Over the Top: The Epic Story of the North Cascades Highway

Washington State Route 20 (known as the North Cascades Highway from Marblemount to Winthrop) is the state’s longest and most scenic highway. If you’ve traveled in the North Cascades, you’re already familiar with it. SR20 stretches from Whidbey Island in the west all the way to the city of Newport on the Idaho border. Along the way, it winds along the Skagit River, through the North Cascades National Park (NCNP), down into the picturesque Methow Valley, east through the Okanagan, across the Columbia River at Barney’s Junction, through the rugged Colville National Forest, and down along the Pend Oreille River to the state border, where it terminates at US Route 2.

Ross noted in his diary that the path through the mountains was “…gloomy forest almost impervious with fallen as well as standing timber. A more difficult route to travel never fell to man’s lot.”

Wild and rugged, the North Cascades are a formidable barrier to transportation and commerce. Nonetheless, centuries before Europeans first visited, Native tribes forged overland trails from Lake Chelan to the Sauk Valley near Darrington. While there is limited evidence of organized crossings between the Methow and Marblemount to the north, it is believed that some intrepid Natives regularly made the perilous journey.

The history of the North Cascades Highway rightfully starts with those hardy Native hikers who dared to struggle across this steep and deeply forested landscape. Their tracks have long been overgrown but their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. When Europeans first arrived, they found networks of trails on both sides of the North Cascades that appeared to have links deep into the mountains. It would take more than a century for those early pioneers to construct a viable connector over the northern section of the mountain range. Their efforts culminated in the completion of the North Cascades Highway in 1972.

Meadow below Washington Pass. Photo courtesy of Ovenell’s Heritage Inn


The Dream


The dream began in 1811 when employees of the British North West Fur Company found well-maintained Native trails through Ross Pass and Suiattle Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Further north, fur trappers found extensive networks of usable trails along the Methow, Twisp, and Stehekin Rivers. Evidence was thin, but it became apparent that this east side trail network also led to pathways crossing the mountains at Washington Pass, Rainy Pass, Hart’s Pass, and Slate Creek, which is approximately where SR20 is located today.

Nonetheless, most ancient commerce occurred further south, at Stehekin and the passes near Glacier Peak. The Skagit Indian word “Sta-he-kin” (Stehekin) means “the way through” or “the crossing place.” The Native Americans had already sussed out trail infrastructure that led from the east side of the North Cascades all the way to the mouth of the Skagit River, moving people and goods from one side of the North Cascades to the other.

To the north, the Methow Valley had been mostly depopulated by the 19th century, and the northern mountain passes were little known to locals.

In 1814, Alexander Ross, an employee of the British North West Fur Company, set out with Native guides to cross the North Cascades at what we now call Cascade Pass. It was an arduous trek. The team laboriously hacked through endless miles of thick rainforest and traversed log-choked creeks and rivers. The expedition was miserable and nearly failed several times. Ross noted in his diary that the path through the mountains was “…gloomy forest almost impervious with fallen as well as standing timber. A more difficult route to travel never fell to man’s lot.”

Upon reaching the western foothills, a much-relieved Ross found “a delightful country of hill and dale, wood and plains…a good many beaver lodges along the little river [Skagit River]” and “some small lakes, and grazing deer in herds like domestic cattle.”

With the previous difficulties having reduced the expedition to a party of two, a freak windstorm shattered them, and they disbanded. Ross struggled to make his way back home over the North Cascades, disillusioned and hopeless. His plan to realize a useful crossing from Methow to the sea had failed. Little did he know he was just four miles from completing the journey.

Despite Ross’ failure to blaze a new trail in the north, the pressure to do so mounted. Fur trappers and mining interests were keen to move massive loads from the resource-rich inland areas to the shipping lanes of the Puget Sound. Connecting the Methow Valley to the Skagit River via a new “Cascade Wagon Road” became a serious project.

At the same time, the federal government hoped to build a rail link through the North Cascades. This newfangled rail technology required a gentler connector than a wagon road. This was a tall order in this mountain wilderness, but in 1853, the rail survey task fell to Captain George B. McClellan, who later became Commanding General of the US Army during the Civil War and eventually governor of New Jersey.

