ROAD TRIP: Over the Pass

A few weeks ago we took a three day road trip to the Methow Valley, a popular weekend hiking, biking and skiing destination in north-central Washington State. I read that Methow is an Okanagan word for sunflower (seeds). I don’t know why “seeds” is in parentheses, but I suppose that the sunflower is Arrowleaf balsmaroot, a locally abundant flower that brightens the valley’s hills in Spring.

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) flowers backed by Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at peak bloom.

To get to the Methow Valley we had to drive over the North Cascade Mountains, following the two-lane North Cascade Highway east for over 100 miles. By the time we reached the pass, our elevation had increased by about 5,450 feet (1661m). It’s an exhilarating drive, once you get into the mountains. We stopped at Newhalem, a tiny company town built around the hydroelectric plant that has powered Seattle for almost a hundred years. Here, we took a short walk on the Trail of Cedars to enjoy the view of the Skagit River and the beauty of the mature forest around it.

Skagit River at Newhalem, with mares’ tails clouds
Northern Starflower (Trientalis arctica) on the forest floor.
Mid-day shadows are well defined, and black and white brings them out.

We stopped a second time at an overlook to gaze at the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by one of three successive dams on the Skagit River.

Diablo Lake with Davis Peak in the background

As we approached the pass the clouds thickened and patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road. The North Cascade Highway is very avalanche-prone during the winter and closes from October until sometime in May, depending on weather. For a good six months you have to drive further south to another pass if you want to get from one side of the state to the other.

North Cascade Highway (Route 20) heading towards Washington Pass

Up at the pass there’s an overlook with an impressive mountain view where I hoped to stop for a look. The short road to the overlook was closed and still snowy, but we were able to park the car outside the gate and walk up. Taking care on the snow, we sucked in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the silence.

Ravaged trees covered with lichens stand tall at Washington Pass.

A North Cascade mountain view at Washington Pass


The lichen-splotched rocks are an elegant complement to the plant life at the rugged pass.

Willow catkins

Liberty Bell mountain from Washington Pass

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Gray jays flew into view. It was clear that they were checking us out, and I knew what that meant – they wanted food! These birds are called Camp robbers, a well-deserved reputation. We happened to have a bag of nuts with us so we doled out a few peanuts, and could barely contain our joy the two jays swooped down onto our hands and grabbed the treats. I’ve fed birds by hand before, but not jays. I was struck by the satisfying plunk of their strong feet on my hand – these birds actually have a little weight to them, unlike the tiny chickadees I’m used to.

Hitting the Jackpot


Over the pass, down the mountain and into the valley we drove, from the wet west side of the Cascades to the dry east side. Before checking into our bnb we made one more stop, at Lewis Butte, where we dawdled amidst fragrant bitterbrush, lovely lupines, and sparkling aspens.

Aspen grove off Gunn Ranch Road, Winthrop

A pond reflects the Cascade foothills
A tree skeleton amidst the wildflowers near Lewis Butte

Homes with views

It’s such a pleasure to be able to experience a completely different environment after just a few hours’ drive. The small towns of Methow Valley have their charms too, with their “Wild West” atmosphere. They can get overrun with tourists at times, but it wasn’t a problem on this trip. We had a great time exploring back roads, and I plan to post photos from the rest of the trip later.


75 comments

  1. What an amazing landscape Lynn! But snow at this time of the year? Brrr πŸ˜‰ The clouds in the first picture are funny. Never saw something like that! The black and white photo is magical. The “meeting” with the jay must have been wonderful. How cute your jays are and how tame – camp robbers, haha! You must have been more than happy about this occasion, giggling inside out of pure joy right πŸ™‚ I love the Aspen, the flowers and especially the beautiful bumblebee!!! Very very nice.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, always snow in the high places, which is half of what makes going over the mountains fun – you know it will be cooler up there. The other half is what’s on the other side, a much drier landscape, because prevailing winds come off the ocean and the rain ends up on our side, with little left for the east side. So glad you liked the black and white – I dialed back the clarity & texture to soften it a little. We have other jays but that one lives in the high places, so I rarely see it. Yes, it was fun! I’m glad you enjoyed coming along, in spirit if not in person. πŸ™‚

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    • I photographed the willow catkins thinking I’d figure out just what willow that is, but so fat I haven’t. It’s a nice photo though so I don’t feel too bad. πŸ˜‰ Thank YOU for commenting, I appreciate it! I’ve been busy getting outside to look at local wildflowers, over and over as the season progresses. I think I’m obsessed!

