The Cascade Loop Scenic Highway in North Central Washington is one of the most beautiful and interesting drives in the United States.

The Loop’s 440 miles comprise a remarkable mixture of terrain, scenery and culture, from the massive, jagged granite peaks of the North Cascade Mountains, often called “America’s Alps,” to 55-mile-long Whidbey Island’s beaches, art galleries and gardens.

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The highway wends its way through the flatlands of the Wenatchee Valley (“apple capital of the world”), the Lake Chelan Valley (now a burgeoning vineyard and winery hotspot), the Wild West-themed town of Winthrop, long stretches of forested wilderness and the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth.

It’s a drive that can be enjoyed quickly over a long weekend, or savored in a leisurely week of exploration.

The Cascade Loop has long been a draw for its big nature, rich recreational opportunities and small, friendly towns. Now it’s making news because, as of this fall, it’s fully electrified, with more than 40 charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs).

That makes it one of the few places in the world where you can go on vacation in an electric car, and it turns the Cascade Loop’s nine regions into a spectacular EV eco-tourism destination.

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I was one of the first three reporters invited to drive an electric car around the entire Cascade Loop over three days in late September. We were trailblazers — the first people to drive the entire Loop in EVs. Our trip was sponsored by Plug-In North Central Washington , and the Cascade Loop Association .

Plug-In NCW, a nonprofit subsidiary of the North Central Washington Economic Development District in Wenatchee, was instrumental in getting the loop “charged up.” Its volunteers worked for almost a decade on the project, and partnered with the nonprofit Cascade Loop Association in 2010 to get the final charging stations installed.

Nissan loaned each journalist an all-electric LEAF. First introduced in December 2010, the LEAF has a range of about 85 miles when fully charged, with MPGe ratings (miles per gallon equivalent) by the EPA of 126 in the city and 101 on the highway.

Our mission was to see how the charging stations work, try to get around the entire loop without running out of “juice,” and experience EV tourism firsthand.

I was joined on this adventure by my husband, Dan Weig.

We drove to Wenatchee to get the car, and to get tips from Plug-In NCW members about how to drive and charge it.

Anne Brookes, a LEAF owner herself, showed us how to release the lid of the charge port on the front of the car, tap a key fob on the charging station in the Springhill Suites Marriott’s parking lot to release the charger’s connector, and attach it to our car to charge up. It was simple.

We would use three kinds of charging stations on the trip: Level 1 (110 volts alternating current at 15-30 amps), Level 2 (240 volts AC at 30-80 amps), and direct current Fast Chargers (480 volts at 50-120 amps).

Instead of a key, a button starts the engine. Unlike the Subaru Outback I usually drive, the LEAF’s engine is silent. It’s so quiet that the car was designed to emit a high pitched electronic whine from a front speaker as soon as you start it, to alert pedestrians that a car is approaching. At about 18 miles per hour, the sound turns off automatically; people can hear the car’s tire noise at that speed.

The LEAF comes with an adapter kit in the trunk that allows you to plug into any 120-volt outlet to charge the car, like one at home, or anywhere there’s an outlet on the road in case of emergency.

We were given a counterclockwise itinerary to follow around the Cascade Loop, because the eastern approach to Washington Pass offers the most dramatic views of the North Cascades.

One of the leaders of the effort to electrify the Cascade Loop, Jack Anderson, and his wife Charlene, followed the reporters’ cars on the trip in their Tesla Model S, an electric car with a range of 265 miles. Jack would be our guide and troubleshooter.

Getting started

We headed out from Wenatchee on day one with the goal of reaching Mazama, a distance of about 100 miles, with stops to use charging stations in Chelan, Pateros, Twisp and Winthrop.

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We first stopped at the new Pybus Public Market in Wenatchee to see how the community renovated a historic 1946 steel warehouse and turned it into an attractive gathering place with shops, restaurants, a farmer’s market and live music and events.

Breakfast at the Cafe Columbia in Pybus Market was a delicious veggie wrap filled with roasted vegetables, egg and a housemade roasted tomato spread.

On the 33-mile drive to Chelan, we stopped at the Rocky Reach Dam Visitors Center on the Columbia River, about seven miles upstream from Wenatchee, to look at the dam and see their innovative juvenile fish bypass system for salmon.

The dam is the source of some of the abundant, low cost, clean renewable hydropower in this region that powered our car. The energy cost for an electric car is only a few pennies per mile.

On the road to Chelan, we saw a bald eagle flying over the river, and drove by many apple orchards.

We found our charging station in Chelan at Campbell’s Resort. Open since 1901, and now being run by the fourth and fifth generation of Campbells, the resort sits on the waterfront of 50-mile-long, glacier-fed Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the U.S.

