Itineraries,  Road Trip Tips

How to Plan an Epic Eastern Cascades Road Trip from Seattle

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When you live in or travel to Western Washington, that’s pretty much the only area you spend your time. There’s definitely opinions about different parts of the Evergreen State, and those who call the Puget Sound or Olympic Peninsula home don’t typically cross the imposing barrier of the Cascade Mountains for much – or for long.

Turns out, we’re all missing out! While I’ve shared some of my favorite road trips from Seattle in the past, I jumped at the chance to explore a different part of the Cascades on a recent road trip. In April 2022, I set out from Seattle to explore the communities of the Eastern Cascades specifically, including Ellensburg, Leavenworth, and Chelan. Based on my experience, I’m adding a new favorite route to my list: this Eastern Cascades road trip shows that there’s plenty of fun to be had on both sides of the mountains.

Eastern Cascades Road Trip Hero

If you’re looking for a different travel experience in the Pacific Northwest, consider planning this road trip for yourself this summer; the itinerary works best in the warm weather months but can be done in the winter too as long as you plan ahead. Ready to hit the road? Read on and you’ll soon know everything you need to put together your own Eastern Cascades road trip route.

In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Coast Salish, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ (Nlaka’pamux), np̓əšqʷáw̓səxʷ (Wenatchi), Sauk Suiattle, ščəl’ámxəxʷ (Chelan), sdukʷalbixʷ (Snoqualmie), škwáxčənəxʷ (Moses-Columbia), Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan), and Yakama peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Eastern Cascades Road Trip Itinerary

Eastern Cascades Road Trip Map

Before setting out (on the road, or into the rest of this post) it helps to have an idea of where we’re going. As you can see from the map above and table below, my suggested Eastern Cascades road trip itinerary is an easy four-day drive. You could even do it over the course of a three-day or holiday weekend: set out on Friday afternoon from Seattle for Ellensburg, and return on Monday evening from Chelan.

DayDestinations
1Seattle to Ellensburg
2Ellensburg to Leavenworth
3Leavenworth to Chelan
4Chelan to Seattle

However, as you’ll see, this is only the basic route I suggest. There are a number of great detours and extensions that are worth considering if you have the extra time for them.

Intrigued? Read on for details on each day of my suggested Eastern Cascades road trip and all the extra stops to make along the way.

Day 1: Seattle to Ellensburg

  • Distance: 107 miles
  • Drive Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
  • Where to Stay in Ellensburg: I stayed at The Hotel Windrow, a lovely boutique hotel right in the heart of town.

Your first day of driving on this Eastern Cascades road trip is relatively short, and should take about two hours in total. This means you’ll either have time to spend the morning in Seattle, the afternoon in Ellensburg, or both!

If you need ideas for things to do in Seattle, I’ve got plenty of those – and I have a guide for making the most of one day in Seattle that will also help you decide how much to squeeze in before you hit the road.

Speaking of the road, the drive is easy interstate travel along I-90. You’ll cross Snoqualmie Pass which is incredibly beautiful and gives you a sense of the stark wilderness you can still experience in the Cascade Mountains. Snoqualmie is one of the main mountain passes over the Cascades, and often has snow through most of the year, so be sure to check the weather before setting out – especially if you’re driving this road trip between September and April.

Once you arrive in Ellensburg, you’ll have time to settle into your hotel before exploring town a bit. I stayed at the Hotel Windrow which is a perfect base; the rooms are comfortable and modern, and right within walking distance of historic downtown Ellensburg.

Upon setting out, make the few blocks’ walk to Dick & Jane’s Spot. This private home is wildly adorned with public art and a great spot for photos – it shows there are some truly quirky spots in what most people consider to be an agricultural and college town. Next head back downtown and grab a wine tasting at Gard Vintners before dinner at The Pearl. These are great local spots to taste the fruits of the land – literally – from this side of Washington State.

Detour: Twede’s Cafe/Twin Peaks

Throughout this Eastern Cascades road trip, there are a few detours I recommend – some are pretty simple and others add extra mileage. You can obviously skip them should you choose to, though I think each one adds something special you can’t experience by just visiting the main towns alone.

First up is one of those simple detours; along I-90 as you make your way east from Seattle to Ellensburg, stop off for a bite to eat at Twede’s Cafe in North Bend. This diner is famous as the diner from David Lynch’s cult classic Twin Peaks and still leans hard into its pop culture icon status. The cherry pie is an obvious must-try, and they serve plenty of other American diner foods too.

Total detour time: 2 miles / 60 minutes max to enjoy a meal at the diner.

Day 2: Ellensburg to Leavenworth

  • Distance: 58 miles
  • Drive Time: 1 hour, 7 minutes
  • Where to Stay in Leavenworth: I typically stay at vacation rentals, but I’ve always wanted to spend a night at the adults-only Posthotel; for families, Icicle Village Resort is a good option.

