The first thing we do is head to Moran State Park (888/226-7688 or 360/376-2326) to take in the view from the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans. The road isn't long, but it's full of dramatic turnouts—in all the right places for snapping shots of the islands spread beneath you or spotting bald eagles. Although steep, it's also a popular mountain-bike route. (We'll never forget an intrepid dad grinding to the top on a tandem bike with his young son.) At the summit, hike the short trail to the strange stone observation tower. Modeled after a 12th-century Caucasian watchtower, it has stone steps, narrow passageways, cell-like rooms, and window slits barred with wrought iron. The 360-degree view is magnificent.
Not to be missed is a half-day sea-kayaking trip, either with Shearwater Adventures (360/376-4699; www.shearwaterkayaks.com) or Osprey Tours (360/376-3677; www.ospreytours.com); children over five are welcome on most three-hour outings. June through September is prime whale-watching season (you're in Free Willy country); book a cruise with Deer Harbor Charters (800/544-5758 or 360/376-5989; www.deerharborcharters.com).
The trip from Orcas Island back to the mainland, and then east along Route 20 (also known as the North Cascades Highway) through the North Cascades, is a long but spectacular travel day—plan on four hours, not counting the ferry. Route 20, among the most beautiful roads in America, passes the small towns of Sedro Woolley, Burlington, and Concrete. When you reach Marblemount, stop at Cascadian Farms (5375 Hwy. 20; 360/853-8173) for organic berries and jams, as well as those requisite lattes to sip on the road. From there the route parallels the Skagit River, where bald eagles are sighted in fall. Diablo is your last chance to get gas and snacks before heading into the wilds on the final 1 1/2 hour stretch through North Cascades National Park.
The North Cascades region is one of the most remote wildernesses in the country. On one side of the car, waterfalls pound the pavement mere feet from your passenger window; on the other, there are steep drop-offs to jewel-like lakes far below. Round a corner and you're suddenly face-to-face with brooding black granite peaks and razor-sharp serifs edged with white glaciers. Your kids' imaginations can easily run wild, especially when you tell them grizzlies and cougars still roam there. Stop and stretch at Washington Pass, taking the short trail to the dizzying overlook. A handful of climbers may be clinging to the granite faces thousands of feet overhead; ask the rangers to point them out (you'll need binoculars).
After a few final turns and fantastic vistas, the road dramatically descends from the world of high alpine to the broad fields of the Methow Valley. Arriving in the Methow after driving the North Cascades Highway feels a lot like landing in Oz. The minuscule town of Mazama, with its studiedly cool general store (more on that later), appears out of nowhere, and below that stretches the Methow Valley, bordered by the North Cascades, the Pasayten Wilderness, and the Okanogan National Forest.
Overlooking the valley is the aptly named Sun Mountain Lodge, (800/572-0493 or 509/996-2211; www.sunmountainlodge.com a 3,000-acre resort with hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on 100 miles of trails. On our first stay there we were astonished by the resort's scale, as well as its rustic elegance. Our one-bedroom suite had twig furniture, a wood-burning stove, a wet bar, an enormous whirlpool tub and bath, and a wraparound deck with views that went on forever.
We stashed our mountain bikes on the deck, stoked the stove, then hit the cowboy cookout. Sun Mountain's well-maintained single-track trails could wait until morning. If you don't bring your own, bikes can be rented at the lodge or at Winthrop Mountain Sports ($20$30 per day; $90$135 per week; 800/719-3826 or 509/996-2886; www.winthropmountainsports.com). The resort also has two swimming pools, tennis, horseback riding, and a fitness center.
To pick up on the pulse of the valley, pop over to the town of Mazama, 13 miles away, for lemon-poppyseed scones and lattes at the Mazama Country Store (50 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-2855). In back, next to the potbellied stove, there's a cozy nook for reading the papers and listening to jazz. You can buy anything you'd ever need here in Mazama-land, at a price: gas for your jeep, a Patagonia Synchilla pullover for you. There's also a good selection of regional books, and terrific Mazama mountain-goat T-shirts for kids. Next door is Mazama Troutfitters (50 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-3674), for fly-fishing instruction, guided trips, and equipment rentals; and beyond that, Mazama Mountaineering (42 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-3802), the place to sign up for a family scramble on an indoor wall or a one-day, introductory rock-climbing course.
Pack up, eat a hearty breakfast, and head back to Seattle. This is a good five-hour drive without stops. However, you may want to break for a two-mile hike along the Rainy Lake Trail (off Highway 20, near the Liberty Bell peak) or a picnic near Newhalem, so set aside an entire day and plan on arriving back in Seattle by late afternoon. Get a full night's sleep before your flight (only masochists should attempt to catch a plane the same evening), and in the morning you'll be soaring over Seattle's four sentries—Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens—homeward bound.
Details of this trip were mapped out by custom-trip planner Sherri Doyle of Pacific Northwest Journeys (800/935-9730 or 206/935-9730). For a fee starting at $250, Doyle creates a plan for you and makes all the reservations—sometimes at deep discounts. She warns that the most common mistake visitors make is wanting to see everything from Portland to Vancouver, and forgetting how vast the distances are. Other words of advice?"Avoid going to the San Juans on a Friday or coming back on a Sunday. And you don't want to be dealing with ferries on the last day of your trip!"
Kimberly Brown moved to Seattle to become senior editor of Mungo Park, Microsoft's on-line adventure magazine.