Wilderness embraces much of north-central Washington, replete with old timber towns, cascading creeks, glacial peaks, and low-hanging valleys dusted with wildflowers. The region’s natural beauty creates a feeling of journeying to an out-of-the-way, rural retreat. This is the quintessential outdoors, a place of snowcapped summits, sparkling lakes, evergreen forests, and—despite the remote outpost of Stehekin and a road closure that walls off the east and west in winter—surprising accessibility.
Because of the depth of their glaciated valleys, the North Cascades are uncommonly reachable. One of the most popular drives in the state encircles the region, from the old lumber towns of Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount to the northwest, over Washington Pass to Mazama, where the family-run country store is a must-stop for a bowl of soup and baked goods, through the riverside stops of Twisp and Winthrop to the northeast. Both towns boast riverfront brewpubs with live music on summer weekends as well as good selections of craft beer. Farther south, the resort community of Chelan, on the southern tip of a pristine, 50-mile, glacier-fed lake of the same name, chalks up some 300 days of sunshine per year. The lake stretches 1½ miles at its widest and descends 1,486 feet at its deepest. Bavarian-style Leavenworth, 23 miles northwest of Wenatchee, bustles with shopping and a variety of festivals, including an annual Oktoberfest celebration.
Most permanent residents live along the loop, on ranches and orchards and in pocket-sized towns, all gateways to the northern ridges of the Cascade Range. In winter, these peaks, which climb 4,000 to 9,000 feet and higher, have the greatest measured snowfall in North America—more than 80 feet in high places on the western slopes. Washington Pass closes in November, cutting off the Cascade Loop until April, but the region remains accessible via Interstate 90. Still, when Highway 20 reopens in spring, travelers on both sides line up, waiting to be among the first to travel back over the byway.