Story and photography by Susan Benton
[Best Washington Motorcycle Roads: Highway 20 was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the March 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Motorcycling has been my husband’s passion since he was a teenager in the 1960s. I began riding as a passenger about 10 years ago, never guessing I would take the trip we made in the summer of 2005.
When our son, Adam, moved to Monroe, Washington, my husband, Mike, began reviving a decades-old dream of riding to the West Coast and back from Iowa. The birth of our first grandchild in May set the stage for another trip west, but one far different from previous visits. I encouraged Mike to realize his dream. He would ride our 1983 Honda Gold Wing out, while I flew into Seattle. I agreed to ride back with him.
“It’s all about the ride,” Mike and Adam always say. With that in mind, Adam recommended we begin our ride home by traveling Highway 20 across northern Washington, a route local motorcyclists speak of with reverence. The road itself, completed in 1972, was the first to open an east-west route through these sparsely inhabited areas.
We begin at 6:30 a.m. Adam leads on his 2003 Honda Shadow, from Monroe north by way of back roads to State Route 530 east. Our motorcycle is loaded with the barest necessities, having shipped everything else home. We meander through a natural cathedral created by sky-high evergreen forests. The sky is overcast, highlighting the explosion of green surrounding us. In 30 minutes we travel from 700 feet above sea level to an altitude of over 5,000 feet.
Our first stop is for breakfast in Rockport, at the junction with Highway 20. At a tiny café called The Eatery, we are glad to get hot coffee. Although it is late June, we are all extremely happy to be wearing multiple layers of warm clothing beneath our Gore-Tex riding gear. After a filling and inexpensive breakfast, we gas up. While our son loops back to Monroe west on Highway 20, we turn to the east.
In barely 20 minutes we enter the 684,313 acres of the North Cascades National Park. The pungent pine fragrance is nose-tingling. Here the tree canopy backs away from the road and is replaced by densely forested foothills rising rapidly to numerous peaks. We stop at an overlook and walk a half-mile on an asphalt trail to the edge of a gorge. Except for river sounds, the silence is absolute. Like the sirens to Ulysses, nature entices us to linger, but we have a motel reservation to keep at day’s end.
For miles, Highway 20 follows the Skagit River, rewarding us with views of the rock-strewn riverbed tumbling around the foot of the mountains. Massive rock formations balance precariously and waterfalls cascade down the hillsides. Fog lifts lazily heavenward and then vanishes, seeming to come from within the trees. Traffic is nearly nonexistent. Later we cruise into Winthrop, a town with an Old West look. Multiple shops line the main street, its wooden walkways bustling with tourists. Brochures boast of restaurants from four-star dining to pizza places. Lodging includes local motels and an RV park.
It is sunnier and noticeably warmer in Winthrop so we shed some of our layers. Still full from breakfast we bypass its restaurants, get gas, and return to the road. We add Winthrop to our growing list of places we would like to return to someday.
Soon the skies cloud and rain seems imminent. We add back our warm clothes and our raingear, and just in time. All day we ride in and out of brief mountain showers. Highway 20 continues, with little available other than gas marts.
The rest of the day we follow this rider’s dream road through Okanogan National Forest and Colville National Forest. We have not tired of the alternately ascending and descending, sweeping curves of Highway 20 nor of the never-ending expanse of forest and mountains.
When I see the road sign warning of a 6 percent grade, I know it is time to hold on. The steep descent, still winding this way and that, opens wide to a valley. We cross a bridge spanning the Columbia River and arrive in tiny Kettle Falls, where the smell of freshly cut lumber from a Boise-Cascade mill permeates the air. We pull in at our motel after 10 hours and 350 miles of riding. I laugh out loud when we enter our room. In a flashback to the 1950s, the one-level L-shaped motel has rooms complete with pink bathroom fixtures and a Magic Fingers bed! Nevertheless it is clean, quiet, comfortable and costs only $50. Luckily, across the highway is a general store, with a deli serving delicious homemade soups and sandwiches for carryout.
The next day we travel merely 10 miles farther to Colville, population 5,000. It must be the go-to destination for the area. We ride through a spotless, large downtown shopping area. There are restaurants, local motels and bed and breakfasts, and a Comfort Inn.
From Colville, we could continue the next day on Highway 20, catching Highway 2 at the Idaho border. We could cross Idaho’s narrow neck following Highway 2 all the way to The Road to the Sun through Glacier National Park.
We estimate the ride to Glacier National Park will take most of another day; slow going on scenic, twisting mountain roads. Disappointed but realistic, we decide that route will have to wait—add it to the list. Instead we follow Highway 395 south, from Colville to Spokane, merge with Interstate 90, and begin covering serious miles toward Iowa. Interstate 90 west leads back to the Seattle area in only a half-day.
Two thousand miles and five days later, we were home. The motorcycle never faltered and for a couple of AARP members we did well, too. I was happy Mike had realized a life-long dream, and that I had wisely decided to ride along. Though we may never take this ride again, the jaw-dropping beauty of this vast mountain wilderness route makes this our favorite ride…so far!