Even before the North Cascades Scenic Highway opened on Sept. 2, 1972, after 13 years of actual construction and many more of surveying, the road had been the dream of entrepreneurially minded visionaries for a century.
“[The opening of the highway] may well have been the final great break-through in the western movement that had been surging against the last Pacific Coast barrier since emigrant days,” wrote Charles Kerr in a history of the highway published in 1972 in Okanogan County Heritage, the journal of the Okanogan County Historical Society.
For people accustomed to awe-inspiring views of the Liberty Bell and Early Winters spires, waterfalls and aquamarine reservoirs, it can be hard to imagine another route through the Cascades. But in the hundred years of petitioning for a northern road across the mountains, backers and engineers considered half a dozen routes.
The first, conceived in 1893, would have started in Glacier, then gone north of Mount Baker to the Columbia River near Kettle Falls. That route was soon abandoned after the commission overseeing the work determined that it was too high and too rough.
They regrouped and devised a route from the Skagit River over Rainy Pass to Early Winters that was quite similar to the current route. But before they could start reconnaissance for that route, miners near Slate Creek above Harts Pass lobbied for a road that would serve their interests and connect with Ruby, then an active mining camp further east in the Okanogan, according to Kerr.
A party scouted several routes in 1895. One connected the present Harts Pass summit with Slate Creek and Ruby Creek and traversed the Methow Valley. Another route went from the Skagit to Thunder Creek, and a third from the Skagit gorge to Rainy Pass, similar to the current path of the highway.
The Rainy Pass route had advantages — the elevations were lower and grades less steep – but it was also the longest route and would require expensive rock excavation in the Skagit gorge, according to Kerr.
The shortest route would have gone from Marblemount over Cascade Pass to the Stehekin River and Twisp Pass, coming into the Methow Valley via the Twisp River drainage. The commission adopted that route and ordered that work on a wagon road begin in 1896.
The road was supposed to be 40 feet wide, but in some areas that required intensive excavation, the path was barely 4 feet wide. The road was also steep. Although it was supposed to be a maximum 10% grade, the climb to Twisp Pass was a 16% grade, with no switchbacks. Some sections climbed a precipitous 20% grade.
Still, the crew worked rapidly and had completed most of the road by winter. But the following spring, when the road crew headed into the mountains to make improvements, they found most of their rudimentary road had been obliterated by spring runoff. Slides and floods had washed out bridges. The commission spent all their funding on repairs and had to scrap a planned extension further east.
Despite more work on the route in the following years, in 1905, the state’s first highway commissioner said it amounted to just a wagon trail in some stretches, and a horse trail in others.
With mining activity at Harts Pass waning, pressure for a cross-mountain route came instead from farmers and other business interests.
Lester Hollaway, who’d homesteaded near Mazama and served several terms as an Okanogan County commissioner, announced a breakthrough in 1940 when agencies working on the highway agreed to look at routes other than the one over Cascade Pass to the Twisp River. In the 1950s, Holloway organized horseback trips for dignitaries and others to promote the highway.
In 1957, what was then known as the Washington Department of Highways scoped out all feasible crossings. Two years later, they started work on a short section of road near Diablo Dam, essentially launching the construction of the current route.
In the end, the completed road cost almost $24 million, paid for by Washington, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Federal Highway Administration, according to Kerr.
The high point of the road, at Washington Pass, is 5,477 feet. The highway is now an official scenic byway and part of the Cascade Loop, called “Washington’s Ultimate Road Trip.”
“The landlocked east side will never be the same now that the Methow Valley has become a through route for traffic from the coast,” Kerr wrote.
The road provided work for people in the Methow long before it was completed. Tom Martin cooked for survey crews for three years in the early 1960s and then handled maintenance for the road for 17 years. He loved plowing snow and the challenge of opening the road in the spring, his widow, Donna Martin, said. Tom Martin was known for making steaks and baking breads, cakes and pies for the crews.
Chuck McCallum, one of Hollaway’s grandsons, worked on a survey crew for the highway at Cutthroat Creek in 1961, hiking 10 miles to the work site, where they lived in a tent all summer, with a few days off every two weeks. He recalls the fantastic meals — steaks, chicken, and fresh-baked breads, cakes and pies — Tom Martin made for them.
By 1964, it was possible to travel the rough gravel road in a jeep, and people would go to Washington Pass for barbecues, McCallum said. Many people traveled the route into the mountains when it was just a trail to hunt and fish.
In addition to being a way to transport goods and produce, people saw the road as access to recreation in the Methow and the Pasayten Wilderness, said Hollaway’s grandson Lester McCallum, who accompanied his grandfather and then–Washington Gov. Dan Evans as they traveled the road for the opening-day ceremonies.
Lester McCallum cherishes the memory of escorting his grandfather for the festivities. There were several ribbon cuttings for the new road, starting at the baseball field in Winthrop, which drew some 3,000 people. Then Hollaway and McCallum accompanied Evans and his wife in a Winnebago as they led hundreds of cars for the inaugural trip over the road.
Evans was incredibly gracious and asked his grandfather all about the highway on the trip across, McCallum said. “It was an emotional, gratifying day for my grandfather to see this come to fruition,” he said.
Even then, there was a focus on keeping the mountains pristine. “The highway opens up some beautiful country, which is, as of today, virtually unspoiled,” Evans said in the opening-day ceremonies. “Environmental preservation is, I think, one of the most important things we must keep in mind.”
Evans described Rainy Lake and Lake Ann as “jewels which could easily tarnish unless every citizen who visits leaves them as clean as he found them.” Today, both draw hundreds of hikers a day from Rainy Pass.
This story was updated on September 28, 2022, to correct the spelling of Lester Hollaway.