Mountain Passes

People at both ends of our summer trips (South Dakota and Washington) comment on the distance we have been traveling. “That’s a long way from here!” They are a bit surprised that we have made the round trip almost every year that we have lived in South Dakota. My sister and my mother both lived in Portland Oregon for a few years and, in 1999 our son started college in Forest Grove, Oregon, so in the early years we went to Oregon. I do have a brother who lives in Washington, however, so we extended our Oregon trips to Washington some of the time. Since 2006 our son and daughter-in-law have lived in western Washington, and, in 2011 our first grandson was born there, so we’ve made regular trips part of our life. Although this summer is a bit different, as we are heading to South Dakota after our second trip and we expect to make one more round trip and a final one-way trip by mid October.

Sometimes when I talk about the trip, I describe it in terms of the number of mountain passes. In general, to get from Rapid City, South Dakota to Mount Vernon, Washington, one has to cross 5 mountain passes, 6 if you count Camps Pass in Southwestern Montana, which isn’t exactly a high mountain pass. There are different passes that can be taken, depending on which road is chosen to cross the state of Washington.

This trip, we crossed Washington on the high line, near Canada on Washington Route 2. That gives us three additional passes to add to our list, making the total of 10 for this trip. Five of them are now behind us. We have enjoyed four routes across the state. From north to south they are Washington 20, US 2, Interstate 90 and US 12.

Leaving Mount Vernon yesterday we headed up Washington 20. The highway officially begins at Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula and crosses two islands, Whidbey and Fildago before heading across Skagit County into the Cascade Mountains. The highway crosses North Cascades National Park, home to gray wolves and grizzly bears as well as abundant birds and small mammals. North Cascade Highway has the reputation of being the oldest and the newest highway across the Cascade mountains. Originally begun in the 1890’s as a wagon route to ship minerals from mines in the mountains, it was abandoned after floods and landslides kept wiping out the road. Interest int the road was renewed in the 1940’s and construction on the current route was begun in 1959, with the rough road crossing completed in 1968 and finally opened to traffic in 1972. The highway is generally closed between November and April due to heavy snowfall. The route across the Cascades is dramatic and beautiful with sawtooth mountains all around. There are twin passes, Washington at 5476 feet above sea level and four miles later another pass, Rainy, which is the same elevation. It is a significant climb to the passes given that we started our trip at just 180 feet above sea level. There is a gorgeous lookout with great vistas at Rainy Pass.

Down from Rainy Pass, we went through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp before heading up to the next pass, Loup Loup at 4020 between Twisp and Okanogan. Wandering through the high country the next pass is Wauconda at 4310. Crossing that pass sparked conversation about Wakanda, the fictional country from comic books featured in the movie Black Panther. I’m pretty sure that Wauconda, Washington doesn’t have much in common with Wakanda.

Our last and highest pass of the day yesterday was Sherman Pass at 5574 feet above sea level. There is a lookout that has educational information about historic and recent fires and another lookout at the top of the pass with a short 10-minute walking trail. Both feature clean restrooms and make for interesting stops.

We spent the night in Chehalis, a community with a United Church of Christ right on the main highway through town. We knew of this community before we had visited it as Lynne Hinton, one of the scholars in residence during our 2006 sabbatical later served an interim position in Chehalis.

Today will serve up just two mountain passes. 4th of July Pass, east of Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho is the lowest pass of our trip at just 3173 feet. Lookout Pass is a longer pull up to 4711 feet on the Idaho-Montana border. We plan to visit a niece and her family in Missoula this evening before heading on east tomorrow.

At that point we will still be west of the Continental Divide, so Thursday’s travel will include two major passes. We’ll cross the divide just past Butte at Homestake pass at 6329 feet, the highest pass of our trip. After that, Bozeman Pass at 5702 puts us into my home territory, or at least the territory of my birth. When I was in high school, I drove over the Bozeman Pass every week for trumpet lessons. Although there has been some reconstruction of the road since those days, it is very familiar to me. Our plan is to stay with family in Red Lodge that night, where the elevation is 5568, nearly as high as the pass.

From there, as they say, it is all down hill. We’ll have the little bump of Camp’s Pass at 3924 feet, which seems no more steep or hard than the hills near Ashland. Rapid City is 3202 and our home is about the same height as Camp’s Pass.

We grew up in the mountains and enjoy traveling over the passes. When we travel on US 2 the passes are the same after this point in our trip. We pass just one, Stephens at 4061 to get to eastern Washington. If we travel on Interstate 90, we cross the Cascades at Snoqualmie at 3022. On US 12, the Cascade Pass is White Pass at 4500 feet. On that route we pass between Idaho and Montana at Lolo Pass. The road is winding, and the pass is 5233, but there is just the single pass instead of two as is the case on the other routes, making the most southern also the route with the fewest passes to cross.

In the winter, snow and ice are factors in passing over the mountains. In the summer, construction can be a deciding factor in which route to pursue. On that score, Interstate 90 seems to be the worst this summer. We’ve driven it once, and that will probably be our only trip on that road. US 2 and Washington 20 have the smallest amount of construction this year, but the extra passes favor US 2 as the route to take with the moving truck. We’ll see as the days for that trip approach.

As our friend and mentor Ross Snyder wrote, “Our life is a a mountain, with valleys between, and spiraling paths through the mixed-up ravines.”

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!