After carefully surveying the Twisp and Methow Rivers into the North Cascades, McClellan concluded that these waterways led only to impassible mountains, wholly unfit for rail travel. Like previous adventurers, McClellan felt that the only workable route was at Snoqualmie Pass. The northern route was impossible. McClellan was roundly criticized for not trying hard enough. Known for his intemperate tongue, McClellan refused to hand over his logbooks because he had peppered them with insults about his superiors, including Isaac Stevens, the sitting governor of Washington Territory.

In 1857, the US State Department authorized a Northwest Boundary Commission led by Archibald Campbell. He hired a diverse team to tackle the wild north and survey potential crossings. Campbell hired geologists, naturalists, and topographers to get a better picture of this complex and majestic mountain range. Also on the exploration team was artist James Madison Alden, whose vivid watercolors are the earliest depictions of the mountains, meadows, and glaciers of the North Cascades.

Campbell’s team also included a topographer, Henry Custer, who spent years exploring mountainous terrain from the Fraser River to points south. His team successfully marked the boundary with Canada at the 49th parallel. An avid and eager mountain climber, Custer was also credited as the first person to cross Whatcom Pass. During his border survey work, Custer and his Native American canoe team started at the Canadian portion of the Skagit River, where they paddled due south on the river, making occasional portages along local trails. As they headed further south on the Skagit, Custer remarked:

“Nothing can be more pleasant than to glide down a stream like this; the motion is so gentle; the air on the water cool and pleasant; and the scenery, which is continually shifting, occupies eye and mind pleasantly.”

Eventually, the team made it to what we now call Ruby Creek along the future route of the North Cascades Highway. Custer thought it might be a tributary of the Skagit River. It was tough going at this point, with Custer writing:“We rapidly enter the beginning of a canyon. The river flows here between rocky banks, with a swiftness and impetuosity which even makes my expert Indian canoe men feel more or less uncomfortable. From the anxious looks they cast around, I conclude that it is about time to look out for a secure harbor for our canoe.”

Ever the topographer, Custer climbed the local peaks and made careful notes of the landscape. Having already gone further than his remit, he and his team eventually headed back north, stumbling into the Pasayten Wilderness, where they climbed several peaks and made detailed surveys of the land.

A Cascade Pass survey crew (1921). Photo courtesy of Methownet



The Way Through


After twelve quiet years, more expeditions were launched to conquer Cascade Pass. In 1870, the Northern Pacific Railway sent surveyors who successfully marked a foot trail. Small mining parties, trappers, and gold-seekers followed. Yet the dream to build a commercially navigable northern route remained unrealized. The large extraction industries appealed to the government, which commissioned Lieutenant Henry Hubbard Pierce and a small army expedition in 1882.

Astonished by the natural beauty of the eastern hills and the glory of the North Cascades, Pierce and his crew surveyed and marked a path over Cascade Pass to the tiny hamlet of Mount Vernon. This successful expedition became the focal point for further efforts to tame the North Cascades. 

In the summer of 1895, the Washington Board of State Road Commissioners tasked a party of surveyors led by engineer Bert Huntoon to create a comprehensive survey of 500 square miles of the North Cascades. Their ultimate goal was to plot a Cascade Wagon Road, now known as State Route 17, from Marblemount to the Methow Valley. Still a wild and unexplored place, the existing maps and notes of the area were considered “woefully erroneous and misleading.”

The party started from Marblemount, carefully noting elevation, barometric pressure, and land profiles. They also noted every creek, prospector’s cabin, family home, and crude pathway they found along the way. They had an easy time heading east along the Skagit River until they reached the expansive meadow we now call Newhalem. From there, dead-end mining roads, dangerously crude bridges, and plenty of rockfalls tormented them. Unable to plot a workable wagon trail, they took the southern route to go back inland over Snoqualmie Pass, then swung around to the north and attacked the problem from the east.