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  2. Wonderful pictures of Methow Valley, and the road and countryside leading to it. I can see why it would be such a tourist attraction. By the way, I encountered Gray Jays near Crater Lake a few years ago. They mobbed us but we did not have anything to give them, and they left after only a few minutes.

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    • It’s fun to hear about your experience, Hien….yes, one needs to always have a few nuts in one’s pocket! πŸ˜‰ Or sunflower seeds. Those jays really seem to know what they’re doing. I also saw a new woodpecker while out there – the White-headed – a Western species. That was exciting!

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    • You’re welcome – and there should be more wildflowers coming! Both from the dry, east side of the mountains (like above) and from the west side, where I live. πŸ™‚ Thanks Vicki!

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  3. Thank you for the tour Lynn. This caused me to immediately scour satellite photography of the area, tracing your route, and it gave me a strong hankering to see that part of the country. Diablo lake looks stunning, and I would love to feed the jays when I get up to that neck of the woods.

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    • Someone after my own heart! I love checking out where people are via maps and google earth. It wouldn’t be difficult at all for you to see it, either by driving up or by flying and renting a car in Seattle and making a big loop. Rt. 2 is also very beautiful. I had the feeling that since there were so few people around – it was just too early in the season – we really stood out to those jays, they were very aware of us, way before we were aware of them. We also were “solicited” by birds at the Paradise parking lot on Mt. Rainier (another drop-dead gorgeous place). They were a different species, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and they’ve become a little too accustomed to the humans at Mt. Rainer. πŸ™‚

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  4. What a wonderful trip to another climate. We have a family of whiskey jacks (Canada jay)(gray jay) that stay around all winter here. They come for breakfast every day. I really like them

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    • I’ve seen that name too – Whiskey Jack, and Canada jay. A bird must have a strong relationship with humans if it has so many names, right? I bet three are some interesting First Nation names for them too. You’re lucky to have them as neighbors. πŸ™‚

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      • Whiskey jacks do have a very strong relationship with people, you can drive for miles out to the bush and when you stop curious whiskey jacks will come to see what you are doing, hoping for some treats. I love them , right now they are mostly withdrawn taking care of their babies. But I hope they’ll be back

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  5. Oh I do so enjoy your photos! Every post there’s so much beauty. This sounds like a really lovely trip. I’m guessing it’s south of Canada’s Okanagan Valley where Don and I have spent many summer hols over the years.
    Alison

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    • In fact, the county we were in (east of the pass) is called Okanagan. πŸ™‚ So yes, it’s part of the same region. I think they call the land type shrub-steppe, which always makes me think of Mongolia πŸ˜‰ I’ve been wanting to explore that area – we were going to Castlegar, Nelson, etc. the summer before last, but didn’t get there. But there is so much to see in the West, whether you’re talking about the US or Canada….thanks Alison!

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    • c’Γ©tait seulement quelques jours, mais c’Γ©tait trΓ¨s gentil. la beautΓ© est que nous pouvons Γͺtre dans un endroit si diffΓ©rent en quelques heures seulement. merci, irene, sourit Γ  vous et profitez de la journΓ©e … non, nuit!

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    • It was early enough in the season to have those fresh greens, but soon is will be mainly golds and rusts I think, another lovely palette. Later, a lot of smoke, unfortunately, because the area is prone to fires.

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    • We’ve done this trip a few times, but you have to time it right – later in the summer it’s likely to be smoky from fires, which are more and more problematic, and earlier, well, the road’s closed so we’d have to go way around. I’m glad you liked that forest floor photo – I was almost tempted to brighten it up, but I thought the subdued light was so nice, so I didn’t. I love those Starflowers….they are just about gone now, supplanted in many places by Twinflower, another delicate gem. Thanks Ken!

