From late September through October, the vine maples, high elevation huckleberries, and tamaracks on White Pass Scenic Byway (US-12) transform the route’s geologic variety show into a 119- mile technicolor pageant of reds, coppers, and golden yellows. Leaving the Salkum Plateau, US-12 travels past lakes and floodplains, ascends foothills to an alpine pass, and then descends into riparian canyons surrounded by volcanic cliffs.
Fall and its foliage aren’t the only reason or season to make this road trip. Year round there are recreational opportunities galore, history, mountain town festivities, craft beer and coffee, good eats, and plenty of accommodation options for a multi-day adventure.
It all begins at Exit 68 on I-5 south of Chehalis.
Six miles east of the exit make a pit stop at the historic Lewis and Clark State Park and the nearby John R. Jackson House, both located on the north spur of the Oregon Trail. The park includes a half-mile walk through a rare stand of old growth trees, while the 1845 Jackson House provides a glimpse into the multifaceted life of the area’s first non-Native settler whose cabin housed the area’s first post office and state’s first federal courthouse.
Look for glimpses of the mountain trifecta:
Rainier, Adams, and Hood, before arriving in Mossyrock, located between Mayfield and Riffe lakes. Both lakes have shoreline parks and water recreational opportunities. In their beds lie the former towns of Riffe, Kosmos, Mayfield, and the Cowlitz tribal community of Nesika, all thriving prior to 1946 when they were razed to build the Tacoma Power hydroelectric dams you see on the route. That history (still a sore point for some locals) has been preserved in two museums: Cowlitz River Valley Historical Museum in Morton and the larger White Pass Country Historical Museum housed up the road in Packwood’s former elementary school.
Gaining elevation, turn left into Morton, home of the Morton Loggers Jubilee, the August “granddaddy of all logging shows.” It’s a unique opportunity to watch local and national contestants compete in axe throwing, choker setting, bucking, tree speed climbing, and log rolling. If you’re hungry, make your way to Rivers Coffeehouse & Bistro. Located in a lovingly remodelled former hotel and tavern, the upscale Morton eatery serves crepes, waffles, soups, salads, share boards, pizzas, and burritos. And it houses a lending library!
Continuing east the byway cuts through Packwood, a charming mountain town and the convenient base for 16 nearby hikes ranging from the quarter-mile Layser Cave stroll ending at one of the state’s most significant archaeological sites to a short, steep hike to the High Rock Fire Lookout. Thirteen miles east you can enter Rainier National Park and choose between a hike to the 1,000-year-old Grove of the Patriarchs, which includes the park’s largest red cedar, or to spectacular Silver Falls.
For golfers Packwood’s nine-hole golf course, High Valley Country Club, is open to non-members. If you’re lucky you’ll rub shoulders with a herd of local elk playing through. For fishing aficionados, Packwood Lake is home to a genetically distinct species of rainbow trout.
Before setting out on the day’s adventure, quench your thirst and scone craving on the front deck of Packwood’s Mountain Goat Coffee Company. And make sure to reward yourself post-adventure with a beer and nachos at the Packwood Brewing Company located in a historic general store.
There are several options if you want to bring home a byway memento. Mossyrock is home to two u-pick blueberry farms and the DeGoede Bulb Farm & Gardens. Morton and Packwood host summer/fall Saturday Farmers Markets selling local produce, flowers, and handmade crafts. And Packwood bookends their summer with the most popular flea markets in the Northwest, two multi-day events with over a mile of vendors held on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.
White Pass Ski Area
Twenty miles past Packwood is White Pass ski area offering winter downhill and Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, and summer/fall hiking possibilities, including a section of the 2750-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
The route then begins its downhill journey passing six-mile Rimrock Lake before entering a narrow canyon following the Tieton River. The Oak Creek Wildlife Area runs a winter elk feeding program from December to May, allowing visitors to view herds from the parking lot and on truck tours. The area is also a prime spot for spotting mountain goats.
Chinook Pass Scenic Byway
In two miles you’ll arrive at the Highway 410 intersection. Here you have a decision to make. Turn right and drive into Naches to complete your White Pass journey or turn left to traverse the equally majestic Chinook Pass Scenic Byway, aka the Stephen Mather Memorial Parkway. Mather, the founding director of the National Park Service, promoted building scenic roadways between national parks so this byway twofer possibility should be credited to him. Turn left. He’d want you to take advantage of it.
Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus, and Dutch the Magazine.