2021 Pacific Northwest Road Trip: Part II – North Cascades to the Oregon Border

This is Part II. Part I is available here.

A Change of Plans

We had reservations for a campsite near Port Angeles, Washington, on the north part of the Olympic Peninsula, but the weather reports for the next night told of impending rain. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of setting up a tent in the rain, and since we did both the west and north parts of the Olympic National Park already we started looking for alternatives. Our original plan after our Port Angeles campground was to drive east and catch a ferry across Puget Sound to continue northeast to North Cascades National Park. We decided instead to drive south to Tacoma to spend the night, then drive from there to North Cascades.

DRIVING TO TACOMA

We left The Cabins at Beaver Creek at 11am on Thursday the 26th. It had rained overnight and was now just a very light drizzle. We stopped briefly at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center for a second try at getting my t-shirt, then continued on our way.

We crossed the Hood Canal Floating Bridge just north of Naval Base Kitsap. There was some controversy when the bridge was built in 1961. No one had ever built a floating bridge in salt water, and in addition to the corrosive salt environment, it had to contend with over sixteen feet of tidal swings and the winds in the area could be brutal. But piers to the bottom would be impossible in the deep sound, so a floating bridge was the only practical option. Because it floated on the surface of the water ships couldn’t pass beneath it, so it was built with retractable section to open up the waterway. All was well with the design until 1979, when 85 mile per hour winds with 120 mph gusts tore the bridge apart, sending the drawspan and a large part of the main structure to the bottom. The bridge remained closed until repairs were completed in 1982.

Boats have the right of way where a bridge blocks a waterway. While unexpected delays are usually unwelcome, I hoped that in this case the bridge would be closed when we arrived. The naval base to the south is one of the major US submarine bases, and the Hood Canal Bridge may close unannounced to allow for the passage of nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. Seeing a submarine cross would have been worth an hour of my time, but no such luck.

Naval Undersea Museum

Not long after crossing the bridge we happened on a sign for the US Naval Undersea Museum. With plenty of extra time to get to Tacoma, we took the detour to see what it was all about. The naval base in Keyport, Washington, is one of two locations of The Naval Undersea Warfare Center, the division of the US Navy for research and development of submarines, torpedoes, and all things undersea warfare related. As such, it was an apt location to build a museum highlighting the history of sub-surface operations. Topics cover the history of torpedo technology, submarine rescue and escape systems, the science of the ocean environment, and other historic information and displays. We spent about an hour and a half at the museum before continuing down the Kitsap Peninsula.

Our last crossing over Puget Sound was across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The original bridge, opened in 1940, earned the nickname “Galloping Gertie” due to the deck’s habit of pitching up and down since even before it was completed. What started as an oddity that attracted tourists and was largely dismissed by engineers as not dangerous ended four months later in one of the most spectacular bridge failures ever filmed. Ten years later, the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built and now serves as the westbound lanes of the freeway. We crossed the third bridge, added in 2007 when the two-lane bridge from 1950 could no longer handle the volume of traffic.

TROUBLE IN TACOMA

Another day of driving behind us, we settled in to the Holiday Inn in Tacoma. That’s when I noticed I hadn’t received my expected email from AirBnB.

We had booked our campground for the following night in a town called Marblemount, just outside of North Cascades National Park. Campground is a bit of an exaggeration. We had reserved one of three tent sites that were in someone’s large backyard through AirBnb. From the photos, it looked like a nice place with lots of space between each campsite. One quirk was that we wouldn’t be emailed it’s exact location until the day before arrival. It was 9pm when I realized that I didn’t get the email telling us where we were supposed to go. I went back through my messages and realized there was a problem. Instead of booking the campsite for Friday the 27th, I booked for Saturday the 28th. I don’t know how I made such a big mistake, and we both somehow missed the error back in June. This was not good. Here we were, the day before we expected to arrive, and nobody was expecting us. It was a long shot, but I sent our host a message asking if we could change the reservation. The campsites were all booked up, but she graciously offered to put us in a private spot that she reserves for herself. Luck had once again found me.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/44266458

THE MUSEUM OF FLIGHT

Lockheed Constellation - Museum of Flight, Washington

Our original plan was to visit The Museum of Flight in Seattle on our return from North Cascades National Park. When we changed our plans to not spend the night of the 26th camping on the northern Olympic Peninsula, it made sense to visit a couple of days early on our way north from Tacoma instead.

