Methow Valley Touring


Chewuch Road outside of Winthrop, Washington

20 September 2007 (50 miles)

It's been getting to be a September habit of mine to ride over the two western passes of the North Cascades Highway, Washington and Rainy Passes, to gain access to the heaven that is the Methow Valley to their east. Okay, this "habit" is seeing only its the third year in 2007, but I can't count very high - so one makes exceptions. In any case, plans are well laid for an early departure from Seattle for a weekend in the Valley, beginning at all of the crack of 7:30 a.m. Uggh - that is just NOT a human time to be hitting the road! But, with the actual riding still a few hours away, executing the departure part of the plan is on the easier side of the to-do list. Off we go... and into the rain.

My friend K will be joining me for this ride while I in turn will be joining his family and some of his in-laws at their cabin for the long weekend. This "cabin" looked suspiciously like a very nice, large house with amazing views looking over open land - but I guess it's called a cabin because it's not in the city. I'm easily fooled, obviously, which is probably why I don't get to choose the appellations. Anyway, the idea is to leave my car on the west side of Rainy Pass - the first and longest climb - in Newhalem. I'll pick it up a few days later when the families leave and I slightly extend the weekend. This schematic diagrams seems very impressive, me thinks.

Needless to say, such meticulous plans go quickly down the ol' drain as the rain increases as we make our way north and east on the Highway. Indeed, we increasingly foresee the low likelihood of completing the ride as planned before we've even cleared Seattle. But it isn't until the rain begins in earnest approaching Diablo Dam (near Newhalem) that "the plan" completely evaporates into "the former idea". We're still only in the lowlands before the climb, but we decide that it'll be a continuous drive to the Methow Valley after all. I'm not complaining too much, however, since the idea of finding a new and different ride on the other side is pretty appealing to me as well. Now I'll at least have a car, too.

This is a perfect example of how when it comes to cycling, flexibility is key. One can be intrepid and ride in any weather, but one can also slide off of a road and catch pneumonia - just saying. Not that rain need be such a deterrent, but one can't exactly ignore it when going for a 4-5 hour ride. Indeed, we pass only a lone rider making the run to Rainy Pass and Washington Pass beyond - there's always at least one fool! Not that we aren't left with some doubts regarding our manhood from the comfort of our car speeding by... but by the time we reach the steady snows coming down at Washington Pass we are patting ourselves on the back joyfully. How gratifying to assure ourselves of the stupidity of that (now-turned-) numbnut's foolhardiness. Really, who would've even have CONSIDERED doing on a ride on such a day?

So we make like a bullet to the cabin, all the while watching the sun steadily grow in strength as we leave the passes behind and roll into the valley. K rues the fact that we won't be doing the pass ride, something he's come to view as an annual measuring stick against aging, but he eventually gives up the ghost as we contemplate new prospects. We pull up to the house and straightaway have lunch, plying our guts with what have been our former mid-ride lunch while thinking up alternative rides. Burp - we don't suffer the deed poorly in any event. Soon an alternative is found - a fifty mile roundtrip ride out Chewuch Road, including a twelve mile climb. This will be preceded by the four miles necessary to get to town (Winthrop), plus another nine miles along the Chewuch River to approach the turnoff for the climb. A respectable substitute, we agree.

Figuring we have just left behind an eighty mile ride including snow, we think this should be a snap. Mentally, our guard lowers significantly - but we have weather gear with us just in case and, ignoring a short false start later (my fault), we have enough water, too. Quickly we descend toward town in a stiff breeze that snakes up Bear Creek Road (where the cabin is). Here I make the unenjoyable discovery that my little windbreaker jacket (a cheapie courtesy of the STP event ride) is crap when it comes to any real wind. It snaps in the breeze like a card shark bridging a deck in a shuffle at all of about an inch from my ear. I'm being rendering both deaf and beyond annoyed. But in the loud wind I can do nothing more but suffer and keep up until I can call out to K for a stop. I've GOT to take this damned thing off!

That accomplished, and my sanity returned, we make our way through the couple of blocks that make up downtown Winthrop. We cross the Methow River, then turn right and up onto Chewuch Road. The wind is still stiff, but without the pull of a downhill's gravity I now feel myself using excess energy in combatting it. There is probably a mistaken judgement on my gear choice, too, as by the time we've gone a ways down the road I'm already lagging. K slows up his pace a bit and, although giving me opportunity to back out, we next more calmly continue to proceed down the meandering and lonely road to chew up the nine miles to the turnoff. Fortunately, by the time we hit the turnoff, my knees regain most of their looseness. Up we go.

