White Pass National Scenic Byway
About this byway
Epxerience this gem of Washington state. If it’s majesty you crave, this is your route. Sitting sentry on your drive are two active volcanoes (Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier) and the 12,000-foot-plus Mount Adams.
Bring along a swimsuit in the summertime; there are plenty of lakes to take a dip in. A tent will serve you well as camping is plentiful along the route.
Don’t forget your camera: the meadows, lakes and hills of this landscape host animals from elk to bighorn sheep to black bear. Eagles, ospreys and red-tailed hawks are your constant companions as you head east.
Be sure to pick up a box of peaches or cherries in Naches. There’s no souvenir like an edible one.
From Seattle go south on I-5 for approximately 100 miles and take Exit 68 east onto US-12. The White Pass Scenic Byway corridor crosses the Cascades, from just south of Chehalis to the intersection of US-12 and SR-410 on the “dry side” of Washington State near Naches.
Experience Washington’s geographic diversity
Diversity sums up the experience best. The nationally designated White Pass Scenic Byway boasts magnificent driving tours from the lush evergreen forests of western Washington, up and over the Cascades, and into the sage-covered rolling hills that rise up from the Tieton River drainage on the state’s east side.
Recreational possibilities—camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, skiing and boating—are easy to find here. There are charming communities to enjoy, as well as side trips revealing both the majesty of Mount Rainier and the devastation from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Low-elevation lakes, river valleys, foothills, subalpine ridges, forests, lush meadows and open steppes are all accessible through this gateway. Bald eagles, elk, mountain goats, black bears, marmots and salmon occupy an array of wild habitats and public lands. July and August are generally sunny and mild, with heavy snowfall November through April.
Lewis and Clark State Park
Located between Mary’s Corner and Toledo, an excellent first stop on the road is Lewis and Clark State Park, 2.5 miles east of I-5 Exit 68 and south off Jackson Highway. The north spur of the Oregon Trail passed directly through the present park site. When pioneers used this road, ramps had to be built over some of the downed logs (six to nine feet in diameter), since they had no saws capable of cutting the giants.
With one of the last large tracts of lowland old-growth forest, miles of hiking and horse trails and a campground, the park is open April 1 to September 30 and features an 1845 pioneer house, streams, wetlands and wet prairie. This is a 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps park, and many of the buildings constructed by the corps remain in use today. This park is also a good, easy birding spot—look for quail, pileated woodpeckers and great horned owls. This stretch of byway eastward to Packwood Lake is part of the Washington State Birding Trail Southwest Loop.
Hungry? One of the best burgers in the state can be found at Mary’s Corner. Ask around; any local will point you in the right direction.
Alpine lakes offer plenty of great recreation
For year-round family fun, Ike Kinswa State Park, four miles north of Mossyrock, hugs 46,000 feet of shoreline on the freshwater Mayfield Lake. Private, forested campsites have plenty of appeal, and the heated cabins near the lakeshore are a steal at $60 bucks a night. Hiking, swimming, fishing (trout, bass, tiger muskie), water-skiing and boating (from two ramps) are among the many recreational options.
Nearby Riffe Lake, a massive man-made reservoir, also offers camping, boating and fishing. Hang gliders launching from Dog Mountain can often be spotted overhead. You may spot bobcats, bears, deer, eagles, hawks, herons and owls, so stay on the lookout.
Mossyrock and the Cowlitz River
In Mossyrock, garden enthusiasts will want to check out acres of nearby tulip fields and pick up some bulbs. Also, be sure to grab some local, organically grown blueberries—especially if you visit during the annual Blueberry Festival held the first weekend in August.
The Cowlitz River, which runs through this area, provides several excellent opportunities to fish for salmon and steelhead. Ask at a local station or local outfitter for the best fishing holes or where you can view spawning salmon in the fall.
Head up to Mount Rainier
Driving on SR-7 north out of Morton to Elbe (where you can take a steam-train ride aboard the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad) leads to the 115-mile-long West Side Loop around the Nisqually area and Big Bottom Valley, featuring some of the Mount Rainier area’s greatest spectacles. This loop route to Paradise is typically open from the end of May through October; however, access to Paradise is available year-round.
