On the sun-kissed east slope of the north Cascades, the Methow Valley has become a multisport mecca. The lure of gold ore attracted early settlers. Today, gold of another sort—the iconic spring-blooming balsamroot, abundant summer sunshine and awesome autumn larch—has recreationists seeing riches.
The centerpiece of the Methow Valley is Winthrop, a scenic two-hour drive east along the North Cascades Highway from Burlington (the pass is usually open from May through October), or four hours north or west from Yakima or Spokane. On the banks of the wide-flowing Methow River, which drains the Methow Valley, Winthrop has fashioned itself in an Old West aesthetic, complete with wooden sidewalks and old-time storefronts.
More importantly for outdoor enthusiasts, Winthrop has positioned itself as a hub for year-round recreation. Although the area’s Nordic ski system—the second largest in the country—is justifiably acclaimed, hikers have plenty to celebrate, with access points to the Pasayten Wilderness, Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness and North Cascades and National Park all within an hour’s drive.
Begin your visit to Winthrop with a history lesson at the Shafer Museum. Situated on a small bluff overlooking downtown Winthrop, the Shafer Museum (free, although donations are accepted) explores the history of the Methow Valley. The museum grounds are located on the site of “The Castle,” former home of pioneering businessman Guy Waring, who owned nearly all of the buildings on Winthrop’s Main Street during the town’s nascency. Several of these buildings have been relocated to or re-created on the museum grounds. Be sure to check out the museum’s extensive open-air collection of old mining equipment, which makes even the heaviest backpack feel airy in comparison.
Gear up and hike
For your weekend supply run, Winthrop Mountain Sports boasts an impressive array of outdoor clothing and equipment behind its tiny storefront for anything that may have been forgotten at home. Whether or not you decide you need that new titanium cookset, be sure to peruse the store’s extensive selection of USGS topographical maps of the region. To load up on edibles, drop into the Evergreen IGA on State Route 20, with an impressive deli featuring local meats, in addition to other grocery staples.
After strolling the shops on Riverside Avenue, acquaint yourself with the Methow Valley on a 4-mile hike to Patterson Mountain. Part of an extensive network of trails around Sun Mountain Lodge, the hike to Patterson Mountain dazzles in the spring with its wildflowers, but autumn features its own charms as colonies of aspen simultaneously light up with yellow leaves. The views are unbeatable year-round; hike in the evening to watch the sun dip behind the North Cascades’ showcase peaks.
Where to eat, drink and sleep
By the end of the day you’ve probably worked up quite an appetite. Carlos1800 Mexican Grill and Cantina makes a great post-hike stop; try the pollo pipian, a traditional Yucatecan dish with a rich pumpkin-seed-based sauce. The Old Schoolhouse Brewery serves up a large menu of craft beers brewed on-site. Or belly up to the bar at the oldest legal saloon in Washington, for a bit of history with your drink. ,
Lodging options abound in and near Winthrop, from frugal to four-star. Campgrounds dot the length of each of the major tributaries of the Methow River; the closest to Winthrop is the Chewuch River, which originates high in the Pasayten Wilderness to the north and joins up with the Methow in Winthrop. The features spacious sites in an open forest of towering ponderosa pines. Arrive early on busy summer weekends to secure one of the choice riverside spots.
The Chewuch Inn and Cabins offers “gourmet rustic” lodging with reasonable prices—splurge on a cabin—and a full breakfast in a spacious wood-adorned dining area. The home-made scones are unbeatable; stuff a couple in your pocket for a trailside treat. Innkeepers Dan and Sally Kuperberg are serious outdoors enthusiasts and have the inside line on adventures throughout the Methow Valley.
After a good night’s sleep—whether on an air mattress or Egyptian cotton—stock up on supplies in town. Before hitting the backcountry, grab a hot cup of locally roasted Backcountry Coffee Roasters joe at the Rocking Horse Bakery. The Cowboy Mud blend will fire you up. The Rocking Horse also serves up sandwiches on its on hearty housemade bread; make room in your daypack for one.
Fully fueled and ready for a day on trail, drive south on State Route 20 through Twisp to one of two hikes to choose from. The Twisp River is the launching point for numerous climbs into the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, including Copper Pass (as of 8/19/2015 the Copper Pass trail is closed due to fire danger). Over 5 steep miles, follow an old prospectors’ route to a high heather-clad pass and the headwaters of the Twisp River and wide panoramas. A little farther south, the 6-mile trail to Eagle Lakes climbs among ponderosa pine and pocket meadows to a couple of enchanting alpine lakes amid granite spires. The gold in the area is long since gone, but your efforts are rewarded with views of North Cascades peaks and golden larches.
Hike, bike (or snowshoe)
On your final day in Winthrop, hike to a local landmark. Lookout Mountain looms over the town of Twisp, a relatively pristine island of roadless land only minutes from State Route 20. From the end of Lookout Road, the unmarked—but obvious—Lookout Mountain Trail angles 1.3 miles (one way) through airy forests to a rock-garden summit and a still-staffed lookout. Look down for the striped Columbia Lewisia growing among the rocks; look out for panoramic views of the Methow Valley and its encircling summits. Lookout Mountain also makes a great snowshoe.
If you’re ready for a change of pace, rent a mountain bike from Methow Cycle and Sport and explore the area on two wheels. The Methow Valley features biking for all abilities, from family-friendly dirt roads in the Methow Wildlife Area to miles of steep alpine singletrack. Try the Lightning Creek Trail, near Loup Loup Pass, for sandy, swoopy riding through ponderosa parkland.
Sore, satisfied and perhaps a little sunburned, head home with dreams of future adventures in and around the Methow Valley—to the Pasayten, perhaps, or the Tiffany Highlands. Unlike the gold rushes of years past, these treasures are here to stay.
More regional hiking resources:
This article originally appeared in the Sept + Oct issue of Washington Trails magazine. | by Aaron Thesien.