In getting to points north, east and west here in Washington state, at least a portion of State Route 20 is often included. So I wondered…what would it be like to ride it end-to-end? How much better than settling for one flavor is it to taste three? This statewide adventure would be like a big scoop of Neapolitan ice cream—Washington has three distinct eco-systems dividing it into thirds. We would follow State Route 20 from the rainforest/alpine region, to inland high desert, and then back to the pine forests and river valleys of yet another foothill range…tasty!
It can be logistically daunting to ride between the mileposts of an entire numbered roadway, yet I knew State Route 20 holds many gems to make it worth the trouble. I also had the bonus of including my stepson Adam as wingman on his first ride in a couple of years. He was on his Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10RRR (Recently Recovered from Robbers), and this would be a solid road test of our combined engineering and restoration efforts.
Our journey begins in the Puget Sound at the southwestern end of State Route 20 not far from where we lived when Adam was a boy. Fat Smitty’s near Discovery Bay makes for a memorable and hard to miss starting point, just for the kitsch alone! “Go east, old man,” is the advice we follow as the first handful of miles skirt the bay, the first of many interesting things we discover about the places, people and perhaps even ourselves on this ride.
I must note that in general, until we hit the mainland, autos seem to consistently travel 5 mph under the posted limit. It may be the enticing visuals or laid back, island way of thinking, so I trade frustration for just taking in the sights, sounds and smells at a slower pace. And smells there are aplenty—being surrounded by both salt and freshwater sources with heavy vegetation on the eastern edge of a rainforest provides plenty of olfactory stimulation. Many small farms and fields of fruit and flowers dot the land as the road winds gently north to the ferry dock at Port Townsend.
If one has time there is much to see and do in Port Townsend, a very historic site. Just up the road is Fort Worden, now a state park, where much of the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman” was filmed. With us being neither, my son and I decide to make haste and we reach the ferry with only seconds to spare. A great advantage of the Washington ferry system is that motorcycles are almost always first on/first off (after bicycles and pedestrians), and there are many opportunities for conversing with fellow riders, making for a quick and pleasant crossing. The cool salty breeze was a welcome bonus since it was already in the humid 80s by noon.
State Route 20 becomes solid again at Whidbey Island’s Keystone Landing, where we continue north to span its upper half. The smell of fish and rotting sea vegetation is strong, but not totally unpleasant as we roll past tiny farms and beach homes that seem right out of Cape Cod. The road is devoid of any real traffic and the encroaching flora is so dense at times that it forms a shady green canopy to wind delightfully through. Congestion happens around the communities of Coupeville and Oak Harbor, but once freed from the morass of McDonald’s and mini-malls the route again becomes benign.
After a short run through some big curves the island ends at Deception Pass State Park. Movement is brought to a near standstill as hundreds flock to sloooowly cross this aged bridge and gawk at the views. Both edges are filled with foot traffic on a very narrow walkway, and it is a breathtaking view from this vantage, with the history of the pass fraught with drama from early times to the present day. We are here to move along the asphalt though; State Route 20 is calling and we answer by darting through thickening traffic on straight roads toward the Interstate 5 corridor and Skagit Valley. This vast river delta, formed by eons of effluent, has left a very fertile region famed for agriculture and the ubiquitous tribal casinos. The constant view from the visor is now of snowcapped Mount Baker and the Cascade peaks beckoning with a future promise of cooler air; close but oh-so-far away.
We find lodging among many “No Vacancy” signs in the logging-centric burg of Sedro-Woolley. The Three Rivers Inn Hotel is nice and clean, has a pool and the proprietor insisted we park our bikes under cover next to the office…how nice! In the morning we resume our “Twentying,” now in much cooler air and on those winding mountain roads we all love so well. As it meanders with the Skagit River past the Sauk Valley, State Route 20 takes its time to get twisty, but the scenery and smells are without equal. The air is so sweet and clean I almost hurt myself trying to draw in and hold lungfuls of it.
Glimpsing the nearing mountain peaks through towering trees while carefully minding the numerous flashing elk and deer crossing signs, we roll through a number of the small towns on this leg: Concrete, Rockport, Marblemount…sounds like a hard ride, no? Well, not really, as the pavement is in better condition than I have ever seen it and the temperature is perfect as we begin to execute the constant and slower corners that now rise to meet us.
After an exhilarating corkscrew climb into thinning air, we take a breather at the overlook for Diablo Dam and Lake to drink in their diabolic majesty. Rolling on, we enjoy downhill corners on creamy smooth asphalt and feel the temperature rise with each mile we drop into the sweltering heat of the Methow Valley. Our need to refuel in Winthrop cannot be ignored, as the last 80 miles have been service-less, so we brave the wall-to-wall people and vehicles moving at a snail’s crawl but forgo the customary homemade ice cream from the boardwalk vendor. Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon winks like an old friend (I spent the night I turned 21 there), but we need to get some air moving over overheating surfaces.
Steering south for a spell, we hurry to the section of State Route 20 that is Loup Loup Pass, knowing that many more great cornering opportunities lie ahead. Riders must use more than customary caution, as you are definitely in the part of America where the buffalo roam, and the antelope have all moved to Montana, leaving the deer to play…all day and night.
The Loup, as locals refer to it, has been badly burned over the last two fire seasons. Blackened toothpicks and browned needles accompany most of the still highly enjoyable roadway, and also provide less cover for the free-range beef and other critters, so this still registers a solid 8.5 on the scale.
Pressing on in the afternoon “swamp” of our riding gear into Okanogan, State Route 20 gets rather snooze-ish as it bears northeast for about 30 miles and pairs with U.S. Route 97, but that is forgivable for the portions that lie ahead. After dispatching the craziness in Omak amidst its famed Stampede weekend, we find Tonasket waiting at the doorstep of two more passes, Wauconda and Sherman. Definitely my favorite, and perhaps the most enjoyable 80-mile section State Route 20 has to offer, the scenery is sublime: mostly pine and fir covered hills with many stunning rock outcroppings and mini mountains that the road carves in and out of between stretches that bisect postcard perfect valleys with working farms and ranches.
The town of Republic has a few reasons to make it a night’s destination—including decent bars and restaurants with some rustic motels—but we decide to forge ahead across Sherman’s delights before it gets too dusky. After more superlative conditions and strafed apexes, the road relaxes and briefly joins with U.S. Route 395 through Kettle Falls and then into Colville. After yet another cooling pool dip at Benny’s Colville Inn, enjoyable food and drink within walking distance, and another night spent dreaming of corners past and future, we leap again into the rising sun as State Route 20 uncages Tiger Pass.
I can think of few better ways to spend a morning than rolling with a good companion on stellar roads, and after dealing with some obligatory construction we stop to kick around some sights that I all too often blow past. As our route turns south at Tiger, I know the next 40 miles are going to lose some of their charm and curvaceous nature, yet it allows time to reflect as we approach our objective of riding to the last foot of this asphalt ribbon.
With the gorgeous Pend Oreille River on our eastern flank to guide us and keep us company, we enjoy the heated miles through a few small settlements. Skipping the motorcycle nirvana of Flowery Trail Road, from Usk west to Chewelah, on this trip, Newport closes in as we travel down 14 miles of the straightest, smoothest road I can remember—like a silvery diamond dust nail file it shimmers in the sun and seems too bright even through a tinted visor. The end is nigh, and without fanfare we roll across the end of State Route 20 a few yards into a gas station. Well, that was easy, I think. Want to do it again, the other direction? As 20/20 is often used to signify the most desirable visual acuity, I can see something ever clearer—this route needs to be ridden the other direction, east to west, since the other lane is a trip of an entirely different flavor!