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Community feature: Winthrop, WA

Lake in Winthrop, WA

Remember Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Cute western town, board sidewalks, beautiful vistas, high, ragged peaks, clean mountain air, cowboys and the old west everywhere? Remember? As in past tense? That’s right, the old Jackson Hole is now gone to movie stars, endless crowds and ridiculously priced real estate.

But now there’s a new contender every bit as beautiful, remote and western as the old Jackson Hole ever was. It’s called Winthrop and it’s over the mountains to the west in the state of Washington.

Winthrop, Washington has everything old Jackson Hole ever had and more. What it doesn’t have are the glitzy Hollywood crowds, crushing throngs of visitors and over-priced everything.

First off, where is Winthrop? Located in the beautiful Methow (pronounced mét-how) on Washington State Highway 20, the town is located about 184 miles west of Spokane. It’s about 197 miles from Seattle if you drive through the spectacular North Cascades National Park or 245 miles if you drive through Wenatchee and the Chelan Lake areas. Don’t worry about the drive…it’s well worth it. Air taxi service to and from many areas is also available.

8000 Years of Living Here

The Methow Valley was home to Native Americans for over 8,000 years before white settlers arrived in the late 1800’s as gold prospectors invaded the area. In September of 1891, Guy Waring arrived from Boston with his wife and two children establishing squatters rights on the fork of the Chewack and Methow rivers. Named after the governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop quickly became a thriving trading center. For the next 80 years, the valley remained accessible only from the south until, in 1972, highway 20 was cut through the northern end of the valley. As a result, people are only now discovering this jewel of the old west.

Walk down Riverside Avenue, the main street, and it’s like entering a time warp. Old façade buildings, wooden boardwalks and truly nice people line the streets. Mixed in with modern day tourists and residents are real live cowboys, in for some relaxation or picking up supplies. The population is only about 400 full time residents and the entire Methow Valley is home to about 4,000. These are quiet and accommodating folks who don’t gossip about who’s in town or where someone has been seen.

The Duck Brand Saloon, built in 1891, was one of the original businesses in town and was nationally renowned in church publications for not serving drinks to drunks. The original building still stands and served as a school, church, hospital, restaurant, pool hall, home and is now the Town Hall. Author Otis Wister stayed in Winthrop during the late 1800’s gathering information for his western novel The Virginian, basing many of his places and plots on the town and the valley.

Visual Time Frame

Starting around 1972, a wealthy woman named Katherine Wagner promoted a plan to take advantage of tourists using the recently opened highway 20 from the west. Called the Winthrop Project, the idea was to paint and decorate the town not to copy the old west but to best show off its past. Today, the visual time frame for the entire town is frozen between 1885 and 1920, representing the old days of mining and homesteading. As a result, the town is a delight to the senses, fun to explore and to photograph.

The Methow Valley has made a very successful transition from mining and homesteading to recreation and tourism. Some small farms and ranches remain and the valley itself is incredibly picturesque. From high ragged peaks all around to rushing rivers and green fields, the views can resemble a Swiss or Norwegian valley from many vantage points.

Where Winthrop is the historical and tourism focal point, the town of Twisp, only 9 miles to the southeast, is an arts and crafts center. More modern and with more chain and brand name stores, Twisp is about three to four times larger and it’s where valley visitors and residents often go for their weekly shopping. As a result, Winthrop can retain its old west image without having to allow larger outside retail establishments in that might spoil the atmosphere.

Camping Sites Abound

Recreationally, Winthrop and the entire Methow Valley offer every sport imaginable. From dawn hot air balloon rides, to mountain biking, hiking, fishing and skiing, the entire area offers something for everyone all year long. Camping sites abound and are located on rivers, in parks and in hidden meadows far from the crowds. Horse trails, hiking paths and bike trails cover the valley and range from handicapped access all the way to extreme.

A great day trip from Winthrop, or as a spellbinding side trip on the way back to Seattle via Highway 20, is to and stop and stretch your legs in Newhalem. The spectacular drive through Washington Pass down through Ross Lake and Diablo Lake is worth the trip by itself. Reserve a 2½ hour Diablo Lake Adventure and watch the rugged wilderness unfold before you. Waterfalls, ancient forests and wildlife abound as you cruise up Diablo Lake to the base of magnificent Ross Dam. Stay for the Diablo Dam Good Dinner Tour for sights, tour and great outdoor barbeque.

Between Winthrop and Twisp is the Methow Valley airstrip. 5,050 feet in length and stressed for 30,000 pound aircraft, it covers the northernmost VFR routes through the Cascades. While throughout the year it serves the valley for private aircraft access to recreational areas, during the May through September fire season it also serves as a base for the Forest Service.

Winthrop Wine Fest

There’s always something going on in and around Winthrop. During June the Winthrop Wine Festival takes place followed during July by the Rhythm & Blues Festival and the Methow Music Festival. During August the North Cascade Oldtime Fiddlers Contest brings in lots of spectators. Many other fun happenings include home tours, cowboys jamborees, an arts festival, live theater, rodeos and mountain trail runs, even golf tournaments and fishing contests. Winthrop and the Methow Valley may be laid back but it’s never dull anywhere in the area.

Accommodations in Winthrop and the valley range from wilderness camping to the AAA Four Diamond Sun Mountain Lodge Resort. Surrounded by 3,000 acres of wilderness and overlooking a mountain lake, the Sun Mountain Lodge would be a world class resort anywhere. Perched high above Winthrop, the main lodge restaurant has a jaw-dropping view of the entire Methow Valley and the ragged, snow-covered peaks beyond.

The resort has 112 unique mountain- and valley-view guest rooms, award-winning dining, two swimming pools and over 100 miles of trails. The 8,000-bottle rock masonry and cherry wood wine cellar can seat 14 people for very unique wine parties. This is definitely a must-see place.

Methow Valley Getaway

The Methow Valley is a perfect getaway destination for a vacation home or cabin and properties run from basic lots to luxury homes with prices to match.. The valley is surrounded by state and federal lands and, to prevent uncontrolled building, only designated areas can be developed. Known as “valley floor” property, these plots of land are available along most of the rivers feeding into the valley and many have beautiful views.

The Town of Winthrop and the Methow Valley are waiting to be discovered. Amazingly, very few northwesterners, including Washington residents, know about or have visited the area. Though activities abound throughout all four seasons, the beautiful views, the laid-back lifestyle and the wonderful people maintain a tranquil atmosphere that can melt even the most hardened big city types. Within two days of exploring the valley and relaxing in town or at Sun Mountain Lodge, the usy world simply disappears as emails go unanswered and cell phones are forgotten.

But here’s a warning: you’d better hurry if you want to see this moment-in-time destination. With Sun Valley, Mammoth Mountain and especially Jackson Hole being devoured by the super-wealthy and the hordes of tourists who flock to see them, it’s only a matter of time before they too discover this beautiful place. So hurry…hurry…