Valley highs
Fresh air and golden hills in Washington's Methow Valley

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At the Mazama Store in Washington's Methow Valley, localsgather to gossip over lattes and homemade apricot-cashew breadbefore heading out to spend the day hiking the Cascades. Amongthese locals, and blending right into the crowd, are Laura McCabeand Leslie Thompson Hall, both former Olympic nordic skichampions.

"They call Mazama 'Lycra Land' because everyone's so athletic,"says Terry Larson, who lives in nearby Twisp, where he and hiswife, Melissa, own the Methow Valley Inn and the Confluence Gallery& Art Center. "Everyone's in love with the outdoors. It's thecommon denominator here." It's no wonder. Tucked away in theeastern shadow of the Cascades about 200 miles east of Seattle,surrounded by more than twenty 8,000-foot mountain peaks, andcrisscrossed by two crystal-clear rivers, Methow Valley is the kindof place that makes you want to play outside all day.

But, Terry says, the valley has a lot more to offer. "We havethe great outdoors but also all the culture we want. I could hikefrom here to Canada and never encounter a piece of asphalt, andthen, the next day, show up for a lecture on Renaissance art."

It's true. You can hike a portion of the Methow Valley SportTrails Association's network (one of the largestcross-country-skiing trail systems in the United States), sit downfor a relaxed, gourmet meal in Twisp, and spend the next dayexploring Winthrop, the Old West-style town that's said to haveinspired Owen Wister to write The Virginian, America's first Western novel. And you can doit all against a backdrop of trees ablaze with fall color - for arelative bargain to boot, since most resort rates drop inmid-October.

Our three-day sojourn runs along State 20, covering a day ineach of the valley's three main towns - Twisp, Winthrop, andMazama. We recommend accessing the valley from Seattle viaInterstate 5 and State 20 (the North Cascades Scenic Highway),driving about four hours to Twisp (the easternmost of the threetowns), and then working your way back west. If early snowfallprevents you from using State 20, as is occasionally the case inOctober, you'll have to approach via Wenatchee, along U.S. 97 andState 153 (check road conditions at www.wsdot.wa.gov or 800/695-7623). This flatter, more rural route is longer(roughly five hours) but scenic, with apple trees showing colorthis month.

FRIDAY | Top

Spend your first day in artsy Twisp - with just 800 people, thisis still the valley's most populous town. Grab a breakfast bun togo at Cinnamon Twisp ($; 116 N. Glover St.; 509/997-5030), or a spinach scrambleor Thai veggie wrap at the II Bees Café ($; closed Sun; 104 Glover; 509/997-2342). The cafe isinside the Confluence Gallery & Art Center (closed Sun- Mon; 509/997-2787), known for its lectureseries and emphasis on local artists.

Climb to views. If you're up for an ambitious hike, pick upa Northwest Recreation Pass in town ($5; www.naturenw.org and800/270-7504), then drive the gorgeous Twisp River Road (CountyRd. 9114) west roughly 20 miles to the Gilbert Trailhead, whichleads to Twisp Pass. The trail, which starts at 3,700 feet,parallels the Twisp River for 1 mile and ascends about 4 milesthrough golden larches to the 6,064-foot pass. From here you cansee many of the peaks in nearby North Cascades National Park.

Or savor the sound of the river. If you'd rather justlounge, drive about 10 miles farther south to Carlton, where you'llfind pullouts with access to public beaches. Come happy hour backin Twisp, try a local brew and a bite at the Twisp River Pub ($; closed Mon- Tue; 201 State 20; 509/997-6822).

Locally grown meal. Finish the day with a fantastic meal atFiddlehead Bistro ($$; closed Mon-Tue; 201 Glover; 509/997-0343), housedinside the old Methow Valley News building. Both casual and classy,the restaurant has fresh, beautifully presented food that's heavyon local, organic produce.

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Start the day by getting a dose of Old West atmosphere inWinthrop. Start with a hearty breakfast at the casual Duck BrandRestaurant and Hotel ($; 248 Riverside Ave.; 800/996-2192). The restaurant takesits name from a local saloon of the early 1900s, when Winthrop wasa thriving frontier town serving trappers, prospectors, andhomesteaders.

Fire and ice cream. Artisan smithies forge candleholders anddinner bells, hooks and hinges at the Winthrop Blacksmith Shop (236 Riverside; 509/ 996-2703). And down the street atSheri's Sweet Shoppe (207 Riverside; 509/996-3834), customers can watch candybeing made or indulge in a scoop of the shop's homemade pumpkin icecream, available only in fall.

Mountain highs. The activities center at the Sun MountainLodge (604 Patterson Lake Rd., Winthrop; www.sunmountainlodge.comor 800/572-0493) can outfit you for hiking, mountain biking,and fly-fishing around the lodge's own 3,000 acres of wilderness,which will be covered this month with aspens. Try a guidedhorseback ride ($30 for 1 1/2 hours, $85 for a half-day) with head wrangler(and Winthrop native) Kit McLean along the Beaver Pond Trail, whereyou might spot beavers at work.

Splurge on dinner. The Dining Room at Sun Mountain Lodge ($$$$; see "Mountain Highs," above) offers fancy meals witha stunning view of the rounded hills of the southern PasaytenWilderness, with the Methow River running through it. A lessexpensive but equally appealing option is the lodge's more casualWolf Creek Bar and Grill ($$), which has the same unbeatable view.

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Wind down in tiny Mazama, gateway to some of the valley's besthikes. The town consists of little more than a road, an inn, andthe Mazama Store (50 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-2855), known here as the "centerof the universe." Get picnic treats before you hit the trails.

Mirroring lakes. The 7-mile Maple Pass Loop to Lake Ann andRainy Lake is unbelievably beautiful in fall, when the lakesreflect the surrounding golden leaves. For an easier route, or ifthe Rainy Lake Trail is snow-covered, walk the paved,wheelchair-accessible, 1-mile trail to the waterfall at Rainy Lake.From Mazama, drive about 25 miles west on State 20 to the southparking lot at Rainy Pass. (Bring your Northwest Recreation Passfor either trailhead.)

A fireside meal. For one last dinner, Mazama's Freestone Inn& Cabins ($$$; reservations suggested; 31 Early Winters Dr.; www.freestoneinn.com or800/639-3809) is a great choice. Have a glass of Washingtonwine by the massive river-rock fireplace, or stake out anAdirondack chair by the inn's lake while you wait for your table.As darkness falls over the Cascades, you just might decide youdon't really need to get home tonight. After all, there are manyhikes still to be explored, and chances are, there's plenty of roomat the inn.

WHERE TO SLEEP|Top

Freestone Inn & Cabins. This 120-acre ranch borderingthe Cascades is full of hand-hewn logs and river rocks. From $165 through Oct 9, from $105 Oct 10-Dec 18. Off State 20in Mazama; www.freestoneinn.com or800/639-3809.

Methow Valley Inn. Lush gardens surround this pretty innwith seven antique-filled rooms. From $89, including hearty breakfast. 234 Second Ave. E., Twisp;www.methowvalleyinn.com or 509/997-2253.

River's Edge Resort. One-, two-, and three-bedroom cabinsand chalets are right on the Chewuch River. From $125. 115 Riverside Ave., Winthrop; www.riversedgewinthrop.com,800/937-6621, or 509/996-8000.

Sun Mountain Lodge. Full-service resort with 112 guestrooms, an activities center, hiking trails, a stable, two swimmingpools, and two hot tubs. From $170 through Oct 16, from $140 Oct 17- Dec 18. 604Patterson Lake Rd., Winthrop; www.sunmountainlodge.comor 800/ 572-0493.

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