Washington State: day thirteen
17.07.2017 - 17.07.2017
The majestic North Cascades
From our hotel window
Looking out of our window at the Rio Vista in Winthrop soon after getting up we spotted a deer foraging on the stony island opposite - what a great start to the day!
And breakfast was pretty good too. The Rio Vista is right next door to a great local coffee shop, the Rocking Horse Café, where we got excellent cappuccinos and muffins as well as buying cold drinks and sandwiches to take with us on our drive through the North Cascades.
Highway 20 is recognised as one of the most scenic drives in the North West, possibly in the entire US. We had planned our route such that we would travel it east to west, as I had read that this offers the best views as you drive (though a small downside is that the national park visitor centre then lies at the end of your journey through the park, making advance planning more essential if you are to get the most out of your visit).
The Methow near Mazama
Leaving Winthrop straight after our usual early breakfast, we stopped first briefly in Mazama, a tiny community just off the highway with a wonderful general store selling an eclectic mix of travel goods, souvenirs, hardware, food and more. It also serves as a café and the coffee smelt so good I wished I hadn't just had that strong cappuccino in Winthrop! But we did stock up on cereal bars to add to the sandwiches and drinks bought earlier.
After taking a few photos in Mazama we started the steady climb towards Washington Pass, the highest point on the road at 5,477 feet. We stopped for photos in a couple of spots before reaching that high point, as the road was already pretty spectacular.
At the top we pulled over again and could look back at the road we'd just driven - a fabulous view!
The road through Washington Pass
North Cascades NP
The North Cascades National Park is split into two sections, Northern and Southern. Between them runs Highway 20, along a corridor that forms the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and offers the easiest access to the park. Much of it is inaccessible to all but the serious hiker, mountain climber or those boating on the extensive waters of Ross Lake. The casual day visitor, like ourselves, will be mostly confined to the area on either side of the highway, so technically not in the park itself for the most part. But that doesn't mean there is any lack of things to do!
Our first stop of any length was soon after Washington Pass, at Rainy Lake. Here you are on National Forest land so a fee of $5 is required, although there is no national park fee payable for the North Cascades. Several trails of different lengths start here. We did the easiest, a one mile each way walk to Rainy Lake itself. This led mostly through mixed forest with a few patches of sunlit grass. We crossed two small waterfalls on wooden bridges quite near the start of the walk.
On the Rainy Lake trail
One highlight on this walk was first hearing and then seeing two woodpeckers tapping frantically at the bark of one of the larger trees. Well, one was tapping frantically, while the other seemed happy to mostly just watch and (I guess) catch any insects that fell from above. The photos aren't great but it was fun watching them. By examining species lists for the park and checking a few images online my best guess is that these are Downy Woodpeckers.
The walk ends on the shore of Rainy Lake. An information board explains that this lies in a cirque, a hollow carved out by a glacier. It is a lovely view - the water is clear, the lake surrounded by mountain scenery, and to the right a waterfall spills into it. One thing slightly mars this otherwise idyllic spot - the water draws clouds of biting insects, so make sure to use repellent.
Ross and Diablo Lake overlooks
Our next stops were at pull-outs offering views of the park's two main lakes. The first was at the largest, Ross Lake, which stretches north from here right to the Canadian border. Indeed the distant mountains you can see from here are in Canada.
From the Ross Lake overlook
From here we drove the short distance to a spot which provided the most breath-taking views of the day. Diablo Lake may be smaller than neighbouring Ross, but it is a most beautiful colour, and the tiny islands that dot it add to its picturesqueness. We spent quite some time here taking photos and admiring the landscape before us. There are also lots of information boards explaining the geology of the lake and mountains and something of its history too. We read about Jack Kerouac's love of the North Cascades, and learned that deep turquoise colour of the lake is due to the surrounding glaciers that grind rocks into a fine powder which is carried into the lake by the streams that feed it. The fine powder stays suspended in the water, giving it its vivid colour.
Views of Diablo Lake
Colonial Peak and other distant mountains, from the Diablo Lake overlook
This is a man-made lake. At its far end you can drive across the dam that holds back its waters (visible in the distance in some of my photos above). We did so and parked up at the far end for a closer look. You can walk out along the dam (stopping your car on it isn’t allowed, for obvious reasons given the narrowness of the road) to get some good views of the lake and of the sluices.
The dam from the far side
Here you become aware just how much man has shaped this landscape and continues to do so. The waters spill out of the dam's sluices at a controlled rate, creating a man-made waterfall to rival the natural ones elsewhere in the area. It's another reminder that here you are not actually in a national park where this level of human activity would be unlikely to be permitted.
Water spilling from the dam
Before that we had stopped to eat our lunch at the Colonial Creek campground's picnic site but didn't attempt the far more strenuous hike that starts here. Instead we carried on and made a brief stop at Gorge Creek where you can walk out on to a bridge to see the falls of the same name and the narrow canyon that delivers their waters into Gorge Lake.
By now we were almost at the far end of the park and had reached the visitor centre at Newhalem. As I mentioned, it was not ideal coming here at the end of our visit, but the views as we approached the mountains through Washington Pass had more than compensated for that. We spent a little time here looking at the displays, watching an interesting short film about plans to re-habituate grizzly bears to the North Cascades, and took the short boardwalk to a beautiful view of the Picket Range, apparently named for its resemblance to a picket fence!
The Picket Range
There proved to be no refreshments available at the visitor centre so we retraced our steps a little to the power company's facilities where there is a general store as well as various visitor attractions such as an information centre, old locomotive and walks.
Old locomotive at the visitor centre
After our ice cream we had a quick look at the Gorge power station but decided against doing the fairly steep trail to Ladder Creek Falls as I needed to pace myself with the various mobility issues I'd been having prior to the trip - in fact, I was quite impressed that I'd managed the earlier two mile walk as well as several shorter ones! We did however cross the suspension bridge over the Skagit River to its starting point near the old power station to take a few photos.
Gorge Power Station
The Skagit RIver from the bridge
Swallow by the Skagit
So we returned to the car and drove the last few miles to Marblemount where I had reserved a room for the night at the Buffalo Run Inn. I wasn't quite sure what to expect here as reviews on Trip Advisor and elsewhere are mixed, to say the least. The bad reviews attract very robust responses from the owner and I suspect some are written specifically to wind him up!
Certainly, we were impressed when we saw our room and had no issues with the welcome we received nor with the accommodation provided. This is in a block across and about 100 yards along the road from the restaurant, where you check in. We had room #7 and found it more than adequate for our needs - a good size, nice and clean, with facilities that included a fridge, microwave and coffee machine.
In the evening we ate at the Buffalo Run restaurant across the street, which seemed like the natural choice, especially as those staying in the Inn get a 10% discount. Like most other diners that evening we ate outside in the garden area. I had anticipated biting insects as the Inn is right on the river, but either they weren't interested in me or my repellent was doing its job, as I came through unscathed! We very much enjoyed our dinner here. My elk medallions weren't cheap but were excellent, and Chris's Mexican-inspired veggie dish, Latino, was also good, if far too large a portion. With a couple of beers each we paid $75.
The empty restaurant (everyone was in the garden!
We also had a bit of a chat with the owner who came around to each table during the course of the evening. He told us about the theming of the rooms in the Inn – half have an animal theme (bear, moose) which was his wife’s choice, while the other half are decorated for a city – we were in the Venice-themed room. We’d found it a little odd to encounter paintings of that city in such a different environment but it made a nice talking point.
A pleasant evening to end a wonderful day.