The North Cascades Highway is a very popular route for motorcyclists seeking curves, scenery and small towns to eat in. Relatively few riders from the west side of the mountains venture off the Cascade Loop route. That, my fellow riders is a shame.
This article is part of the BestScenicRoutes.com effort to get people to explore the great areas near and along SR 20. The series is called North Cascades Connections.
The ride starts in the town of Winthrop. This is a motorcycle destination for most riders. The North Cascades Highway terminates here, but SR 20 continues on for many miles. We follow it south through Twisp, WA passing many food, lodging and fuel options. In Twisp, the road turns east and meanders through the Okanogan National Forest. As soon as it turns east, it begins climbing to 4,020 feet in elevation at Loup Loup Pass.
On most days this would be superb riding. I was not that lucky. Rain that started back on Rainy and Washington Passes had gotten heavier and turned to marble-sized hail. The every frozen marble that hit me at 60 miles per hour felt as I would imagine being hit by machine guns wearing some sort of bullet-proof vest. The Aerostich Roadcrafter performed well, and allowed me to duck in behind the windshield to keep moving. From time to time the hail would let up. My spirits would rise and I found joy riding through the moderate condition of the paved roads through the Okanogan National Forest.
There are a few places where the road winds near Loup Loup Pass inviting Zen. Luckily the hail let up to allowing me to enjoy these stretches of road. Highway 20 is wider in this area than you’d expect. It is actually nice because it allows a view into the healthy forests for searching for deer. The four-legged creatures with a vengeance for motorcyclists are thick through this area.
In Omak, Highway 20 continues north while I shoot onto Highway 155 heading east and then south. The road twists, turns and climbs up to Disautel Summit. The hail returns. It dumps on me until I can’t take it anymore. The sign for the summit approaches. A pull out allows me to rest my wet, tired and cold bones. The rain has soaked through my worn out boots and summer leather gloves. I tried to catch the hail in the photo, but it melted rapidly and only a small portion remains sitting on my soaked glove.
The plan was to find a camp spot for the night. With this weather, those plans to rough it turned to a desire for a warm and dry hotel room. That was found at the Coulee Inn and Suites at the base of the Grand Coulee Dam. It is pure happenstance that I find the room. Their no vacancy sign is lit up the same as all the other hotels that I have passed for many miles. I stopped in to the office to see if they would help me locate an open room nearby. It just so happened that someone had cancelled their reservation for a single king room. A bit of negotiation knocked the price from $96 to $70 for the night.
My riding gear was soaked and my camping gear was damp. I was happy to be in a warm dry room.
The Grand Coulee Dam is the largest hydroelectric gravity dam on the Columbia River, the largest electric-producing power plant and largest concrete structure in the United States. Also according to Wikipedia.org (the always correct online encyclopedia) it is the fifth largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world.
It is quite the site to take in. The structure is as the name says, grand. The nearly mile-long spillway holds back an enormous amount of water. The giant spillway provides a backdrop for nightly laser light shows. Since there is little else to do in Grand Coulee, it would be worth taking in. I opted for sleep instead.
It is only 100 miles (two hours) to Grand Coulee from Winthrop. It is an easy addition to a ride over the North Cascades Highway. Be prepared for all types of weather. Riding up the North Cascades drops the temperature 20 degrees. On the east side of the mountains the mercury climbs to 90 or more degrees. As my ride exemplifies, this convergence of air temperatures often cause summer storms.
The next article will cover a loop from Grand Coulee to Kettle Falls and back to Omak. This ride hit dirt roads high above the Columbia River, two ferries and roads as close to Canada as you can get without a passport.