Road Trip Adventures: Birds of the Cascades

Cedar Waxwing two birds
June 19, 2015
The adventure graphic
You know who you are…

While others are dreaming of waxing up their skis in the winter or breaking out their hiking boots in the spring you spend the whole year flexing your binoculars or standing behind your macro lens waiting for the flicker of movement in the trees, listening intently for that swoosh of wings or telltale chirp…

Yep, you’re a birder!

Whether you are an avid birdwatcher or just getting started, Washington is a goldmine for the avian aficionado. Our mountains, prairies, deserts, forests and waterways support an amazing diversity of bird life. Now that the summer is upon us, many of our fine feathered friends are stepping out of their nests — and so should you! And a road trip is an excellent way to spend the day tracking down some tail feathers!

Spectacular in both its beauty and the diversity of terrain it covers, Highway 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, makes a fantastic day or even leisurely weekend road trip for the birder. Naturally, this route can be driven either way, and accessed or ended at any point. Here is our list of just a few great stops along Hwy 20 that are totally for the birds!
Trip planner graphic

Stop One: Deception Pass State Park


Black Oystercatcher on shoreline
With so many different habitats represented in one park and spanning two islands, Deception Pass is a must-see destination for the birder. In the marine areas keep your binoculars peeled for loon and black oystercatchers (pictured above) picking through the shallows, waddling mallard, harlequin and hooded merganser duck and drake, and cormorants diving for their dinner over the open waters. Or take the .25 mile trail on Fidalgo Island just past the Ko-Kwal-Alwoot Totem and listen for warblers chirruping in the forest. Next it’s time to head back across Deception Pass Bridge and east into the evergreens for…

Stop Two: Rasar State Park


Western Tananger
A classic Cascades mix of deciduous and conifer forest on the banks of the Skagit River, Rasar is home to a bevy of small, flamboyant songsters! Cruise the looping trails through the meadows and forest and down to the river’s edge. The bright Western tananger shows up here with chickadees, grosbeaks, Swainson’s thrushes, and Pacific slope flycatchers. Listen up! Three species of woodpecker can be heard knocking in these woods! And you might even get a glimpse of a belted kingfisher, with its spiky crest and spectacular blue and white feathers! Next it’s just a few miles down the road and on to …

Stop Three: Rockport State Park


Golden Crowned Kinglet
Rockport’s thick stand of old-growth conifers soar high and with them go its bird population. While it might be harder to get a glimpse of the tiny residents of these tall trees, there’s no doubt you’ll hear them! This park is a birding-by-ear bonanza, with golden crowned kinglets (pictured above), pine siskins, Steller’s jays, chickadees and thrush twittering in the canopy. Find a quiet place in this ancient forest to just sit and listen. Then get back on Hwy 20 and head for…
North Cascades Visitor Center boardwalk trails
This visitor’s center near Newhalem is a great stop, especially if you have kids. Drop by the center and peruse the interpretive displays. Then head out to the level (and ADA accessible!) boardwalk trails for an easy and leisurely walk. You may even spot the occasionalosprey, which nest near here. Warblers are plentiful during the spring and summer, as are swifts. Don’t miss the .3 mile walk out to the 1,300-year-old rock shelter built by early native peoples! And NOW it’s time for …

Stop Five: Winthrop, Washington


mallard duck
LUNCH!!!! The old-west themed town of Winthrop is an ideal place to stop for lunch, dinner or even just an ice cream. And with many eateries situated on the edge of the Methow River you can keep up your bird watching while you eat and rest! The Methow Valley is home to more than 250 bird species! Keep an eye out for heron, geese, kestrels, and, of course, those ever-entertaining ducks and drakes like mallard (pictured above) and bufflehead. Rested and refreshed? Let’s head out again, this time for …

Stop Six: Pearrygin Lake State Park


Lewis Woodpecker
Seated where the mountains and deserts meet, this lakeside park is popular with both people and some intriguing bird species’. Summer is a peak season for bird watching here! The best views are on the east side of the lake, where a .7-mile trail leads from the parking lot to the group camping area. If your family is along for the drive, let them take a dip in the lake while you focus on watching theLewis’ woodpeckers (no relation to Ranger Rick Lewis) do their thing! While these red, black and white birds (pictured above) drill for their dinner like most woodpeckers do, they also are known for some spectacular flying skills as they swoop and dive to catch insects in mid flight! While you’re at it don’t miss the other great (and really pretty) birds that live here, like swifts, sparrows and the bright bluelazuli bunting! Now, last but not least…

Stop Seven: Alta Lake State Park


Stop Seven: Alta Lake State Park


Stop Seven: Alta Lake State Park

Calliope Hummingbird
Alta Lake State Park certainly suffered damage during last year’s summer fire season. But even with some flora missing, park staff say other plants are popping up. That means not only a return of the regulars, but potentially new species showing up — a true birder’s delight. Walk along the lake and campground and then climb up the steep trail that takes you up to the plateau. If you are there in the evening you may hear common poorwills calling from the cliffs. Watch for quail, wren, cedar waxwing (pictured in top photo), calliope hummingbirds (pictured above), and kingbirds. But also keep an eye out for something unusual — you just never know!

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