Mount Rainier and the North Cascades
If the views don't give you the chills, the snow sure will.
Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park is a rugged landscape of waterfalls, glaciers, and lakes. The upper slope of its highest peak, Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot-high volcano in the Cascade mountain range, is covered with 26 glaciers and scores of snowfields. Together they total 35 square miles, making it the country's largest single-mountain ice mass outside of Alaska. And that holds true even in summer, when hikers find ample ammunition for snowball fights after only 20 minutes of climbing up any number of trails.
A four-day, 600-mile-loop drive out of Seattle is the ideal way to take in Mount Rainier, along with its national park neighbor, North Cascades National Park; an Old West mining town that's working hard to preserve its history; a bustling lake resort; and a curious village with Bavarian aspirations.
Day one: Seattle to Winthrop
The drive got under way inauspiciously as my wife, Sandy, and I negotiated the traffic on I-5/I-405 north out of Seattle's urban clutter.
But as soon as we exited east onto the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), the road opened up, and a seemingly impenetrable wall of soaring peaks loomed ahead.
The Cascade mountain range is a 700-mile-long chain stretching from northern California into British Columbia. Within it, North Cascades National Park has the sheerest, most rugged peaks. More than a dozen soar above 8,000 feet; even the most experienced hikers can find them intimidating. Drenched by Pacific storms, the western slopes are covered in a dense, eerily dark forest dripping with moss. And on the high cliffs, hundreds of waterfalls cascade down--which is how the range got its name.
We stopped briefly in Newhalem, where the National Park Service operates a visitor center, and picked up a free guide to day hikes. A mile beyond, we entered a misty forest on the gentle Trail of the Cedars. Following the racing Skagit River, the path makes a short loop among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars, which rival the California redwood for size and beauty. Signs along the way introduced us to the region's plants and trees; I started my informal education on how to tell the difference between firs and cedars. (Though both trees have reddish brown bark, cedars have scale-like leaves, while firs have needles.) After our hike, we picnicked at the trailhead, buying bread and a sharp cheddar at the Skagit General Store, which is right in the parking lot.
East of Newhalem, the highway climbs through a spectacular gorge, edging high above a trio of slender lakes resembling the fjords of Norway. Gorge and Diablo lakes appeared bright green; Ross Lake, shimmering in the sun, reflected the deep blue of the sky.
Checking our guidebook, we kept an eye out for the trail to Rainy Lake. The trail is just a mile long (one way), and it leads to what we agreed was one of the prettiest views in the Cascades. The path plunges into a forest of spruce, fir, and mountain hemlock. We crossed two bridged streams that splash down the mountainside. Then we found a place where suddenly the trees give way to a small turquoise lake, with evergreens lining the shore and a wall of rock towering above. Three thread-like waterfalls pour down.
The road reaches its highest point at Washington Pass, at 5,477 feet. From a viewing area, we spotted climbers inching up 7,740-foot Liberty Bell, a massive rock that resembles the Philadelphia landmark. A ranger next to us watched the climbers' slow progress through her telescope.
The highway descends gradually through a winding canyon to the town of Winthrop, on the sunnier, drier eastern foothills of the Cascades. The old mining outpost has worked vigorously to preserve its frontier look. Balconies hang over wooden sidewalks, creating a main street that looks like it could be a Gunsmoke set. Old Schoolhouse Brewery now occupies the town's little red schoolhouse--a fake frontier structure that was actually built in the 1970s--and serves the award-winning Ruud Awakening. In addition to refurbishing some old buildings, the town also built new ones in an Old West style. In search of a decidedly more authentic experience, we walked a block off the main road, Riverside Avenue, to the multibuilding Shafer Museum. The weathered collection of historical structures outlines the town's mining past.
At the end of Riverside Avenue, the new 29-room Hotel Rio Vista lived up to its name; our room had a terrific view of the Methow River. For dinner, we took a two-minute walk down the street to the Riverside Grill, where I had a generous platter of excellent barbecued ribs.