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Winter road trip: Mountains to Sound Greenway

5 min read
Winter road trip: Mountains to Sound Greenway

Whether you’re looking for a day’s getaway or a weeklong vacation, an intriguing option lies just to Seattle’s east. The Mountains to Sound Greenway travels I-90 from Seattle to Ellensburg. The corridor offers sightseeing, sports and history amid conifer forests, alpine passes, shrub-steppe landscapes and 28 cities and towns — but you’ll have to slow down a bit.

The road we now know as I-90 was once part of the Yellowstone Trail, an early-20th-century transcontinental auto road that ran from Massachusetts through Montana to Seattle. The route is still scenic, offering spectacular scenery to passenger and driver seats.

Due to numerous historic stops, Congress designated the 100-mile Mountains to Sound Greenway as a National Heritage Area in 2019. It’s one of just two in Washington state; the other is The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area, which includes the North Washington Coast’s harbors, peninsulas and islands.

Seattle to Snoqualmie Pass

The Greenway officially starts in Seattle and includes historic Pioneer Square, the Ballard Locks (Hiram M. Chittenden Locks), and Pike Place Market, where February is Local Celebration Month with the chance for locals to win prizes.

Drive 17 miles east to Issaquah’s Olde Town for a self-guided walking tour that includes the 1888 Gilman Town Hall Museum’s concrete jail and Issaquah Depot Museum. Then head east a few blocks to explore the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, where staff feed salmon fry in outdoor ponds from January through March.

Maneuver back onto I-90, then jump off at exit 27 for a detour to Snoqualmie Falls — where you might just have the chance to actually see the 270-foot falls roaring without summer’s tourism crush. Families can hike a well-signed, short trail to the falls’ base.

Nearby, the 32-mile Snoqualmie Valley Trail offers a hike along a converted railroad grade through old-growth forest. This trail connects to the western arm of the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, a massive 287-mile sojourn crossing the Cascades before running through farmland and scrubland to the Idaho border. The former rail trail is now for nonmotorized use only, including hiking, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. 

If you’d rather ride the rails than hike trails, jump on a two-hour train excursion with built-in time to explore the Northwest Railway Museum, the region’s largest railway museum. If neither appeals, adults can also visit Snoqualmie Indian Tribe-owned Snoqualmie Casino for some sportsbook or other adult pastimes.

En route back to I-90, North Bend’s most famous cultural contribution is undoubtedly the classic show “Twin Peaks;” fans can use North Bend’s guide to spot filming locations. These include the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe-owned Salish Lodge & Spa to Twede’s Cafe, where yes, you can get a damn fine cup of coffee (and cherry pie). Even if you’re unfamiliar with the show, the guide is valuable — Hollywood location scouts had a good eye for the town’s photogenic stops.

Snoqualmie Pass

Back on I-90, you’ll pass Twin Falls Natural Area and Olallie State Park en route to Snoqualmie Pass, which is 22 miles further. The drive toward and through the pass reveals muscular curves, cliffs and crags.

Home to the nearest ski resort to Seattle — The Summit at Snoqualmie is a collection of four ski areas with 25 lifts. Most trails are intermediate and advanced. The resort offers daily ski, snowshoe and snowboard rentals, lessons and winter activities like night skiing, snow tubing, cross-country skiing and sno-go biking. These innovative snow bike-ski hybrids can also be rented on-site.

The mountain area is small and mostly comprised of A-frame vacation rentals and a handful of attractions, including the free Washington Ski and Snowboard Museum, open Friday-Sunday only. Enjoy a refuel here with comfort food and craft cocktails at The Commonwealth, or gourmet groceries and coffee at Laconia Market and Cafe.

Snoqualmie Pass to Ellensburg

Then, begin a rapid descent on I-90. Snow often transforms the valley surrounding Lake Keechelus into a fairytale-like sight of white drifts surrounding gray waters and ice.

While many local birds are vacationing to the south, you may still spot local mammals, including rabbits, cougars, bobcats and coyotes, near or on the Keechelus Lake Wildlife Overcrossing, about 12 miles southeast of Snoqualmie Pass. This fully vegetated, 150-foot-wide bridge eases the passage of animals seeking new breeding, feeding and dwelling grounds.

Prepare for the descent into Eastern Cascades’ flanks and foothills — a much colder, snowier, windier and yet still drier terrain than the Western side. The area offers winter sports, well-preserved historic towns and sunnier skies. Pull off at Exit 70 for Lake Easton Sno-Park snowplay, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Take the exit for Cle Elum to check out the South Cle Elum Rail Yard National Historic District, where the Milwaukee Road train company’s locomotives were added or removed from trains headed west or east. The district features an interpretive trail and a collection of rail yard structures, including a depot, electricity substation and rail yard worker housing.

Coal Mines Trail connects Cle Elum and the former coal mining town of Roslyn on foot or WA-903 N. by car. In Roslyn, step back to 1886 or so and explore the Roslyn Historic District’s antique buildings filled with modern apparel, sports equipment, books and restaurants. The quiet town is often snowier than Cle Elum, so ensure you’re ready for the weather.  

Return to I-90 to make the 30-minute trip to Ellensburg. To the south of I-90, the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area Unit is home to elk, deer and bighorn sheep. In winter only, watch public elk feeding at Joe Watt Canyon around 8 a.m., typically through mid-March.

The landscape soon flattens and becomes farmland interspersed with fewer and fewer stands of evergreen pine trees. End your day in Ellensburg, a historic college town celebrating art, craft restaurants, museums and Western rodeos and life. You’ll find affordable stays and even more parks with snow-covered trails.

Note: As always, check weather conditions before getting on the roads, and bring auto chains and car supplies for surprise storms. I-90 frequently closes for periods in winter due to safety or collisions.

Whether you’re looking to make an environmentally conscious choice with a hybrid or to save cash with our new car lease deals, Western Washington Toyota Dealers can help you find a new car that keeps up with your lifestyle.

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