Mount Rainier and the North Cascades
If the views don't give you the chills, the snow sure will.
- Hotel Rio Vista 285 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 800/398-0911, hotelriovista.com, from $60
- Riverside Grill 162 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 509/996-2444, barbecued rib platter $13
- Old Schoolhouse Brewery 155 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 509/996-3183, pint $3.50
- Visitor Center, North Cascades National Park Newhalem, 206/386-4495, nps.gov/noca
Day two: Winthrop to Yakima
Before leaving town, we stopped in at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery to learn about efforts to boost the number of chinook, steelhead, and coho salmon spawning in the waters here. The chinook and steelhead are officially listed as endangered species, and the coho is in even more serious trouble. Since the 1940s, the hatchery has been raising salmon, releasing almost 1 million youngsters annually on a 600-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean past nine dams, where the salmon live for an average of two to three years before returning to spawn. Annual returns number in the low hundreds. Due to the hatchery's efforts, the salmon are surviving, though certainly not thriving yet.
This area has been plagued by summer forest fires, and the 66-year-old North Cascades Smokejumper Base, just outside downtown Winthrop, is the "birthplace of smoke jumping." Sandy relaxed in the room while I took a free 60-minute tour. An on-duty smoke jumper showed me the crew's parachute rigging room and led me aboard the two-engine plane waiting on the runway for the next fire call.
Next up was Chelan, a busy resort town on a large lake. It was a little cold for a swim, so we enjoyed the views from the banks. Lake Chelan was carved by a glacier and cuts a thin swath into the heart of the Cascades. Passenger ferries cross the lake, which is 50 miles long, but we arrived too late to catch the 8:30 a.m. round trip on the Lady Express.
For the next 40 miles to Wenatchee, U.S. 97 south runs along the Columbia River and the massive Lake Entiat, formed by a river dam. We stopped at one of the many roadside fruit stands to purchase a small box of golden Rainier cherries, fresh-picked and luscious, before briefly detouring west into the mountains to the curious little Bavarian-inspired village of Leavenworth. Taking a cue from their Alps-like setting, the local folk--who are not necessarily of German descent--decided to revitalize their once-failing community by creating an ersatz Bavarian village. Shopkeepers and restaurant crews are decked out in lederhosen.
Yakima is an agriculturally rich city, noted in particular for its cherries, apples, and very good wines. It's possible to taste for free at 46 Yakima Valley wineries, many of which are clustered south of town.
- Winthrop National Fish Hatchery Winthrop, 509/996-2424
- North Cascades Smokejumper Base Winthrop, 509/997-2031
- Lady Express Operated by Lake Chelan Boat Company, Chelan, 509/682-4584, ladyofthelake.com, 8:30 a.m. cruise $47
- Yakima Valley wineries 800/258-7270, wineyakimavalley.com
Day three: Yakima to Mount Rainier National Park
We kept jackets and sweaters close at hand as we headed back to the high country. Even in midsummer, daytime temperatures can drop as low as 30 degrees, and lingering snowbanks line the road. On the way out of town, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up cheese, crackers, cherries, and cookies and packed them in a cooler in the car.
Our winding ascent began just outside Yakima. Initially we passed through the slender canyon of the Naches River, and then at Chinook Pass (elevation 5,432 feet), we entered Mount Rainier National Park. At the first sight of snow, Sandy and I pulled off the road to toss snowballs, each of us scoring a direct hit.
Though it's not America's highest peak, Rainier is the most awesome I've ever seen, because of both its massive bulk and easy accessibility. You can drive almost up to the edge of some of the glaciers. Practically filling the sky, the mountain towers in solitary glory above neighboring Cascade peaks like the statuesque ruler of a mystical ice kingdom.