Planning on visiting Washington state in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest? The best way to experience the evergreen state is to take a road trip on the Cascade Loop. Covering over 440 miles of highway and the best sights, you will have a fantastic journey.
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When you think about traveling in Washington state, there are a few key places that come to mind like Seattle, Mt. Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park, but you don’t often hear about one of the best things to do and that is take a road trip on the Cascade Loop!
What Makes the Cascade Loop So Special?
The Cascade Loop features everything that makes Washington state so special. A 440 mile drive, it covers nine distinct regions, all fantastic destinations on their own, as well as three scenic byways. The shorter drives are the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way, the North Cascades Scenic Byway, and the Stevens Pass Greenway.
Even though you can spend weeks exploring the various regions and sights of the Cascade Loop, you can do it in just a couple of days, a long weekend and hit the highlights. However, we certainly encourage you to take your time and stay in a few of the places that really capture your fancy, and play some road trip games with your family. It’s such a diverse area, and we’re sure you will find something that really appeals to you.
When is the Best Time to Drive the Cascade Loop
Even though there is plenty to do along the route both winter and summer, you cannot drive the entire loop once the snows are too deep. The passes are blocked off from about November through May, so the absolute best time to go would be in summer or fall.
There are nine major regions that the Cascade Loop will take you through. Each has its own unique personalities, specialties, fantastic eateries, and more. If you don’t have time to tackle all nine regions, break them up and do them a weekend at a time.
Another option is to break off the Cascade Loop on Whidbey Island, take the ferry to Port Townsend and visit nearby Olympic National Park.
These are the nine regions:
Seattle North Country
Lake Chelan Valley
Wenatchee the Columbia River Valley
Leavenworth and the Cascade Foothills
Steven Pass Greenway
Seattle North Country
If you are getting to Washington via airplane, you are most likely flying into Sea-Tac airport. Sea-Tac is short for Seattle-Tacoma, and everyone promptly heads to Seattle bypassing all the fantastic things that Tacoma has to offer. However, the Cascade Loop is more of a northerly route, so in this case, unless you have an extra day or two on your trip, I guess it’s okay.
This part of the route really begins north of the city of Seattle along with a few small towns which are definitely on the way to other places. Some of the places include Everett, Mulkiteo, and Snohomish.
Thanks to a few popular movies, TV shows, and general hipster culture, everyone wants to visit Seattle. I have to admit, it’s a pretty impressive, beautiful city with lots on offer. In fact, in the above photo, you can see a few things that make Seattle such a cool city, where you can do some really cool things like Pike Place Market food tours or the Space Needle and sitting right on Elliot Bay of Puget Sound.
Just like many large cities, you won’t be able to see it all, but if you are going to stop by on your way to your epic road trip, I would suggest at least checking out these few places:
- Pike Street Market
- Space Needle and Monorail
- The Troll in Freemont – a great place to grab lunch anyway!
If going through Seattle, you might be interested in this podcast where we talk about what to do and eat in the city.
Everett hosts a historic downtown area that is fun to walk around, but the biggest thing to do here is to visit Boeing‘s Future of Flight. The Boeing factory is gigantic and sits right on the bay. We took the tour on how these huge jets are made and it was amazing. Anyone interested in flight, aerodynamics, or just how things are made, will love the tour. It’s well worth it.
If you are heading to the Whidbey Island part of the loop first, you might want to save some driving time and really enjoy one of Washington’s best traditions, taking the ferry. Mulkiteo’s ferry takes you to the southern part of Whidbey and lets you off in the town of Clinton.
While you are waiting for the ferry, you can easily grab a bite to eat or visit the lighthouse down on the waterfront. It’s a great place to stretch your legs.
Whidbey Island is as far west as the Cascade Loop goes. You can get there a couple of ways. First you can take the ferry from Mulkiteo or you can drive the entire way and go up to the island by crossing the Deception Pass bridge.
We’ve done it both ways, but if you aren’t staying on the island that long, you can maximize your time by just driving one way, from Clinton north to the bridge over Deception Pass. You will most likely be driving on Highway 20 out of Clinton that will turn into Highway 525, which is also known as the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way.
The highway runs the entire length of the island for about 49 miles. You can drive it in as a little over an hour, but you will want to take your time and visit some of the many things to do on Whidbey. We recommend at least stopping and checking out the following:
- Oak Harbor
- Price Sculpture Forest
- Fort Casey State Park
The Skagit Valley is one of my favorite regions of Washington, and it’s fantastic that anyone road tripping through on the Cascade Loop will get a chance to stop by. This fertile valley is home to farms of all kinds from dairy to lavender, tulips to pumpkins, so it seems that there is always something to come and get fresh.