On the map, there doesn't seem any real point to this tack we have taken. Somewhere about twelve miles ahead, this side road will end. Why, who knows? Maybe the cows after the cattle guard we shortly pass do. At least the climb itself isn't too bad, with most of its tougher incline coming in the first couple of miles. By the time we hit mile six or so, the only real question remaining concerns exactly how many miles it will be before we turned around. Twelve is the number in our head, but it might be thirteen or more for all we really know. Such things are often not terribly precise when oral instructions are given, as they were in this case from the local bike shop.

So we find ourselves negotiating this impending demise, deciding that if it's still an uphill battle by Mile 13 - or a precipitous downhill drop after mile 12.5 - back we'll go. The ride's been going long enough, and the scenery - although pleasantly hilly and wooded - is getting monotonous. Eventually we can see a mountain peak saddle in the distance; We come to hope that that will be the logical end to the climb. When we find that it is we're overjoyed, the decision to become quitters removed from us. The road officially ends with a barrier blocking access to a trail beyond.


This is the face of conquest? At the end of the road: note the impossibility of continuing. IMPOSSIBLE, I tells ya!

Mentally, there's something fulfilling about hitting this undeniable end after 12 miles. Oddly, in its finality it's more worthy than turning around after 13 miles and a continuing road. There it is; we've done it; Check. Or something like that. More importantly, a hot tub awaits! So we stuff some grub down our pieholes, barrel down the mountain, then parade back into town with a glorious tailwind. Although this is finally followed with the climb back up to the cabin, that proves easily surmountable with two such thoroughbreds returning to the barn. Or hot tub, rather.

An addendum: The next few days are spent taking it easy at the cabin, playing with the menagerie of five kids, hot tubbing, and getting some brief hikes in. The first is a straight-up burst up a trail-less jab up a nearby "hilltain" (a mountainish hill, my latest addition to the English lexicon). The second, a few hours long, is more notable in that it turns into a scouting run for a mountain bike ride in the future: Pipestone Canyon. It's not terribly far from the cabin, a jewel replete with eagle cliffs above a chasm/canyon/gorge and a canyon that rolls out to a huge halfpipe toward Twisp.

But the Pipestone run and more ego-boosting concerts for kids (hearing "You're really good!" never gets old, even if from a 10-year-old) must wait for another time. The time has come to part ways as my friends make plans to leave on Sunday morning. I'll remain for another day to see more of the area. I spend a first part of the day walking around Winthrop, that for-tourism faux Western town with its restored facades and connecting boardwalk. It's admittedly overly cutesy, but not unappealing, either. It provides me a chance to peek at some real estate - expensive and expansive in territory, of course - and see what actually is offered in town, which isn't much. Otherwise there are only some galleries and restaurants, but that scene is almost at its end for the year.

Overall the Methow Valley is a pretty vacant place for all of its beauty. "Civilization" is comprised of several towns spaced miles apart, each with its own characteristic. Nature gets the (vast) rest, 93% by land use restriction. Mazama, tucked against the mountains and their passes, is easily the most green and wooded. It's also the least town-like, with only a general store and restaurant to really speak of. Winthrop is the hub of tourist activities, which includes hiking, cycling, rafting, horseback riding, and more. Twisp, in the middle of the valley, has the most businesses and in some ways the least charm - but it's still quite small. Carlton and Methow, completing the list, are notable mostly for not being notable, each with perhaps a church and a coffee shop beyond a negligible cluster of practically invisible businesses.

Twisp River Road (40 miles)

23 September 2007 - the first time

Twisp is where I head for a last day of a gorgeous Methow Valley weekend. It's got the better bakery and the better brewery than Winthrop, plus the convenience of a public shower and a large grocery store among other businesses. It's the big city of Methow! The downtown area wisely angles off from the main highway so, for an elongated few blocks, one gets a glimpse of Main Street U.S.A. More importantly I scope out the shower at the laundromat, buy some food, inspect the all-important cafe situation for later, then make my plans for the day.

Friend K has suggested a ride up Twisp River Road until it ends - and I'm one easily convinced in such recommendations. It's a relatively deserted road, he says, with some campgrounds to check out, a river to follow, and views of mountains in the distance. It's like a pupu platter of riding! - as I'm sure is said in China. Or maybe Chinese restaurants. In either case, I edge my car a hair out of the chunk of city blocks that comprise downtown Twisp, park it, and it's time to be on my way.