You can also access SR-706 and the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park near Ashford from downtown Packwood by taking Skate Creek Road, a little-known route that winds gracefully along the creek, featuring dozens of small waterfalls, lush forests and providing some great fishing and roadside picnicking.
If Skate Creek Road is your choice, be sure to take a quick break in Packwood. A recommended stop is to swing into the local coffee roaster’s and grab a snack, a cup of “joe” for the road and a pound of beans as a gift or robust reminder of the journey.
Towering waterfalls (Narada is a favorite stop) and interpretive nature trails (check out the Trail of Shadows at Longmire) never cease to bring a sense of wonder to the adventure and are easily accessible via short hikes from the main highway. During the winter this road terminates at the historic Paradise Inn, at the very base of the grand lady, Mount Rainier. In the summer months, the Paradise Valley Road connects to the Stevens Canyon Road.
On the way down, the side trip to the Grove of the Patriarchs trail on Stevens Canyon Road (closed in winter) between Paradise and SR-123 is highly recommended. Here an easy 1.5-mile round-trip boardwalk trail leads you through a stand of massive 1,000-year-old Douglas firs, western red cedars and western hemlock up to 50 feet in circumference.
Mount St. Helens detour
Between Morton and Packwood, near Randle, you can head south on SR-131 to USNF-25 for excellent views of log-strewn Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams from Windy Ridge. An extraordinary view of the 1980 eruption’s devastation of 200 square miles of green forest—which turned the area into a gray wasteland—simply must be seen to believe. U.S. Forest Service interpretive presentations (early July through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) are a great way to get a sense of the St. Helens story. Add four hours for this exceptional round-trip detour.
Sure, there’s plenty to keep you busy in spring and summer, but winter recreational opportunities are abundant in these mountains as well. These include snow camping, snowboarding, Nordic skiing and general snow play at Paradise, an area that includes a ranger station, a visitor center and the Paradise Inn (which closes in early October).
The recently expanded White Pass Ski Resort goes into high gear during the winter with alpine and cross-country skiing. A day lodge rents skis and snowboards and has food, lockers and a bar. The nearby White Pass Village Inn offers overnight rooms.
Down the eastern slopes
A short distance beyond the summit of White Pass, you’ll see a trailhead with access to the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles along the Cascade Mountain Range from Canada to Mexico. A few miles further, you’ll find beautiful Rimrock and Clear lakes. In the summer, enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, boating and wildlife watching. Come winter, opt for a trek by snowshoe or cross-country skis.
The route between Rimrock and Naches winds past valleys and canyons with several scenic viewpoints. There’s plenty of riverfront camping here as well. The final leg of White Pass Scenic Byway, just before Naches, will be enriched by a stop at Oak Creek Wildlife Area, where unusually close-up views of hundreds of elk (during winter) and bighorn sheep (all year) at feeding stations are a thrill. There’s non-mammal viewing, too; woodpeckers, raptors and songbirds are plentiful.
Try Chinook Pass on the way back
A great full-day loop drive will take you up and over two of our state’s most rugged and beautiful byways, White Pass along US-12 and Chinook Pass on SR-410 for the return trip. Chinook Pass is closed from approximately Thanksgiving through Memorial Day, so check www.dot.wa.gov for travel updates before you head out. You can read more about the Chinook Pass Scenic Byway elsewhere in this guide.
Gas, food and lodging
Vacation rentals, cozy cabins, motels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations, in varying price ranges, are plentiful along the byway, as are numerous campgrounds. Five rest areas are spread over the 119-mile journey, as are park-your-car viewpoints. Gas is plentiful along the route, but whenever traveling into high mountain country, it’s always a good idea to top off the tank whenever you get a chance.
Make sure to ask around to find out where the locals gather; that’s where the best food and conversation will be found.
Driving Distance: 119 miles direct on US-12 from I-5 Exit 68 to Naches.
Driving Time: 2.5 hours, not including stops or scenic detours.
Actual Time: While this drive can easily be accomplished in a half-day, plan at least two full days to take advantage of some of the fabulous loop tours. These afford the best views of Rainier and St. Helens, old growth-forests and waterfalls. Outdoor enthusiasts should plan a minimum of two to three days.
Best Time to Travel: Most routes are open year-round. Check www.dot.wa.gov for winter and early spring road conditions.
Nearby or connected scenic byways