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Great outdoors

Top places for mountain getaways in Pacific NW

By CARY ORDWAY

The mountains of the Pacific Northwest can be foreboding in winter as ice and snow make travel across the passes more hazardous, but in summer it's a different story. The mountains become a playground for Northwest residents who find the natural beauty irresistible. Whether it's the region's lakes and streams or the endless hiking trails or simply the vast panorama of jagged peaks and vast evergreen forests, the mountains beckon Northwest residents to come and get their seasonal fix of the Great Outdoors.

There are many places in the Northwest to have a memorable mountain experience and here are three areas in particular that we have been back to year after year and continue to enjoy whenever we get the chance.

Suncadia Resort

One of the most beautiful, scenic parts of Washington State is the drive on Interstate 90 as it leaves the foothills just east of the Seattle metro area and slowly climbs to the summit of Snoqualmie Pass and then further east through the high country that eventually opens to the meadows and spectacular mountain views of Kittitas County.

This area has always been an outdoorsman's paradise as anglers and hunters have found rich rewards in the woods, streams and backcountry areas that seem so far removed from every-day civilization. The area also has quite an Old West history with the coal mines that once thrived near Cle Elum, and nowhere is that more evident than in the historic town of Roslyn, perhaps best known to TV viewers as the filming location for “Northern Exposure,” popular in the early 90's.

So it's no surprise – considering the many recreational and historical attractions – that a big resort has been built on some of the best and most scenic land in this area. Just a few miles from Cle Elum, Suncadia Resort has blossomed into a world-class combination of lodgings, resort-style amenities and vacation homes, all carefully positioned and built to preserve the natural appeal of the forests and mountain views that have attracted campers and outdoor recreationists for many decades.

Opening in 2005 with just a small inn and a golf course, Suncadia has since expanded to the point that hundreds of lodging units and a full array of recreational activities are now available for resort guests.

We remember camping at nearby Salmon la Sac in the 70's – back when we were a lot younger, and when a night sleeping on hard ground was an acceptable cost for being in the Great Outdoors. Plentiful hiking trails are nearby, along with rivers such as the Yakima, where we have spent many summer days inner-tubing. We've also been fortunate enough to experience a horse-packing trip high up on Teanaway Ridge, just a short drive east of Suncadia Resort. If you want a vacation mecca that offers a different thrill in every direction, this part of Washington State certainly fills the bill.

Now, of course, you don't have to “rough it” to enjoy an outdoor vacation in this region – Suncadia is about as close to roughing it as a trip to a major spa resort. The resort has done a remarkable job integrating a major lodge, a cozy inn, a recreation complex and hundreds of upscale homes that have neighborhoods just like you would see in suburbia.

While at Suncadia, we stayed at the Inn at Suncadia, the smaller, more intimate of the two major lodge-style buildings. Each of the 18 rooms has a cozy, yet relatively spacious feel with views of the golf course and an overall Northwest motif. Our room, decorated in neutral beige tones, was furnished with a king bed, a table and two lounge chairs, a desk and elegant paintings on the walls. A fireplace and moderate size television were built into the corner of the main room. Our balcony was a great place to sit and watch the golfers practicing their swings, while golf carts lined up on the paved path to take groups of players out on the course. The other lodging option is The Lodge at Suncadia, a 254-room facility built near a ledge that offers unsurpassed views of the nearby Cascade Mountain range. Several rental homes also are available.

We couldn't wait to rent some bikes and explore the property – although, at 6,400 acres, it wasn't likely we would get to see it all. We walked through the inn's spectacular lobby area with its towering stone fireplace, elaborate chandeliers and top-to-bottom view windows and noticed that the interior design of the inn, like other Suncadia buildings, is really first-rate. We then strolled across the street to the Swim and Fitness Center where dozens of new bikes were available for rent. While there, we took a quick look at the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the modern fitness center and, if you can believe it, a tube-style waterslide that is sure to be a hit with the kids in the family. The Glade Spring Spa was under construction during our visit, but that promises to be a major draw in the future.

For more information on Suncadia, phone 866-904-6301 or visit www.suncadiaresort.com.

Methow Valley

It doesn't get the attention that Seattle does, or Mount St. Helens or the San Juan Islands, but Washington's Methow Valley is a traveler's gem tucked away in the North Cascades about as far away from “civilization” as you can get in the Evergreen State.

For many decades, the town of Winthrop was content to be the modern equivalent of a 19th Century mining town, albeit without the mining. Horse farms and agriculture had replaced the gold mining of the 1890's. The town still looked the same with its aging buildings reminiscent of the frontier outpost Winthrop had once been.

But then tourism happened to the Methow (pronounced MET-how) Valley. The North Cascades Highway was completed in the late 1960's, opening the flood gates to motorists who got wind of breathtaking scenery in the new North Cascades National Park. Prior to this, the Methow Valley had been a five-hour drive from the Seattle metropolitan area; with the new highway, the new route cut an hour off that and created a “loop” drive – now called the Cascade Loop – that over the years has become recognized as one of Washington's most scenic highways.

Local residents realized there was gold in them thar tourists and, with the help of one very generous benefactor, went about the business of turning sleepy Winthrop into bustling Wild West Theme Town Winthrop. Kathryn Wagner was the widow of a local sawmill owner and provided the backing local business people needed to completely revamp the downtown area. Wagner offered matching funds to businesses that would step up and convert their storefronts to a Western motif. Town leaders only needed to look as far as the town of Leavenworth – the Bavarian theme town, also in North Central Washington, that had successfully re-invented itself a few years earlier as a tourist destination – to see what a change in d├ęcor could mean to the local economy.

