A Springtime Jaunt to the Methow Valley
by Brandon Fralic
When I ask Sun Mountain Lodge Executive Chef Tyler Krost how he came to the Methow Valley, he pulls up a chair. He’s just served the main entree of our five-course dinner—“Tomahawk” slow-smoked pork chop and cedar-planked steelhead—and surely welcomes the opportunity to rest for a moment after a busy day. I dig into the tender, melt-in-your-mouth Columbia River steelhead as his story begins. Closing his eyes in a moment of silent reflection, he simply says, “It was love at first sight.”
Tyler tells a tale we’re all-too-familiar with: working in the big city, where years of battling Seattle traffic led him to make a change. Ready to put down roots in a smaller community, Tyler and his family were drawn to the Methow Valley (pronounced MET-how), whose four distinct seasons, recreation opportunities, and slower pace of life are a breath of fresh air to all who visit. Sipping local wine with a birds-eye view of the North Cascades, I can’t help but agree. There’s something special about this place.
When I asked Sun Mountain Lodge Executive Chef Tyler Krost how he came to settle in the Methow Valley, he closed his eyes in a moment of silent reflection, and simply said, “It was love at first sight.”
Perhaps best known for its world-class winter trails (featuring the largest cross-country trail system in North America), the Methow Valley offers outstanding outdoor recreation year-round. In spring, snowmelt and warmer temps bring new life to the valley. Think wildflowers, waterfalls, and summery weather in abundance—the perfect excuse to pack shorts and sandals and escape Washington’s wetter west side. Spring road trip season officially kicks off in late April or early May, when the North Cascades Highway reopens after its annual winter closure.
My partner and I are road-tripping from Seattle to the Methow Valley via the Cascade Loop, a 440-mile circuit of scenic byways. We first meet the Methow at Pateros—a tiny town at the confluence of the mighty Columbia River and its tributary, the Methow River. From here the road follows the river north, no GPS needed. Orchards rise up roadside, backed by rolling hills abloom with balsamroot in early spring. At Twisp, the valley’s largest town (population: 956), the Twisp River flows into the Methow River from the eastern slopes of the North Cascades. Surrounded by rivers and mountains, we feel a world away from the stress of the city.
As headquarters of the Methow Arts Alliance, Twisp is home to an active artist community comprised of galleries, studios, theater, and more. We stop by TwispWorks—a former Forest Service complex turned eclectic studio space—for a peek at public art adorning the campus. If visiting on a Saturday, stop by the Twisp Farmers Market (open 9am - 12pm) before touring TwispWorks’ studios during open house (11am - 3pm). Locals also recommend checking out the adorably-named Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, whose namesake organic pastries are legendary. And forget about the calories. There are plenty of ways to work them off around here.
For a quick walk about town, take a self-guided art tour. The Confluence Gallery and Art Center—located one block south of Cinnamon Twisp on Glover Street—is a great place to start offering free galleries and rotating exhibits. From here it’s a short half-mile walk (or drive) west along Twisp River Road to the Twisp Ponds, a haven of scenic paths between native plants and rearing ponds. Art and nature coexist at the ponds, where you’ll find large-scale installations backed by stands of willow and black cottonwood. Between the various birds and busy beavers, you’re almost guaranteed a wildlife sighting.
For a bit more exercise and epic views, Lookout Mountain (pictured above) can’t be beat. This hike to a historic fire lookout tower is located approximately 8 miles from Twisp. Generally accessible May - October, the 3-mile round trip trail delivers hikers through pine grass, lupine, and ponderosa pine to 360-degree valley views at 5,500 feet. Once snow levels are low enough (our visit is just a couple weeks too early), it’s the perfect hike to welcome spring in the Methow Valley. Further west along the Twisp River Road, numerous trails stretch deep into the Lake Chelan - Sawtooth Wilderness. Check with the Methow Valley Ranger District in Winthrop for current conditions.
