Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Leavenworth at Christmas sounds magical, but the crowded festivities can be stressful with kids. Our state's little Bavarian-styled village is a major tourist destination in the winter. And driving through 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 begin to pile up.
But there is a perfect time for Puget Sound-area families to head over the mountains and visit Leavenworth: the fall. The drive is gorgeous, the weather is typically beautiful and the town isn't crowded.
Leavenworth is a about 2.5-hour drive from Seattle. This time of year, getting there is just as nice as the destination. The mountains are resplendent with fall colors. Take Highway 2 over Stevens Pass to see forests of golden larches. (You can also get there via I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, then north on Highway 97 over Blewett Pass.)
As we arrived in town on our fall visit, we felt like we'd traveled much farther than just a few hours. We felt plopped right into (a character version of) Europe. We saw sloped roofs with ornate trim, decorative crossbeams and lots of Gothic typeface. We passed the first Bavarian-style McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.
It was Oktoberfest season, but we steered clear of the parking lots filled with beer tents and port-a-potties. Instead, we walked through the village, gorgeous with fall foliage and every balcony overflowing 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 village in the Cascades? In the 1960s, some forward-thinking businesspeople got together to hatch 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.
I asked some local German friends what they thought of Leavenworth. “It’s so fake — I hate it,” said one. Another was more magnanimous: Bavaria isn’t the part of Germany he’s from, but he thinks Leavenworth is charming, like Disneyland. Have a sausage, have a pretzel!
No trip to Leavenworth is complete without a stop at the famous Nutcracker Museum. I asked a woman in a dirndl dress where to find it. She pointed just across the street. Doh! Rookie tourist question.
This museum houses the biggest collection of nutcrackers in the world, more than 7,000 altogether. There are nutcrackers of every kind and shape, from Star Wars nutcrackers to Karl, a 6-foot-tall nutcracker custom-made in Germany. The kids each got a little clipboard with a scavenger hunt, and prowled the museum looking for a Mickey Mouse, a clown, a baseball player, a rooster. (Not on that list was the display of risqué nutcrackers shaped like ladies’ legs.)
Snacks and shops
After the museum, we wandered the village with pretzels in hand. There’s plenty of window-shopping for kids and adults, everything from nutcrackers to German cuckoo clocks. You could easily get lost for hours at Kris Kringl, a year-round Christmas store with two levels of everything Yuletide. We liked The Wood Shop and Hat Shop, two side-by-side stores selling cool hats and handcrafted wooden toys.
When you work up an appetite, head to Blewett Brewing Company for yummy artisan pizza or Leavenworth Sausage Garten for bratwurst. Treat everyone to a scoop of house-made gelato at Viadolce (try the panna sweet cream). If you can duck out for some 21-and-over time, sample delicious mini cocktails at the Blue Spirits Distilling tasting room.
We caught a live music performance, and the kids loved Enchantment Park, a playground tucked in the woods. Just a few blocks from the main drag, there are hiking trails along the Wenatchee River and pocket beaches to explore.
There’s an even better way to see that beautiful mountain scenery — on horseback. Icicle Outfitters and Guides’ stable is just 2.5 miles outside the village. 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.
We did Leavenworth as a very long day trip. The best parenting tip I have is that the Burger King in Cle Elum gives out free kids’ cones. If you are lucky enough to swing a hotel room (booked well in advance), the Sleeping Lady Resort is a wonderful splurge for families. Kids love the sleeping lofts and rock pool, parents love the beautiful location and the spa and restaurant on-site. In town, Enzian Inn is another favorite for families, with a free hot breakfast and an indoor pool.