Western-themed town of Winthrop in the wonderful Methow Valley
Winthrop, Northcentral Washington
Twenty years ago I happily stumbled upon the great little Western-themed town of Winthrop in the wonderful Methow Valley. True to its mining and ranching roots, Winthrop has been converted into a portal into the past showcasing covered walkways, Wild West saloons, and Main Street facades. Easily passing for the originals, and some are the real deal, weather-streaked barnwood exteriors scream, “Giddy-up, pardner!” Scratching my head in bewilderment, I thought I landed on a back lot at Universal Studios. All that was missing was my gelded Appaloosa, spurs to go with the pointy boots and some chaw dribbling down my chin. And one of them big hats.
That day I came in over the Cascade Mountains from Puget Sound along State Highway 20, just another line on the map in need of exploring, and part of the fabled Cascade Loop Scenic Highway through North Cascades National Park dripping with 300 glaciers and countless waterfalls. Rolling west to east through a two-million acre swath of wild country of various bureaucratic designations, I vaguely remember a long, meandering climb, almost always up, that took me through dense Douglas fir, and nearer the summits, alpine meadows awash in lupine and fireweed. In keeping with the winter-waterlogged Pacific Northwest, everything was intensely green. There were few homes along the way to Winthrop, and back then, little traffic - the way I like it.
The farther east I drove, the better the view from the highway, and the bigger the mountains; noteworthy peaks by any measure, ending in a parade of pinnacles and jagged protrusions near Rainy Pass and mile-high Washington Pass and its lofty overlook near the northwest fringe of the Methow Valley. If it’s open, be sure to stop at the Washington Pass Overlook with its stunning panoramic view of 7,720’, one-of-a-kind, Liberty Bell Mountain.
When I first laid eyes on the Liberty Bell that summer afternoon it was partially bathed in sunlight, an impressive block of rock hard to forget, a jagged row of towering slabs and open faces, vertical spires that attract technical climbers from afar who just can’t keep their fingernails off the sides of those exposed cliffs, seduced by geologic fractures like the Liberty Crack, considered one of the 50 classic climbs in North America.
Today, most visitors escaping Puget Sound don’t come for a death-defying, white-knuckle adrenaline rush, but the pastoral setting, and broad and spacious forested valleys near Winthrop. Popular events during spring, summer and fall, especially the music, lure them 200 miles from Seattle. They come for the good food and wild times, the down-home hospitality and even some five-star decadence, not to mention the more civilized outdoor recreational pursuits of which there are so many. Few leave disappointed.
The Methow Valley and surrounding hill country were made with the artist in mind, a laid-back gentle topography that matches the locals’ demeanor and extracts one’s creativity untainted by urban distractions. The town of 400 was named after a 19th-century writer of considerable note who published numerous novels, albeit posthumously. Theodore Winthrop was a Yale man, a renaissance man, a lawyer who traveled throughout Europe and the American West and the Washington Territory before being shot dead through the heart at the Battle of Big Bethel. He got plugged at one of the first Civil War skirmishes back when the South was beating up the North in the early years of that bloody mess. Theodore has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first, if not the first, Union officers to lose his life in the war between the brothers.
While most people have never heard of Theodore Winthrop, including me, nearly everyone has heard of the first real Western novel written about the American West, “The Virginian” (1902) by Owen Wister, a seminal work that some claim defined the genre which paved the careers of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and others. Inspired most certainly by the scenery, the thrill of adventure, and love, Wister penned the book after spending his honeymoon in Winthrop.
The tradition carries on, including the honeymoons. Numerous writers, painters, sculptors and others engaged in the arts call the Methow Valley home. If you come, don’t forget to visit Twisp, Winthrop’s twin sister nine short miles down the road as you’re headed south. It’s less touristy, and compared to Winthrop, normal in a good way, if you know what I mean. It’s also less crowded by a long shot when Winthrop is buried by the festival crowds and long caravans of bikers out for a weekend spin. When in Twisp, don’t just stop for gas on the way to Winthrop. Carve out some quality time in the picturesque downtown core which has become a vibrant arts and crafts center in its own right.
There’s plenty to do in Winthrop, even before they plow open Highway 20 which is buried all winter long in deep, heavy, wet snow that isolates the town and turns it quiet and tranquil during the frosty months. Things kick off in early March with the Winthrop Balloon Roundup, a three-day hot-air balloon festival that cheers up the skies with a brilliant array of color and elaborate designs. Bundle up for this one because Winthrop has a reputation for bone-snapping cold weather.
May is known for the ‘49er Days Celebration, now in its 67th year. Held over Mother’s Day, the three-day event is a vibrant commemoration of the good old days. Winthrop spares no expense bringing back the American West. A large wagon train rolls back and forth through the Methow Valley, hither and yon, eventually converging on town for ‘49er Days. Along with pack trains and packers, cowgirls and cowboys, make-believe fur trappers and a parade with more horses than any other parade, anywhere, they claim, and a string of pack animals that stretches half-way to Mazama, you’ll need to pay special attention crossing Main Street. It gets slippery.
