Riding Wizards Take to the North Cascades Highway

Diablo Lake from the lookoutWashington State Route 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, stretches 436 miles from Port Townsend to Newport, Washington. It is in fact the longest stretch of highway in the State of Washington. The true North Cascades Highway covers the section of SR 20 that crosses the Cascade Mountains from the town of Concrete on the westside to Winthrop on the eastside of the mountains. The road opened in 1972 to much fanfare, as it was nearly a century after the state first started building the road.

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The road climbs through the rugged Cascade Mountains and closes annually due to heavy snow and avalanches that can leave up to 20 feet of snow on the road. More reliable routes for east-west travel include US Highway 2 and Interstate 90. SR 20 started as a route to move goods and has turned into more of a route for tourists to see some of the most scenic areas of the Cascade Mountain range. Diablo Dam and Gorge Dam are two Seattle City Light energy sources along the route.

The North Cascades Highway is a “dream” route for many motorcyclists. It’s a road that everyone in the Pacific Northwest talks about as a God-like creation. I don’t know about deities, but it is very Zen-like to ride.

I have wanted to ride this road since moving to the state more than a year ago. The fact that the route is closed a good part of the year means that there are limited opportunities to ride it. After a few scheduling failures, the opportunity came to fruition with a few work colleagues. In all, seven of us (Jim – the trip planner, Bill, Glenn, Harry, Joe, Mike and I) took a Tuesday off from the daily grind to put some rubber to the tarmac.

Chatting prior to the ride in Smoke PointWe met at the Starbucks in Smokey Point and hooked up with SR 530 in Arlington. The tree-lined route passed by many farms and rural homes. We even passed by a farm with a sign that read, “Kangaroo tours.” We’re a long way from Australia, but nonetheless someone has the famous animal from down under.

This was the first time that the seven of us had ridden together. Everyone had a wide range of bikes to fit their even wider range of riding styles and experiences. We had racers, commuters and cruisers all together in one fantastic group.

We zipped along SR 530 until it hooked up with the North Cascades Highway in Rockport. The first stop was in Marblemount. Everyone took turns admiring the different bikes while a couple were filled with fuel and Harry inflated the tires on his Triumph Bonneville Scrambler. With just 15 pounds of pressure in the tires, the bike was feeling lazy in the corners. A couple of minutes with the compressor fixed that problem and we were on our way.

Marblemount gas stopThe only thing separating us from the Skagit River and the tall cliffs of the rugged hills was the pavement that gave us the much needed traction to enjoy the day. We pass through Newhalem and continue to climb in elevation. The elevation allows us to look down on the vast evergreen forests that make the area so beautiful.

About 90 miles into the ride (from Smokey Point) we arrive at Diablo Lake, Crossing the bridge over the water really opens your eyes to what it takes to alter and harness the power of Mother Nature. The dam is an amazing structure that holds back a torrent of water that comes from the runoff of the melting snow from high in the hills above. It is a very picturesque area. The impact to the environment is evident in the dried riverbed where water once flowed. It has since been diverted and tunneled through the rock to better spin turbines that provide millions of people in the Seattle area with the power to brew their much needed coffee each morning.

We scraped pegs around corners as we climbed past the lake to the overlook where we pull in for a photo-op. The large parking lot just off of SR 20 at milepost 131 allowed us to line the bikes up and snap the necessary group shots. The lookout provides a panoramic view of the beautiful glaciated green water of Diablo Lake. It may not be entirely natural, but it is certainly a sight to behold. The break is short lived as we have many miles to go. Everyone throws a leg over their bike and heads down the road.

True wizards of the road (from left to right) Harry, Bill, Mike, Glen, Jim and Joe.Glen and I have a couple of technical difficulties with our jacket and helmet visor, respectively. This puts a few minutes behind the rest of the group. This means that we have time to make up. Boy did we ever! Sorry no photos for the next 15 miles or so. We connected to the road and whipped it into submission. Glen was tearing up the pavement with his long wheelbase Harley. My Suzuki V-Strom really allows a person to go deep into corners. Glen surprised me with how easy he made it look on his steed. Not bad for a bike he didn’t ride every day.

We catch the group and continue down the mountain to the drier side of the state. The vast evergreens give way to sparse trees and open pastureland and fields turned green from irrigation. Now heading south along the North Cascade Highway we are flanked to the east by rolling hills and fields and to the west the mighty Cascade Mountains. We travel along the Methow River through Mazama and Winthrop. The latter is a small tourist town that restored the facades of the buildings with a western theme in 1972 in preparation for the opening of SR 20. This is truly an area that had high hopes of development but has only found success in the tourist traffic. This is a good thing when you’re looking for food and lodging. The choices abound along the entire route.

Hometown Pizza pie in Twisp, WashingtonWe stop for lunch in Twisp. Each of us fills up on gasoline. After the bikes are full, we head across the street to Hometown Pizzato fill our own personal fuel tanks. This place has an ordinary name and extraordinary pizza. It isn’t the best pie that I’ve had, but for a small town this food was great. The bill for two pizzas and soda all around? Just $42 split seven ways means we filled our bellies on the cheap. If you’re along the route I highly suggest Hometown Pizza.

Just after Twisp, SR 20 heads east toward Idaho. We continue south on SR 153 through Carlton and Methow and hook up with US 97 in Pateros. Again, I didn’t get any photos in this area as I was behind the group and making up time. There was a little park along the Columbia River that we stopped at that had a sandy area for me to spin tires and generally cause a ruckus. In short, I was playing and lost the group.

The drier side of the state; aka the east side of the Cascade Range.US 97 is a busy road with growing traffic as it approaches US 2 near Wenatchee. We hop the semi super slab of US 2 and make our way over Stevens Pass and back over to the greener side of Washington State. US 2 over Stevens Pass is a fantastic ride. Check out the Yakima to Everett ride report for details on Stevens Pass.

I arrived home in Everett by 5:30 p.m. tired and satisfied. Another fantastic ride in Washington State is complete. The guys from work deserve certain kudos. A great crew that should get together for another ride soon.



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