Boys on pedestrian street on a fall getaway to Leavenworth, Wash. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Leavenworth at Christmas sounds magical, but 2020 is really not the year we want to be elbowing through the crowds. And driving across the dark and snowy pass? Kids bundled in winter gear and needing to stop for a potty break? Add to that potentially very cold weather and the challenges for a holiday getaway to Leavenworth begin to pile up.
Instead, go now! The leaves are turning, and it’s a gorgeous drive over to our state’s little Bavarian-style village. Leavenworth is about a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle and this time of year, getting there is just as nice as the destination. Take Highway 2 over Stevens Pass to see forests of golden larches. (You can also reach Leavenworth via I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, then north on Highway 97 over Blewett Pass.)
Our family has visited Leavenworth in the fall a couple of times before, and our recent trip was our first overnight since 2019. It felt so good to get away, even for a tiny overnight trip. My kids were thrilled to get to go swimming, and I was pretty excited to be somewhere with fresh sheets and towels and a hot breakfast that I didn't have to prepare.
Like every time arriving in Leavenworth, we felt like we’d traveled much farther than just a few hours away. We felt plopped right into a charming (character version of) Europe. We saw sloped roofs with ornate trim, decorative crossbeams and lots of Gothic typeface. Even the local McDonald’s and Starbucks are Bavarian-style.
Front Street, the main drag through downtown Leavenworth, is now closed off to cars. Picnic tables occupy parking spaces and outdoor seating for restaurants spills out into the street. It’s brilliant. I hope the town will make this welcoming, pedestrian-friendly change permanent.
Pretty much everyone we saw wore masks, and with the main street closed, it was easy to spread out and keep our distance.
As we walked through the village, fall leaves swirled in the wind and every balcony overflowed with flowers. We noticed horse-drawn carriages, people dressed in lederhosen and dirndl dresses, and street signs marked “strasse.”
So why, exactly, is there a Bavarian-themed village in the Cascades? In the 1960s, some forward-thinking businesspeople hatched a plan to save this dying logging town. They remodeled the buildings Bavarian-style and the tourism dollars flowed in. A little wacky, but it totally worked. Have a sausage, have a pretzel and maybe go for a horse-drawn carriage ride. The best thing to do is embrace the cheesiness and have fun.
Must-see Nutcracker Museum
No trip to Leavenworth is complete without a stop at the famous Nutcracker Museum ($5 adults, $2 kids). This museum houses the biggest collection of nutcrackers in the world, more than 7,000 altogether. Last November, the museum moved to new digs downstairs in the same building, now much more accessible and nicely lit.
Founder Arlene Wagner, 95, is in the museum every day and gave us hints to complete our Nutcracker scavenger hunts when we got stuck. There are nutcrackers of every kind and shape to see, from Star Wars figures to all sorts of animals to Karl, a 6-foot-tall nutcracker custom-made in Germany.
Snacks and shops
With Front Street closed to traffic, window shopping through downtown is better than ever. There’s the nutcracker store, the fudge shop, the outdoor art booths — something for everyone. (One sign of the times: The Gingerbread Factory was temporarily closed for cleaning after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.)
You could easily get lost for hours at Kris Kringl, a year-round Christmas store with two levels of everything Yuletide. I had to pull my kids away from the Harry Potter miniature village in the back. We also liked The Wood Shop and Hat Shop, two side-by-side stores selling funky hats and bins of tiny treasures.
Treat everyone to a scoop of house-made gelato at Viadolce (try the panna sweet cream). We visited mid-week, which meant no crowds but fewer flavor choices. For dinner, I picked up a yummy artisan pizza from Blewett Brewing Company, which I'd ordered and paid for online to minimize contact.
Playgrounds in Leavenworth are still closed, but there’s an easy hike right in town along the river that’s fun for kids. Follow a flat gravel path from Waterfront Park, across Blackbird Island, to Enchantment Park (which has a pump track if you’re game to bring bikes). You’ll walk by pocket beaches, along the Wenatchee River and over bridges. We saw a warning sign about a mama bear and cubs spotted in the area. Didn’t run into the bears, but we did see four deer out for a stroll.
There’s an even better way to see that beautiful mountain scenery than hiking — on horseback. Icicle Outfitters and Guides’ stable is just 2.5 miles outside of town. The horses are gentle, and you don’t need any prior experience to do a 2-mile ride (about 45 minutes). Kids must be 6 years old to ride their own horse; younger kids can ride with an adult.
Day trip or overnight
Leavenworth is totally do-able as a day trip; it just makes for a very long day. It's also a perfect weekend or mid-week (thanks, remote school) escape. If you can swing it, Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort is a wonderful splurge for families. Kids love the sleeping lofts, parents love the beautiful location. Note that the rock pool and hot tub are closed until Phase 4. The restaurant is open and serving family-style and plated meals instead of the buffet.
We stayed at Enzian Inn, half a block from downtown. For our first overnight trip in a long time, it did not disappoint. There’s a complimentary hot breakfast, complete with a made-to-order omelet bar and an alp horn serenade. All open and included with your stay: the hotel’s 18-hole putting course, ping pong room, racquetball room, and best of all, the swimming pool and hot tub.