Families who make the breath-taking 3 1/2-hour drive on Highway 20 to the Methow in September are just about guaranteed comfortable camping weather and a chance to see hillsides of Quaking Aspens and Western Larch turning gold against the blue sky. Families with young children, who aren’t yet ruled by the school year calendar, will especially enjoy the midweek peace of camping in the fall.
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.
Hittin’ the road
Men had landed on the moon before the first highway crossed the North Cascades 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 minivan packed with a cooler, sleeping bags and a family pet or two, the transporting feeling of awe of these mountains is irresistible.
The halfway point is in Rockport where you can stop for a rest or bite to eat. Then 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, choose either Mazama or Winthrop, 13 miles east, as a home base. Mazama has a quieter, backcountry feel, whereas the 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.
Snack: The Mazama Country Store
This little store includes exceptional pastries and espresso 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.
Play: Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies
Rent mountain bikes at Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies and explore part of the gentle, scenic 17-mile trail system linking Mazama to Winthrop along the Methow River. Another option for your stay is an overnight stay at The Freestone Inn, offering lodge and cabin accommodations.
Camp: Pearrygin Lake State Park
About 10 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 washington.goingtocamp.com.
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, an Old West complex of authentic pioneer buildings, including a post office, printing press, homesteads, and gold mine overlooking the mountains and town.
Or take a stroll on the Sa Teekh Wa Trail, a 2-mile interpretive trail along the Chewuch River, easily accessed from a bridge at the northwest end of Winthrop’s boardwalk.
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 gain leads to a turquoise lake encircled by mountain peaks. The hike offers a rare chance to see the Western Larch, a deciduous pine tree, turn a brilliant chartreuse-gold in late September.
Unfortunately, the Methow Valley region is susceptible to wildfires in the summer and early fall that result in heavy smoke conditions unfavorable for camping. Check the forest service website for the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest before you set off on your trip.
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. Updated September 2023.