The Old-West storefronts of Winthrop, Wash., a fun fall getaway destination for Seattle-area families
If escaping to a cabin in a small mountain town aglow with beautiful golden foliage seems like the perfect antidote to COVID-19 burnout, have I got a destination for you!
I’ll be honest, though: The thought of a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle to Winthrop, Wash., with two kids under the age of 5 didn’t appeal to me at first. However, armed with ample snacks and the patience for plenty of stops along the way, our scenic route for a midweek getaway to this Western-themed town quickly changed my mind.
The Methow People were the primary inhabitants of Washington’s North Cascades until white settlers — including Winthrop’s founder, Guy Waring — established trading posts in the area in the late 1800s. Around a hundred years later, the highway connecting the Western and Eastern sides of the mountains (State Route 20) was nearing completion, and some enterprising Winthrop business owners had an idea. In a ploy to attract tourists, they hired the architect of nearby Bavarian-themed Leavenworth to restore the town in the style of the Old West. Today, families can enjoy the town’s Western charm while also appreciating the Indigenous culture that continues to enrich the area.
What to do in and around Winthrop
Families will enjoy strolling the wooden boardwalks and popping into the shops along Riverside Avenue, stopping to read about the history of the town at notable buildings. Signs reading “Mask Up, Partner” keep the atmosphere friendly while firmly reminding folks to keep tourism alive by exercising precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.
Prepare for relaxing downtime (or the long drive home) by picking up sketchbooks and postcards at Winthrop Emporium or a book at Trail’s End Bookstore. Public restrooms are available at the Visitor Center if you or the kids need a pit stop while in town.
Explore nearby parks and outdoor attractions
From downtown, a short walk across a suspension bridge leads to the Sa Teekh Wa Trail, along the Chewuch River. Beautiful views and informative signs about local history keep adults entertained, while kids can build forts and climb on felled trees along the riverbank.
On the other side of town, find relatively new Homestream Park, a former horse pasture that was restored in 2019 to the land’s natural riparian and floodplain condition. The park also pays tribute to the Methow people and the lands and rivers on which they hunted and fished. Kids will especially love the miniature lookout tower.
Indoor exhibits at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery remain closed due to the pandemic, but families can still explore the outdoor tanks. When we visited midweek, a bucket of fish food was available for us to toss into the trout pond. Watching the fish greedily flock to the surface for a nibble was a big hit with my two kids.
Definitely do not miss the amazing fall hiking around the Methow Valley. You can’t drive more than a few minutes from town without passing a trailhead. This is also a moment to appreciate the rooster-like wake-up times of your children. With the trailheads’ small parking lots, getting an early start or hiking midweek helps avoid crowds. We loved the Blue Lake Trail, a 4.4-mile round-trip hike made particularly lovely in the fall, when the western larches turn golden. My 4-year-old found this hike challenging but rewarding; it helped that the trail does not have the steep, rocky scrambles of many alpine lake trails.
Other area hikes to fall foliage or lakes that range from 4 to 5 miles in length include Cutthroat Lake, Patterson Mountain and Goat Peak Lookout. The trail to Falls Creek Falls allows you to tailor the hike length a bit more with a viewpoint located just a quarter-mile down the trail.
Note on safety: Winthrop is roughly an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital (in Brewster, Wash.), and weather conditions can change quickly at higher elevations. This is a good time to make sure your pack includes water, layers, snacks and an emergency kit. Also read up on outdoor safety tips with kids.
Where to stay
During a pandemic, there’s something to be said for having your own entrance and adequate space between your crew and other guests. River’s Edge Resort offers cabins, most of which have a private hot tub on the back deck. We loved having a kitchenette to prepare meals, and the resort’s downtown location made getting around easy. Cabins are also available at nearby Pearrygin Lake State Park.
Where to eat
For that post-hike hot chocolate — or pre-hike pastry — stop by Rocking Horse Bakery. Some lunch items are available by 9 a.m., making this a convenient stop for a takeaway sandwich to tuck into your backpack. We enjoyed an afternoon ice cream at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, a purveyor of fudge and coffee; the treats were served on an expansive deck perfect for socially distanced snacking.
Our cabin’s kitchenette enabled us to prepare our own meals, but we saw that popular local spots Old Schoolhouse Brewery and Duck Brand Cantina both offer takeout and outdoor seating (weather permitting).
Stops along the way
Every parent knows that the key to surviving a long drive is to make many stops. En route to Winthrop, we hiked the kid-friendly Trail of Cedars, near Newhalem, a company town owned by Seattle City Light. We also hopped out of the car at a viewpoint to admire stunningly blue Diablo Lake.
On the way back, we stopped for pastries, coffee and snacks in Mazama at the legendary Mazama Store, just west of Winthrop, and later sheltered from the rain for our lunch at Rasar State Park near Concrete.
If you go…
Find it: Winthrop, Wash., is close to a four-hour drive from Seattle via the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). This scenic highway closes seasonally, typically between late November or early December and May, based on snow conditions. Visit the Washington State Department of Transportation website for road status.
To reach Winthrop when State Route 20 is closed, travel Highway 2 east toward Wenatchee, or Interstate 90 east, then north over Blewett Pass to reach Highway 2. From Wenatchee, travel north on Highway 97. Keep in mind that either route adds 30–60 minutes of driving time.
North Cascades National Park: Traveling over State Route 20 takes families through North Cascades National Park. There is no entrance fee to travel through this park (though you may need the passes mentioned above to park at trailheads). The excellent national park visitor center at Newhalem is currently closed.