Before winter hits, a scenic fall drive in north Cascades

  • By Meredith Munk Special to The Herald
  • Thursday, October 31, 2013 4:09pm
  • Life

After the long, warm summer, the dread of a drizzly winter is hard to avoid. If you want to prolong the enjoyment and take advantage of our temperate fall, a day trip that would appeal to almost everyone is right in your own back yard.

The North Cascades Highway offers an almost endless variety of beautiful things to see and explore. For a day trip, follow Highway 20 from I-5 for about 80 miles to the Diablo Lake scenic outlook and back.

Head through Sedro-Woolley, “Gateway to the North Cascades.” Stop at the Sedro-Woolley Museum, 725 Murdock St., to view logging exhibits and history of pioneer logging families. Call ahead to see if they’re open.

Prepare for the landscape to change during this drive. In the lowlands, the bucolic green valleys boast fields of mowed hay, homesteads of all kinds, grazing cows, horses and goats, and acres of fertile land.

These valleys lie perfectly flat until they meet the granite rock walls that are the Cascades.

Trees provide the seasonal palette for the area. In the fall, the yellows and golds explode out of the forest green trees with splashes of red accents.

In some places, trees thickly covered with moss are still prevalent. See if you can identify Western yew, whitebark pine, red cedar, red alder, poplars, big leaf maple or Douglas fir.

As the elevation slowly increases, Highway 20 runs along the Skagit River. Its views are as varied as the other landscapes: wide, narrow, rushing, trickling, rocky, flat, filled with stumps, shallow, deep.

Some of the prettiest views of the drive are from the paved wide spots on the side of the road, where you can safely enjoy unobstructed views.

Prime photo ops, too: You might see an eagle or hawk overhead or an angler braving the icy water. In warmer weather and if you are brave enough yourself, you might join a rafting group to test yourself on white water.

If you are near Concrete about coffee time, check out the Java Zone drive-through. It serves Raven’s Brew Coffee, a roaster that started in Alaska but is now based in Olympia. You could pop into the general store or get gas at the same location.

But you could also venture a little farther off the road into old downtown Concrete. It appears to have changed little since its beginning, a sleepy collection of old and new buildings with a mural painted on the side of the Concrete laundry.

Prefer wine to coffee? The vineyards on this drive will lead you to three wineries: Eagle Haven Winery in Sedro-Woolley, Glacier Run Winery east of Rockport and Challenger Ridge Winery in Concrete.

As you drive east, watch for signs that pop up along the side of the road. Local artisans, like the Sauk Mountain Pottery Shop, farmers, like the Cascadian Farms Organic Produce pumpkin patch, and ranchers with offering items such as honey and chanterelle mushrooms.

The Skagit River Resort is in the Marblemount area. Stop for lunch at The Eatery, with seating inside and out. You could order their homemade cinnamon rolls, but unless you make it before 9:30 a.m., you better call ahead (360-873-2041) because they go fast.

You can also get trail conditions at the resort office.

Just down the road is Buffalo Run Restaurant, open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the fall, serving buffalo, elk, venison and ostrich. They also have less exotic choices including chicken, beef and a salad bar.

As you travel higher into the mountains, the colors of the trees are more vibrant and the river a more dramatic green. Patches of snow cover some of the peaks.

After passing through two tunnels carved into the mountains and about 12 miles past Newhalem, you arrive at Diablo Lake and the Diablo Lake scenic overlook.

It offers panoramic views of the green lake and signs that describe local wildlife, glacial history and why the water is so green.

If you go

  • Park and Forest Information Center: 810 Highway 20, Sedro-Woolley, about 5 miles east of I-5, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
  • Sedro-Woolley Museum: 725 Murdock St., Sedro-Woolley; 360-855-2390; sedrowoolleymuseum.org/times.html.
  • North Cascades Visitors Center in Newhalem is closed from Nov. 4 until April.

Armchair road trip

See the story in Sunday’s Herald on teacher Jack McLeod’s photo book, “The North Cascades Highway, A Roadside Guide to America’s Alps.”

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