Surprisingly little of the route traversed by US-2 on its way between the flatlands and Stevens Pass, high up in the Cascades, is given over to ski shops, bike shops, and espresso stands—except for the section around Monroe, where a mile-long gauntlet of mega-malls and fast-food franchises catering to Seattleites racing to and from the slopes comes as a shock to the system. East of Monroe, the onetime mining, logging, and railroad camp of Gold Bar stretches along US-2, halfway between Stevens Pass and Puget Sound. Besides all the gas stations and cafés you could want, Gold Bar also holds the well-posted trailhead (follow 1st Street north from the center of town) for the 3.5-mile hike to 265-foot Wallace Falls, one of the tallest in the northern Cascades, tantalizingly visible from US-2.
Farther east, Index, on a side road a mile north of US-2, sits at the western foot of the Cascade Mountains at the point where the scenery changes suddenly from pastoral to alpine. Besides The River House Coffee Shop (425/883-9039), you’ll find a general store-post office, a neat little historical museum featuring Great Northern Railway photographs, and constant trains rumbling over the swimmably deep (but often freezing cold) Skykomish River.
You’ll see reminders around town of Index’s early industry: a granite quarry that cut the steps used in the state capitol. There’s a giant saw blade in a park at the center of town and the Index Town Wall, a 1,200-foot sheer granite cliff that attracts Seattle rock climbers and quite a few peregrine falcons.
Lining the busy Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks, a block south of US-2, Skykomish is a quirky and engaging place that seems to belong somewhere else, some long time ago. If you like the idea of being lulled to sleep by the rumble of trains, spend a night at the historic Cascadia Inn (210 Railroad Ave. E., 360/677-2030). The inn also has a café and a cocktail bar, popular with kayakers and trout-fishers who come for its access to the river, and with skiers who like its easy access to the slopes at Stevens Pass, 16 miles farther east.
Around eight miles east of Skykomish, midway to Stevens Pass, a well-marked turnout Around eight miles east of Skykomish, midway to Stevens Pass, a well-marked turnout along US-2 gives access to one of the region’s prettiest and most historically significant sites. On the north side of the highway, the parking area’s interpretive exhibits tell the story of the Great Northern Railway, the transcontinental railroad that was completed on this spot in 1893. A plaque displays a photograph showing the driving of the traditional golden spike, while other exhibits discuss the construction and importance of the railroad in the growth of Puget Sound communities.
If you’re not interested in railroad lore, head along the 100-yard-long paved trail that loops back under the highway to the powerful cascade of Deception Falls. If you can stand the usually bone-chilling snowmelt, you’ll be pleased to find a number of deep and clean swimming holes in the area.