Starting from the confluence of the Methow and Twisp Rivers, they plotted their way to Cascade Pass, only to find the west side of the pass plummeted steeply into a large basin where the current Cascade Pass Trailhead is situated. Building a switchback wagon road with any measure of safety seemed impossible. Undeterred, they went back east and marched up to Thunder Creek Pass, now known as Park Creek Pass, on the eastern slope of Buckner Mountain. But the pass was narrow, with no options that made economic sense for a wagon trail.

Huntoon’s team continued surveying multiple mountain passes, hoping to find a viable path for the Cascade Wagon Road. Among their four primary options was one along Ruby Creek. None of the crew was aware that Alexander Ross visited this area in 1814 and Henry Custer in 1859. Huntoon noted that at Ruby Creek was an area “…along which a trail had never been even blazed.”

Huntoon’s notes were eventually published, and the commission decided on a route for the Cascade Wagon Road south of what is now the North Cascades Highway. Their study concluded that “the route up the Twitsp [sic] River, over Twitsp Pass, down Bridge Creek, up the Stehekin River, over Cascade Pass and down the Cascade River is the shortest and the most feasible and practicable.”

Work commenced in 1895 to build a forty-foot-wide road from Stehekin, northwest along the Stehekin River, to Bridge Creek. They never finished the project as the sheer volume of treefall and massive glacial rocks frustrated every effort. Today, parts of this “Old Wagon Trail” are incorporated into the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

Undaunted, the commission started blazing the Cascade Wagon Road from the west side, starting at the Cascade River just northeast of Rockport. This effort also failed. The wildlands were too much for the technology of the era. Over $100,000 was expended on the wagon road, with precious little to show for it. The dream of the Cascade Wagon Road sputtered out. Instead, the primitive wagon road further south over Snoqualimie Pass got a major upgrade in 1909, timed to coincide with a well-promoted New York to Seattle auto race.

Whistler Cabin, three miles west of Washington Pass. Photo courtesy of Ovenell’s Heritage Inn


Over the Top


It would be seventy-seven years before the North Cascades Highway would open to the public. Ironically, SR20 follows a pathway considered by the old Washington Board of State Road Commissioners to be the most expensive, longest, and least feasible option for a wagon road across the North Cascades. This belief remained after State Road 15 (now part of U.S. Route 2) was finished in 1931, connecting Leavenworth to Everett over Stevens Pass. Much like the ancient Stehekin pathway, it succeeded. Route 2 was considered good enough, and there was little movement to build a highway further north.

Rumblings about a potential North Cascades Highway began again after World War II. Some forward-thinking locals formed the Northern Cross-State Highway Association (NCHSA). Their goal: build a new highway connecting the Diablo Dam in the west to Mazama in the east. In 1947, the state legislature balked. Any potential road up there would have limited seasonal access and wouldn’t attract enough traffic to prove worthwhile. Once again, the project was shelved.

But by the 1960s, the population in the Pacific Northwest had grown enormously. They were a hardy bunch and very much in love with their wilderness. Voices became a chorus, and the initial construction of a North Cascades Highway began on both sides of the mountains, courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Carving the road bed into the sheer cliffs of Washington Pass. Photo courtesy of WSDOT

Concurrent with the road construction was the potential designation of a new North Cascades National Park. The proposal caused a major shakeup in Washington state. The folks at NCHSA and a wide array of outdoor enthusiasts, economic development councils, farmers, guides, fishermen, and even skiers opposed handing the North Cascades over to the National Park Service (NPS). They were concerned that the NPS would turn the North Cascades into a fee-laden pay-to-play recreational nightmare.

They preferred the light touch of the Forestry Service, which was largely hands-off when it came to regulating recreational activity in the mountains. Might that change with a National Park designation and the steadier hand of the NPS?

Since most of the timber in the mountains was uneconomical to extract, the North Cascades was still generally untouched wilderness. In yet another ironic twist, the Western Forest Industries Association and other timber industry councils felt that a National Park designation would be a good thing despite it locking up all the timber in perpetuity.

