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N. Cascades Highway to open late this year
In a surprise announcement, state highway officials  1 set this year's opening of the North Cascades Highway for May 16. This is a few weeks later than usual, but a month earlier than some recent estimates.

Crews began clearing the highway in early April, about a month later than a typical year. Some parts of the highway were reported to have 35 to 45 feet of snow, and state highway officials said at the time it could take up to eight weeks to completely clear the highway. But as it turns out, the rains softened the snow enough to speed up its removal.

The North Cascades Highway is cleared for travel once the winter snowstorms have subsided, and visitors wanting to drive deep into some of the more untouched parts of Washington state would do well to consider the six-hour drive from the Seattle area over to Wenatchee, an excellent place to spend the night and a popular destination in its own right.

 1The North Cascades Highway will take you through North Cascades National Park—land of towering peaks and wonderful scenic vistas combining the mountains, forests, lakes and streams pictured on popular postcards of the region. It's not a route that you want to hurry through; the best thing to do is to just make the day of it, stopping at places along the way at your own pace. Yes, it will double the normal travel time between Seattle and Wenatchee, but it will be worth it.

The western terminus of the North Cascades Highway is in Sedro Woolley, in Northwest Washington. So the first couple of hours from Seattle will be spent just getting to the highway—Highway 20—and you'll find it an easy drive by freeway offering plenty to see along the way as you head north to Everett and through Snohomish and Skagit counties. To the west is Puget Sound and to the east is the range of mountains that you will be crossing later in the day.

For the most part, Highway 20 is a two-lane road, although there are plenty of passing lanes that appear from time to time. But remember, this is a day in which you are going to savor the journey, not watch the clock. Getting there is not just half the fun—it's almost all of it.

The Highway 20 drive at first meanders through lowlands and then foothills, roughly following the winding path of the Skagit River, taking you through the small towns of Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount, where you can find food and supplies. Just up the road a ways is Newhalem, where you'll be entering the North Cascades National Park and will find a visitor center with exhibits, maps and backcountry permits should you want to stop and do some hiking along the way.

Just past Newhalem, you start to get a preview of the dramatic scenery ahead. You see the river valley give way to the spectacular 540-foot-high Ross Dam which, along with two other dams in the area, create power for the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. First you drive along Ross Lake, and then the larger Diablo Lake comes into full view with plenty of stopping points along the way to take photos. The overlooks above Ross and Diablo Lakes are especially good for pictures. You'll notice that Ross Lake is teal, while Diablo is jade-colored—a distinction that is caused by the rock dust that is suspended in the water and actually reflecting the colors of the forest and the sky.

Your route takes you further along the Ross Lake Recreation Area and over Washington Pass where soon you come upon the most spectacular site of your journey: the 7,600-foot Liberty Bell Mountain that completely dominates the skyline and almost makes this part of the pass look impassable. The best views are from the off-road viewpoint at the top of the pass where you can see far ahead on the highway and get a sense of the rugged mountain terrain that seems so untouched here in the North Cascades.

Another half-hour up the road and you're approaching the Methow River Valley and Winthrop, one of North Central Washington's favorite destinations. A few decades ago, town fathers took a look at what Leavenworth was doing with its Bavarian storefronts and the massive influx of tourists that transformation brought. Winthrop decided to use an Old West theme and, to this day, attracts hordes of tourists who enjoy visiting the western themed buildings and local attractions. Winthrop is also the perfect place to stop for lunch with several restaurants offering a variety of food specialties.

The drive down the Methow Valley toward the Columbia River gradually changes colors from the greens of the thick forests behind you to the browns of the more sun-drenched landscapes ahead of you. In an hour you're at the Columbia River and, in another hour you reach Wenatchee, Apple Capital of the World and home to all kinds of summer and winter recreation. Its location in the shadows the Cascades -- yet just a few miles from the wheatfields of Eastern Washington -- means it's a haven for people who love a variety of climate and terrain and a quiet smalltown life.

You might choose to stay in Wenatchee a few days, or make the return trip to Seattle the next day through the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth and then over Stevens or Snoqualmie Pass -- a three-hour drive. But any way you look at it, the North Cascades Highway is an experience well worth the time and effort.
PHOTOS: From top: Spectacular views on North Cascades Highway; Ross Dam viewpoint
RECOMMENDED LODGING: North Central Washington
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