For an upcoming weekend getaway, take the North Cascades Scenic Byway through a mix of striking crags and rolling hills. The rugged countryside provides a purely Western experience as it threads through tiny towns and jagged mountain. Start your journey just off I-5 in Sedro-Woolley and fuel up with gas and a sandwich from one of the small logging town’s quaint eats.
You’ll then drive along the Skagit River past Concrete and stands of old-growth evergreens at Rockport State Park. As you enter the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, tiers of thick evergreens are now blackened toothpicks, after terrible fires raged across the landscape several years ago. However, new green growth covers the steep valleys, and valiant efforts preserved much of the wilderness and national park areas.
At Newhalem’s North Cascades Visitor Center, stop in for the helpful information display outlining various park hikes, including strolls under an hour, 1-2 hour rambles, half-day and full-day hikes and accessible hikes. An exhibit takes visitors through the mixed forests encountered on the peaks’ western and eastern sides, ranging from western hemlock to subalpine and back down to lodgepole pine. The well-curated bookstore can help you ID any plants or flowers you might come across while exploring local forests, and make sure to take a photo with the taxidermic grizzly bear.
Walk to the beautiful Gorge Creek Falls, or the overlook to Gorge Lake, and Gorge Dam. An interpretive trail helps explain what you’re viewing, but the eagle’s eye perspective towering over the waters needs no real explanation.
Driving on, whitecapped mountains begin playing hide and seek with each turn. Pull over at Diablo Lake Overlook or the Ross Lake Overlook to glimpse the lakes’ unreal teal color, reminiscent of 1950s cars and fridges. The remote, tent-only Colonial Creek South Campground sits on Diablo Lake, near hiking on Thunder Creek.
After Diablo Lake comes a stretch of highway only open from May through mid-November, cresting at Washington Pass, the highest point along SR 20. The overlook offers perspectives on the cinematic Liberty Bell Mountain, where the distinctive crack follows an ancient fault line. Look out on the spirits, peaks and passes. The nearest campground, Lone Fir, offers spaces to campers.
In contrast to the North Cascade range’s sheer drama, as you descend into the Methow Valley, you’ll notice mellow, picturesque mounds where prehistoric flooding left the photogenic mountains rounded and polished.
The unincorporated community of Mazama welcomes visitors looking for the Methow’s quietest stay possible, with grassy rangeland, ranches, a well-stocked general store and plenty of wide-open spaces. The hotly anticipated Mazama Pub House just offered a soft opening in July 2022.
Road Trip to Winthrop
The town still retains its old-west storefronts — and many longtime, well-loved restaurants — but new, arts-oriented and youthful shops are setting up inside the city limits. Those who haven’t visited Winthrop in a few years may be surprised at the changes.
For example, Red Umbrella focuses on nature-infused products and art — silhouettes of trees, mountains and plants abound. Pick up teas, herbal concoctions, mugs, papers, candles, art earrings and more. Other shops for browsing each focus on books, kitchenware, wrought iron and home goods.
Enjoy gentle, beautiful walks in and around downtown Winthrop, including the newer two-acre Homestream Park near the Winthrop River, which features a tipi, sculptures, meandering pathways and signage. The nearby 1.3-mile Susie Stephens Trail passes over the picturesque Spring Creek Bridge and affords a chance to spot deer.
From downtown, cross the suspension footbridge for the easygoing two-mile Sa Teekh Wa Trail running along the Chewuch River, with interpretive signs explaining local irrigation engineering feats. The newer, figure-eight-shaped Meadowlark Trail looks over Winthrop and out onto Sawtooth/Chelan wilderness.
Visit Winthrop’s extremely well-done Shafer Historical Museum to learn about some of the valley’s early inhabitants, such as Scottish “gentleman cowboy” Lord Blythe who wore a dark suit and tie when out on the range. Amble into replica log cabins, offices and shops with antique tools and furnishings, as if the owners just stepped away. Don’t miss the terrifying “tooth extractor” used by late-1800s pioneers or the fascinating current photo exhibit featuring the historical re-enactors Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle.
For more contemporary fun, families may be delighted to learn that wheels are rotating again this summer during drop-in weekend evenings at Winthrop’s outdoor roller rink, which was closed last year.
For lunch and dinner, order at newcomer Jupiter’s counter from an out-of-this-world menu of salads, bowls, sandwiches and Sri Lankan specialties — including smoky lentil fritters, coconut milk-infused dal, or curried jackfruit sandwiches. Then dine on the expansive patio, under shady trees. Or take your picnic across the street to the charming Confluence Park, looking at the waters where the Chewuch River and Methow River meet.
The dinner-only Arrowleaf Bistro offers the most upscale options in the area — if you can squeeze yourself onto the reservation list — with farm-to-table fare such as wild boar meatloaf and pan-roasted chicken with morel gravy. For evening cocktails, the Copper Glance’s indoor and outdoor seating is almost as good as the restaurant’s creative drink list.
For breakfast, The Little Dipper Cafe and Bakery slings quiche with hashbrown crust in the morning. Stop by anytime for delicious cookies and pastries, and freezer meals of chicken potpie, mac and cheese and curry potpie to heat up in your Airbnb.
While in the area, you can choose your own stay experience. Find your inner cowboy or cowgirl with a trail ride at a ranch stay, your inner diva at an upscale resort, or just a laid-back mountain-town experience at an Airbnb, chalet or cabin overnight. Or take your pick of RV parks, camping and glamping options. A kitchen is recommended if you’re staying for more than a night.
Road Trip to Twisp
Further down SR 20, Winthrop’s artsy sister, Twisp, is home to numerous fine art and community galleries, studios and other imaginative endeavors — so much so that it’s a noted Creative District by the Washington State Arts Commission. Walk through the pedestrian-friendly downtown of a few blocks to browse shops, galleries and cafes.
Find a reason to stop by the well-stocked natural food store, Glover Street Market, one of the best grocery options in the area, with an expansive deli and bulk foods section, wine, organic and specialty foods, and locally grown produce. At Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, pick up an ever-popular Cinnamon Twisp made with whole wheat pastry flour and hazelnuts or a Hit the Trail Cookie of oats, chocolate chips, nuts and craisins.
Visit TwispWorks, a 6.4-acre campus integrating artists’ studios, a native plant garden, and Fork food truck serving up international delicacies such as a Korean fried chicken sandwich, falafel salad or bahn mi sandwich. At the small but complete natural history museum, you’ll learn how the Methow Valley’s clouds are truly unique due to extremes in elevation, temperature and a confluence of weather systems from various climates: marine, alpine, desert and arctic.
If traveling with children, see if the affordable Wagner Memorial Pool’s waters appeal on a typical hot day — an open swim takes place six afternoons per week.
Twisp lodging options aren’t quite as plentiful as other towns but include inns, lodges, RV parks and Airbnb rentals.
If you’ve decided you just can’t leave Methow after all, set up at Winthrop’s Drop Zone Cowork space and enjoy the river views and Wi-Fi — the West wasn’t explored in a day, after all.
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