P-38Lin the Personal Courage Wing

Seattle’s Museum of flight is one of the world’s premier aeronautic and space museums. Built around the William E. Boeing Red Barn, the original building where Boeing first manufactured airplanes in 1916, it has grown into a 185,000 square foot facility that houses over 175 air and spacecraft, including such rarities as the first Boeing 747 ever built, the only surviving Lockheed M-21 Blackbird spy plane from 1964 and its complementary D-21 drone, and a full-size training mock-up of the space shuttle. We visited for about three hours, time enough to explore all of the major exhibits, then continued on to our campsite in Marblemount.

"Big Stud" [Republic P-47D Thurnderbolt WWII Fighter Aircraft at the Museum of Flight, Washington]
"How Do You Drive This Thing?" [Apollo Command Module at The Museum of Flight, in Seattle, WA]

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK

We broke camp on the morning of Satruday the 28th to begin our day in North Cascades National Park.

North Cascades National Park was an interesting park to (not) visit. Since the road travels through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and not the actual North Cascades National Park (although the recreation area is one of four units of the North Cascades National Park Complex), there are several hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River that you wouldn’t see in a National Park. This was, in fact, the most man-made-attraction National Park I’ve visited with the exception of the Native American ruins at Mesa Verde. Still, the mountain scenery was spectacular along the North Cascades Highway and the reservoirs behind those dams were beautiful shades of blue-green. My toe still severely protested all walking, but I managed a walk across Diablo Dam and a few short trails.

"Diablo Lake" [North Cascades National Park, Washington]
"Green Nuts" [Nuts on a Rusty Beam in North Cascades National Park, Washington]

After six hours in the park, it was time to turn back toward Seattle. We were at the halfway point on our trip, and so today was laundry day. Ever planning even the last detail, we had found out about Bims Laundry Cafe in Everett, Washington, that 60 people decided was worth giving a 4.9 rating on Google. Way better than the 3.6 rated laundromat near Marblemount. It was right on the way to our Seattle, and so we planned that into our schedule. So, what does a 4.9 rated laundromat get you? This one had a small cafe where one could get a fancy coffee drinks, smoothies and milk shakes, sandwiches, and simple breakfast and snack food. The cafe attendant was friendly and the washers and dryers seemed to work OK, so except for the argument that broke out in the parking lot that had the attendant threaten to call the cops, 4.9 stars all the way! Clothes clean and packed, we continued onward to our hotel in Seattle.

SEATTLE

We booked a twelfth-floor hotel for our two-day stay in Seattle at the Warwick Hotel in the Belltown neighborhood. Billed as an upscale hotel only a fifteen minute walk from the space needle and half that to Pike Place Market, it seemed like it would be a great place to relax, enjoy city views, and be a base for exploring Seattle by foot. We arrived in the early-evening and parked near the door into the hotel from the garage parking lot. We were going to completely unload the car here, and so requested a bellman cart from the front desk. One was delivered quickly enough but when we went to push it to the car, we realized that there was a set of three steps between the front desk and the door. We ended up pushing the cart through the hotel’s restaurant, which did have sloped passage, got it loaded up, and hauled all our stuff – including a giant gray Rubbermaid bin, back through the restaurant and into the elevator.

When we entered the room, we were very unimpressed. This was supposed to be the “nice place in Seattle,” but what we found was a dated room with stained furniture, roof tiles that were not seated in their frames, and a microwave that looked like the person that delivered it had dragged it on the floor the whole way. I think that my favorite thing, though, was the photograph of the hotel that was hung on the wall sideways. Maybe we just have 5-star expectations on a 3-star budget, but is it really too much to expect a room that’s maintained at least as well as an Super-8 Motel of US99 in Fresno? When we went to the front desk regarding the room’s cleanliness, we were advised that housekeeping had already gone for the day. We were offered a different room, but upon our inspection found it no better than the one we were already in so we opted to stay where we were.

We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the nighttime views from our hotel. I had the tripod and a 600mm lens that only got used that one time in Olympic National Park with me, so I set it up to take some night shots of the city. I couldn’t resist a bit of voyeuristic peeking into the happenings in the apartments and hotels around us. I didn’t get anything scandalous or exciting through the windows, just a collection of what looked like small-time hoods making a drug deal.

I did get a photo of a UFO flying about the city. It’s flight pattern was rather erratic, zipping around the buildings, flying high into the sky, then dropping again. My best guess was that it was a drone by the way it maneuvered, and I’ve pretty much ruled out space-aliens unless they’ve decided to go with standard red and green navigational lights for the convenience of the planes coming into SeaTac airport.

