Cool blue lakes, rugged peaks, and luxury lodges abound in this majestic Northwest range
Evelyn Spence, Kelly Bastone, and Ann Marie Brown
June 16, 2014
| Updated August 22, 2018
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The high life
The Cascade Range may have been named for its countless waterfalls, but its true calling card has to be its rugged, crumpled peaks—the Liberty Bells, the Seven-Fingered Jacks, the Steamboat Prows—all rising abruptly from deeply carved valleys and cleaving the Far West into Farther and Farthest. They divide the edge of the continent into wet and dry too; the lush Pacific side can see 1,000-plus inches of snow in a winter, while the eastern fringes make sagebrush and ponderosa feel right at home. And though the Cascades technically and geologically start in Northern California and extend north to southern British Columbia, it’s in Washington that the granite swath reaches its climax. Here’s the gracefully hulking volcanic cone of Mt. Rainier. The alpine lakes that glitter sapphire, turquoise, and aquamarine. The 300 glaciers of North Cascades National Park—the most anywhere in the country outside of Alaska, enough for the range to warrant being dubbed the “American Alps.” The wilderness is crisscrossed with thousands of miles of trails. But between the fanglike high points? The Cascades are an outdoorsy circus for berry pickers, car-camping families, weekend warriors, and anyone who loves fleece and Gore-Tex. It’s laughably easy to find world-class fishing in cold, clear rivers like the Methow. Winding state routes like 706 and 20 climb to cliffside viewpoints that leave your heart pounding just a little bit harder. And pretty much every homespun gateway town is stocked with fresh huckleberry pies, produce stands, and enough great Northwest coffee to fuel a rocket to the moon. Or at least to the next stunning curve in the road.
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Best lake: Blue Lake
Bang for the buck: It’s what we love about shimmering Blue. That, and the feeling you’re walking straight into a coffee-table book. A steady, family-friendly 2.2-mile climb from the North Cascades Highway brings you to an aquamarine bowl that’s surrounded by larch and sits below the granite jawline of Early Winters Spires—a dramatic backdrop for a rest, snack, or bracing dip. $5 day pass; N. Cascades Hwy./State 20 between mileposts 161 and 162; www.fs.usda.gov/okawen.
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Frank Kovalchek via Flickr Creative Commons
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Frank Kovalchek via Flickr Creative Commons
Best peak: Mt. Rainier
Okay, it’s obvious. But that’s the point: Rising to 14,410 feet, a mile and change above everything around it, Rainier is the only mountain in the Cascades that locals call “The Mountain.”(We know it’s a perfect summer day when “The Mountain is out.”) The intrepid climb it; the athletic hike the trails that make a necklace around it; everyone else drives up close to its glacial flanks, rolling wildflower fields, and cliffs to soak in the sensation of feeling very, very small. $25/vehicle; nps.gov/mora.
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Best drive: Cascade Loop
Toss a lasso around the most dramatic peaks and lush valleys in the range and you get this 400-mile circuit, which starts at Puget Sound, crosses over the Central Cascades into the kitschy-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, then heads up the sun-drenched Columbia River Valley. The finale—the North Cascades Highway—cuts through the heart of some of the world’s most spectacular scenery (Lake Diablo and Washington Pass). Between the countless drive-through coffee stands on U.S. 2 and the fruit stands around Wenatchee and Chelan, you won’t lack for rations. cascadeloop.com.
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Best fancy resort: Sun Mountain Lodge
There’s nothing better than tipping back a cold Twisp River IPA on the deck of the bar here, the entire Methow Valley, Mt. Gardner, and North Cascades National Park in your viewfinder. Unless, of course, you count heated river-rock massages, local farm-to-table eats, in-house fly-fishing guides, boat rentals on Patterson Lake, and 40 miles of trails on 3,000 acres of private wilderness. Built out of massive boulders and timbers in 1968, Sun Mountain Lodge has been Washington’s primo alpine retreat ever since. From $265; 2-night weekend min.; sunmountainlodge.com.
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Best hike: Heather-Maple Pass Loop
If this 7-miler off the North Cascades Highway doesn’t inspire you to burst into your best Julie Andrews imitation, nothing will. It’s a nonstop parade of Northwestern scenic stunners: old-growth forest; luminous sapphire Lake Ann, in a deep cirque;
high-alpine meadows of lupine, glacier lilies, and (naturally) carpets upon carpets of heather; and a ridgetop walk up to the 6,850-foot shoulder of Frisco Mountain, where you can kick off your boots and take in 360º views of the range’s most rugged peaks and glaciers. $5 day pass; opens mid-Jul; N. Cascades Hwy./State 20 at milepost 158; 1.usa.gov/1jiLfTt.
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Best cabins: Rolling Huts
A hybrid of rustic glamping and high design, this sleek herd of modern steel-wheeled cottages—arranged in a sweeping grassy meadow that was once an RV park—has floor-to-ceiling views of the foothills, sleeping platforms and clever modular furniture, cozy woodstoves, and, unlike your typical tent, Wi-Fi. Each hut also has an adjacent portable toilet. The Methow River is a stone’s throw from the sunny decks, and some of Washington State’s best hiking and fishing aren’t much farther. $135; sleeps 4; 2-night min.; rollinghuts.com.
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Best fuel stop: The Mazama Store
It’s a cafe, bakery, general store, and gossip mill—and, tucked at the eastern edge of North Cascades National Park, the perfect spot for filling your pack with snacks before you hit the trails. And by snacks, we really mean housemade cinnamon rolls, hot Blue Star coffee, and sandwiches made with the likes of locally smoked bacon and summer tomatoes. Or, to keep it simple, just dash out with a still-warm sea-salt baguette.themazamastore.com.
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Best breakfast: Salish Lodge
If a Clif bar isn’t fuel enough for a day of adventure in the Central Cascades, do what local loggers used to do when this Snoqualmie lodge started serving its signature Country Breakfast in 1916: Pile the tables with smoked bacon, three farm-fresh eggs, biscuits, buttermilk pancakes, and warm baked goodies—plus honey from lodge hives, poured ceremoniously from high above your plate. $34; salishlodge.com.
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Best surprise: Que Car BBQ
Great barbecue out of a 1942 red caboose along the North Cascades Highway in Marblemount? Believe it, not least because the owner-cook cut his teeth smoking meat while living in Texas for 28 years. Now that he’s a Washingtonian, he uses Northwest woods to turn out meltingly tender chopped brisket sandwiches, pulled pork, and a massive Momma’s Meatloaf Beefwich. $; quecarbbq.com.