After exploring Twisp we drive to our destination for the evening: the iconic, bluff-top Sun Mountain Lodge. It’s here, in the Dining Room perched 1,000 feet above the valley floor, that we first meet chef Tyler for an unforgettable meal. Sun Mountain Lodge is debuting a new dining concept during our stay. Inspired by guests who’d like to enjoy “a hamburger and tenderloin side-by-side”, Sun Mountain has combined their fine dining and casual bar menus to create a unified dining experience. White tablecloths are replaced by refinished wood tables in the Dining Room. Tenderloin is now served in the bar. It’s a significant change for the AAA Four Diamond restaurant; a welcome new direction.
Highlights from Tyler’s New American menu include everything from the delightful Sun Mountain Salad (served with a generous hunk of bleu cheese and honey truffle vinaigrette) to the classic puff pastry-wrapped Mushroom Strudel, which has been on the menu for decades. And that’s just for starters. Moving into small plates, we’re spoiled by Tyler’s take on vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie made with black garlic mashed potatoes. Once our main dishes arrive, we’ve completely forgotten about city life. We’re on Methow time.
We enjoy a selection of award-winning local beer and wine with dinner. My Big Valley Brown is brewed down the road at Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop; my partner’s robust red blend comes from Maryhill Winery in the Columbia Valley (with over 3,500 bottles of wine in Sun Mountain’s cellar, there’s something for everyone). For dessert, Pastry Chef Samantha Huntsman—another Seattle transplant—brings a selection of house-made sweets to our table. From seasonal fruit cheesecake to Washington apple pie, each plate is impeccably presented.
After dinner, we head to the outdoor hot tub for some stargazing and a soak. We meet another guest who reveals that he’s been coming here for 40 years—a testament to the lodge and valley’s enduring appeal. Satisfied and sleepy, we retire to our comfortable room for the evening. Tomorrow’s another sunny day in the Methow.
We fuel up with breakfast and coffee in the morning before meeting Activities Director Bret Alumbaugh in Sun Mountain’s on-site activities shop. Two mountain bikes await. When I mention that we are beginners, Bret walks us through a thorough explanation of the Sun Mountain trail network (featuring over 40 miles of trails) and bike operation. It’s not long before we’re cruising down the wide Sunnyside Trail with expansive views of Patterson Lake and the surrounding mountains. It’s a lifestyle I could get used to.
Back at the shop, Bret squiggles a makeshift map for us—directions to the Lewis Butte trailhead outside Winthrop. The promise of rolling hills and spring wildflowers is tempting, but we’ve worked up an appetite. Food first. Lunchtime finds us happily munching away on tasty pies at Winthrop’s East 20 Pizza while sipping post-bike beers on the sunny patio. Afterwards we walk the length of Winthrop, another Methow town at the confluence of two rivers (notice a trend?) But this town’s a little different.
Those who’ve never set foot in downtown Winthrop might think they’ve stumbled into an old Western movie set. First settled in the late 1800’s by gold rush hopefuls, Winthrop retains its American Old West charm by way of retrofitted storefronts and wooden boardwalks. We walk by Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon, “the oldest legal saloon in Washington State” on the way to our favorite spot in town—the riverfront patio at Old Schoolhouse Brewpub.
We could go any direction from here—north to Falls Creek Falls for easy-access waterfall views, east to Pearrygin Lake State Park for fishing, camping, and boating among the shrub-steppe landscape, or south towards Twisp for more hiking, biking, and horseback riding opportunities. But the road west calls us home. So it’s over the Chewuch River and through the woods to Washington Pass we go, a scenic drive traversing the most jaw-dropping mountain terrain in the state.
As we climb out of the valley along North Cascades Scenic Highway past Liberty Bell Mountain (pictured) we’re already thinking about our next visit. It’s a recurring theme out here. Those who come to the Methow Valley tend to stay—or at the very least, return year after year. Ask any local why, and they’ll be happy to pull up a chair.