We’re headed back to Washington again!
As you may remember, we had spent two days on the northern coastline of Oregon at the Fort Stevens State Park. It was time to pack-up the van and get ready to move out.
Kim mentioned seeing some unbelievable pictures of the North Cascades National Park in northern Washington and that we needed to see the park in person – since we were “already in the area!”
We decided to go for it and began to plan our route back into Washington.
The North Cascades National Park is in the northern most parts of the Evergreen State, right along the Canadian border. From Astoria, Oregon, it would be a full day’s driving with an overnight stop before we actually got into the National Park proper.
A short scoot across the highway from Fort Stevens State Park put us in the parking area of the Astoria-Warrenton-Seaside KOA Resort campgrounds. Jamee manages the campground, and she is mutual friends with another couple we know at home. We had to stop and say hello and pass on hugs to everyone.
Stocked up with couple of sweatshirts, tee shirts and a bunch of stickers from the KOA giftshop, we were back on the road again headed north.
Our fingers were crossed we would not hit a lot of traffic going up Interstate-5 through the Seattle area.
Coast side traffic jam
We hadn’t yet driven 3 miles from the campgrounds when traffic came to a complete stop.
A trio of young elk had decided to take their time while crossing the street through this residential area.
The delay was short-lived, and we got some good wildlife photos in the bargain.
Stopping in Warrenton yielded some incredible coffee drinks and friendly faces at the Human Bean coffee kiosk.
The Costco parking gave Kim better Wi-Fi and cell phone signals than the campground so she could contact several of her real estate clients.
We made the 3.5-hour drive to Seattle with only a few minor traffic delays and a feeling of relief that we don’t live in that huge city.
Once past Seattle and the surrounding suburbs, the scenery started to get more friendly to our souls.
The urban industrial landscape slowly morphed into rolling green hills, then, by the time we turned off I-5 and arrived in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, the tree covered mountains were clearly visible in our van’s windshield.
We meet another wannabe #vanlifer
There was a Starbucks right off the road. Of course, we stopped for more caffeine and to get some fresh beans to restock our van’s coffee supply.
The Starbucks gal who waited on JK saw his “We’re the Russo’s” Van Life tee shirt and asked if it was true. JK pointed outside to the van and immediately her excitement escalated.
She began telling him she had been dreaming of owning a van and traveling. She said she watched all the YouTube van videos and was so inspired to meet a real #vanlifer. Lol! JK handed her a card with our social media links so she could follow along with #jkandkiminthecamper.
Finding a place to stay overnight
A downside to #vanlife traveling in unfamiliar areas is making campground reservations on the fly. Finding places to stop overnight is difficult while enroute. Spotty cell coverage in remote coastal or mountain areas doesn’t help either.
Admittedly we are not the kind of travelers who pre-plan every stop. We book campgrounds or find rest stops as we drive across each state.
Another downside is booking a place that sounds good or looks nice online, but upon arrival, it’s a trash heap of a “campground.” Do we suck it up and stay, or cancel and hope to get our deposit back?
That’s what happened on our way towards North Cascades National Park.
Kim had found a campground online and called to see if they had a spot for us that night. They did and told us to just show up, no deposit needed. The guy didn’t even take our contact information!
We could tell even before we got to the entrance that this was NOT a place we would be staying at that night! It looked more like an auto and truck salvage yard than a campground.
Panicked, Kim scrambled and searched on her phone to find another last-minute camping option. The odds weren’t great considering the remote mountainous area we were in.
Out of the way winery and campground
Just by chance a small nearby winery and restaurant also operated a campground on site. The owner must have heard the desperation in Kim’s voice and said she had a spot for our van with water and electric hook up.
The Glacier Peak Resort and Winery off Highway 20 on Clark Cabin Road in Rockport, Washington turned out to be a great spot for the night.
They rent cabins but have a number of campsites on the property that’s located along the Skagit River. Plus, they are pet friendly, which was a blessing as well. A small laundry room, and private bathrooms and showers are also available.
The owner invited us to have cocktails and dinner in their restaurant, but we kindly declined. We did buy a bottle of their 2015 Lake Chelan AVA Syrah wine (which was exceptionally good, BTW).
After a long day of travel, we were road weary and needed to chill in the van with Willow and Tia.
She had us park the van on the lawn in the shadow of a tall mountain and provided ample room to walk the dogs.
We plugged in to the nearby electrical box, then took time to unwind and watch the sun play hide and seek behind pure white clouds in the high elevation deep blue sky.
For dinner, JK whipped up ravioli with pesto sauce, and a fresh salad which we enjoyed with our wine.
Another roadside chapel
Next morning, we were up early to hit the showers before the rest of the campers started to stir. As we left the resort, we spotted another small chapel amongst the trees across the highway.
The Wildwood Chapel was adorable. The early morning sun made the interior of the small house of worship glow. We spent a few minutes “at church” before driving towards North Cascades National Park.
It wasn’t long until we spotted the park’s west entrance sign and pull off area. We parked and used a conveniently located flat-topped post, and the self-timer on the iPhone, to snap several memory portraits of us with the park sign.
Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see firsthand as we drove deeper into the park.