“We see nothing wrong with the proper use of the North Cascades for recreational purposes. After all, our workers on their vacations and weekends are some of the greatest users of recreational facilities on our public lands.”

The timber industry had better prospects elsewhere. Creating a North Cascades National Park was no skin off their apple.

The discussions and arguments about a National Park teetered back and forth inside and outside Olympia for years. For his part, President John F. Kennedy recommended the creation of the NCNP. He tasked the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to fund a study completed in 1966 and recommended the creation of North Cascades National Park. The exact size and borders of the park were hotly debated. After much compromise and a litany of expert opinion, the North Cascades National Park was designated on October 2, 1968.

As the Forest Service handed the keys over to the National Park Service, a primary issue remained: access. The North Cascades Highway was inching its way into the park from the west and the east, but thirty treacherous miles remained to clear, grade, and build before the connector was complete.

Technology had improved somewhat since the 1890s when efforts to build the Cascades Wagon Road first began. With the might of the WSDOT on the job, the final connector was completed, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on September 2, 1972. In attendance were the Concrete High School Marching Band, Governor Dan Evans, and Richard Nixon’s brother Ed. They all traveled in a victorious vehicle procession over the stunning central spine of the park. 

The Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony with Governor Dan Evans, September 2, 1972. Photo courtesy of Washington State Archives/Dougherty


True to form, the highway closed due to snow conditions on November 26, 1972, just eighty-five days after it opened.

Today, the North Cascades Highway is a multi-purpose road. It serves as the border, splitting the NCNP into its two primary sections, designated the North Unit and the South Unit. It’s a primary corridor for goods and services to reach the Methow Valley, weather permitting. It helped put the cow town of Winthrop on the map.

It’s easily the most impressive leg of the famed Cascade Loop tour, Washington state’s premier sightseeing trip. Visitors from all over the world can drive up Whidbey Island, across the beautiful Skagit Valley, up into the North Cascades for a dazzling view at Washington Pass, back down into the Methow Valley, south to the stark, rolling countryside of Chelan and Wenatchee, back up into kitschy Leavenworth, across Snoqualmie Pass, and back down to civilization in Snohomish county. Along the way there is more hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, snowshoeing, fishing, and kayaking than one lifetime could permit.

What started as an Indian footpath 8,000 years ago is now a comfortable, speedy cruise into one of America’s most breathtaking landscapes. The Diablo Lake Overlook is the most photographed spot in the park, and rightly so. While most folks make a quick stop at Washington Pass for photos, more intrepid visitors venture into the Liberty Bell Group for challenging hikes and climbs. This area is also a favorite for backcountry skiers, providing unmatched beauty as a backdrop for bold free heelers.

Should SR20 close for the season, local guides offer snowmobile access for truly memorable winter ski adventures at Washington Pass. Cascade Pass and Rainy Pass also offer easily accessible ski adventures and climbing opportunities for visitors willing to exchange some sweat equity for an exhilarating experience. 

The North Cascades Highway makes all this possible. It was a long time coming, and we’re awfully lucky to have it in our backyard.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

A Local Connection: James T. Ovenell

James T. Ovenell. Courtesy of Ovenell’s Heritage inn

In July 1943, James T. Ovenell and a group of men went on a planning expedition to scout a safe route for the North Cascades Highway. Mr. Ovenell was a former Skagit County Commissioner of the 2nd district from 1940 to 1946 and served as State Representative from 1950 to 1958. He was instrumental in planning the highway, intended to open commerce in the Upper Skagit Valley. Mr. Ovenell and Harold Pierson bought 730 acres in the 1940s in Concrete, WA. They began the P &O Ranch, which later became the Double O Ranch and Ovenell’s Heritage Inn log cabins & guesthouses. Today, his descendents run a working cattle ranch focused on conservation and accommodations for travelers to the North Cascades.

Learn more: www.ovenells-inn.com

Ted Rosen was a longtime Greenways Advisory Committee chairman and remains a steadfast defender of green spaces, both large and small. When he isn’t working his day job, he can be seen on local trails pointing out invasive species and complaining about litter. 


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