While we charged the car for 90 minutes, we took a stroll through downtown Chelan, which seems like a small version of Bend, with lots of small shops and restaurants, and no stoplights or parking meters. The population of the Lake Chelan Valley is about 6,500, but grows to more than 25,000 with summer visitors.

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Lunch was at Campbell’s Resort’s Pub and Veranda Restaurant, open year-round to the public. We split a lovely salad and a generous portion of their signature fish and chips: hand-cut cod in a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer batter, with house-made tartar sauce and crunchy coleslaw.

We headed north to the towns of Pateros and Twisp next, through a landscape of natural brown hills with a high desert feel, and vast areas of burned land.

This part of the Methow Valley was devastated last summer by the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest fire in Washington’s history, covering more than 400 square miles and burning nearly 500 buildings, including 325 homes.

While charging up in Twisp for 30 minutes, we started to get into the rhythm of EV travel. Instead of a quick gas-up-and-go, we were forced to slow down and explore while the car got its charge.

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That’s not a problem in an area like the Cascade Loop. There’s plenty to see and do. We walked around the town of Twisp, looking in shop windows, and enjoying the laid back feel of the little town. We stopped in the Twisp River Pub and shared a hoppy pint of Methow Valley ESB, brewed on site.

Annette Pitts, executive director of the Cascade Loop Association said the loop can be different things to different people. She told us she often gets emails and calls from people who want help customizing their visit.

“Most folks get in touch with us because there’s a certain thing they like to do. What are the best hikes? I want to shop. I want to raft. I like to drink beer. We have a diverse traveling audience, and we’ve had people from Sri Lanka, Germany, and all over this year — a lot from the U.K., who are aren’t used to hopping in a car and driving for days to see massive mountains, big rivers and waterfalls right on the side of the highway,” Pitts said.

Nine miles up the road we visited Winthrop, a sort of smaller scale Sisters, with several blocks of Wild West-style buildings and ambiance.

We stopped in Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, known for its homemade ice cream and candy. Owner Doug Mohre and his wife Sheri have been in operation for 21 years. Doug, the “Candy Man,” told us that turtles are their biggest selling candy, followed by sea salt caramels. We bought a bag of the latter and understood why they’re so popular.

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Day one ended at the Mazama Country Inn, an 18-room backcountry hotel complex nestled in a stand of ponderosa pines. The Methow River runs by it, and the rustic inn is surrounded by the North Cascades National Park, the Okanogan National Forest, and the Pasayten Wilderness.

Owner Bill Pope has run the inn for 25 years with his wife Cheryl and business partner George Turner.

“The appeal of living and visiting Mazama is the unbroken wilderness. It’s one of the greatest blocks of wilderness in the country,” Pope told us as we dined in the inn’s restaurant on flavorful Thai chicken curry over rice, along with salad, and a generous serving of coconut creme brulee with orange zest for dessert.

Our cozy room had a cabin feel with quilt-covered beds and arts-and-crafts-style lamps. There’s wi-fi throughout the inn, but no telephones or televisions in the rooms. In addition to the great outdoors nearby, the hotel has an outdoor pool and hot tub, sauna, tennis courts and a recreation center.

Pope installed one Level 2 high-amperage car charger that’s available to the public without cost, plus two outdoor 40-amp outlets that people can also use to charge their cars.

Most of the charging stations around the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway are free. Local merchants are absorbing the costs involved with installing and running a charger because it’s a tourist draw. Several companies have developed EV charging networks with the goal of selling energy to EV drivers, Jack Anderson told us.

“Aerovironment, Blink and ChargePoint are active in Washington and Oregon. Drivers need an access card or can phone a customer service representative as directed at the charging station and use a credit card,” Anderson said.

Over the pass

Day two’s challenge was driving over Washington Pass. We were warned that we would use a lot of charge getting there, but if we kept our speed at 50 mph or less, we’d be fine.

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We felt some “range anxiety,” as it’s called, watching our range gauge drop quickly as we drove up and up, but we were relieved to gain back range after the summit. An electric car regenerates energy as it does downhill.

The drive was wow-inducing and eerily beautiful. Fog-tinged mountains covered in a blanket of forest surrounded us. On a clear day, jagged Liberty Bell Peak (7,740 feet high) is the star of the show.

Washington Pass Overlook between mile posts 162 and 163 is the one place to stop if you want photo-worthy views of the peaks and valleys of the mountains.

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Washington Highway 20 took us to the Diablo Lake Overlook parking lot where we met Paul Symons, who drives a AAA Mobile Electric Charge Vehicle. He demonstrated how he could rescue an EV driver who’s run out of electricity with a fast, 15-minute, Level 3 charge that would add about 10 miles of range — just enough to find a plug where you could fully charge up.

