Fall Camping in the Methow Valley
The Methow Valley is nicknamed the Smiling Country for good reason: Framed on three sides by the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the Methow gets 300 days of sunshine a year to Seattle's 58.
Families who make the breath-taking three-and-a-half-hour drive on Highway 20 to the Methow in September are just about guaranteed Indian summer camping weather and a chance to see hillsides of Quaking Aspens and Western Larch turning gold against the blue sky. Spend a lazy afternoon with your kids along the sparkling Methow River, visit the old western town of Winthrop or bike across a wooden suspension bridge on one of the longest cross-country trail systems in the country, and your summer will feel a little longer. Families with young children, who aren't yet ruled by the school year calendar, will especially enjoy the mid-week peace of camping in the fall.
Men had landed on the moon before the first highway crossed the North Cascades Mountains to connect the unspoiled Methow Valley to western Washington in 1972. The drive to the Methow through North Cascades National Park alone is worth the trip. It's the kind of drive to do in a convertible wearing a pair of big sunglasses, scarf billowing past the waterfalls and old growth forests. But even in a mini-van packed with a cooler, sleeping bags and a family pet or two, the transporting feeling of awe of these mountains is irresistible.
The perfect halfway stop is Cascadian Farm, a 28-acre organic farm that's sat by the Skagit River for over 4o years. The thatch-roofed roadside stand just east of Rockport, 45 miles after leaving Interstate 5 behind, serves homemade blueberry ice cream, espresso, and pre-made sandwiches. Kids can finish their cones as they explore the patches of ripening pumpkins and watch bald eagles soar above.
Sweet tooths satisfied, the climb begins. Be sure to stop and take in the view at the vertigo-inducing Diablo Lake Overlook, and see what color your kids think the lake far below is – turquoise, green, gray? Sunlight that reflects off glacial rock particles suspended in the water gives Devil Lake its magic.
The last stretch of the drive includes a hairpin turn past Liberty Bell Mountain's dramatic, craggy spires, and then it is down into the valley, where suddenly the air feels drier.
For practical purposes chose either Mazama or Winthrop, 13 miles east, as a home base. Mazama (rhymes with Alabama) has a quieter, backcountry feel, whereas the (former) gun-slinging town of Winthrop is a slice of the wild west that kids love.
Camp: Klipchuck Campground
This is a lovely, remote campground on Early Winter Creeks at mile marker 175 off Highway 20. Private, flat campsites are nestled amid towering pines, some right on the creek. Children like watching pack-trip expeditions take off from the camp's Driveway Butte trailhead.
Snack: The Mazama Country Store
This little store includes exceptional pastries and expresso and high-quality but limited groceries. T-shirts or mugs with the store's iconic goat, an emblem of nearby Goat Peak, make a great souvenir.
Rent mountain bikes at Jack's Hut at the Freestone Inn and explore part of the gentle, scenic 17-mile trail system linking Mazama to Winthrop along the Methow River. (The Freestone is also a lovely splurge for an overnight stay if you want to forego tent sleeping one night).
About ten miles from downtown Winthrop, this full-service campground is considered one of the best fall camping grounds in the state because of its spectacular leaf show. The campsite has a swimming beach, showers and a fishing dock. Request one of the lake-edge sites when you make your reservation at www.recreation.gov.
Sit on the deck waiting for salads, burgers and burritos while children explore the channeled stream leading to an old goldmine.
Play: Sheri's Sweet Shoppe
Enjoy a round of Wild West 18-hole mini-golf and some homemade ice cream or delicious fudge while sitting on one of the old saddle seats at Sheri's Sweet Shoppe. Then visit the Shafer Museum, 285 Castle Ave., an Old West complex of authentic pioneer buildings, including a post office, printing press, homesteads, and gold mine overlooking the mountains and town.
Heading Home Hike:
If you get an early start, stop in the North Cascades National Park for a popular family hike on the Blue Lake trail near Washington Pass. The 2.2-mile trip with 1,100 feet of elevation leads to a turquoise lake encircled by spiring peaks. The hike offers a rare chance to see the Western Larch, a deciduous pine tree, turn a brilliant chartreuse-gold in late September.
Heath Foster, a Seattle writer and mom of three, takes off for the Methow Valley as often as possible.
This article first appeared in September 2010. Update September 2017