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Washington Completes the First Fully Electrified Scenic Loop Drive

Travelers can now take 440-mile zero-emissions ride through the Cascades’ glacier-clad peaks and evergreen forests

One of the most scenic road trips in the nation, Washington’s Cascade Loop Scenic Highway leads travelers on a 440-mile journey through a wilderness of glacier-clad peaks, past towns that proclaim their Western heritage, amid lush evergreen forests, alongside thriving vineyards, and across islands jutting into Puget Sound. With the recent installation of the final charging station, travelers can now navigate the entire scenic loop drive in an electric vehicle. Whether it is a day trip from Seattle, a week-long adventure, or something in-between, the strategically placed charging stations make it possible for electric car enthusiasts to undertake green travel as they wind their way through Washington’s diverse landscape.

With more than 60 charging stations along the route, even cars designed for the urban commute can navigate the loop without losing their charge. A 2014 Nissan Leaf, with a range of less than 100 miles, was the perfect vehicle for a test ride.

CascadesPhoto by Craig Damlo View from Diablo Lake Overlook in the North Cascades National Park.

Everett, located 30 miles north of Seattle, is an ideal starting point for those on the western side of the state. Heading out from Everett, the Stevens Pass Greenway provides electric vehicle drivers their first challenge as it climbs from sea level to the 4,000-foot pass. Charging stations along the way offer the opportunity to enjoy the scenery of quaint mountain towns, and the ski area at the summit allows drivers to charge before heading down to the Wenatchee Valley with its multitude of recreation possibilities.

From the Wenatchee Valley, the route heads north along the east side of the Cascades, hugging the Columbia River past fruit orchards and vineyards and eventually climbing into the heart of the North Cascades. Charging stations are available in picturesque towns such as Chelan, on the shores of magnificent Lake Chelan, and in the old west theme town of Winthrop. The final charging opportunity before climbing the pass is the mountain resort village of Mazama. From Mazama the route climbs over Washington Pass, which, at an elevation of 5,476 feet, is closed in winter. West of the pass, a charging station in Newhalem provides the boost needed to make it back down from the mountains. The route continues into Puget Sound over the Deception Pass Bridge and along Whidbey Island. Scenic island hamlets such as Freeland and Langley offer the opportunity to recharge once again and take in the Island’s beauty. From Whidbey Island, a 20-minute ferry ride leads back to Everett. 

Charging StationPhoto by Ron Engeldinger Recharging in Chelan, Washington.

It is only natural that the first long-distance scenic loop drive in the United States fully supporting electric vehicle tourism would be located in the state of Washington. Washington is a leader in the production of renewable energy with more than seventy percent of electricity in the state generated from clean resources. Washington also has one of the nation’s highest percentages of electric cars per total car sales.

The Cascade Loop electrification project was developed and supported by far-sighted community leaders in North Central Washington who saw an opportunity for green economic development. Local advocates, realizing that clean hydropower was one of their region’s biggest economic assets, began asking themselves how they could leverage that resource to provide the best possible return for the community. The greater Seattle region is one of largest deployment areas of electric vehicles in the United States, and North Central Washington already has a bustling tourism industry, receiving more than three million visitors a year, many from the Seattle area. As the North Central Washington Economic Development Commission representatives began looking at new development initiatives for the region, they realized they could tap their tourism and energy resources in new ways by enticing owners of electric vehicles. 

Guided by its mission to promote the adoption of plug-in vehicles throughout the region, Plug-in North Central Washington (PINCW) conceived and developed this groundbreaking project. According to founder Ron Johnston-Rodriguez, PINCW staff spent several years learning all they could about the world of electric vehicles before finalizing plans for the loop, waiting as electric vehicles finally began to catch on with car buyers and car makers.

PINCW volunteer project manager, Jack Anderson, explained that the Cascade Loop project began to take shape in 2011 when the Washington State Department of Transportation used federal stimulus funds to install charging stations along Stevens Pass, allowing electric vehicle travel between Everett and Wenatchee. Once the Stevens Pass Greenway was in place, members of PINCW looked at the map of the region’s charging stations and realized that, with strategic installations, they could work with the Cascade Loop Association to electrify the entire Cascade Loop Highway.

Volunteers secured public support from the state of Washington and donations from private organizations to purchase the necessary chargers, and then began contacting restaurants, hotels, businesses and communities along the route to find strategic locations for the stations. PINCW supplied the chargers while the host locations paid for any installation costs. Host locations also provide the electricity, which is currently free for users. According to Johnston-Rodriguez, people were enthusiastic in their support and the project grew organically as communities and business around the Loop recognized the economic and ecological value of hosting a charging station.

Along with Washington, Oregon is uniquely suited to support electric vehicle ecotourism.  More than 70 percent of Oregon’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric or other clean resources, and electricity rates are some of the lowest in the nation. Oregon’s Tourism Commission, known as Travel Oregon, has identified several scenic loop trips that could be completely navigated by electric vehicles. For example, the Oregon Coast Tour, a 230-mile roundtrip that follows the Columbia River to the Oregon Coast at Astoria, then follows the Pacific Ocean south to Tillamook and returns to Portland over the Coast Mountain Range, could be electrified. As could the Hood River Getaway, which winds for 160 miles through the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River, heads south past Mount Hood and back to Portland. As Oregon continues to install charging stations, more options will become available for electric car drivers, including the first fully electric coastline in the country, which Oregon Travel hopes will stretch the entire length of the Oregon Coast from Astoria to Brookings.

With some car rental agencies now offering electric car rentals in Portland and Seattle, even visitors to the Pacific Northwest can shed their reliance on the combustion engine and participate in green tourism. Johnston-Rodriguez also noted that that this puts Washington and Oregon in a favorable position to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions. With a large portion of electricity generated from renewable sources, overall automobile carbon dioxide emission will decline as the percentage of miles driven by electric vehicles increases.

The Cascade Loop demonstrates that expanded economic benefits and increased tourism can go hand in hand with environmentally sound practices. And word is spreading. In Central Washington, the conversation is now expanding to battery-powered trolleys for public transit, electric fruit harvesting platforms, and electric recreational vehicles. 

Ron Engeldinger
Ron Engeldinger is a freelance writer living in Portland Oregon. He is an avid outdoorsman and international traveler. His writings focus on culture, history, travel, and environmental issues.

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