After the fires: Autumn beauty and mountain-biking in Winthrop
After wildfires and other woes decimated summer tourism, the Old West tourist town welcomes mountain bikers, hikers, shoppers
Seattle Times travel writer
If you go
A feel for the place
Founded as a trading post catering to miners and ranchers in 1891, Winthrop is about 190 miles (3½ to 4 hours) from Seattle via the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20).
While Highway 153 is washed out near the town of Carlton, southerly access to Winthrop for visitors coming through Wenatchee and Pateros is open via a detour (Twisp-Carlton Road) that “takes the same time, goes the same distance and is more scenic,” said Kristen Smith of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.
Remember that the North Cascades Highway is typically closed for the winter from late November to April.
BY THE NUMBERS: Population is about 400 in Winthrop’s square-mile town limits. Elevation 1,765 feet.
The National Climatic Data Center reports that Winthrop (and nearby Mazama) experienced the coldest-ever recorded temperature in the state of Washington, minus 48 F., in December 1968.
WHAT’S IN A NAME: Named for Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861), a noted writer, lawyer and world traveler who was one of the first Union officers killed in the U.S. Civil War.
• Owen Wister, the Harvard roommate of town founder Guy Waring, wrote “The Virginian,” acclaimed as America’s first Western novel, after honeymooning in Winthrop.
• In 1972, when Highway 20 was nearing completion over the Cascades, business owners agreed to the idea of the Western-themed restoration that still exists.
COMING EVENT: Sun Mountain-area trails from the Chickadee Trailhead will host the 2014 Methow Valley Off-Road Duathlon, including a 40K mountain-bike ride and 10K trail run, Saturday, Sept. 27. See methowduathlon.blogspot.com.
Northwest travel guides
The Methow Valley town of Winthrop has long been known for its Old West theme, with false-front stores and wooden sidewalks, the perfect place to practice your bowlegged walk and wear that Stetson you always fancied.
The other big draw for many has been winter sports, thanks to a network of 120 miles of cross-country ski trails (see mvsta.com) along with an outdoor public ice rink.
I visited early this summer and enjoyed a side-benefit of that trail network: Some stretches are also great for mountain biking, a sport that makes the best of autumn, when the air crisps up and trees turn golden.
The July and August wildfires in north-central Washington didn’t touch the trails I flew happily along. With more than 40 miles of trails to choose from near Sun Mountain Lodge, I swooped and whooped across little wooden bridges over chattering streams, through tunnels of Nootka rose and past Ponderosa pines with strawberry-rhubarb-colored bark.
“It’s beautiful,” said Jeff Butler, a physician visiting from Spokane, the only other biker I met on trails with names such as Rodeo and Sunnyside. “I’ve been here for cross-country skiing in winter but this is my first time to mountain bike. I saw a deer and a few rabbits on Black Bear Trail.”
My close encounter was with a rooster-sized blue grouse that seemed unconcerned when I skidded to a stop to watch it bob slowly into the brush.
The Methow Valley’s summer tourism took a big hit from lightning-caused fires — including the largest in state history — plus a whopping windstorm and flash floods that hit parts of the valley, closing roads and cutting power.
“It’s been an unbelievable summer,” sighed Kristen Smith, of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, and she didn’t mean it in a good way.
But the biggest burn, the Carlton fire, didn’t come close to Winthrop, and no community events have been canceled.
“Most people are going to come and never know the fires happened,” Smith said. One of the best things anybody can do to help the valley, she suggested: Come visit — and spend money.
Trails near Sun Mountain Lodge are, if anything, better, since the Forest Service trimmed brush and regraded an access road because of the fires, said Brian Charlton, general manager at the 98-room luxury lodge, which lost about half its high-season summer business.
“It was just not a fun time,” Charlton said recently. “But now the temperature has peaked, the breeze is blowing, skies are blue with big, puffy clouds. It’s ideal hiking and biking conditions.”
Other draws for an autumn visit to Winthrop:
3 shops worth a stop
• The Iron Horse is the place to pick up that Stetson. This 6-year-old shop carries hundreds of Western-style head toppers, ranging from National Rifle Association fundraiser hats to the Voodoo top hat ($135), a sassy leather bad boy with Buffalo nickels on the band that prompted one young visitor trying it on to crow, “I look like Billy the Kid!” This is also the place to pick up decorative iron work such as a goat-head fire poker by celebrated local blacksmith D.J. Stull or iron house numbers by shop co-owner Shawn Johnston. 229A Riverside Ave.; 509-996-3336 or winthropiron.com.
• It’s hard to resist Shotgun Nellie’s, specializing in Western décor, when the life-size cutout of John Wayne in big hat and bandanna stands outside the door to corral shoppers. Nilsine (Nellie) Harris opened the shop in May “because there’s not that many Western shops in Winthrop anymore” since French boutiques and upscale kitchen shops have moved in. Here’s where to find that deer-antler lamp you’ve needed to properly finish the den. 94 Bridge St., 509-996-8030.