No national park admission fee
We could not believe a national park with such beauty and grandeur, tucked in the far north of Washington, would be free to visit.
We guessed it was because Highway 20 (the North Cascades Highway) cuts a swath directly through the middle of the park, and because of the highway, admission to the North Cascade National Park is free.
Our first stop was the park’s visitor center. Although it was still early morning, the building was buzzing with activity as adventurers gathered maps and information to aid in their hikes on the many trails within the mountainous park.
The visitor’s center is filled with colorful educational displays, maps, and photographs. There is a small table by the front doors to stamp your National Parks Passport book, and the gift shop is well stocked with souvenirs, clothing, and gear to make the stop a memorable one.
What had us geeked from the beginning was the glacier blue-green waters of the Skagit River and the surrounding lakes.
It seemed every twist or turn in the road would reveal another epic view that had us speechless and in awe.
Thankfully, there are plenty of vehicle pull off areas to stop, take in the view and snap photos.
A company town in the wilderness
Discovering the town of Newhalem along Highway 20 warranted a stop and walk around. The 1920s-to-1940s era company town was built by the Seattle City Light for the crews constructing the three hydroelectric dam projects along the Skagit River.
During the height of hydroelectric dam construction project in the late 1920s, more than 1,000 people lived and worked in Newhalem.
JK is a longtime railroad buff and avid model railroader. He was admittedly dumbfounded to find a fully restored (and at one time in the recent past, operating) steam locomotive on display in company town’s park-like setting.
Engine Number 6 was on the roster of the Skagit River Railway, a 31-mile railroad built solely to haul equipment, materials, supplies and workers from the town of Rockport to Newhalem and the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project locations.
At the time, the railroad was the only means of transportation to this remote part of Washington state. The railroad was dismantled in 1954 as the area became more accessible to automobile transportation.
The Newhalem area boasts a number of campgrounds – most are hike-in or boat-in. The Newhalem Campground (near the North Cascades Visitor Center) is RV-friendly.
The Colonial Creek South Campground looks to be accessible by cars, trucks, and vans. Check with the National Park office to confirm accessibility and what permits are needed for each campground.
Highway 20 climbs as the scenery becomes more rugged and remote
We turned off Highway 20 onto Diablo Dam Road and to our surprise ended up driving across the narrow, single-lane dam that holds back the waters of glacier fed Diablo Lake.
That was a thrill!
As we drove across, Kim was able to capture a perfect rainbow in the mist of the crashing white water flowing through a spillway.
The road dead ends at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and Field Campus. The complex is comprised of 16 buildings including multimedia classrooms, overnight participant lodging, dining hall and amphitheater.
The area affords a wide-angle, water-level look at the lake, the Diablo Dam, and surrounding mountains.
More epic views
Continuing up Highway 20, we arrived at the Ross Lake Overlook. The large parking area was nearly filled to capacity, and we soon found out why.
Our jaws dropped when we walked to the edge of the cliff. The open-air overlook allows us mere mortals an angel’s-eye-view of the expansive Ross Lake and Ruby Arm.
Stunning mountain vistas combined with the glacier blue-green water seemed surreal. We attempted in vain to capture the scene with our cameras, but even the finest digital images of this place can not come close to the in-person sight of such beauty.
It truly is amazing to think we were able to drive and park our van, walk a few hundred feet to this vantage point and witness such an awe-inspiring scene. At this spot we were approximately 30 miles, as the eagle flies, from the Canadian border.
Granted the lakes in the area were created by man’s hand and the building of three hydroelectric dams, but we were able to forgive and forget as we took in this panorama.
This was a good place to get out of the wind and retreat back into the van. We made sandwiches for lunch and attempted to fathom what our eyes had just seen.
We ain’t seen ‘nothing yet
On the road again, we climbed even higher, passing jagged mountaintops with names such as Crater Mountain, Gabriel Peak, and Kangaroo Ridge.
Another turnout off Highway 20 brought us to the Washington Pass Observation Site where we found parking, pit toilets, and a series of short, narrow, paved trails that lead from the parking lot to more Swiss Alps-like views.
What we found hard to believe was the fact the two of us, non-hiker people could have access to these views without being burdened by a fully loaded backpack and a several days trek into the wilderness.
For a moment we forgot others existed in the world. We shut out the rest of the visitors, roaring traffic on the nearby highway and simply gathered in the thin air rush of being alone in the wilderness. One truly feels small when surrounded by the endless wilderness and towering mountain peaks.
In our imagination we had conquered the rocky peaks normally hidden to all but the hardiest of outdoors adventurers.
A special place to us
North Cascades National Park will be special to us for just that reason. The way the vehicle pullouts and observation points are designed offer visitors of all abilities multiple access points to the park’s vistas. Every turn presented us with one after another unbelievably beautiful sight.
Back in the van, we headed down grade, leaving the glacial mountain peaks and surreal blue-green lakes and rivers in our rearview mirror.
NEXT TIME: Back to reality. We drive headfirst into hot temperatures on the dry prairie ranchlands of Eastern Washington. We camp overnight at the Omak Stampede Rodeo grounds along the Okanogan River and get a free country concert in the bargain. Then it’s back north again to step foot into Canada!