This new AAA service will benefit drivers on the Cascade Loop and in Seattle, a region that has more than 7,000 EVs. The Washington State Department of Transportation data shows that of the 9,745 plug-in EVs registered in the state, more than 6,000 of them are in King and Snohomish counties around Seattle.

The rest of our day was spent in Nehalem, charging up and exploring Seattle City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project, that has generated electricity from the upper Skagit River since 1918.

We had to take turns charging our cars, so we spent a couple of hours walking on the Trail of the Cedars and hiking to Ladder Creek Falls and Rock Gardens, and visiting the Skagit General Store and Gorge Powerhouse.

The day ended with two more charging station stops in Burlington and Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. We browsed around Burlington’s Outlet Shoppes for 45 minutes until our car was back to 85 percent (the charging station was in the parking lot), and the main street of Oak Harbor to kill time while we got another 30-minute charge.

After a long day on the road, we were getting a little impatient with all of the car charging we had to do, but we still felt good about driving with zero emissions, and exploring this new way to travel.

Our hotel that night was the 16-room Saratoga Inn in Langley, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

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Owners Jim and Jenny Pensiero are EV owners, so they enthusiastically installed two charging stations in the inn’s parking lot. We plugged in and charged overnight.

Our elegant room had a fireplace and a huge walk-in shower. Most rooms have views of the water — the Saratoga Passage — or the Cascade Mountains.

Chef Susan Vanderwood’s breakfast buffet at the inn included a roasted asparagus and egg roulade with goat cheese, orange French toast, and blueberry muffins. The Saratoga Inn offers wine and cheese each afternoon or tea with an assortment of snacks.

Return to Wenatchee

Our final day of EV driving was from Langley back to Wenatchee with stops in Sultan, Skykomish and Leavenworth.

First, we explored the lovely little town of Langley (pop. 1,007), It’s home to art galleries, gardens, and small shops, including Sweet Mona’s, a chocolate shop famous for its hot truffle shot.

We visited the Langley Whale Center, a free information center about whales in the Pacific Northwest, and stopped by Callahan’s Firehouse Studio and Gallery in the old Langley Firehouse. For $85 you can take a 30-minute glassblowing class and take home a bowl, drinking glass, pumpkin, or other small object that you make yourself.

We crossed Puget Sound on the Washington State Ferry System in a 15-minute ride from Clinton to Mukilteo and headed for Sultan to charge. We went to the Sky Valley Visitor Center and then shopped at a thrift store that was going out of business.

We had to stop at the Espresso Chalet. The 14-foot-tall Bigfoot statue drew us right in.

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Owners Sandy and Mark Klein make good coffee drinks and sell a lot of funny Bigfoot souvenirs. The statue was carved by local sculptor Trace Breitenfeldt, and film buffs will be pleased to know that “Harry and the Hendersons” was filmed here.

Our next stop, 27 miles down the road, was tiny Skykomish, the last stop for services before Stevens Pass. We charged up near the Sky Deli, had a great grilled turkey sandwich there, and walked through the historic town that was previously a Great Northern Railroad maintenance and fueling station.

Sky Deli co-owner and cook, Samantha Hendrickson, told us their charger has been used a lot.

“I see it used every day. It’s cool to see people excited about EV travel. Stevens Pass Ski Area is a big spot for EVs in the winter. I see them charging while they ski. I didn’t think it’d be as big of a hit so soon,” Hendrickson said.

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The highlight of our last day was the Old World Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth. While we charged up, we took in the charming buildings and hanging flowers, visited the nonprofit Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, and chatted with its founder, Arlene Wagner.

“We have way over 6,000 nutcrackers in the museum. George (her husband) and I donated our collection, and the building so it will go on after we’re gone. Others donated their nutcrackers too,” she said.

We had to sit down for a bratwurst sandwich with sauerkraut and potato salad, of course, and were pleased at our selection of the Munchen Haus Bavarian Grill and Beer Garden. The 16 self-serve varieties of mustard were fun, and it all tasted good with a draft beer from Germany on the side.

We returned to Wenatchee to drop off the car and reflect on this new way of travel.

Dan and I agreed with the quote we read about the Cascade Loop from The National Geographic: “One of America’s grandest, most spectacular drives.” We’ll take it one step further and say one of the world’s best drives.

To be able to drive the whole Cascade Loop Scenic Highway in an electric car was remarkable. It was great to be pollution-free and never stop at a gas station. Using charging stations is easy. The LEAF is comfortable and fun to drive.

But the 85-mile range of an EV means stopping several times a day to recharge. It requires patience. The plus side of that is it makes you slow down and look around while you wait.

The nature of EV travel is that it requires careful planning so you don’t run out of charge and, at the same time, it inspires spontaneity and adventure. Not a bad way to travel.

— Reporter:

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