"Echos" [Space Needle and Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington]

We went out the next morning for a walk around town. By this time I had learned that the Crocs I brought along for camping were much better on the toe than my regular shoes, so aside from a rather strong limp I did OK. We went briefly through Pike Place and followed the waterfront to sculpture garden park, where we sat and rested for a bit. Being a certified Train Wacko, I couldn’t resist getting a photo when a freight train came by before continuing on our way to the Space Needle. By this time I had also learned that Crocs are not the most comfortable shoes for a two-hour walk through the city.

Neither of us are “much of a city person” and were not too interested in spending a lot of time seeing the other sights and excitement of Seattle. That was one of the reasons we had tried for a nice hotel to rest up for two days. We returned to our hotel early and just relaxed for the rest of the day.

"Feeling the Heat" [BNSF Trains in Seattle, Washington]
"The Age of Space" [Space Needle in Seattle, Washington]

We checked out the following morning. In a small act of defiance, we had kept the bellman cart in our room for our entire stay. We loaded it back up and took the elevator to the lobby. When we tried to go through the restaurant to bypass the steps we found it to be closed, and had to abandon the cart and schlep all of our supplies to the car without its assistance. The car re-packed, we proceeded to our next destination.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK

We rolled into Mount Rainier National Park at 11:30 on Monday, August 30th. This was going to be a 200 mile day for us, so it was our plan to drive down the east side of the park, drive up to Sunrise on the northeast side of the park for some views of the mountain and a stop at the visitor center to pick up a t-shirt, and then continue through the eastern side of the park on our way to the next campground. It was mostly cloudy on our drive, and we had just a few minutes of clear sky at Sunrise Point Lookout to see Mount Rainier before it was engulfed by a cloud. Continuing up the hill, we arrived at road’s end and found the visitor center at Sunrise closed. It was only about 12:30 in the afternoon, so we left Sunrise and drove to Paradise in the southern part of the park to enjoy some more scenery, and hopefully get myself a t-shirt.

IRON CREEK CAMPGROUND

We left Mt. Rainier (without a t-shirt) and ended our day in the middle of the woods of southern Washington at Iron Creek Campground. This was the best campground of our trip. It didn’t have showers or any other amenities besides water and pit toilets, but the environment was incredible. Iron Creek was a big campground with nearly 100 sites. We selected site 64C as the most isolated of the available spaces, but all of the spaces seemed well spaced out and were surrounded by lush vegetation which made the neighbors all but invisible. Trails throughout the forest offered plenty of opportunities to explore. Our campsite was right across from a trail to the Cispus River, which we spent an hour or so hiking before we left for the Columbia River the next morning.

TIMBERLAKE CAMPGROUND & THE COLUMBIA RIVER

Forest Route 25 went south to the Columbia River Gorge. We planned for a short driving day to our next campground to give us some time to see the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge before turning in for the night. We pitched our tent at the Timberlake Campbround and RV park. We selected that campground for one simple reason: Trains. If you look at my photos or read some of my tales, you’ll see that I love trains. I have ridden Amtrak on just about every route west of the Mississippi and traveled as far as Washington DC and New York by rail. This gave me an advantage when we were deciding on where to stay along the Columbia River, because I happened to know that there were very busy rail lines on both the Washington side and the Oregon side of the gorge. If this was a railfanning trip, that would have been terrific, but for spending a night on the gorge, it meant the very frequent sound of train horns and engines echoing down the canyon would make for a sleepless night if we weren’t careful on where we chose to stay. Knowing what to look for, the reviews of most hotels and campgrounds had the same comments: be prepared for lots of noise. Even some of the hotel websites were honest about providing ear plugs because of the train noise. That’s what drew us to Timberlake. It was far enough from the river and with mountainous terrain to block the sound of about 50 to 75 passing trains per day. We were welcomed and pointed to our tent site which was a few yards from the parking lot. The spaces were far apart compared to many other campgrounds, but not nearly so isolated as Iron Creek. Also unlike Iron Creek, showers were available here, albeit for the small price of a quarter per five minutes or water.

After setting up camp, we took a drive up and down the Columbia River. Google Maps showed a nearby waterfall to the west on the Washington side of the river, but our attempt to find it ended at a cemetery instead. As it sometimes does, Google was a bit confused and there was no access to even see the falls. Turning east, we followed Highway 14 along the river. The road paralleled railroad tracks that I had traveled on thirteen years before, and it was interesting seeing the tunnels and bridges I had traveled on from a different perspective. We stopped to turn around at Spring Henry Hatchery State Park, where we watched windsurfers play on the rough water of this world-class windsurfing destination before returning to the campground for the night.

Tomorrow, we would be exploring the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Part III – The Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon desert, and more, coming soon.

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