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  6. Each and every image had its very own appeal, but you’ll be a bit amazed to hear (see?) that my favorite was the b&w of the trees. Must be the softening that gives them that mystical beauty. We’ve been seeing quite a lot of the mares’ tails clouds lately. I’ll have to dig some to figure out why (perhaps?) The Northern Starflower on the forest floor is superb. Such a lovely pattern of alternating colors. Frankly it looks as though the forest floor has been raked. Ours seem so much more cluttered. Liberty Bell mountain is such an impressive jagged peak. We only get to see the snowy peaks here at a distance. They make for such a cooling feel even when temperatures soar in the valleys. Nice to see you getting out and about and enjoying the ‘neighborhood’! πŸ˜€

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    • That’s interesting about the black & white, Gunta….the photo looked too harsh at first but I saw potential, and realized that a) black & white made sense, since the green was screaming, and b) reducing clarity might get the feeling across better. So it worked, at least for you! πŸ˜‰
      I don’t know much about the weather either, but I’ve been seeing the mare’s tails too – maybe it’s a West coast seasonal phenomenon?
      Maybe your forest floors are more “cluttered” because your region adds some CA plants at their northern limits, which we don’t have. That was high up too; maybe elevation played a part in restricting species. They’ve had bad fires too in that piece of woods; all the trees are blackened. Those photos didn’t turn out well, but I have it in mind to post about “after the fires” at some point.
      Jagged peaks, yes, the Cascades is full of them, lots of rough rock – people climb up there on Liberty Bell. I have to stop there every time we take Rt. 20 over the mountains – it’s a spectacular spot. On Fidalgo we have one prominent snowy peak in view year-round, if it isn’t cloud-covered – Mt. Baker. It’s hours away but big enough to be a landmark for the region. I like seeing it, just like I used to love seeing Rainier from Seattle. We’re lucky to have such special neighborhoods!

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      • Green certainly can scream at times! I think it was the softer focus that made the feeling come across. There certainly IS a thing about getting fire scarred scenes to work. We were just up in the area where there was another fire added last summer to the previous ones (3 serious ones since I’ve been in the area). I wish I could settle down enough to post it. I envy you the jagged peaks. I was mighty impressed with the ones we saw at Rainier. There’s something so impressive there. I so understand that feeling that comes with snow capped mountains. It’s the one thing I miss from the years I spent in Utah. Have to say we certainly ARE lucky! πŸ˜€

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  7. Wonderful – thanks for taking us on the trip with you. Now I have Mariposa Lily envy! πŸ™‚

    Shuwen and I had a similar experience with Gray Jays in New Mexico last year in September. It was absolutely delightful when these relatively big birds were so surprisingly light as they landed on our hands. They had absolutely no respect – when we sat down to eat our sandwiches one landed on my knee, then my head, and even tried to take a bite from my sandwich! πŸ˜€

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    • I can imagine what you’d do with that lily! πŸ˜‰ It’s so interesting to experience the flowers over there on the dry side. Oh, what fun with the jays – they come by their nick-name honestly, right? If you ever get to tame a little chickadee, you’ll see how different their weight is, and that’s why the jay felt almost heavy to me – it’s all relative. πŸ™‚

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  8. Overwhelming views from Washington Pass! Remind me of Ansel Adams πŸ™‚
    Now you put a bit of distance between you and water – and what do we see? Marvel colours of a lake and a river, it seems impossible to get away from water!
    But this landscape is really different to your “neighborhood”, lucky you to have such variety at hand.
    Fine photos, as usual! And the charming wildflowers again, we can’t get enough of them, ca we?

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    • πŸ™‚ Good point, Ule, water is ever-present around here. The variety is what captured our hearts when we first vacationed in the Pacific Northwest – in one day, we could see ocean or sound and then mountains. Add another day and you’re in an almost desert habitat. You’re right, we can’t get enough of the flowers, and I confess I am rushing to see them, before they’re gone. πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoyed this…..

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    • It’s my pleasure, Melissa, thanks for being here….I am guilty of an extended absence from your blog! The wildflowers and everything keep pulling me outdoors, leaving just a little time for everything else. But I will try to catch up. πŸ™‚

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    • It’s always a possibility….if you feed birds and have chickadees coming to the feeder, they are the best candidates, being pretty fearless. But it does normally take plenty of time, and patience. πŸ™‚ The Gray jays are just different in their relationship to humans.

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  9. I haven’t heard of wispy clouds like the ones in your Skagit River picture being called mares’ tails; by any name, they’re so appealing. You must have thanked your lucky clouds, so to speak.

    Your black and white view struck me initially as infrared. Repeated looks at it haven’t diminished that impression.

    I didn’t realize aspens extend into Washington. You’re fortunate to have them so close.

    And of course you’re fortunate to have had the friendly gray jay encounter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s always nice to see interesting cloud patterns, and lucky when they combine with some great scenery…and you have your camera. πŸ™‚ I too thought the black and white had an infrared look, but that’s not how I went about it. I really like infrared so I’m glad it struck you that way. Aspens are on the other side of the Cascade Range. From BC to northern CA, the west side is wet and the east side is dry, and the flora and fauna change accordingly. Thanks for stopping in and commenting Steve!

