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.