By CARY ORDWAY
Long known as the “Apple Capital of the World,” the 21st Century Wenatchee Valley is setting itself apart in many more ways. For example, many Puget Sound residents now consider Wenatchee the “Best Getaway east of the Mountains,” not because of the apples, but because of the city’s incredibly diverse recreational opportunities.
In winter, its home to one of the best medium-size ski areas anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, Mission Ridge. In summer, it’s close to the fishing and boating opportunities on Lake Chelan and the Columbia River. The mountains are close by, too, meaning there are hundreds of miles of trails for hiking. And if you need a dash of charm, check out the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth just a half-hour drive away.
All of which is attracting an onslaught of Puget Sound baby boomers who have tired of the traffic, congestion and gray weather of the Seattle area and plunked down part of their life’s savings for a home in sunny Wenatchee to live out their retirement.
We’ve enjoyed many a weekend at the Mission Ridge ski area, known for its wide open cruising runs spread over 2,000 acres on a mountain that will burn your thighs before you make it all the way from top to bottom. With 66 acres of snowmaking, there is generally not a problem with lack of snow during the peak season. And, while Mission is still a small, family-style area that prides itself on not being crowded, the mountain does feature a high-speed quad just to make sure everyone gets as much skiing or snowboarding as they want.
And one more thing about that Mission Ridge snow — it’s the dry snow you get east of the mountains. The skiers and snowboarders who have been reared on the wet “Cascade Cement” on the west side of the mountains are truly in heaven once they try Mission.
There aren’t any resorts “on the mountain” at Mission Ridge but there are plenty of lodgings in town along Wenatchee Avenue. A wide selection of accommodations is available, and “the Ave” has every type of restaurant you can imagine. Check out the Windmill for great steaks, or the Cottage Inn for terrific chicken-fried steak. La Fuente, on Mission Road, has fantastic Mexican food. If it’s just a good hamburger you’re looking for, skip the chains and check out the two best local hamburger joints: Dusty’s and EZ’s.
The scenery around Wenatchee is pretty enjoyable as well. The city is located at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers — in fact, there is a great park called Confluence Park located right down where the rivers meet. To the west are beginnings of the towering Cascades; to the east the landscape rises a couple of thousand feet to reveal the eastern edge of the Columbia Plateau, a shelf of flat farming land stretching to Spokane and beyond. Visitors to the area are often surprised that the topography in Eastern Washington is so drastically different from the Cascades and forest-covered western part of the state.
While you’re down at Confluence Park, set aside a few hours to walk the entire 11-mile Loop Trail that follows the Columbia River shoreline on both sides of the river, crossing the river on bridges to the north and south ends of the Wenatchee Valley. The scenery is beautiful from both sides of the river.
If you drive about 25 miles west of Wenatchee, you’ll be rewarded with the famous little town of Leavenworth, known for its Bavarian storefronts and non-stop shopping and festivals. Back in the 1960’s this sleepy little town had recreational opportunities and scenery — with mountains reminiscent of the Alps — but no other real tourist attractions. All of that changed in a big way with the construction of those storefronts, and today there are major hotels, numerous restaurants and a fascinating selection of Bavarian-style shops to keep visitors busy for days.
The town of Winthrop has a similar story. About a 90-minute drive north from Wenatchee, quiet little Winthrop has been turned into Wild West Theme Town Winthrop. 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.
Just a 30-minute drive north from Wenatchee is Lake Chelan, more than 50 miles long and one of the most spectacular bodies of water in the Pacific Northwest. In summer, the lake is North Central Washington’s equivalent of the French Riviera where local residents take their new boats to show them off, and where gorgeous young people parade around for each other in just enough clothes to remain legal. Still, it’s a family resort area and there is generally enough parental supervision to keep things from getting out of hand.
In winter, Chelan’s Bear Mountain ski area invites cross-country skiers to enjoy the spectacular views of the Cascades while skiing over miles and miles of tracks. Even in winter, the weather remains generally temperate — cold enough to ski, but not the bone-chilling weather you experience in some ski resorts at higher elevations.
Just a few miles west of Wenatchee is Cashmere, perhaps most famous for its Aplets and Cotlets factory. This nationally known culinary delight is a confection created right here in kitchens that are open for tour by the general public.
Back in Wenatchee there are plenty of tourist attractions to check out in between ski runs or trips to the lake. The Rocky Reach Dam, for example, offers a complete tour that is both entertaining and educational. In non-winter months, Ohme Gardens comes alive with flower formations that put the area’s natural vegetation on full display. There are also museums, shopping centers, golf courses — and lest you forget that this is the Apple Capital of the World, the Washington Apple Commission has a special Visitor Center where you can watch a 15-minute video about the area’s production of apples and pick up gift items to remind you that apples are a very big deal in Wenatchee.
Walla Walla Park is colorful winter setting, photo courtesy Wenatchee Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.