It's hard to excitingly describe a ride that's merely scenic and relaxing, which this one is. There aren't any real choices to make: I just have to follow the road, which follows the river, which follows the valley, which falls under the distant gaze of Washington Pass. Well, that's a surprise, anyway: I've just realized that the road sort of parallels the Mazama-Winthrop (Hwy 20) road, leading right back into the mountains. But other than that observation, it's only a whir of wheels to the woad. Road!

The first campground I see, meanwhile, is tucked into the river banks under a canopy of trees, deserted. That'll work for the night if need be. But on I go, eventually coming to the end of the road. There I find another campground (Mystery Camp). That'll work, too, plus it's better as well, view-wise. There are a few guys and their dog poking around for firewood, but since they call their huge dog back from lunging over to devour me, I decide that they were friendly enough. They've established a camp for several people, and looked to be hunters. So, based on their friendly handling of the dog, and a hunter's theoretical ethics regarding suffering, I figure they wouldn't torture me before shooting - should things come to that. In my limited wisdom this is good enough: Mystery Camp it WILL be for the night, mainly because of the splendid campsite I find right on the water that begs my attendance. Not that I'm against more campsites being taken in the meantime. It'll be nice to have a buffer when the shooting begins.


Heading up Twisp River Road, peaks in the distance.

So that's that. I return the nearly 20 miles to Twisp without incident, although not without surprise. Somehow, on the way out, it seemed that I was slowly gaining altitude if in a loping up-down kind of way. The return, however, belies this impression. I literally fly back to Twisp. Granted, there is a small tailwind, but the road also just seems to be almost entirely downhill. Even the small uphills seem downhill given my momentum. Either it's a hell of a tailwind on the return, or my internal concept of what's "level" comprised of is way off. Probably both.

The rest of the evening doesn't amount to much. I blow on the horn for a good while, sounding over a lonely river spot after returning to the car. I shop for some food at Hank's Grocery before enduring the hot-cold whims of the shower at the laundromat. Then I drive back to the campsite and set up my tent, spotting a few deer on the way. These fortunately haven't been added (yet) to the tally of thousands on the signs denoting roadkill deer found throughout the valley.

With camp set up, I get back in the car to drive the graveled rest of Twisp River Road. I don't find the ghost town that I've read about, Gilbert, so I assume it must be lame-o in the first place. So there. That's better than actually putting forth the effort of poking around for it, anyway. Nor do I see any other campers at these other camps found along the gravel road. Hmmm. Well, with darkness falling and my curiosity appeased, it's back to Mystery Camp to stay the quiet night. And, outside of the hundred rounds of shotgun blasts from my neighbors, followed by what might be been a machine gun, it certainly is quiet!

It's also really freakin' cold: There's a frost that can almost pass for ice on my windshield when I get up in the morning. Yeesh. Come to think of it, sleep HAS been a bit... chilly. Enough, I think: COFFEE! Doing my best arm-rubbing while breaking camp, I barrel the Honda into Twisp at 7 a.m. to set up shop in the cozy Cool Beans Cafe. Ahhh, much better. After passing a couple of (warm!) hours there, I finally decide that the time's come to return to Seattle, albeit via a meandering path.

For instance, I scout out the route from Twisp to Okanagan that K and I are considering for another day, over Loup Loup Pass. THAT'D be a bear (errr... wolf wolf?) of a run someday is my conclusion. That's especially true if returning to the pass from Okanagan with its sustained steep climb. There's not much of a shoulder, either. Of course it'll have to be done someday. That's the way it works for the intrepid(!) cyclist who wants to "bag" passes, more or less. From Okanagon I drive on to Omar, toward Oroville. What's with the O's, anyway? I'm not intrigued enough to find out. Finally having enough of O-dom, I turn around toward the south.

I next follow the Columbia River to Chelan, au Caf&eadute; du Lac Chelan par coincidence!, stopping for lunch and some trumpet tra-la-las. From Lake Chelan I continue on to Leavenworth and its faux-German pretenses. There I not only come to pass some more time in a German bakery, but have a conversation with a real German proprietor just to prove me wrong. The upshot of our lengthy chat is that land has steadily become awfully more expensive east of the mountains. Tell me something I don't know! Still, I sympathize. Then, wirklich und endlich, it's up and over Steven's Pass toward dark to get my butt back to (considerably more expensive) Seattle - where I immediately begin to formulate a plan to return. The Methow Valley always calls me back - sooner is better.



Loup Loup Pass from Twisp, Washington (~30 miles)

15 June 2012 - the first time

Is it a dry run when the air is so incredibly arid? This one sure feels so.



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