Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Northwest Weekend Getaway: North Cascades and Upper Methow Valley

My life is in Seattle, but my heart is all over the beautiful and varied Pacific Northwest.  Near the top of my go-back-as-often-as-possible list: the North Cascades and Methow Valley in north-central Washington.

This past weekend I traveled to the Methow via the North Cascades for the first time in far too longIt was a perfect road trip before the peak summer season.

Friday Afternoon: Hitting the Road
On a bright warm Friday afternoon ahead of a hot weekend, we head north on I-5 from Seattle. Our destination is the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center (ELC) on the shore of Diablo Lake.  I've blogged about this special place before. (If you're leaving the Seattle metro area on a Friday, leave as early as possible. We didn't leave until about 2, which added at least 45 minutes to the trip.)

Within an hour we're into the Cascades, traveling roads through river valleys that skirt some spectacular craggy peaks, like Whitehorse Mountain above Darrington. I'm not driving, so I roll down the window and snap some shots from the moving car.

Whitehorse, whose glaciers are receding quickly.
Skagit River, looking into the North Cascades just outside Marblemount.

Friday Evening: Into the North Cascades
We've booked hostel lodgings for Friday night at the ELC. We're in a clean, quiet dorm-style room that sleeps up to four, although there's just two of us tonight. Also included is an excellent dinner, breakfast, and fixings to make and pack a lunch. For dinner tonight they even offer three kinds of lasagne: with Skagit Valley grass-fed beef, vegetarian, and gluten free.

Overall it's a great deal considering the gorgeous setting, helpful staff, and the mostly organic, locally sourced food.

After dinner stroll up the Sourdough Creek Trail behind the ELC.
Saturday Morning: North Cascades Immersion
Since there is a Base Camp going on this weekend at the ELC (where anyone can sign up and enjoy activities such as hikes and canoeing), Saturday morning we join an easy forest hike up Thunder Creek, led by NCI environmental education staffer Max Thomas. (Next blog post will be about this hike.)

By early afternoon we're driving again, east-southeast along the North Cascades Highway. This officially designated National Scenic Byway is extra scenic when snow still clings to the surrounding peaks early in the season.

As of early June 2016, the Washington Pass Overlook is still closed and snow covers much of the access road. But that doesn't stop us and several others from walking up anyway to the snow-free overlook, where the views are always stunning.

Liberty Bell
Saturday Afternoon: Into the Methow Valley
As we drive down the long, glacial-carved valley from Washington Pass into the upper Methow Valley, the temperature rises. We're in the midst of another early heat wave, and it's well into the 90s F°.

 Lucky for us, our destination is the decidedly upscale but Western casual Freestone Inn at Wilson Ranch, where air conditioning and a nice breeze off the mini-lake keep us comfortably cool.

Methow Valley locals we met at the ELC all told us that the Freestone Inn has a great happy/cocktail hour, and I'm happy to confirm it does indeed. Excellent wines, a beautiful fresh fruit tray, savory hummus and warm pita, good cheese, veggie/chicken skewers, and more warm up (well, dampen) our appetite for dinner.

We're here for a Washington's National Park Fund gathering. This dynamic non-profit raises funds to support underfunded but important projects in the three largest national parks here in Washington. Today North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich gives us a run-down of park happenings and upcoming events to celebrate the 2016 National Park System Centennial.


Saturday Evening: Methow Magic
Dinner tonight is at the Mazama Country Inn a couple miles across the valley, where a large group of us enjoy entrees featuring Bristol Bay salmon, steak, or chicken with seasonal veggies. My favorite part of the meal: the warm apple-apricot crisp.

As I stroll after dinner in the dusky evening near the Freestone Inn, I'm reminded why I love this valley so much. The dry fresh air, the particular quality of light, the surrounding mountains, and the quiet--they all draw me in, inviting a longer stay. Unfortunately this trip is just one night in the valley.

But I'll take it, however brief.

Looking up valley
Freestone Inn main lodge
Sunday Morning: Local Flavors
This close to the summer solstice, I'm up and out early for a morning walk around the pond/lake behind Freestone Inn.  I pass a man loaded up with with fly rods, tackle, and video gear giving two women a lesson in fly casting. (The lake is catch and release.)

There's something so elegant and mesmerizing about a fly being cast, with the line floating in easy figure 8 loops over the water. I have to tear myself away when the mosquitoes start biting my bare legs and arms. (Time to break out the insect repellent for the season.)

