It’s been a rough week. The kind of week that makes you think about how nice it would be to hole up in a mountain cabin for a few days. Hike to stunning vistas, breathe in the fresh air, pick handfuls of wildflowers or pluck ripe berries along the way.
For all of these things, I would love to be headed to the Cascade Loop. It should be on every traveler’s road-trip bucket list. The scenery is spectacular. There are also a number of quaint small towns along the loop, each with its own character, where you’ll find lodging of every size and style, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and haute cuisine, and outdoor activities for all seasons. There’s plenty of camping, if you’re into that sort of thing. (I’m not.) I love that you can be as on or as off the grid as you want to be. Basically, remote bliss.
I prefer to loop counter-clockwise from Seattle, embarking on the roads we take every day but continuing to Snoqualmie Pass. Highway 2 through Leavenworth is also a beautiful option. There’s just something satisfying about starting off as if you’re headed to work, and keeping on going. Some years at the summit, patches of snow remain tucked between the tall pines through mid-summer. The Yakima River winds alongside much of the route. Rapids in certain spots give the impression of water racing cars, while rafters lazily drift down other much calmer stretches not caring to keep pace.
We typically shift direction just past Roslyn. By Wenatchee, verdant mountain forests flatten into a semi-arid valley where apple and stone fruit farms are nourished by the Columbia River. Highway 97 takes you from here straight up to glacier-fed Lake Chelan, the largest natural lake in the state. Popular amongst vacationers for both water sports and wineries. This is rarely our destination, but we like to pause here for a quick bite and to enjoy the view. Of course, I should note that the last time we were passing through, this was our view…or lack thereof:
Haze from nearby blazes gave the impression of twilight in late-afternoon. Visibility was low as smoke settled into the lake basin. Boats remained docked and swimmers stayed ashore. Life in town had not come to an entirely screeching halt, but there was a solemn silence, respect for the region’s fragility.
Past Chelan near Okanogan, at the junction of highways 97 and 20, was where we first spotted active flames. Only 30 miles from our intended destination, Twisp, we weren’t prepared to turn back, but the constant shudder of helicopters overhead made us question our decision. Isolated brush fires can quickly build into roaring walls of heat and destruction. We knew this. However misguided, we continued.
In Twisp, a kind hotelier at Twisp River Suites made room for us in a nearby house for the night. Typically reserved as a long-term vacation rental, he knew we would have no other option with additional firefighters in town. I hate to admit it, but we hadn’t exactly considered that. Grateful, we thanked him and settled in. Over at the Twisp River Pub, we eavesdropped on fellow diners recounting their personal experiences with the fires. Everyone wanted to their tale to be heard – not to boast, mind you; there was deep camaraderie in their shared concern.
With the pall of smoke looming, we headed to bed not knowing what would await us in the morning. Or perhaps the middle of the night. Would we rest peacefully? Would we be evacuated? Would the town still be complete in the morning?
Thankfully, the fires died down in the night. We woke to fresher tasting air, despite the lingering ash. At breakfast, many folks spoke of close calls and dodged bullets. For us, there was just as much road ahead as behind, so we extracted ourselves from talk of disaster and continued west through the Methow Valley to mosey down Main Street in the quirky Western-themed town of Winthrop and gather road trip rations at the Mazama Store.
Back in the Cascades, we wound our way through the series of sharp switchbacks, stopping at both Ross and Baker Lakes to…hike a little, breathe deeply, and pick wildflowers. The sun shone brighter and the air cleared the further we traveled west. This was the escape we had come for.
Our final stop along the route is almost always for a giant scoop of ice cream at Cascadian Farm in Sedro-Wooley. It’s the last bastion of rural escape before jumping back on the major interstate to head home. We wandered the adjacent pumpkin patch searching for signs of sprouting gourds. Children and dogs tried in earnest to creep up on crows feeding in the field. I realized that neither my mind nor my heart was racing. My shoulders had sunken lower and my neck felt that much longer. All reminders of what true relaxation really feels like.
So yes, I would very much like to spend some time in a cabin in the North Cascades this weekend. To traverse the always gorgeous, sometimes thrilling route there and back. To rest. Rejuvenate. But this week, Chelan is on fire once again. Yesterday, reports came of close to 100 square miles already burned. Fifty-one homes have been lost, and another 100 are considered in danger. A thousand residences remain under mandatory evacuation orders. Today, Twisp and Mazama were evacuated as new fires cropped up. Three firefighters were killed and four others hurt as winds shifted, trapping them. Sure, residents are familiar with the risks. They face them in one way or another almost every year. But this year…with skies too blue and sun too bright for a typical Pacific Northwest spring, temperatures soared early this season. I began voicing my fears about August in May. And here we are. It’s been a rough week, indeed.