On the Road Again: Driving the Cascade Loop

Despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost ten months, surrounded by the oceans and Puget Sound, I haven’t gotten out of Seattle much. I’ve only been on one day hike, and one camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

So since summer weather in this neck of the woods (by which I mean “sunny and higher than 70 degrees”) is fleeting, I decided to take advantage of it and actually see some of the outdoor scenery for which the Northwest is famous. And thus, with only about two days’ advance decision time, I threw my camping gear in the car and headed out on the 440-mile Cascade Loop Scenic Highway.

The simple need to enjoy summer wasn’t my only reason for going: I’ve felt overconnected, lately, and with two major sci-fi conventions coming up, I wanted to escape and recharge my batteries before so much travel and social chaos. And even though I’m only a few thousand words away from the end of my novel, I felt like a break would be good for the creative batteries as well.

For what was supposed to be a relaxing trip, it didn’t start out well. First, I made the mistake of rushing my departure in order to make it to a McDonald’s about ten minutes down the road before they stopped serving breakfast… hey, I have a weakness for their biscuits. I make no apologies. The problem was that in my haste, I forgot my wallet. So, I had to turn around and go back home– and of course, I didn’t get my biscuit.

After finally procuring food, I was on the road and starting to get into the “road trip groove” when the lid popped off my soda, spilling most of it between the driver’s seat and the center console. This necessitated spending about twenty minutes at a convienence store, helping myself liberally to the paper towels from the bathroom, and trying to clean it up. (Speaking of which… anyone have any tips on how to get soda out of a seatbelt mechanism? Sigh.)

Things started to improve once the Cascades came in sight. However, the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. The day had started out overcast, and although it was gradually improving, the mountains were still shrouded in cloud:

But luckily, it didn’t last long. The weather cleared, and soon even the snow-covered peaks were visible.

I didn’t have a specific plan or itinerary; my plan was to drive, listen to music, and stop at whatever happened to look interesting along the way. My first stop ended up being at a place called Deception Falls State Park, where a half-mile loop trail followed a lovely creek past a series of picturesque, occasionally raging waterfalls, and through some absolutely beautiful pine forest.

There are a lot of little towns around the Cascades, most of which depend on tourism. During the summer there’s whitewater rafting, and hiking, and backpacking, and during the winter of course, there’s skiing. A few of the towns have come up with “themes” that, I suppose, make them even more enticing to tourists. For example, there’s the town of Leavenworth, which has modelled itself on a Bavarian village. Even the signs for the McDonald’s and the gas station were done up in ornate wooden Bavarian style.

In my opinion, it had all the authentic character and charm of Disneyworld– in other words, I was not a fan. But I know a lot of people like that sort of thing, and in fairness, I did have a huckleberry cheesecake ice cream cone there that was absolutely superb.

Another example of such a town was Winthrop, Washington– all done up in authentic Old Pioneer style, and perfectly charming, with friendly people, but it still felt fake to me.

I guess all in all, I’d rather feel the authentic character of a place. And if you have to model your town on an artificial theme, you’re pretty much saying that whatever character you originally had wasn’t that interesting on its own. It’s true, I suppose, and good on them for making the most of the situation, but when I need a reason to visit the area, I’ll stick with this:

The Cascade Loop also provides a fairly dramatic illustration of what a “rain shadow” is. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a rain shadow is when a mountain range blocks the passage of rain clouds and weather systems, so that the rain falls on the mountains and the area directly “behind” the mountains is very dry. For the Cascades, the weather systems generally travel west-to-east, so the area directly east of the mountains is in a rain shadow. And the landscape transforms from lush, verdant pine forests like this:

Into this:

The eastern half of the Cascades Loop is dominated by that sort of landscape; hardy scrub brush and dry grasses scattered across an almost desert-like environment. I suppose it pretty much is a desert, actually… it just seems odd. Who knew the wet-and-rainy Pacific Northwest had a desert in it?

The eastern side of the Cascades is also where summer hides from Seattle. The temperature went from low seventies to upper eighties, and the air conditioning in my car got way more of a workout than it has any time since I left North Carolina.

I camped overnight just outside of Winthrop. After the sun set, I sat at a picnic table, far from any power outlets, and as I watched bats flit overhead in the quickly-fading light of dusk, I took advantage of the campsite’s free wi-fi to check Twitter and Facebook. I considered doing some writing, but the bright screen amidst the darkness was starting to give me eye strain, and besides, I did feel marginally guilty for staying connected on a trip where I was ostensibly supposed to disconnect myself. So after a few minutes, I shut down the laptop and went to bed… but the novelty of wi-fi at a campsite was still worth it.

The next day, I made my way back over the Cascades, and saw some of the most spectacular scenery of the drive. The highway passed a lot of trailheads, but I didn’t have time to hike them, since I wanted to be back in Seattle by late afternoon. That’s okay, though– this was really just a scouting run of the Cascade Loop; soon I’ll go back and fill in more of the details.

But even sticking mostly to the road, there were still some impressive sights to be seen, like Diablo Lake. And no, the color of this picture isn’t wonky; that was the actual color of the water.

Eventually, the highway came down out of the Cascades and back toward the coast, and I continued outward to the islands of Puget Sound. The highway wound its way down Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island, and in between them was one of the coolest things on the drive: Deception Pass. (Despite the similarity of the name, no relation to Deception Falls State Park.) And on the day I visited, the clouds were having a field day, coming and going every few minutes and creating some pretty cool effects.

After walking the length of the bridge twice, taking pictures and marveling at the view, it was time to finish the trip and head home. I traveled to the south end of Whidbey Island and caught a ferry across Puget Sound, back to the mainland, heading south just in time to get caught in Seattle rush-hour traffic.

Ah, well, you win some, you lose some. But all in all, I’ll chalk that trip up as a win. The full Flickr set is here. And I’m already looking forward to seeing the Cascades again. Anyone up for a hike?

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3 thoughts on “On the Road Again: Driving the Cascade Loop

  1. What a great desciption of your trip! Super photos too! Thanks for sharing as it makes me feel like I was right there with you. Have a terrific time in Reno. I can’t wait for that post and photos.

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