Mountain Loop Highway near Darrington in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington
Credit: Jim Lundgren / Alamy Stock Photo

Washington is home to endless mountains, forests and national parks that will put you in a road-trip state of mind.

There's an endless number of winding roads that are off the beaten path, but the Mountain Loop Highway is one to consider sooner rather than later.

Where to find the Mountain Loop Highway

Beginning in Granite Falls, Washington, and ending in Darrington, Washington, this 50-plus mile “loop” around the Western Cascades is unsurpassed in Pacific Northwestern beauty.

Its name is deceiving — it’s a small portion of a larger loop — but it circles around lush wilderness (and there's nothing stopping you from continuing on).

Where to stop

This highway offers great access to hiking, camping, and traversing mountain terrain, but is still beautiful if you’re more fond of simply rolling down the car windows.

About 20 miles east of Granite Falls, you’ll come across Big Four Mountain, and at 4,000 feet, it’s north face is in clear view from the Mountain Loop Highway. The mountain was named after a giant “4”-shaped snowpatch that can be seen on its east face. You can stop for a photo at this gorgeous landmark, and if you’re an avid hiker, there are several trails to take up the mountain.

Before you leave Big Four Mountain, head to Big Four Ice Caves, a natural phenomenon created from a mixture of snow runoff, waterfalls and windy conditions. The mile-long hiking path to get there is well-maintained and not difficult for those who don’t mind a small hike. Once you reach the caves, however, you'll need to admire them from afar. Entering or climbing on top of the caves is strictly prohibited.

To add a bit of history to your route, make your next stop in Monte Cristo, an old mining town that was once brimming with miners. In the late 1800s, the town was booming with thousands of people seeking their fortunes. Unfortunately, flooding and miscalculations of what could actually be mined left this town in shambles, and many miners moved on. Today you’ll find a ghost town, but you can embrace the quiet and spend some time picturing what life was like a hundred years before.

When you arrive in Darrington, Washington, there’s still plenty to explore. Depending on what season you take your trip will give you a better idea of what activities you can enjoy. In warm weather, consider whitewater rafting or hiking any of the hundreds of miles of picture-perfect mountain vistas. When the weather turns cold, enjoy holiday bazaars and Christmas-tree shopping before packing your car up for a scenic trip back home.

Good to know

Although beautiful, this scenic highway isn’t always the easiest to navigate. After you reach Barlow Pass, Washington, the two-lane road ends and 14 miles of gravel begins. It’s drivable if you take your time, but always err on the side of caution.

Also, keep in mind these are the mountains: Snow and ice are not restricted to winter. Check weather conditions before you go, and plan accordingly.