For someone unfamiliar with Washington state’s upper climes, the 189 miles of road separating Seattle from Winthrop might seem negligible. But for the four hour drive, trade traffic in for mountain trails, high-rise towers in for still higher peaks and Seattle’s pretty skyline for the rugged beauty of the Cascades. Worth the trip? You bet. But there’s more to the Methow Vally than just a pretty face. Via the tiny (and quaint) gateway town of Winthrop, find access to a superb selection of outdoor pursuits, from world-class cross country skiing and rock climbing to white water rafting.
In short, the Methow Valley is one of those year-round destinations that lends itself well to all sorts of escapees - families on vacation, honeymooning romantics, harried urbanites, even creative types seeking inspiration. In short, worth the trip.
Cross Country Skiing
In terms of superlatives, it’s the well-kept Nordic Trails which run for 120 downright spiritual, snowy miles through the Methow Valley that gets the region onto the “best of” list for outdoor recreation. One of the beauties of cross country skiing (in addition to the fact that it burns an extreme amount of calories almost effortlessly) is that it’s relatively easy to figure out, even if you’ve never ever touched a pair of skies. Rent the appropriate gear and ski all the way from Winthrop to Mazama on the Methow Community Trail, then connect to Sun Mountain, the oldest cross country ski resort in the region. It’s also easy to ski between lodges, or even tackle multi-day skiing trips with an overnight in huts off the Rendezvouz Trail. For a winter retreat that’s relaxed, scenic, healthy and invigorating, this gets our five stars. Let it be noted for those diehard downhill fans that there is, in fact, also a small ski area equipped with a quad chair and 1,240 vertical feet not far from Winthrop.
Once the snow melts, the Methow Valley becomes the haunt of hikers, many of whom arrive packing tents. This is, of course, because the region is not only a significant hiking destination but also a hit with campers, happy and otherwise. So come prepared to rack up hundreds of trail miles between national forest, national park, wilderness and easy access areas, then recover around a star-lit campfire.
Make sure your gears are all in good shape before grinding along some of the best trails in the Methow Valley. Many of the mountain trail miles here are surprisingly family friendly, with good single and double track as well as meandering forest service roads sure to please even beginning bikers. Experienced mountain bikers will want to head instead for elevation, tackling trickier routes like Angel’s Staircase. Note that there’s also a shuttle service in Winthrop, which makes it more enjoyable to get rolling on something other than a loop route.
Our angle here is fishing, both steelhead on the river and trout in mountain lakes. But in addition to fly related pursuits, the area also happens to abound with game, which is why it’s worth considering an autumn hunting foray into the Methow Valley. Mule deer, grouse, even cougar and bear are seen (and shot) in season. Whatever your pursuit of choice, find in the area outfitters to set you up with the appropriate gear or an organized tour as needed. Does it get more convenient?
In case you were wondering, bird watchers are a growing breed. And for good reason. It’s peaceful, it’s mildly competitive, and anyone with a set of binoculars can try it (though it helps if you can discern a Lazuli Bunting from an American Kestrel). As the Methow Valley ranges in elevation, its habitats also change, host collectively to upwards of 250 species. As things go, that’s not a shocking number but it’s relatively high. Considering the scenery and the accessibility of good birding sites like Pipestone Canyon or Mac Lloyd Park it’s no wonder birding gets a tweet in our list.
Cantering along the beach? Clearly passe. Galloping off into a mountain sunset? Still classic. Which is why, in the Methow Valley, one would do well do devote a half-day at least to equestrian pursuits. Miles of good trail here bring veritable herds of horses and their riders to the region but even those short a steed can get a feel for the saddle with a little help from local outfitters. There is also horse boarding available in the area, as well as guided hunting and fishing trips (horseback, of course) in season. Really, this puts the finishing touches on a good Wild West outing.
Hot Air Ballooning
In the interests of full disclosure, this is not something we have done in the Methow Valley. But we would, we would! And it isn’t the lure of a champagne flight that makes us drool, either. The fact is, a peaceful float over some of the prettiest country in Washington state (with or without the champagne) as morning sunshine warms the horizon is hard to beat, pick your own adjectives. Ballooning season runs roughly from March to November, hot drink included, cold fizzy one optional.
With easy access to top climbing sites in this stretch of state, the Methow Valley has earned a devoted following of mountaineers and rock climbers. Some of the choicest rock in the region is a relatively easy trip northwest of Winthrop, like Washington Pass, Goat Wall or Mazama Rocks. Outfitters offer climbing instruction and experienced guides for more serious mountaineering expeditions into the North Cascades.
Give your feet, or your bike, a rest for a day and recoup with a day (or two) of driving, all scenic of course, along beautiful mountain byways. Get lofty views from Hart Pass on the Pacific Crest with a short hiking break at the top, or follow the Chewuch River past peaceful farms to the 30-mile Fire memorial. And while most travelers to the area start their adventures in other-worldly Winthrop, it’s worth taking the time to stop in Mazama or Twisp to really get a feel for the area’s other tiny hamlets.
We’ve lumped all canoeing, kayaking, motorized boating, tubing, rafting and swimming into a single category for practical purposes. Because the truth is, during warmer months the list of ways to enjoy the rivers, creeks and lakes of the Methow Valley is dauntingly long. Spring is the best time to get good white water on the Methow River, but for general comfort purposes summer is the warmest time to enjoy the region’s wet side. Consider joining the colorful progression of tubers bobbing down smooth river stretches when the days heat up, or take a dip after a hard mountain bike ride at swimming holes in popular spots such as Falls Creek. While motorized boats are allowed on lakes like Alta or Pearrygin, it’s all quiet on the Patterson Lake front, where sail boats, canoes and paddleboats set the speed.