You could easily spend a few days in Skagit Valley experiencing the cute towns and fishing villages as well as all the artisan bakeries and artists that reside in the area. It’s just a fun place to be.
Some of the places I enjoy the most are:
- La Conner
- Anacortes – also known as the jumping off point to the San Juan Islands
- Mount Vernon – especially around tulip time
Still heading north on this iconic route 20, we leave the valley and start gaining some altitude. The North Cascades part of the highway is named for the national park that sits up there nestled in between stunning mountain passes with the wild Skagit River running through. This stretch, about 140 miles, is chock full of scenery and small communities. The best way to really get a sense of it is to do some hiking and get up into the mountains.
Don’t leave without going to:
- North Cascades National Park and Visitor’s Center
- Diablo Lake
As you come down out of the mountains, you enter another fertile valley much less populated than Skagit. The Methow Valley is filled with quirky little villages, great shops, and lots of rural farms. That’s about it, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful drive.
It takes in some amazing little places and hosts a great Saturday market in Twisp (only in summer) as well as a Wild West Festival and a Winter Hot Air Balloon festival in Winthrop. The people here really save up their energy all year long to throw the best celebrations.
All year round there’s plenty of outdoor activities to take part in like snowshoeing or hiking.
We’ve never gone and not seen plenty of deer. In fact there are so many deer on or close to the road, that no matter what time of day you are driving through, do take your time and be on the lookout for them.
Things not to miss in the Methow Valley are:
Lake Chelan Valley
As you continue south, the Methow Valley turns into the Chelan Valley. The valley is the perfect place for growing grapes and apples. You will see this play out over and over again as you drive by wineries and orchards along the route. If you are a Washington wine lover, you will definitely want to take a break in Chelan and take one of the winery tours to load up.
If you are not into wine, that’s okay, too, because there are plenty of lake activities to take part in from swimming to parasailing and everything in between. The town of Chelan has a variety of restaurants to try, ethnic to fine dining.
While you are in the area, take the time to:
- Stroll the Riverwalk in Chelan
- Visit some wineries
- Take a bike ride
Wenatchee and the Columbia River Valley
The apple orchards might have started in Chelan, but the closer you get to Wenatchee you’ll begin to see why it’s called the “Apple Capital of the World.” Eastern Washington has over 300 days of sunshine, and that coupled with the fertile Columbia River Valley makes for growing great produce.
While in the Wenatchee area, check out these places:
- Walk or ride bikes on the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail
- Pybus Public Market for some shopping therapy
- Rocky Reach Discovery Center – learning all about the Columbia River
Leavenworth and the Cascade Foothills
Once you leave Wenatchee, you will head west and come quite quickly to the famous town of Leavenworth, famous for being patterned, uber-successfully, after a German town. In fact, they’ve been so successful that you might think you’ve entered a place warp.
The buildings are decorated in the Bavarian style, complete with wall frescoes, wooden trim, and flower boxes. The German food is all pretzels, wurst, and beer (Not really. There is a smattering of other German foods, like schnitzels as well.) Whether you want to peruse the shops, or eat and drink don’t miss Leavenworth.
While you are in the Leavenworth area, check out these places as well:
- Leavenworth Reindeer Farm
Steven Pass Greenway
Known for white water rafting and bouldering, the Steven Pass area is farmland with a healthy dose of adrenalin. The Greenway is a spectacular drive winding up and down mountains, often following the river giving you exceptional scenery no matter where you look.
Some places to stop and explore along the way are:
- Steven’s Pass
- Sasquatch Harry at the Espresso Chalet
Anytime between May and October, take a drive on the Cascade Loop and really get a look at the spectacular scenery for which Washington State is famous. You can drive the loop in either direction, but we’ve always done it clockwise. No matter what, you are in for a visual treat, and if you stop and explore some of the historical towns, do a few hikes, and try all the delicious and artisanal foods, you will want to return again and again.
Author Bio – Corinne is an avid camper and traveler. She’s been to all 50 of the US states and has four more Canadian provinces to visit. However, she’s not stopping yet. There’s always more to see of this great continent! Corinne loves local foods, getting outdoors, landscape photography, and road trips.