Springtime in the Northwest means melting snow in the mountains, streams rushing with cold, clear water and showery days warmed by the occasional sun break. Trees sprout new leaves, flowers appear and the days grow noticeably longer. For families with children of any age, it's a time to reconnect with nature, to truly appreciate the beauty of the region we call home.
North Cascades Highway
Several sights along Highway 20, also called the North Cascades Highway, can be combined into a day trip to the mountains of Skagit County. Most revolve around the remote town of Newhalem, site of the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center and the Seattle City Light power complex that supplies electricity to the Emerald City.
It's a 90-minute to two-hour drive from Bellingham, depending on your pace. Head south on Interstate 5 to the Cook Road exit, Exit 232, turn left and head east several miles to Sedro-Woolley, where you'll ease into the left lane and turn left on Highway 20.
Be sure to point out the old steam locomotive on the right just after the turn. Continue east through increasingly rural land past the town of Concrete, taking in sweeping views of the countryside along the way.
To reach the visitor center, turn right off Highway 20 near milepost 120 and cross the Skagit River over a one-lane light-controlled bridge, following the signs from there.
It has clean bathrooms and benches outside that are a perfect place to nibble on lunch. Also outside is a helpful map of hikes around the Newhalem area and a trail to a scenic viewpoint, complete with interpretive signs that describe many of the region's native plants. Ladder Creek Falls, the Trail of the Cedars and the Gorge Dam Overlook Trail are easy and good for all ages.
Inside the visitor center is a large relief map of Washington state, and nearby is a table-mounted terrain model of the North Cascades National Park.
There's also a fascinating museum that reflects the region's natural history, including exhibits of various ecosystems, a display that illustrates the impact of fire, and facts about animals that live above and below the ground. Plus, there's a giant stuffed banana slug for the kids to sit on.
In addition, the center offers interpretive programs and maps; ask the rangers at the front desk to suggest a suitable hike. There's a great little gift shop, too. The center is open daily mid-April through October; weekends in winter. Call 206-386-4495 ext.11 for more information, or see nps.gov/noca.
From the North Cascades Visitor Center, return to Highway 20, take a right and go east just a short distance to the Seattle City Light Visitor Center (open May through September), which has displays describing the development of hydroelectric power in the area. It's fascinating to see the "company town," rows of nearly identical homes built for those who worked on the dams and the power plants.
End the day with a short drive east to see the 1930s-era Diablo Dam, which regulates the flow of water for the Gorge Power House in Newhalem. Around milepost 129 is a marked turnoff with an entrance that closes at 4 p.m. daily, but the gate opens for cars that are exiting. It's a spectacular sight as you drive down toward the dam, with Diablo Lake shining like a vat of melted blue-green Crayolas - a phenomenon caused by silt in the water called glacial flour. Drive slowly across the dam and park on the other side, walking back across to enjoy dizzying views into the Skagit River gorge. There are clean bathrooms with soap and towels near the parking area (open seasonally).
Return to Bellingham heading west on Highway 20. My family often stops for coffee and a snack at the Cascadian Farm organic-foods stand about five miles east of Concrete (it has clean restrooms). They have truly tasty ice cream and make a good cup of coffee.
We've stopped at few other places along the way, but I've heard raves about the cinnamon rolls at The Eatery in Rockport and there's good online buzz about both the Marblemount Diner and Que Car barbecue in Marblemount.
Suggest your ideas for family-friendly events or day trips to Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Bellingham Families news online at BellinghamFamilies.com or on Facebook at Bellingham Families.