Today is another short day of driving, so there’s no need to rush out of Ellensburg first thing in the morning. Start with a great breakfast at The Early Bird, and then take another lap through town. You could just admire the old architecture or pop into the Kittitas County Historical Museum to learn more about the area.

Ellensburg also has a thriving arts scene, so stop into Gallery One to see what’s on display. In addition to national artists, they often have part of the gallery dedicated to student artists from Central Washington University (also in Ellensburg) and a very cool gift shop of souvenirs from your road trip.

The drive from Ellensburg to Leavenworth is an easy hour-ish drive along US-97. This is a two-lane highway that hugs the Eastern Cascades, making for some fun driving at times.

Once you arrive in Leavenworth, get settled into your accommodation and then head out to explore the Bavarian town center. The best way to spend an afternoon in Leavenworth is by strolling along admiring the architecture, and popping into any shops or restaurants that catch your eye.

If you arrive in time for lunch, I recommend Leavenworth Sausage Garten; a brat, pretzel, and half-liter of beer is a very good introduction to Leavenworth. For dinner, München Haus is a popular spot with a wider selection of German dishes.

Detour: Ginko Petrified Forest State Park

En route between Ellensburg and Leavenworth, there are a few detours I want to recommend. The first is much more “out of the way,” though it’s one of the cooler things I discovered during my own road trip. Ginko Petrified Forest State Park is a two-part park – interpretive center and hiking trails – located about 30 minutes east of Ellensburg along I-90.

You can stop by the interpretive center to learn more about the geology and history of the Eastern Cascades, plus how petrified trees were created in this area. Then, drive a few miles up the road to the hiking trails to see 21 petrified trees exposed from the rolling hillsides near the banks of the Columbia River. My absolute favorite was Tree #21, a petrified ancient Redwood. Y’all know I love Redwoods!

I’ll be honest: this is a pretty big detour for some rocks, so I only recommend this for you super-nerds (like me) or those with kids who are up for a bit of extra driving to help burn off some energy on the two-ish miles of hilly trails to see the petrified trees.

Total detour time: 70 miles / 2 hours to visit both parts of the state park and hike the 21-tree trail.

Detour: Liberty

For a much shorter detour trail, swing through the tiny “ghost town” of Liberty along US-97 between Ellensburg and Leavenworth. Liberty was established as a camp 1873 when gold was discovered in nearby Swauk creek and some of the buildings standing today date back nearly that long. This is a short, easy detour where you can park and walk around part of the old Liberty townsite, if you need to break up the drive.

What made the Liberty gold mining operations special is that crystalline gold was discovered here; this is a rare form of gold that typically fetches a higher price due to its rarity. (Okay, I realize I’ve put two geology-oriented detours on this day – that’s just because the Eastern Cascades have some incredible geology!)

Total detour time: 4 miles / 30 minutes max to drive through the old town and stretch your legs

Extra Day: Leavenworth

The core premise of this guide is to help you have a road trip, but I’m the first to admit that the towns you’re visiting are cool enough to warrant extra time. So if you have a few extra days, you might want to extend your trip and spend them in each area. First up is Leavenworth, which is one of my favorite places in Washington (it’s where I had my mini-bachelorette party!) – and well worth spending an extra day!

What you can do in Leavenworth depends a ton on the time of year you visit, but here are some of my favorite activities:

  • River Tubing – This is hands-down one of the best summer activities to enjoy in Leavenworth. You can arrange a tube/drop-off through Leavenworth Outdoor Center and spend the afternoon drifting lazily down the Wenatchee River.
  • Reindeer Farm – If you’re traveling with kids and/or love animals, the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm is a must-visit. A farm tour gives you a chance to feed these funny creatures and is a nice, less active way to pass a few hours.
  • Hiking – There are some great hiking trails near Leavenworth, including Icicle Ridge (scenic but challenging 5.1-mile out-and-back), Colchuck Lake (strenuous 9-miler out-and-back to an alpine lake), and Peshastin Pinnacles (which I recommend tomorrow as a detour but is also great if you choose to spend an extra day in Leavenworth). For an easier, in-town option, Waterfront Park is lovely year-round.
  • Drinking – You’re in a Bavarian village, okay? There’s gonna be lots of opportunities to drink. Check out Icicle Brewing Company for local craft beers, or Icicle Ridge Winery and Leavenworth Cider House for non-beer drinkers.

Day 3: Leavenworth to Chelan

  • Distance: 55 miles
  • Drive Time: 1 hour, 7 minutes
  • Where to Stay in Chelan: I stayed at Grandview on the Lake, a managed condo vacation rental property; Campbell’s Resort is another nearby property that has historic roots.

