Friday, July 3, 2009

Along the Cascade Loop: Methow Magic

Day 1 PM

Driving down from the stunning twin rock spires of Liberty Bell at Washington Pass towards the Methow Valley, the first thing you notice is the change in the forest along the highway. Instead of mostly Douglas fir trees and the dense, mossy understory west of the Cascade Crest, ponderosa pines (“P-pines”) now dominate, with their rough cinnamon-colored bark and sparse forest floor. Suddenly you’re in a more arid climate. When I spend more than a day or two east of the crest, my naturally wavy hair straightens noticeably (which is fine by me).

Today, though, the rain follows me all the way down into the upper valley. After my soggy hike to Lake Ann at Rainy Pass, I turn off the highway and stop at the Mazama Store for a hot cocoa. This local institution is a cafĂ©/coffee shop/bakery/general store/sportswear shop/gas station/community gathering place rolled into one cozy and appealing spot. When I order my cocoa, the young barista rattles off several kinds of chocolate to choose from. “What's your favorite?” I ask. “I like the Mexican chocolate, with a dash of cinnamon,” she tells me. I grab a slice of their melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip-banana bread to go with my Mexican hot cocoa.

But the real reason for this trip to the Methow is to spend two nights at Sun Mountain Lodge (courtesy of a Methow Conservancy fundraiser). This wonderful resort sits perched over 1,000 feet above the kitschy Old West-themed town of Winthrop about 15 miles down valley from Mazama.

I was introduced to the Methow Valley by my good friend Mary Ann (thanks Mab!), whose family formerly owned the Lazy M Ranch property on which the resort lies. Her uncle Jack Barron developed the original Sun Mountain lodge back in the 1960s; since then the resort has been sold and redeveloped into a somewhat more deluxe place. Regardless, I fell in love with the valley on my first trip there and have since made many trips for doses of what I like to call Methow Magic. There’s just something about the clean dry air, the narrow mountain valley with lovely long vistas, soaring raptors overhead, the quiet.

Heading up to the lodge, I pass irrigated meadows with grazing horses, red corrugated-roofed vacation homes, and the long blue stretch of Patterson Lake reservoir. Winding higher up the dry shrubby rise, I don’t glimpse the lodge until suddenly it’s looming in front of me at the top of the hill, like an oasis in this semi-arid landscape.

In a separate building from the main lodge, my cozy room has a rustic wood-beamed ceiling, knotty pine furniture, and balcony with a mountain view (partially obscured by clouds today). The spacious tiled bathroom is the size of my kitchen at home. Of course I sleep great, covered by a light down duvet to ward off the mountain chill.

Day 2

In years past I’ve camped, skied, mountain-biked, hiked, ridden horses, jogged, and river rafted through and around the valley. This trip is about unwinding. So I don’t even leave Sun Mountain today. That’s okay because there’s plenty to do (or not do) here. After breakfast on my balcony, I head to one of the outdoor hot tubs to soak myself and soak in the panoramic views of snow-dusted Mt. Gardner and the valley below. It's a Monday morning, so I have the place to myself.

With a break in the clouds, I decide to walk one of the several trail loops from the lodge. Starting out on the interpretive trail, I meander through classic shrub-steppe, a low-rainfall natural grassland. Agriculture, fire suppression, and stock grazing has caused this transitional zone between the mountains and the desert to become one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America

It’s a few weeks past the wildflower peak, but some bright yellow balsamroot and purple lupine are still scattered among the grasses, shrubs, sagebrush, and occasional ponderosa pine. A breeze ripples through the tall grass like a wave, flushing out some orange monarch butterflies. Big red hawks are surfing circles on thermals in the sky above. While pausing to take it all in, it hits me—this is country. I’m miles and a mountain range away from the city. Any city.

After a very pleasant 2-mile walk, I’m back at the main lodge for my afternoon appointment at the spa. “Hi, I’m Beverly.” smiles my friendly, tan masseuse. “Come on in!” she says as she escorts me into a dimly lit room, "First just breathe deep and relax." Sun Mountain offers a range of spa services, but I’m having a basic Swedish massage today. Beverly tells me the lodge planned a larger spa with indoor whirlpools, but several years of drought scaled back their plans. (Water use is a hot button issue east of the Cascades.) Regardless, I melt into the table while Beverly’s skilled hands coax my tight back and neck muscles to loosen up.

My dinner this evening is at the casual Wolf Creek Bar & Grill next to the main dining room in the lodge. I always enjoy the good bar food and amazing views here. I pass through the rustic wood-paneled bar and snag a table outside on the balcony looking up-valley. With the mountain dropping away dramatically below, I almost feel like I’m in the cockpit of an airplane. Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) swoop and dive like acrobats putting on a show just beyond the balcony, their feathers shimmering iridescent in the evening light.

“What can I get you?” asks my healthy-looking, attractive young waiter. (Actually most everyone I encounter here in the valley looks healthy and attractive.) I order a turkey sandwich and green salad, and it’s good. Nothing fancy but quality ingredients and fresh local greens glazed with a tangy vinaigrette. In a nod to the local flavor, I quaff a schooner of a creamy ale from the Methow Valley Brewing Company in Twisp. It goes down easy.

Tonight I sleep deeply and dream of butterflies. It must be that Methow Magic.

When You Go
Click here for information on Sun Mountain Lodge. Be sure to bring your sunscreen, binoculars, and good walking shoes. Or your shit kickers if you want to go horseback riding from the lodge. The birding is excellent. At almost 3,000 feet elevation, evenings can be cool any time of year, so don’t forget a light jacket. And of course your bathing suit.


Anne said...

I have wanted to go there for years and never have, the blog has reignited that desire.

Barry said...

Great article, great pics. Thanks for taking us with you, Jill!

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

Anonymous said...

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