Stevens Pass and Skykomish Valley
U.S. Highway 2 is one of the state’s most beautiful drives, and the western end of a transcontinental two-lane route that runs eastward all the way to Maine. Heading west from Leavenworth, the highway enters spectacular Tumwater Canyon, with the roiling Wenatchee River—a popular rafting and kayaking waterway—as a guide into the mountains.
The road eventually tops out at 4,061-foot Stevens Pass, named for John F. Stevens, the chief locating engineer for the Great Northern Railway that was pushed through here in 1892. (Stevens is perhaps better known as the builder of the Panama Canal.)
At Stevens Pass you’ll find popular downhill and cross-country ski areas, and a jumping-off point for the Pacific Crest Trail. Serious backpackers can hook up with the Pacific Crest Trail and hike clear up to Canada or down to Mexico if they like—or, more likely, just a short chunk of the trail.
Two wilderness areas on either side of the pass—Henry M. Jackson Wilderness and Alpine Lakes Wilderness—contain striking natural features, from glaciers and alpine meadows to dense forests intersected by clear, clean rivers. Much of the area’s beauty can be seen through your car windows and from short roadside paths, but hundreds of miles of hiking trails let you experience its splendor at close range.
On the western side of the pass, Highway 2 drops quickly—2,000 feet in 14 miles—to the little town of Skykomish. As you switchback down from the summit, the Burlington Northern railroad tracks emerge from seven-mile-long Cascade Railroad Tunnel, one of the longest in the western hemisphere. The drive downhill takes you past rugged snow-covered peaks, plunging waterfalls, popular campgrounds, fishing holes in the Skykomish River, and nature trails to explore along the way.
Finally, the grade lessens in the wide Skykomish Valley (a.k.a. “Sky Valley”), as the highway slips through a chain of small towns before emerging into the flat farmland and spreading suburbia near Monroe.
Getting to Stevens Pass and Skykomish Valley
Stevens Pass is often a challenge to traverse and is sometimes closed by winter storms. If you’re heading up to ski at Stevens Pass or continuing east to Leavenworth or Wenatchee, be sure to check the Department of Transportation’s Mountain Pass Report (206/368-4499 or 888/766-4636, www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes). For avalanche and mountain weather information in the winter, call 206/526-6677.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition