings and great restaurants and shops on the shores of Kootenay Lake.

Start with a ramble in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, then soak out your aches
at Ainsworth Hot Springs and explore the friendly lakeside town of Kaslo, home to North America’s oldest restored sternwheeler, the SS Moyie, first launched in 1898.

Board North America’s longest free ferry, then visit the artsy Crawford Bay community as you work your way south. Cross the international border into Idaho and check out the abundant bird life at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry, then visit the popular resort town of Sandpoint on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.

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