• If you’ve made it over the North Cascades Highway with outdoor plans but left something out of your knapsack, Winthrop’s new Cascades Outdoor Store is stocked with the insight of owners Brian and Amy Sweet’s more than 2,000 nights in the backcountry, some of which includes three months on cycling tours of the United States and Europe, paddling Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and hiking the full Appalachian and Arizona trails. For my biking, I picked up an Epic bar, an energy bar made with beef or turkey and dried fruit. “It’s delicious, and not sweet like other bars,” Amy advised. 222 Riverside Ave.; 509-996-3480 or cascadesoutdoorstore.com.
3 places to eat
• The Old Schoolhouse Brewery has at least three things going for it: (1) award-winning beer, (2) one of the best brewpub menus around (and I’ve sampled, ahem, a few), and (3) Winthrop’s best dining deck, edging the Chewuch River. No, wait, there’s a fourth thing: It really is in a cool old schoolhouse (complete with bell tower, seen on the beer label). The menu includes the Fish Taco Wrap, with Alaskan true cod in beer-battered panko with pico de gallo and zesty white sauce ($13). Wash it down with a Ruud Awakening IPA — named for brewer Blaze Ruud, it won gold in last year’s Washington Beer Awards — aptly described as packing “a pleasant but brutal beginning followed by a bold, citrusy finish.” The flourless Chocolate Stout Cake with Tillamook vanilla-bean ice cream and IPA caramel sauce is a pleasure that might rival your wedding night ($7). 155 Riverside Ave.; 509-996-3183 or oldschoolhousebrewery.com.
• Rocking Horse Bakery had me the moment I saw its logo: a rangy looking equus twanging a Fender Stratocaster. They do sandwiches and such, but bakeries are for breakfast, and this one rocks. Tackle a cinnamon roll the size of a lunch plate for $3.50, or Raspberry Dowdy ($4). I went for the guy-in-his-50s marionberry bran muffin, still warm from the oven. In this new space since February, Rocking Horse has local art on the walls, barnwood-type floors and old-world décor, including a big-wheeled, 1890s-vintage penny-farthing bicycle on loan from the local museum. 265 Riverside Ave.; 509-996-4241 or rockinghorsebakery.com.
• The Arrowleaf Bistro is in an old white house set politely back from the street, with painterly blossoms of the favorite local sunflower emblazoned across the front. Locals recommend it for the food, such as a recent menu including bacon-wrapped dates ($8) for starters, to go with bison meatballs, Parmesan fries and local greens ($24). 253 Riverside Ave.; 509-996-3919 or arrowleafbistro.com.
3 places to stay
There are plenty of nice cabins and lodges spread around the Methow Valley, but for the full Winthrop experience, stay in town where you can walk to the shops and eateries:
• Hotel Rio Vista, hugging the main drag, doesn’t look like much from the parking lot, but the far side fronts on a beautiful view of a wild, bird-crowded island where the Chewuch and Methow rivers converge, and every room has a private balcony. Starting at $116.50 on October weekends. 285 Riverside Ave.; 800-398-0911 or hotelriovista.com.
• Named after one of the town’s first saloons, the Duck Brand Hotel and Cantina has five rooms above the restaurant. Fun and funky-looking lodging dating to 1981, set back and above the street, some with balconies. Starting at $95 on October weekends. 248 Riverside Ave.; 509-996-2408 or duckbrandhotel.com.
• Methow River Lodge & Cabins has spacious rooms with lodge-like décor and balconies overlooking the Methow River, but with more trees in your view than at the Rio Vista. It’s down the road and across the river from downtown, but by foot you can cross the spiffy, new cable-stayed pedestrian bridge and be in the middle of things in about 7 minutes. Starting at $125 on weekends through mid-October. 110 White Ave.; 509-996-4348 or methowriverlodge.com.
Museum worth a stop
I’d never found time to stop at Winthrop’s Shafer Museum, 285 Castle Ave., which sits on a bluff above the Hotel Rio Vista. You should make time.
It’s a tidy little Old West village of tin-roof buildings beneath Ponderosa pines. In fact, a pine grows through the roof of a shed housing a rusty old gold mill. Manicured gardens and nicely done interpretive placards make the admission-by-donation indoor/outdoor museum worth a visit whether just visiting the grounds (daylight hours) or during staffed hours (see shafermuseum.com for updates).
There’s an 1894 log cabin, the bell from the First Methodist Episcopal Church (circa 1921), a bevy of old-time washing machines, a print shop from the Methow Valley News, and plenty more Old West flavor to top off your bowlegged wander of Winthrop.
Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, 509-996-2125 or winthropwashington.com
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler