Chinook Pass, White Pass Autumn Loop Drive in Washington

Brian J. Cantwell, The Seattle Times, October 2, 2011

Shortly after we entered Mount Rainier National Park, Highway 410 rose out of the forest to traverse a rocky hillside, and it was time to shift the little rental car from "D" for "drive" to "MG" for "mountain goat." (I wished.)

As the valley floor fell away on our right and the White River veered off toward its source at Emmons Glacier, we came upon our first gasp-inducing, base-to-summit view of snowy Rainier and the goat-horn spike of Little Tahoma.

Stopped cars crowded the shoulder.

We hopped out and joined a camera-wielding throng. As one family posed with the mountain behind them, my wife offered to snap their photo.

"It's always been cloudy when we've been here before, so they had to prove to us that there were mountains!" said Elaine Yost, from Tampa, Fla., as she posed with husband Hal and the relatives they were visiting.

"We wanted the mantel picture, and now we got it!" exulted Jeff Yost, their son, who lives near Tacoma.

We were on a road trip circling over two of the state's prettiest mountain highways, Chinook Pass and White Pass. It's a 113-mile loop with the kind of snapshot scenery that crowds mantels across the Northwest.

If this year's late-to-melt mountain snow kept you in the flatlands this summer and you're feeling a deficit of alpine wonderment in your life, here's your autumn drive.

The route abounds in sparkling rivers (the American, Naches, Tieton and more) sprinting and weaving alongside the highway. And because many of the views are into the national park and nearby wilderness areas (William O. Douglas, Norse Peak, Goat Rocks and Tatoosh), this might be the longest drive in Washington where mountainsides of unbroken forest outnumber timber clear-cuts.

You could do it in a long day, but make it an overnight if you can. Look for a crisp fall weekend before the snow flies. Traffic is lighter -- most RVers have cocooned for the winter -- and roadside vine maples and riverbank cottonwoods will add autumn splashes of crimson and yellow.

The route

As we continued on 410, beyond the Sunrise turnoff, we had a choice: (1) bear left at 4,675-foot Cayuse Pass, where 410 intersects with Highway 123, and ascend to Chinook Pass, for a clockwise loop; or (2) hang a right on 123 and continue south toward Ohanapecosh and White Pass, to begin a counterclockwise loop.

Both ways are nice. Here's a clockwise itinerary.

Chinook Pass

It's a switchbacking route up rocky cliffs to 5,430-foot Chinook Pass.

Tipsoo Lake, just before the summit, is a popular picnic stop amid the spicy perfume of alpine firs.

If you've time, hike the Naches Peak Loop Trail, a 3.4-mile alpine walk famous for its wildflowers (extra late this year, so expect some flowers until frost does them in), autumn-red huckleberry bushes and Rainier vistas.

For best views, start at the pass summit (at the newly restored park-entrance arch) and walk clockwise. For a shorter hike, cross the road from the lake and go counterclockwise as far as you wish, then return.

On a clear day, don't miss the classic photo op of Rainier from the highway pullout just above Tipsoo.

The 410 route

From the pass, the downward eastbound highway offers a breathtaking Big Valley view, with more trees in a sweep of the eye than probably grow in the whole state of Kansas.

Stops along the way might include Fife's Peak Viewpoint, Milepost 81.4, to gaze up at the 6,917-foot craggy needles of rock (remember binoculars, to spy for mountain goats). This remnant of a caldera from a volcanic explosion 25 million years ago is named for a Scot credited with finding the first gold mine on Chinook Pass in 1888.

Along this stretch, where Douglas firs transition to pinkish-barked pines, Wenatchee National Forest campgrounds offer stops to picnic or dip toes in icy rivers. Follow wheelchair-accessible nature trails at Pleasant Valley Campground, Milepost 83.4 (a 1-mile path), or at the Mather Memorial Parkway information site across from Sawmill Flat Campground, Milepost 93.3 (a half-mile loop).

Campgrounds open through October (weather-dependent) include Lodgepole, Pleasant Valley, Sawmill Flat ("Last night they caught some nice fish here!" campground host Dick Smelser told us) and Cottonwood, with no charge to picnic or explore.

At Milepost 96, we stopped for coffee and bumbleberry pie (apple, rhubarb and berry, $5.95) in the knotty-pine dining room of Whistlin' Jack Lodge, with a nice view of the Naches River.

About 10 miles before intersecting with the White Pass Highway, you'll detour for five miles on the Nile Loop Road to avoid a section of 410 buried by a tremendous landslide in 2009. Half of a very big mountain collapsed, rerouting the Naches River. It's a jaw-dropping sight.

White Pass Highway

At Milepost 115.7, you can turn right to head back west over White Pass on Highway 12.

But don't miss the chance to extend your drive five miles eastward on Highway 12 into Naches, where several roadside fruit stands offer late-season bounty of the Yakima Valley.

Once you're westbound again, the first leg of Highway 12 threads through cliffs of fluted basalt. Were it a John Ford movie set, here's where the Apache war party would appear.

Six-mile-long Rimrock Lake is a big attraction on this pass, especially if you like to fish. Around Highway 12's Milepost 165, this green-water reservoir created by the dammed Tieton River and surrounded by high, forested hills has traditionally been a good fishing lake for trout and kokanee, a landlocked salmon. Little fishing resorts dot the shore.

About four miles up the road from the lake's west end, don't miss the viewpoint and rest area at Clear Creek Falls. Suddenly you're back among alpine trees, including larches, those deciduous firs that turn golden in autumn. Watch for peregrine falcons that nest nearby as you view the falls.

After a stop at the gas station at 4,500-foot White Pass, across from the ski area, look for the peaks of Goat Rocks Wilderness on your left as the highway descends. A pullout on the south side, at Milepost 147.5, gives you a final chance to get that keeper photo of Mount Rainier.

Silver Falls

Ready to stretch your legs on this final lap? Highway 123 connects 410 with 12 at the end of our loop, and includes some off-highway treasures, such as Silver Falls.

Here at the edge of Mount Rainier National Park, a less-visited stretch of the Ohanapecosh River cascades over a rocky, quarter-mile flumeway before taking a final plunge, then sucking in its froth to squeeze into a 20-foot-wide chasm. Peer down through gaps in an old wood-plank footbridge to test your dizziness quotient.

I'd hiked the 2.7-mile loop trail from Ohanapecosh Campground to get here on past visits, unaware that you can hop down to the falls in minutes on a 0.3-mile trail from a pullout on the west side of 123.

Watch for the trailhead symbol on a small sign 1.6 miles north of Ohanapecosh (or, if southbound, very soon after you've passed the Stevens Canyon park entrance).

Grove of the Patriarchs

Hike another 0.9 mile from Silver Falls on a huckleberry-lined trail, bypassing the Stevens Canyon park gate and its $15-per-vehicle fee, to the Grove of the Patriarchs.

Or you can drive to the trailhead on the Stevens Canyon Road (most of which is closed for construction this fall, but remains open to this point), then walk 0.3 mile. Either way leads you to a grove of cedars and firs up to 1,000 years old.

You'll cross a rickety suspension bridge to reach a low, sandy islet that is home to scores of giant trees, some as tall as a 20-story building.

Here, the dizziness comes when you look up.

It's a good place to end your tour and ponder all the wonders of nature you've seen.

Then toddle back up the trail and put the car in "H" (for "home").

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or [email protected]