Great Drive: Washington

Stevens, Blewitt, and Snoqualmie Passes

By Kevin Miller

07.16.2009

img_0447Washington State is bisected by the Cascade Mountains into Western and Eastern Washington. Western Washington features Seattle and the picturesque Puget Sound, while Eastern Washington is highlighted by the Columbia River, whose abundant waters generate electricity through hydroelectric dams and irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. There are only four highways which cross the Cascades to link the halves of the state, and one of those closes each winter due to snowfall.

Of those four passes, Stevens and Snoqualmie passes are the most centrally located in the state. Stevens Pass is on US-2, a federal highway which is mainly a two-lane route, which links Everett in Western Washington with Wenatchee and Spokane in Eastern Washington before continuing across the country as far as Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.. Snoqualmie Pass is on Interstate 90, which begins in Seattle and passes through Spokane on its way across the country to Boston, MA. Connecting US-2 to I-90 in Central Washington is US-97, a north-south Federal two-lane highway which passes through several major and minor passes, and is an enjoyable drive in its own right. View  Map

I’m lucky enough to be driving a 2009 Nissan 370Z Touring from Nissan’s press fleet this week. Unfortunately, because it lacks room for two car seats, I haven’t been able to drive the 370Z as often as I’d hoped to. Happily, I was able to clear an evening to for a drive through the mountains, to let the Z stretch its legs outside of the suburban sprawl where I typically drive.
2009 Nissan 370Z Touring at Wenatchee River, WAMy drive on a warm, sunny evening took me from suburban Lake Forest Park, Washington, eastbound on stoplight-ridden SR-522 to US-2 in Monroe, which often experiences gridlock through its stoplights before opening up past the town of Sultan. From Sultan, elevation 108 feet, it is about 40 miles up picturesque, curvy US-2 to Stevens Pass, which has an elevation of 4061 feet. From there, it is almost 60 miles to the town of Leavenworth (elevation 1171), a charming, ersatz-Bavarian village set against steep, rocky mountains. The last 15 miles or so of US-2 leading to Leavenworth follow the Wenatchee River through an incredibly scenic, steep canyon whose walls beautifully echoed the exhaust note of the 370Z’s 3.7 liter V6.

After a brief stop in Leavenworth, I followed US-2 a few miles east to catch US-97 southbound for the drive over 4102 ft. Blewitt Pass. While my entire trip had fairly light Wednesday evening traffic, US-97 was notable because it was essentially deserted; I may have exceeded the posted speed limit by just a bit. The few cars I did encounter on the 52 mile drive over Blewitt Pass to Cle Elum were effortlessly passed by the 370Z. The route along US-97 is mostly forested , with occasional mountain and meadow views. I’ll admit I was more focused on the Nissan I was driving than the view out its windows during that section of the drive.

img_0477A few miles before reaching the historic mining town of Cle Elum (elevation 1913 feet), US-97 splits off toward Ellensburg, so I followed WA-970 through the Teanaway River valley just as the setting sun was glimmering off of the river and surrounding farmland. Too soon I reached Interstate 90 with its persistent speed patrols, just 85 miles east of Seattle. The trip back to town crosses 3022 ft. Snoqualmie Pass , and continues west through the forested foothills of the Cascades, ending back in the suburban Seattle landscape. I decided to drive through Seattle’s waterfront district at twilight, to wrap up my scenic Washington drive.

Admittedly, the more scenic drive would have been the Cascade Loop, which follows US-2 as I did, but returns via WA-20, the breathtaking North Cascades Highway. While I would have liked to drive the Cascade Loop, its 400 mile distance made it impractical to run in an evening after work, which is why I returned by I-90 instead.

Both US-2 and US-97 each have posted speed limits of 60 MPH on most sections. Both roads beg to be driven quickly, though US-2 is a designated Traffic Safety Corridor between Everett and Stevens Pass, meaning that extra enforcement (and, I believe, additional speeding fines) are in place. I was fortunate to see only one Washington State Trooper on my drive, who had stopped somebody east of Stevens Pass on a steep downhill section.

While this trip was on State and Federal highways rather than the less-traveled roads than previous Autosavant Great Drives in Washington and Oregon, it was an enjoyable itinerary for an evening drive in a very capable car. Look for a full review of the 2009 Nissan 370Z Touring on Autosavant soon.

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Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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6 Comments

  1. I’ve had some great drives in Oregon, I mean some GREAT drives. But, I havn’t spent much time in Washington at all. Maybe I should.

  2. Another great drive is from Seattle to Yakima through Mt Rainier National Park on Washington 410. It’s been a few years, but I think the passes traversed are White Pass and Chinook Pass (could be wrong). The route goes through picturesque small towns, wide open farmland, and, of course, twists around spectacular Mt Rainier. However, there are few drives that rival one of the many 10,000+ foot passes here in Colorado. Come down here and give one of them a try, guys.

  3. I like it, nice post that explains why driving is important to a lot of people.

  4. Nice article. I recently drove in Oregon and enjoyed it quite a bit, although my steed–a Toyota Corolla–lacked the fleet demeanor or yours.

    I’d like to see “Great Drive: Kansas.” Anyone who can make the I-70 drive sound fun deserves a Pulitzer.

  5. The steep canyons West of Leavenworth is one of those places where you want to leave it in 3rd gear just to hear the exhaust noises bouncing off the canyon walls. A great stretch of road indeed.

  6. I am looking forward to your review of the 370Z! On these roads, it should be breathtaking.

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