Gradually, and with some reluctance here and there, the town's business people completed the makeover, turning Winthrop into the Western theme town that it is today. Wooden sidewalks, false-front Western buildings, hitching posts and other reminders of the Old West are never far from view as visitors scavenge the town's stores for a wide variety of trinkets and all things Western. In warmer months, the tourist crowd here is pretty much the same family-oriented group you might see visiting Knott's Berry Farm – although, we're not sure Harleys are allowed to park at Knott's the way they do at Three-Fingered Jack's Saloon.

The Methow Valley is not thickly forested like you find in Western Washington. But it does have enough patches of Douglas Fir and other vegetation to be far from baron. The mountains – just a few miles distant on either side of the Valley – are always in view. And when you get near Winthrop, the North Cascade Mountains start to rise up in dramatic fashion offering a tantalizing hint of the spectacular scenery just a few miles farther over the North Cascades Highway.

The local accommodations range from small bed-and-breakfast inns to riverside cabins to motels. There isn't a huge selection of restaurants but there are a half-dozen or so that offer just enough variety for a short stay. If you do stay a few days, be sure and take advantage of the area's recreational opportunities. Not only are there numerous trails for hiking – and gorgeous vistas to reward your efforts – but there are several outfitters in the area that offer horseback riding and other outdoor adventures. In the spring, there is river-rafting down the Methow River. Mountain biking is a big draw for visitors who want to ride trails where they can be pretty much alone with Nature.

Finally, one of the best things about a visit to the Methow Valley is just getting there. If you're coming from the Seattle area, you have the choice of a drive over Interstate 90 and then up Highway 97 over forest-covered Blewett Pass and through the scenic Wenatchee Valley, or you can drive north on Interestate 5 and drive Highway 20 east through the majestic North Cascades. Either way takes you to places many people see only in National Geographic.

For more information on Winthrop and the Methow Valley, phone 888-463-8469 or visit www.winthropwashington.com.

Leavenworth, Washington

One great place to find the Great Outdoors is the Icicle River Valley, which affords good fishing and hiking and is an enjoyable drive deep into the Alpine wilderness or “Enchantments” as these mountains are called. All of this is just a few miles from downtown Leavenworth, known far and wide as the Bavarian Village because of its Bavarian-themed shops and restaurants, all nestled in a little valley bordered on the west by steep mountains that look like they could have been brought here from the European Alps.

On one recent trip to Leavenworth, we rented a place called “Log Haven,” a sprawling log house. Log Haven also is perfectly suited to a family getaway with sleeping accommodations for up to seven people. And, unlike some lodgings so impeccably designed and decorated, children are welcome. Dogs and cigarettes, however, need to be left behind.

This little piece of log heaven is situated about three miles outside of Leavenworth Arriving at this log home you are immediately drawn to the spacious outdoor deck that looks out onto the picture-postcard mountains to the south and east. One could almost envision Julie Andrews and the children running through the meadows and flower gardens in this sparsely populated countryside with the helicopter swooping down for the opening panorama you see in Sound of Music. Okay, maybe it's not that gorgeous, but you get the general idea.

Log Haven may look like a big cabin but it's like a complete vacation home inside with a full kitchen, two bathrooms, large living room area – with wide-screen high-def TV – and even a laundry facility. The upstairs loft has two beds and is large enough that someone could roll out a sleeping bag on the floor and no one would need to step on anybody. Cathedral ceilings and top-to-bottom windows make this home feel bigger than it actually is.

Out on the deck are some chairs to just gaze away at the unbelievable mountain views or, if you prefer, there is a four-person hot tub – which, incidentally, got quite a work-out while we were visiting Log Haven. A propane barbecue also is on the deck so that you don't even need to take your eyes off those mountains while you're cooking.

Of course, there's no need to cook if you don't want to. Leavenworth has dozens of restaurants offering quite a variety of cuisines. Chief among those, as you might expect, is German or Bavarian food and you can't go too far in this place without being offered a bratwurst or a beer. We had both at Gustav's, the place with perhaps the best view of the mountains from its outside deck and, just as important, 25 beers on tap. Another of our favorite stops was Munchen Haus, a real beer garden with char-grilled brats and sausages, German beer on tap and a festive atmosphere. It's like a tiny little piece of the Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, which we did get a chance to experience several years ago.

Also within easy driving distance – perhaps an hour, 15 minutes from Leavenworth – is famous Lake Chelan, 50-plus miles long and well worth visiting. The Lady of the Lake will take you the length of the lake to Stehekin where you are surrounded by the Cascade Mountains. Only accessible by boat or plane, Stehekin is a tiny village that is probably one of the most remote communities in all of Washington State.

Our trip to Leavenworth was a go-with-the-flow experience that often meant just relaxing in front of the Log Haven fireplace and enjoying a game of Scrabble. Or it was as simple as sitting back on that big deck and watching a few wispy clouds float along toward the mountains across the bright blue sky, so common in Central Washington during spring and summer months.

For more information on renting a cabin or vacation home in the Leavenworth area, contact Destination Leavenworth at 509-548-4320 or visit them on the web at www.destinationleavenworth.com.



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