Great Drive: Washington
Stevens, Blewitt, and Snoqualmie Passes
By Kevin Miller
Washington 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.
My 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.
A 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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