This is another short day of driving on your Eastern Cascades road trip, giving you plenty of time to enjoy both your origination point (Leavenworth) and destination (Chelan). Start with breakfast from the Leavenworth Danish Bakery (Danish in a Bavarian town, who knows!), where you can find awesome pastries and bread made fresh each day. This is a must-visit on every trip I make to Leavenworth – even when I’ve just eaten – and I usually grab a few pastries so I have snacks or an easy breakfast for the rest of my trip.

Then make your way to Chelan, arriving around lunchtime (depending on detours and stops along the way). You’ll have the rest of the afternoon to explore the town of Chelan and neighboring Manson; by far the most popular activity in the Chelan area is wine tasting if that’s your style.

I enjoyed two incredible tastings at Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Silver Bell Winery, and also did a cider tasting at Rootwood Cider Company for something a little different. All three have a very different atmosphere, as do all of the other wineries and tasting rooms, so try more than one if you enjoy this kind of activity.

For other options, you could also head to one of the beaches along Lake Chelan to try beachcombing, walk on the Chelan Riverwalk Park, or explore further on the Planet Walk. (This last one is especially cool if you have any space nerds (like me!) in your travel group.) Boating on Lake Chelan is also a popular activity, though you might need more than just a half-day to do that properly – more on that below. There are plenty of dinner options in Chelan, too. I enjoyed meals at both Marcela’s Cocina Mexicana and County Line Eat & Drink.

Detour: Peshastin Pinnacles State Park

En route from Leavenworth to Chelan, there’s a worthy detour shortly after departing Leavenworth near the town of Cashmere. Peshastin Pinnacles State Park is a 34-acre park that protects a few fascinating rock outcroppings; it’s a great spot for a hike if you feel like you’ve spent too many days in the car lately.

While there are officially only 1.5 miles of hiking trails, there are actually many more routes to explore among the towering spires. Be prepared though: there’s some serious elevation gain so you’ll need good shoes to make the most of a stop here.

Total detour time: 2 miles / 1-2 hours depending on how much you want to hike

Extra Day: Stehekin, aka Little Alaska

I’ve written an entire post about how to visit Stehekin, the tiny town at the far end of Lake Chelan. The short version is that you’ll need to take a boat, and will have a set amount of time to explore depending on which boat you take and the season you visit – but in any season, Washington’s “Little Alaska” is an incredible day trip. And it is a full day trip, so plan for that if you decide you want to spend the time.

In particular, I recommend splurging (a whole $10 per person) on the tour to Rainbow Falls, and be sure to stop off at the Stehekin Pastry Company for their famous cinnamon rolls if it’s open. You can also bike to the historic Buckner Orchard or hike around “town” (using that term loosely) on nearby trails.

Despite being a tiny town far off the beaten path of most visitors in the Eastern Cascades, this is one of my favorite places and worth every penny and the time it takes to reach.

Day 4: Chelan to Seattle

  • Distance: 171 miles via Steven’s Pass / 249 miles via North Cascades
  • Drive Time: 3 hours, 21 minutes via Steven’s Pass / 5 hours, 12 minutes via North Cascades

On your final day of this road trip, you have two options: head from Chelan back to Seattle by way of Steven’s Pass (passing Leavenworth), or take a much longer route (and possible overnight if you have time) to cross the Cascades on North Cascades Scenic Highway (WA-20), which is open only in the summer.

The travel time is pretty substantial for both routes, so I recommend first confirming if WA-20 is open when you plan to do your road trip, and then deciding which route you want to take. Both are beautiful, though the North Cascades route will obviously take you longer and further “out of the way.” (Then again, part of the joy of a road trip is discovering new-to-you experiences along and out of the way, so you can certainly embrace this philosophy!)

If you leave Chelan after breakfast, the soonest you’ll arrive in Seattle is mid-afternoon, giving you time to return your car and fly home or spend more time exploring Seattle if you have it.

Detour: North Cascades National Park

If you decide to take the North Cascades route back to Seattle, you’re in for a real treat despite the additional driving time. North Cascades is one of the least-visited National Parks, in part because it is only accessible seasonally when WA-20 is open.

My friend Marissa has a great guide for how to make the most of one day in the North Cascades, which will give you a sense of all there is to do – including hiking, chasing waterfalls, boating (the alpine lakes in this part of the Cascades are stunning), and scenic autotouring.

If you’re trying to decide between doing North Cascades in one day or planning an overnight, I always recommend taking the extra time if you have it. Book a night at Ross Lake Resort, which is accessible only by various water taxis and shuttles. It’s a stunning spot to enjoy your morning coffee before you get back on the road to end your Eastern Cascades road trip.

Total detour time: 6 hours to 24 hours, depending on how much time you want to spend.

Have any questions about planning your own road trip along the Eastern Cascades, using my itinerary or doing it your own way? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to State of Washington Tourism, Ellensburg/Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce, and Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center for hosting me on my road trip.


 

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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