We forego a fancy breakfast at the Freestone Inn and grab tasty bagel breakfast sandwiches for $2.50 at the Mazama Store, local institution/general store/rest stop/coffee shop/bakery, and purveyor of treasures like locally foraged wild morel mushrooms. (I snag a small bag of them, which cost less than half of what I've seen per pound in Seattle.)

Mazama Store
Every time I return to the valley, this place seems to evolve and get bigger. It's a far cry from the days when this store was an old Quonset hut that sold mostly pop, beer, chips, and provisions like Spam. 

Sunday Afternoon Return
As hard as it is to leave, it's time to head back to "the coast." We retrace our route, with a stop at Canyon Creek above Ross Lake for a short hike along a mountain stream swollen with spring snowmelt.

Then it's the requisite stop at the Diablo Lake overlook, where thousands of photos have been taken by thousands of people driving over the North Cascades. The brilliant opaque aqua color of the lake is caused by glacial "flour" (silt) from the glacial-fed streams flowing into the lake. Max told us yesterday that Thunder Creek/Arm tributary to the lake is the most heavily glacier-fed stream basin in the contiguous U.S.

Thirty minutes later, the heat forces an ice cream cone stop. Okay, heat or not, the siren call of organic ice cream cones at the Cascadian Farmstand near Marblemount pulls in many travelers. Self included many times.

My favorite: raspberry chocolate chip (left).
A little over two days later, trip finished. I always want to stay longer in the North Cascades/Methow. Next time, I promise myself.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

 When You Go
Our hostel lodging at the North Cascades Institute ELC cost $65/night, including three meals--a screaming deal for the quality/quantity of food alone. We neglected to read the fine print, however, which says the hostel rooms can be co-ed with strangers. A little uncomfortable IMO. At the Freestone Inn, we got a group rate that totaled $197/night for a spacious room with a fireplace (not needed in the summer) and private porch overlooking the lake. This is normally out of my budget, but it was a splurge. 

Here's a map of the route (if you don't see the blue route line, click on "more options" on the map below. If that doesn't do it, I'd appreciate a comment below):





Suezy Proctor said...

Thanks for the trip home Jill. What a cool opportunity for you. While nice to have affordable accommodations available, I’m glad you splurged and stayed at the inn.

Did you know that Dan was the front-desk manager of the Freestone when it first opened? That first year, the valley had unbroken records of snowfall – longest winter, most snowfall, etc. Guests at the Freestone could not come or go, with exception to snowshoes or x-country skis – the roads were closed for several days…all roads except for emergency vehicles, from Mazama to Pateros. At the entrance to the Freestone, the wall of snow made from constant plowing, created something akin to winter luge track. The walls were about 12’-14’ tall and wide enough for one vehicle at a time.

Something in one of your photos caught my attention…I noticed that the roof of the Freestone Inn has been changed. Originally, the roof was copper, I believe, and was tested hard the first week it opened. Tons of snow constantly slid off the roof, blocking the entryway and created other problems as well. There was some controversy over the design.

I recently mentioned reuniting with my former choral director, Gini (Virginia) Wagner. We were reminiscing opening weekend of the Freestone. Our 16-member, acapella madrigal choir walked along the trails around the Freestone, and sang carols and “winter” music. I remember being so cold, but enjoying the big fireplace and hot beverages (hot buttered rums) once we reached the inn.

Yes, thousands, upon thousands of people stop to gawk at Diablo Lake…and being one of them, I never tired of an opportunity to stop either. Thanks for your beautiful photographs…including the one with the ice cream cones….I love that flavor too!

jill said...

Hey Suezy, Always enjoy and appreciate your thoughtful comments. I knew this one would resonate with you. That's cool about Dan! And all that snow, I remember those days. For years starting in the mid 1980s a changing group of us went over for a long weekend x-c skiing in the Valley, originally over President's Day before the secret was out. I remember tons and tons of snow most years, but a few rainy years.

Especially love your memory of walking around singing and then gathering around the big stone fireplace for hot drinks after.

Lainey Piland said...

That sounds like a heavenly way to spend a weekend! I went up to the Methow Valley last fall and stayed a night at Sun Mountain Lodge. It's gorgeous scenery up there for sure (and not a bad drive in, either!). Thanks for sharing your experience at the North Cascades ELC. That's on my list of places to visit next time I'm up there! It looks like they have some pretty amazing classes there too. Someday...

jill said...

Thanks for the comment Lainey and apologies for the late response, which you may or may not see. :) Ah, love Sun Mountain Lodge, a part of my personal history in the valley too! And yes, highly recommend the ELC!