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The Northwest’s Scariest Road Trip Is Perfect for Early Fall

by Staff




Don’t close your eyes and don’t look down. On the most dramatic mile of Harts Pass Road—more officially known as U.S. Forest Service Road 5400—the driver should focus on the dirt and gravel surface as it contours the side of a mountain like a wiggly ramen noodle. There are no guardrails between this one-at-a-time car lane and a long tumble into a North Cascades valley. But yeah, it’s totally worth it.

Welcome to the highest road in the state, an unpaved byway that begins north of Mazama in the Methow Valley. From the end of the Lost River Road blacktop, Harts Pass itself is about nine miles of driving, though the road goes a few more miles to end at Slate Peak at almost 7,000 feet of elevation. The airiest section gives the road the reputation of being the scariest in Washington.

But before anyone gets too spooked, Harts Pass Road truly isn’t that bad. (Really.) Especially after work crews made improvements to the byway this summer; the surface is so flat that a two-wheel drive sedan can make the trip. Regular pullouts make it easy to negotiate the stress of meeting another car going the other direction. The only bad idea? RVs or long trailers—a sign helpfully marks where they should turn around.

Besides being the highest drivable spot in the state, the route is also notable for being the most northerly point where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with roads. In late summer, thru-hikers get pickups from the trailhead before they go home to celebrate. The road isn’t plowed in winter, but before snows hit in late fall it makes for a remote road trip.

The most prominent feature at the road’s end is the Slate Peak lookout, one of the many structures built to keep an eye out for wildfires. The top of Slate Peak was flattened for radar use in the twentieth century, and the lookout is inaccessible to visitors, but they can walk a short distance from the parking area to stand underneath it. The panoramic views reveal why the site was so useful for keeping tabs on an uninhabited stretch of U.S. Forest Service lands known as the Pasayten Wilderness.





This remote part of the state is notably very high in elevation, meaning it’s perfect for the larch tree. Which translates into a heck of a fall show when the trees’ needles turn yellow and orange before dropping off; it’s the rare deciduous conifer that looks like an evergreen much of the year but is decidedly not forever green.

Several hikes leave from Slate Peak and visit the color changing larch trees; Silver Lake, a 10-mile round trip, doesn’t lose too much elevation from its lofty starting point. But even road trippers uninterested in hiking will get great views from where the road ends.

A plaque near the Slate Peak lookout base describes the 1894 rush to the Glory Hole gold mine, but no motherlode was ever found there. Today it’s a different kind of gold rush bringing folks out, with a more guaranteed reward for making the trek to north central Washington. And thanks to the Harts Pass Road, the return trip is as interesting—or white-knuckle terrifying—as the way in.

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