Editor’s note: As always in this time of COVID-19, follow the CDC guidelines for domestic travel to make the best decision for your family.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive can’t get you to Hawaii or California, but it can get you from Seattle to Wenatchee. And in this year of staying close to home, a nearby destination with 300 days of sun a year and attractions ranging from quiet bike trails and apple picking to family-friendly skiing stands out.
For most of my 20 years living in Washington state, I’ve thought of the humble city of Wenatchee as a stop on the way to someplace else — Chelan, say, or Sun Lakes. But last winter, a friend of a friend recommended skiing at Mission Ridge after Christmas break. Closest lodging: Wenatchee. We were expecting good snow and few crowds. We weren’t expecting a food hall that felt like a mini Pike Place Market, lovely walking paths along the mighty Columbia River and a friendly, welcoming vibe reminiscent of the Midwest.
It turns out Wenatchee has lots to offer all year long. Here’s your seasonal family fun guide to the “Apple Capital of the World.”
Summer: Scenic drives, swimming and fruit stands
COVID-19 cabin fever got you down? Or perhaps you’re tired of waiting out an endless Juneuary? A quick remedy is a Wenatchee day trip. If you live in Seattle, do a big loop: Leave early on Interstate 90, then head north on U.S. Highway 97 over Blewett Pass to the rolling hills around Cashmere and Wenatchee. Return through Leavenworth on U.S. Highway 2, climbing through the Cascade Mountains over Stevens Pass and down through Index and Gold Bar before winding through the lush farm fields of Snohomish to return to Seattle. You’ll see rushing rivers, forests, roadside fruit stands, ranches and farms.
Roadside stops: On your way out on I-90, stop in the mountain mining town of Roslyn to grab coffee at the café made famous by the TV series “Northern Exposure” and walk along the Coal Mines Trail. Close to Wenatchee, pull off at Cashmere to walk around the historic downtown and to tour the Aplets & Cotlets factory and taste some of its sweet treats, made of locally grown apples and walnuts; it even makes its own Turkish delight. A fun nature stop a few miles north of Wenatchee, Lincoln Rock State Park is an 86-acre park on Lake Entiat. There you can stand in a viewing area to spy Lincoln’s face in the craggy rock above.
Depending on the month, you can pick cherries or peaches at U-pick farms such as R&J Cherries in East Wenatchee, or just keep an eye out for the many roadside stands that will dot your route, such as Smallwood’s Harvest, complete with a petting zoo, a cow train ride and a massive farm store.
Eat lunch or dinner at Wenatchee’s riverside Pybus Public Market, a 1940s-era former steel warehouse that has been repurposed as an inventive food hall, featuring a brewery, cheesemonger, winery, restaurants, gelateria and a large Saturday farmers market from May to October. With its Pike Place Market–style sign, the market serves as one of the anchors of historic Wenatchee, situated alongside the railroad tracks. If a dose of Bavarian charm sounds up your alley, swing by Leavenworth on your way home.
Extra adventure: For a day of adventure on the water, book a rafting trip on the Wenatchee River from Leavenworth to Peshastin Flats with the outfitter River Rider. Expect Class II–III rapids and big fun.
Fall: Apples of my eye
Yes, you can pick apples in western Washington. But why wouldn’t you want to head out over the mountains to pick the fruit from the self-proclaimed “Apple Capital of the World”? (Plus, it has sun, remember?) Some 68 percent of the world’s apples are grown in Washington state, and Wenatchee played a vital role in pioneering the state’s apple industry, opening its first orchard in 1884.
Between Cashmere and Wenatchee, fourth-generation farm Stutzman Ranch is an easy stop. Pick Gala, Fuji and Golden Delicious apples for $.65 a pound. (The ranch also has U-pick peaches, nectarines, grapes, pluots and cherries in the summer.) If you’re willing to drive another 40 minutes, head north to Orondo’s Lone Pine Fruit and Espresso, on Hwy. 97 near Chelan. This fun and funky spot has pies, deli food, ice cream and coffee (as well as outdoor seating); U-pick apple varieties include Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Ambrosia and Fuji.
High-flying festival: No guarantees for 2020, but the Wings & Wheels Festival is a beloved annual East Wenatchee event usually held in early October. It celebrates two pilots who made the first nonstop transpacific flight in 1931, crash-landing in the hills above Wenatchee. Expect a car show, remote-control model plane demos and a display of the original plane.
Winter: Big powder, small crowds at Mission Ridge
On our first day of skiing at Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort last winter, we pulled up to the ski area at the very non-early-bird time of 10 a.m. No matter. There were plenty of spaces in the parking lot, and — even better! — right after we parked, a friendly Mission Ridge ambassador, wearing an orange vest and pulling a sled, showed up to ask if we’d like our skis transported to the lodge. Um, yes, please. This was the first sign of the exceptional friendliness of Mission Ridge, which is known for drier, lighter snow than the Cascade sludge often found on the western slope of the mountains.
A friendly, old-school vibe ruled. Though we didn’t find lift lines, there was plenty of lift-line chattiness, as well as decent snow at a time when ski areas on the western side of the mountains weren’t even open. And sun! Wenatchee was blanketed in fog when we left our Best Western motel ($70 a night, thank you very much) for the ski area. During the 11-mile drive to the mountain, the fog rolled away to make room for clear skies and sunshine. With 36 runs spread out over 2,000 acres, we had plenty of terrain to explore. Don’t miss Mission Ridge’s famous relic: At the top of the Bomber Bowl run, the wing of a B-24 bomber that crashed during a training mission in 1944 is a permanent installation. Tradition dictates that you rub it for good luck (or snow luck).
One caveat: There is less beginner terrain than we would have liked (only about 10 percent of the mountain). But once we got the feel of the mountain, we were able to navigate around it.
Spring: Bike and explore
Tune up those bikes, pump up those tires and head to Wenatchee for a glorious spring bike ride on the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail, a paved biking and walking trail that loops 10 miles around the Columbia River. You’ll wind your way through riverfront parks (a good starting point is Wenatchee Confluence State Park, where the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers meet), across two bridges and right by Pybus Public Market, the perfect place for a snack stop. For an extra pedaling challenge, you can add more miles to your ride by cycling out and back on the trail north to Lincoln Rock State Park. Don’t want to bring bikes? No problem. Rent from Arlberg Sports – Riverfront, located at Pybus.
Alpine blooms: Another lovely spring stop in Wenatchee is Ohme Gardens, an alpine oasis located on a rocky bluff above the city. Once privately owned, the gardens are now open to the public. Wander through 9 acres of gardens, which feature towering trees, pools, stone paths and benches, adding up to a carefully curated mountain landscape with spectacular views. Though the gardens are usually open seasonally, they’re closed for 2020 because of COVID-19, so check for updates before you go.
Where to stay in Wenatchee:
In temperate weather, camp at Lincoln Rock State Park, which boasts 2 miles of paved biking paths; located on the shores of Lake Entiat, it also offers swimming, boating and self-serve kayak rentals. Although there is no lodging next to Mission Ridge’s slopes, you’ll find plenty of affordable motels in Wenatchee, including two Best Westerns and the slightly more upscale Coast Hotel. Or look for an Airbnb property!