Fire trucks, mountain men, homemade floats and grinning politicians … Winthrop throws a patriotic parade that will have the kids squealing all afternoon long. They’ve got it all; cowboy music, cowboy poetry, cowboys and cow camps, and all things that go “moo.” Top off your Saturday night down at “The Barn” for a foot-stompin’ hootenanny, or would that be a wing-ding? Shindig?
Do muscular rednecks in tight jeans and flowered shirts frighten you? Then stay away from the Methow Valley Rodeo held near the end of May, and another one in September. Can’t stand the melodramatic twang of country and western music? Me neither, but what do I know about music? Why not get down and funky with the blues in July at the three-day Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival. Now in its 25th year and going strong, the outdoor festival brings solid talent on a regular basis to a beautiful setting. Heavyweight legends Elvin Bishop and John Mayall will be here this year. But don’t forget mosquito repellant; last summer the rascals were thick and brought an appetite.
Good tunes don’t stop there. The Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival presents the best of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart near the end of July. Five concerts over nine days showcase some of the finest classical music talent from all over America, and the world, such as Jessica Bodner and the Parker Quartet, the sensational violinist Eugenia Choi, the incomparable mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, and many others.
To some of us, the loud roar of powerful engines is classical music to the ears, our Bach and Amadeus for the ages. Held at the beginning of September, the streets of Winthrop are packed like sardines with a dazzling, colorful and very shiny display of antique cars and trucks at the 37th Annual Winthrop Auto Rallye; rolling art at its finest. All this motor-head mayhem is followed by the one-day annual Winthrop Chamber of Commerce Golf Tournament out at the Bear Creek Golf Course, currently in its tenth year.
There’s something for everybody who drops by Winthrop. One of the biggest attractions since the white man ran off the Indians lies outside of town, up in the hills and high country during golden autumn and the first hint of snow. If you’re determined to kill something that can’t shoot back, you’ll find one of the largest mule deer populations in the country, over 17,000 in and around the Methow Valley, and plenty of chukar and pheasant and grouse, not to mention cougar and black bear.
I understand mule deer occasionally need thinning, although why anyone would want to slaughter a bear or cougar for enjoyment is beyond me. If you’re interested in getting hauled up into the high country on a horse, for whatever reason, why not Google, Bing, or Yahoo, “Early Winters Outfitting and Saddle Co.,” the “Washington Outfitters & Guides Association,” or the “Sun Mountain Lodge.”
You can also fish or float the Methow River, or mountain bike HUNDREDS of miles of trails that course throughout the valley and ponderosa-rich Okanogan National Forest, or the Wenatchee National Forest farther south. You’ll find every challenge from high alpine single track to old bumpy wagon roads and smooth asphalt. Be sure to visit the Methow Valley Sport Trail Association’s (MVSTA) website for maps and information.
Come winter, many of the bike trails become groomed cross-country ski trails that run all the way out to Mazama near the foot of Washington Pass, almost, and from town up to the extensive trail system at Sun Mountain Lodge, and over to the Rendezvous Trails network, and Wilson Ranch and Early Winters Creek. Over 120 miles of uncrowded world-class skiing have many calling Winthrop and the Methow Valley one of the greatest cross-country skiing destinations in North America.
Needless to say, I love Winthrop, and planned to keep it top secret; so few places like this remain untrammeled in this country. I changed my mind about hoarding Winthrop when I couldn’t find a downtown parking space last summer, prices were climbing to uncomfortable levels, and the retail help, but not all, started treating me like I was just another bothersome tourist, after all these years. Besides, Winthrop’s cat was already out of the bag, having escaped years ago as the word spread, and who can blame them for coming? For many here, tourism is a matter of survival. The money train poured in over the pass one hybrid and Harley at a time dropping greatly appreciated dollars in their wake; accolades spread by word of mouth, and just like that, Winthrop became a happening place.
That said, it’s a great corner of Washington. It really is a Pacific Northwest outdoor lover’s paradise, and I don’t throw that term around lightly. Between the national forests, national recreation areas, wilderness areas, and the spectacular mountain kingdom of the North Cascades - ask any hardcore mountaineer - there’s enough of the wild and wooly to keep a person busy up there for a lifetime.
But don’t let the summer crowds dismay you. Once out of town and off the highway, a great peace settles over the land. Just drive up the hill above town a couple of blocks when you visit the Shafer Museum and it gets mighty quiet. Big mountains, open fields, sprawling ponderosa forests, working ranches and apple orchards and 40-acre gentlemen farms on the banks of the Methow, and you get the idea. Cattle and horses and young people, and the elderly; a friendly, close-knit community relieved when the temporary masses roar back to Seattle come fall and life gets back to normal. Winthrop, Twisp, and the Methow Valley. Mark it on your calendar. It’s all good.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.