Travel through old growth forests, high mountain passes, a semi-arid desert and deep river valleys on this 440-mile drive, which features many wheelchair-friendly stops along the way
The deep forests, cascading creeks and tranquil alpine lakes of the hiking trails of the Northwest provide some of the most spectacular scenery in America. My wife Debi and I love these trails, and now that she uses a wheelchair for ataxia, we’ve been surprised to discover how many are accessible.
One of our favorite destinations is the Cascade Loop, a 440-mile drive that encircles a large portion of the Cascade Range in northwest Washington. The Loop features old growth forests, high mountain passes, semi-arid deserts and deep river valleys, with accessible trails and accommodations all along the way.
One weekend in early June, we drove the Cascade Loop. Though we had no centralized source of information, we prepared for the trip by looking at maps, books and park websites. Finding so many accessible trails in different places really heightened our sense of adventure.
We began our trip on Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, which heads inland from Interstate 5 about 60 miles north of Seattle. Our first stop was the new accessible trail at Rockport State Park.
The West Loop Interpretive Trail is built to ADA standards and provides a good introduction to the complex biology of old growth forests. The crushed-rock trail rises gently as it winds past babbling brooks and 400-year-old giant fir trees, their branches draped with moss. Interpretive signs and picnic spots dot the way. It takes about an hour to complete the walk, and accessible restrooms are at the trailhead.
We hoped to visit Rainy Lake, 50 miles up Route 20 from Rockport, but were greeted with two feet of snow at the trailhead. The previous summer, we’d been overwhelmed by the beauty of the walk along the one-mile, paved path. The nearly level path passed through forests and meadows filled with wildflowers and rushing creeks until it reached a spectacular alpine lake. We marveled at 300-foot waterfalls dropping from high snow fields to jade-colored waters below. Sunbeams sparkled on the lake as a cool breeze drifted down from the peaks. We enjoyed a picnic lunch amid the solitude and headed back, totally rejuvenated.
This early in the year, it was impossible to get on the trail, so we continued up Route 20 through the magnificent scenery of North Cascades National Park. We stopped for lunch in Winthrop, a town with an Old West theme, and had fun exploring the shops along the boardwalk. Then we drove down the Methow River valley to Chelan, where we planned to spend the night.
A festival was under way when we arrived, so we explored Chelan to the sound of music wafting from a bandstand. We soon found a delightful, paved path at Chelan Riverwalk Park.
The path follows both sides of the river as it approaches Lake Chelan. It winds past manicured gardens and rises to a bridge to the other side. We spotted two otters playing along the bank and enjoyed watching boat traffic headed to and from the lake. It took about an hour to walk the path. There were accessible restrooms in the parking area and shops and a wine tasting nearby.
The next morning, we drove past miles of apple orchards until we reached the city of Wenatchee, located along the bank of the Columbia River.
The 12-mile Apple Capital Recreation Trail provides many opportunities to explore the river. The eastern portion of the trail follows the less-developed shoreline, while the western portion has a more urban feel. We entered the west side trail at Wenatchee Confluence State Park and headed south to a footbridge, which crosses the Wenatchee River just before it meets the Columbia.
The trail goes past the Horan Nature area, which provides excellent opportunities for bird watching, and continues on to the ball fields at Walla Walla Park. Beautiful gardens line the way and a miniature steam train operates just south of Walla Walla Park. We spent about two hours making the four-mile round trip. There were several accessible restrooms along the path. Take this trail in the morning or evening to avoid the summer heat.
Our next stop was the Bavarian-style town of Leavenworth, about 30 miles west of Wenatchee on the Stevens Pass Highway, or Highway 2. Blackbird Island is the centerpiece of a system of trails that meander through the tall aspens along the Wenatchee River. We entered the trail at Enchantment Park, where there is ample parking and accessible restrooms. The crushed-rock path follows the river and crosses a bridge to the island. In late summer and early fall, visitors can see salmon heading up the river here to spawn. Interpretive signs provide insights into the logging history of the area. It takes about an hour to complete the trail around the island. It takes much longer to explore all the interesting shops and restaurants in Leavenworth.
We thought our journey was over as we headed up Stevens Pass toward Everett, where the Cascade Loop meets back with Interstate 5. Then we noticed a turnoff to the Old Cascade Highway, and our sense of adventure kicked in.
A few miles down that road we saw a sign directing us to the Iron Goat Trail, a barrier-free trail that follows an abandoned rail line. The crushed-rock path gently descended the grade, past snow sheds and rugged terrain, toward a tunnel at Windy Point. Signs revealed the deadly history of the area: An avalanche killed more than 100 train passengers here in the winter of 1910.
It took two to three hours to explore the trail, and it’s best to visit at midday, since a note in the trail log told of a bear sighting in the evening. The trail also can be entered at Martin Creek. Turn onto the Old Cascade Highway from Highway 2 at milepost 55. Accessible outhouses are available at both trailheads.
Exploring trails with a wheelchair requires planning. Check out conditions before you leave. Unpaved trails can be bumpy and have obstacles. Some trails require a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass for parking.
But as Debi and I discovered, with proper planning and a spirit of adventure, the stunning beauty of the Cascade Loop is accessible to all. We hope our adventures will inspire others to get out and discover the wonderful opportunities that are available to people with limited mobility.
Washington State Parks website
Click on “ADA Recreation” in the middle of the home page to get to the Washington State Accessible Outdoor Recreation Guide.