North Cascades Scenic Highway in the Winter

One of the most beautiful scenic highways around is the North Cascades Scenic Highway, a portion of State Route 20 (SR 20) in northern Washington State that passes through the Cascade Mountain Range in the North Cascades National Park, the Okanogan National Forest, and other notable natural and recreational areas. Unfortunately, due to its high elevation (5,477 feet or 1,669 meters at the highest point) and massive winter snowfalls, the road is closed from November to April every year, so you can’t get to it during some of the prettiest times of the year. Or can you?

This past weekend, the Seattle Mountaineers held what they called “Winter Trails Day in the Methow Valley“, which was really “Winter Trails Weekend”, but no matter. The Methow Valley, or simply The Methow (pronounced met-how) follows the Methow River, a tributary of the Columbia River in northern Washington. It includes the towns of Pateros, Carlton, Twisp, Winthrop, and Mazama. This event was to be based in Winthrop, a charming little town that looks like the set from a Western movie and is situated about four to five hours from the greater Seattle area.

The idea behind the weekend was to get out and play in the snow. While there are certainly areas closer to Seattle that are snow-covered this time of year, travelling to The Methow gave folks a little weekend excursion to an area that they probably don’t see very often. It’s close enough to get to for a weekend, but far enough away to seem like a mini-vacation.

Organized events over the weekend included snowshoe trips, Nordic skiing and lessons, naturalist snowshoe walks, ice skating, wine tasting, sleigh rides, and a fat biking demo. (And no, that is not a comment about the cyclists involved.) Oh, and there was also some beer drinking and Seahawks championship football watching, but those were not exactly official events, important though they might have been.

The Snowshoer in Front, near Mazama, Washington

The snowshoer in front sports a Methow Valley snowshoe pass, a $5 pass needed to access the Methow Trails, but not the North Cascades Highway. I didn’t have the heart to tell the folks who made this mistake. At the Klipchuck Campground near Mazama, Washington.

Many of the events were designed to take advantage of the Methow Trails, a trail system that includes over 120 miles of cross-country ski trails in the winter months, and is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.

Road Sign at the Campground, near Mazama, Washington

A road sign at the Klipchuck Campground on the North Cascades Scenic Highway shows the distance to Newhalem to the west and Winthrop to the east, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington.

Also on the agenda was a snowshoe trip along the easternmost section of the closed North Cascades Scenic Highway, a seven mile round trip leisurely walk from near the town of Mazama to the Klipchuck Campground in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. A trip like this is how you get to see what the closed highway looks like in the winter. Of course, you have to be aware of avalanche danger, one of the primary reasons the road is closed.

This weekend, the “avy” danger was low. How did I know that? Because in the winter I always check the Northwest Avalanche Center forecast before going out, that’s how. It only takes a minute, and it can help save your life. (Of course, it’s no substitute for taking an avalanche safety course, which I’ve also done through the Seattle Mountaineers.)

The Klipchuck Campground, near Mazama, Washington

The Klipchuck Campground sign is covered in snow, near Mazama, Washington.

Snowshoe in the North Cascades, near Mazama, Washington

A group of Seattle Mountaineers approach the Klipchuck Campground on snowshoes, near Mazama, Washington.

Of course, as with any winter outing around here, what you get to see depends on the weather. Western Washington has seen its share of fog and low clouds recently, and this weekend was no exception. The grand views of the Cascades we had hoped to see were mostly shrouded in fog and mist, giving them an eerie and magical feeling that is difficult to appreciate in a photograph. But we had a great time, and some first-time snowshoers on the trip learned the basics, essentially discovering what they didn’t know they didn’t know, which is always the biggest issue when beginning a new activity that involves raw nature.

Early Winters Creek, near Mazama, Washington

The Early Winters Creek passes under the bridge to the Klipchuck Campground, near Mazama, Washington.

While we didn’t see the grand views we had hoped for, the snow was pretty, the trees were pretty, and the gurgling streams and creeks along the way kept the photographers among our group busy. The North Cascades are beautiful any time of year and in any type of weather. How they show their beauty is what changes.

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One Response to “North Cascades Scenic Highway in the Winter”

  1. Sue-Z Trudell says:

    The creek image is beautiful. Looks like a great place for a hike!