Friday, September 4, 2009
Along the Cascade Loop: Orchards, Rivers, and Sunshine
With the apple harvest kicking into full gear and the leaves starting to turn gold and scarlet on the mountain passes, September is a brilliant time to head over the Cascade Loop. Take at least three days if you can. This is the third and final installment about my trip around this scenic drive earlier this summer.
Although I’m on the drier, eastern side of the Cascades, much of my drive along the Cascade Loop today is along water: the Methow, Columbia, and Wenatchee rivers, and Lake Chelan. The Columbia River Basin—a land of prolific orchards and farms—was reshaped by irrigation from the mighty Columbia and its tributaries. Not so good for the once abundant wild salmon runs (actually terrible), but a boon to agriculture. It’s all about water rights over here. And lots more sunshine than west of the Cascades.
Meandering down the Methow
After two rejuvenating nights at Sun Mountain Lodge above Winthrop, I head south down the Methow Valley. Through a quirk of ice ages past, this lovely valley extends over 60 miles from the North Cascades down to arid upper Columbia River steppes.
Along the way I pass pastoral ranches, shrubby range land, hillsides dotted with orchards, narrow dry gulches, and historical marker signs from the valley’s silver mining days.
My first stop is the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery in “downtown” Twisp, a two-block stretch of low-rise buildings. I knew word had gotten out about this great place when I spotted someone wearing a Cinnamon Twisp T-shirt on a flight from Chicago to Richmond, Virginia. The bakery has expanded since I was here in 2005.
Now they offer cafe fare too: sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, salads, pizza, homemade soup, and more, made using as much organic and local ingredients as possible.
Since I’m in no hurry and it’s a glorious sunny day, my next stop is just outside the town of Methow, where the valley narrows. I wander down to the river, sit on a log, and squish my toes in the cool white sand while some kids splash in the water nearby.
Toward the mouth of the valley, the Methow widens before it flows into the Columbia. The Homestead roadside farm stand looms ahead on my right, so I pull over again. Since I’m a smoothie fanatic, I order one of their berry smoothies made from fresh seasonal fruit. I enjoy the thick and frosty smoothie in the shade of their verdant orchard overlooking the river.
Can you believe that rich berry color?
Swinging through Chelan
I turn south onto State Route 97 and drive along the western bank of the Columbia River. Here the once wild river is basically a series of reservoir lakes between dams. It’s still a dramatic landscape, though, with brown hills rising hundreds of feet on either side of the river. For another scenic diversion, I take the junction just past Chelan Falls up to the town of Chelan at the south end of Lake Chelan.
I’m due in Wenatchee in a few hours, so I just drive through town and stop briefly to visit some friends who live up the First Creek drainage. Chelan used to be primarily an orchard town but now is a major vacation destination, with second homes sprawling farther north up the east side of the long, narrow glacial lake.
From Chelan, I wind back down to the Columbia River via Highway 971, which travels through a lovely ponderosa pine-stippled canyon and past some small farms before descending to the river.
Bicycling the Apple Capitol
Tonight I’m staying in Wenatchee with my friend Lesley, amazing athlete and all-around renaissance woman. So I’m not surprised when she gets home from a long day at work and asks, “Want to go for a hike in the hills above town or go bicycling?” On this warm summer evening a bike ride sounds more refreshing, so I opt for a ride along the 13-mile Apple Capitol Recreation Loop Trail.
We cycle downhill several blocks and hop on the riverfront trail in downtown Wenatchee. On this side of the Columbia, the mostly flat paved trail cuts through neatly landscaped lawn along the river.
As we clear town on the west side of the trail, we peddle furiously up a few switchbacks to a bridge and cross the river to East Wenatchee. Over here the trail passes through more a natural, arid landscape, with nice views of Wenatchee and hills across the river. The whole loop ride takes us about 45 minutes. As we’re cycling back uphill through Wenatchee, we slice through soft, dry evening air. Perfect.
Heading over Stevens Pass
My drive back west over Stevens Pass is scenic but faster-paced than my meanderings yesterday. I’m disappointed to find the Anjou Bakery on State Route 2/97 in Cashmere is closed today. Lesley raved about their pear tarts and other wonderful pastries. I stop briefly in Leavenworth, but on a weekday morning this Bavarian-themed tourist town feels like a party that was over hours ago. I slow down while driving through the narrow Tumwater Canyon just beyond Leavenworth, where the mountains rise steeply on either side of the Wenatchee River.
After crossing Stevens Pass and heading back to “the coast,” I make one more stop in Index for another good berry smoothie at the Espresso Chalet. If any of you remember the John Lithgow film Harry and the Hendersons, numerous scenes were shot here. Besides good smoothies and coffee, the view of Mount Index from this spot isn’t too bad either.
When You Go
Here is a map of the Cascade Loop. You can break your trip down into longer stretches; for example, take a few days to soak up the sun and water ski at Lake Chelan. Or stay at Sleeping Lady Resort on the outskirts of Leavenworth and do some rock climbing or hiking on one of the many challenging trails up Icicle Creek Canyon. Detour off the highway west of Stevens Pass into the town of Index and go for a river rafting trip down the Skykomish River with WaveTrek (limited by season of course). There are many possible variations. Enjoy!