By CARY ORDWAY
It doesn’t garner the attention like Seattle, Mount St. Helens or the San Juan Islands has, but Washington’s Methow Valley is a traveler’s gem tucked away in the North Cascades about as far away from “civilization” as you can get in the Evergreen State.
For many decades, the town of Winthrop was content to be the modern equivalent of a 19th Century mining town, albeit without the mining. Horse farms and agriculture had replaced the gold mining of the 1890s. The town still looked the same with its aging buildings reminiscent of the frontier outpost Winthrop had once been.
But then tourism happened to the Methow (pronounced MET-how) Valley. The North Cascades Highway was completed in the late 1960s, opening the flood gates to motorists who got wind of breathtaking scenery in the new North Cascades National Park. Prior to this, the Methow Valley had been a five-hour drive from the Seattle metropolitan area; with the new highway, the new route cut an hour off that and created a “loop” drive — now called the Cascade Loop — that over the years has become recognized as one of Washington’s most scenic highways.
Local residents realized there was gold in them thar tourists and, with the help of one very generous benefactor, went about the business of turning sleepy Winthrop into bustling Wild West Theme Town Winthrop. Kathryn Wagner was the widow of a local sawmill owner and provided the backing local business people needed to completely revamp the downtown area. Wagner offered matching funds to businesses that would step up and convert their storefronts to a Western motif. Town leaders only needed to look as far as the town of Leavenworth — the Bavarian theme town, also in North Central Washington, that had successfully re-invented itself a few years earlier as a tourist destination — to see what a change in decor could mean to the local economy.
Gradually, and with some reluctance here and there, the town’s business people completed the makeover, turning Winthrop into the Western theme town that it is today. Wooden sidewalks, false-front Western buildings, hitching posts and other reminders of the Old West are never far from view as visitors scavenge the town’s stores for a wide variety of trinkets and all things Western. In warmer months, the tourist crowd here is pretty much the same family-oriented group you might see visiting Knott’s Berry Farm — although, we’re not sure Harleys are allowed to park at Knott’s the way they do at Three-Fingered Jack’s Saloon.
The biggest attraction the hot August day we visited was the ice cream. The outdoor ice cream counter at the town’s main intersection was several visitors deep with almost every bench, chair and table occupied by throngs of tourists clad in t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses. Family groups prowled the boardwalks while on recon missions to find mementos of their trip to the modern-day Wild West.
Not all Winthrop residents are thrilled with the way tourism has changed their community. A woman behind the counter at the Shafer Museum admitted that, while the tourists are great for the economy, the town just isn’t what it used to be. Exhibit A: parking. We had to admit we circled through town a couple of times trying to find a single stall to park our vehicle. On summer weekends, the cars coming into town on Route 20 — the North Cascades Highway — slow down to a crawl approaching the four-way stop at the town’s only downtown intersection.
But interestingly, walk a block away from Riverside Avenue — the main drag — and the tourists kind of melt away. A case in point is the short walk over to the Shafer Museum, perched on a hill overlooking the Highway 20 traffic. Even on a busy Sunday, we at first were the only visitors to the museum, although we were joined later by a large family of vacationers. And the Shafer is nothing to sneeze at — this is an exceptional museum that has been built up over the years from donations by townspeople.
The centerpiece of the Shafer Museum is the log home once owned and occupied by Guy Waring, who had run Winthrop’s General Store back in the 1890s. The home, which is elaborately furnished with authentic period pieces, was the dream home he built for his wife. More buildings were added over the years including a print shop, general store, schoolhouse and several others, each fully furnished with antiques. The Shafer Museum is just a $2 donation, and probably the best value you’ll find in the Methow Valley.
Winthrop is tourist central, but your drive through the Methow Valley is really more about the rural lifestyle you see on display in the passing scenery. There are lots of horse farms and lots of churches. It’s a simple life in these parts, and most homes have a little ground because they’re spread out from Pateros to Winthrop, a distance of some 40 miles. More population is concentrated in the few miles between Twisp and Winthrop, but even if you add up the souls in both of those towns it still comes to only a few hundred.
The Methow Valley is not thickly forested like you find in Western Washington. But it does have enough patches of Douglas Fir and other vegetation to be far from baron. The mountains — just a few miles distant on either side of the Valley — are always in view. And when you get near Winthrop, the North Cascade Mountains start to rise up in dramatic fashion offering a tantalizing hint of the spectacular scenery just a few miles farther over the North Cascades Highway.
In the Winthrop area, the best view of the Cascades is from Sun Mountain Lodge, one of several inns and resorts in the area, but the only one perched on a mountain where the snowy peaks and green meadows start to look like they came out of the Sound of Music. The lodge is one of the more luxurious escapes in the Methow Valley and offers all of the amenities that world-class travelers expect.
Down in the Valley, the accommodations range from small bed-and-breakfast inns to riverside cabins to motels. There isn’t a huge selection of restaurants but there are a half-dozen or so that offer just enough variety for a short stay.
If you do stay a few days, be sure and take advantage of the area’s recreational opportunities. Not only are there numerous trails for hiking — and gorgeous vistas to reward your efforts — but there are several outfitters in the area that offer horseback riding and other outdoor adventures. In the spring, there is river-rafting down the Methow River. Mountain biking is a big draw for visitors who want to ride trails where they can be pretty much alone with Nature.
Finally, one of the best things about a visit to the Methow Valley is just getting there. If you’re coming from the Seattle area, you have the choice of a drive over Interstate 90 and then up Highway 97 over forest-covered Blewett Pass and through the scenic Wenatchee Valley, or you can drive north on Interestate 5 and drive Highway 20 east through the majestic North Cascades. Either way takes you to places many people see only in National Geographic.
Ice cream is popular with downtown visitors, photo by Cary Ordway