Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Washington Pass

There is a beautiful highway in northern Washington that roadsters like me see everyday in our imaginations but only sometimes confirm with our experiences. Washington State Highway 20 passes through the Cascades east of Burlington, in what can be described as a drive of gradual pleasures. The view east from Burlington is a hopeful one, with rolling hills inundated with trees full of life. The highway disappears quickly into this noticeably less flat terrain, and what emerges is a mountain chain of varied sights and sounds.

I remember most the river. The Skagit River slowly appears to the south of the highway, revealing the gradually higher peaks of the typically snowy Cascades. But, the river was not the typical dark brown or blue color. It had a dark gray look that was striking to the eyes. In actuality, the water is a royal green color, indicative of rock flour created by snowmelt. Green water typically causes one to think of algae, or slime, or something unpleasant to the senses. But this color looked strikingly clean, only outranked by the tropical blues found in the ocean waters near the Bahamas.

The color also evokes a sense of urgency, as torrents of water rush to the flatter lands to the west. Mom and I stopped several times on our way up to Washington Pass to watch the strange-looking river. In one spot, numerous nameless waterfalls were visible hundreds of feet higher. No sounds could be heard from them. The distant waterfalls looked like silent hourglasses, with the spray of water spreading out as it touched the land below.

North Cascades National Park resides in much of this area. It is one of the most remote national parks in the contiguous United States. Because the highway had only recently opened before our visit, few other travelers were seen the whole day. The visitor center was quiet, and the sounds of the forests were of a lonely wind subtly shaking the tree leaves. I remember looking at an American flag at the visitor center and listening to the whirring of the breeze for what turned out to be several minutes. If ever there is a reason to explore the wilderness, it is to experience moments like that one.

The drive east continues through wilderness. A bright green lake known as Lake Diablo is one of the best highway views of a lake in the country. The sight of snow-capped mountains dissolving into the lightened sky above the starkly darker forests and shimmering waters is captivating. Mom and I spent almost a half hour at this stop, despite the stiff and cool late May breeze.

Waterfalls dotted the road for miles, most of them unnamed. One waterfall flows right into the river, a few miles west of Lake Diablo. It is known as Gorge Creek Falls, and is one of the most interesting sights in the Northwest. The waterfall is extremely narrow and obviously qualifies as a gorge. The waterfall is the same color as the river, but the creek below it is shallower. This exposes the extremely clear water that actually flows in this part of the country. The green color may be indicative of eroded rock, but the water is almost perfectly transparent. Rocks shine below the surface, providing a gorgeous canvas for the swiftly flowing water. It is a stunningly beautiful sight.

The best stop on the trip through the Cascades, though, is just after entering Okanogan County. The spine of the Cascades resides here, and this section of the road is known as Washington Pass. I was completely unaware of the beautiful sight I would soon take in here. It is one of my favorite viewpoints in America, and any mountain lover would be stunned at the visual that quickly appears.

Mom and I turned out to visit at the perfect time, when plenty of snow remained on the slopes. The bright white clashed beautifully with the yellows and oranges of the rocky cliffs and the greens and browns of the trees clinging to the sides for dear life. Rock slide after rock slide plunged from the peaks, showing the devastating power of gravity and snow. I will never forget this place.

We took this drive in about five hours, which is criminally short for the length of time this area deserves. I will return one day soon to this outstanding portion of the country. But the sights of the Cascades and their fiercely independent appearance to that of the Rockies will remain for the rest of my days. It was one of my favorite road trip experiences of my life, and I think the pictures explain why.

The Skagit River on the west portion of the North Cascades Scenic Highway.
A snowmelt waterfall high above the Skagit River.
The whir of the small breeze near the visitor center of North Cascades National Park.
Lake Diablo.
Gorge Creek Falls.
The rocks in the green water of Gorge Creek.
Gorge Creek meets the Skagit River.
The astounding viewpoint near Washington Pass.
A glorious look at SH-20 at Washington Pass.
A view of the mountainside from the road.