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  10. What a beautiful collection of images; I really like the way you move seamlessly from expansive skyscapes and landscapes of mountains and lakes to the micro landscapes of wildflowers and willow catkins. Not to mention the handscape of the jay. πŸ™‚

    I have been curious about the Methow River since I ran across a collection of poems by that name written by William Stafford. My understanding is that there were twenty poems in the collection and that the words of seven were engraved into plaques and placed along the North Cascades Highway. I wonder if you saw any of them. They may be gone now too; I think they were placed in the early 1990s.

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    • It’s good to hear you talk about the movement between landscape views and the closer up views – that’s something II try to do. Since I was a child i always loved peering at things closely but also loved a big expanse of space, but as a photographer I tend to concentrate on the intimate views. I keep reminding myself to work at the larger vistas too. Context!
      This is all news to me about the Stafford poems, and I’m very intrigued. I know his name but little more, and I’m looking into it ….a few minutes later, I see it’s all true. πŸ˜‰ I’ll have to hunt one or two of these down the next time we go over there. I found a map of them and I’m embarrassed to say that one of the poem plaques is right at the overlook I pictured above. We passed right by two others without knowing it. Next time! Thanks Ken!

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  11. Whenever we travel by car, my companion and I choose secondary roads for the beauties and surprises that always offer us.
    They are ways with soul and much more humanized.Thank you for sharing!
    Execellent pictures, as always!

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  12. A beautiful array of images, both the landscapes and the closeups – the starflowers, lake image, and mare’s tail clouds in particular. The starflower in New England is Lysimachia borealis, very similar.

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    • I vaguely remember seeing that Starflower in the woods, having grown up in the northeast – but I’ve been seeing it on people’s blogs too. πŸ™‚ I’m happy you liked the photos, and thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  13. Great group of images, Lynn, and another come hither invitation to your part of the country. Would love to wander around the Balsamroot and Bitterbrush in your first image. Can’t tell if it’s a path or just the way things have evolved but it does seem like a nice little garden walk.

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    • One of the leasures, as I know I often say, of living here (and other places on/near the west coast) is the proximity of widely differing habitats. In a few hours you’re over the mountains and into a whole other territory – but if you travel here it’s not quite as easy. You really have to allow a day at least to go over the mountains and see anything. I hope you can at some point, and I am overdue for a trip east. The first photo is the kind of thing you see in lots of places on roadsides in the Methow Valley area, where there are rolling, grassy sage and bitterbrush-covered hills. In Spring they’re dotted with flowers, in some places many kinds, then the rest of the year it’s a quietly colored look – or snow!

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  14. Hey Lynn,
    …hitting the jackpot..is great…had a advertising shooting in Berlin and it was high noon…time for pizza for the whole team…especially for my hungry Art Director…ok, Pizza boy arrived, we want to eat outside, a table with a view on the river Spree in Berlin in front of the photo studio..it was a real well done pepperoni pizza…but for 5 seconds we leave the place to discus the photo set …came back…6 very nice and also very naughty berlin sparrows standing in the middle of the Art Directors pepperoni pizza …very hungry……zero chance for my art chef…stayed hungry…Best, JΓΌrgen

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    • πŸ™‚ Oh, you gave me a nice laugh Juergen….but wait, was that pizza really such a big loss? Having lived in New York City for many years, I can’t see pizza being good anywhere else…on the other hand, the bread in Germany sure was good…and you’re not so far from Italy…so OK, maybe it was a tragedy….certainly it’s not good when your people go hungry….but I’m glad the birds were fed. πŸ™‚

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  15. Stunning scenes and close-ups! I especially like the composition in your first image. The vegetation is so lush with a strong foreground subject and a little path inviting us in to wander and find a glimpse at the mountains in the distance.

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  16. It didn’t necessarily look like that mush of a composition at the time, but you know me, I go ahead and try anyway. Thank you Denise! This must look a little more familiar to you than places I normally photograph.

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  17. Such beautiful images, Lynn…heart touching, actually. The overlook you walked to for image #7 looks like a perfect spot to enjoy the mountain silence…a perfectly wonderful spot!

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  18. Pingback: A Joyful Relation to What Is « bluebrightly


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