Biking Xanadu Trail — Kelly Knowles
1. Hell-Bent Heli-Skiing
DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY WHEN you’re asked to step on a scale before your ski trip; when you’re accessing 300,000 acres of backcountry terrain by helicopter, weight distribution is carefully calibrated.
The North Cascades, set near Highway 20, may not be close to cocktail bars and après ski lodges, but that’s the best feature of the angled peaks—all it takes is a little work to access the wildest, most untouched land in the state. That, and an ASTAR B3 chopper.
An epic ski begins at the elegantly rustic Freestone Inn in the old-timey town of Winthrop, home of feather pillows, soaking tubs, and one North Cascades Heli-Skiing Heli Barn, crammed with demo gear and skis as fat as snow tires.
After practice with avalanche beacons and reminders not to wave ski poles near helicopter blades, it’s time for takeoff.
Within moments, no houses or cars are in sight, just the occasional glimpse of the snowed-in North Cascades Highway winding between the slopes. After a 10-minute flight, choppers drop skiers among the jagged peaks, below granite spires, and above glades of trees in a 300,000-acre zone—and always above perfect, untouched powder.
And yes, this is powder. One, two, even three feet of light, airy, sugary snow. It’s into an open bowl one run, onto a tree-covered slope the next, always room for long, smooth turns. Guides direct the bird to the razor-edge ridgelines so fine that there’s nowhere to go but down.
Skiers need to fuel up at the same time the chopper does, so during lunch the pilot returns to base and leaves the group stranded, gloriously, in the wilderness, the only sound the whomp of a distant avalanche.
A day is seven runs of about 12,000 vertical feet. Additional runs are available for a fee, depending on the conditions, but most skiers will be daydreaming of those feather pillows back at the lodge.
Think an outdoorsman can’t enjoy a loud, rumbly snowmobile? The machines can quickly cover ground that would take a hiker all day to navigate—and they’re pretty fun to whip around corners. Guided snowmobile tours leave from Mountain Springs Lodge in Leavenworth and head as far as the 5,814-foot-high Sugarloaf Lookout.
DIY: Those not into skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling have options: The Methow Trails Nordic ski trail system provides for 120 miles of skiing in the Methow Valley. The system is divided into four areas—including Sun Mountain Trails, Mazama Trails, and Rendezvous Trails–all connected by the Methow Community Trail, which has a suspension bridge crossing the Methow River and lodges along the way. Some of the trails are also accessible to fat bikes, kids, dogs in some places, and snowshoers in winter.
2. Which Way to Stehekin?
Stehekin isn’t a fairy tale, but it might as well be: a tiny town on one of the deepest lakes in the country, unreachable by road. It’s barely a town, just a few dozen houses, a community apple orchard, and a bakery serving plate-size cinnamon rolls, where deer amble up to their own salt lick.
Stehekin sits on the north end of snake-shaped Lake Chelan at the foot of the North Cascades; if this is the serpent’s tail end, the head is 50 miles south in the real world, the town of Chelan. The fastest ferries take two and a half hours to reach the top of the lake.
But the best trip to Stehekin is the land route from the northwest, a 23-mile hike best trekked in two days. From the western side of the mountains it’s first a slog 1,700 feet up Cascade Pass. The view is a just reward: jagged peaks, stark-white glaciers, and forested valleys traveled by fur traders and Native Americans for centuries.
Down one of those valleys you go, past the hardy flowers of subalpine meadows and along the growing Stehekin River. The trail passes small backcountry campgrounds, the best of which has a rentable canvas tent next to a sagging, abandoned log cabin. Cherry-red national park buses finish the trip into the heart of Stehekin and those cinnamon rolls.
Hiking in may be the best route into Stehekin, but a floatplane flight is the fastest way out. The pilot likes to point out the old mines and old brothels below on the trip back to civilization. It’s a lot of trouble to reach such a little town—but were it easy to reach Stehekin, the spell would be broken.
DIY: Reserve a spot in the Stehekin Outfitters tent-to-tent trailside accommodations.
3. Ride Around Washington
The wild Pacific coastline gives way to the rolling Columbia River. The green and moss of the Olympic Peninsula drifts into wheat-colored hills behind the shadow of bicycles. On and on the riders spin, circling the state from the saddle.
Over four years, Cascade Bicycle Club’s RAW (Ride Around Washington) Cycle pays homage to composer Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, with a weeklong tour in a different part of the state. Taken as a whole, the four routes will circumnavigate Washington counterclockwise. The first year’s ride began in Anacortes, crossed the Deception Pass Bridge, and dipped into the fertile Skagit Valley before turning southwest and heading—by ferry—to Port Townsend. From here, riders traversed the Olympic Peninsula alongside fields of lavender and majestic rain forests before dropping to the southwest border.
The 2015 ride (August 2–8) begins at the coast, retraces Lewis and Clark’s journey along the Columbia, and ends in Walla Walla. Come 2016, riders will pick up the route and traverse the Palouse into the far northeast corner of the state. Then, in 2017, cyclists will ride along Highway 20 all the way to Bellingham.
This is camp for adults: Sponsors transport gear, make side trips to islands, host oyster feasts, and schedule lots of wine tastings.
—Julie H. Case
DIY: Of course, you don’t need to wait for the next camp: Cascade Bicycle Club keeps maps of past rides and detailed blogs on the journey available to anyone.
4. Cast Away
FISHING IN WASHINGTON IS A LIFETIME DREAM for many. Here, halibut lurk in icy ocean depths just below chinook and silver salmon. A rainbow of trout—cutthroats and browns and bulls—dart among shadowed rivers. Lakes and streams are stippled with largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie, perch, and walleye; the Pacific with tuna, rockfish, and lingcod. Best of all, a mere five days can deliver action among them all.
Begin in Anacortes, where a number of charters launch for access to the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, some of the best salmon waters in the state. Head to the deeper holes along Hein Bank between Lopez and Whidbey Islands, or along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to hook big halibut. Then troll herring for chinook salmon, who hit hard and run up to 30 or more pounds. Silver salmon take bright lures trolled near the surface.
The second day, drop anchor to try your luck for lingcod and other bottom fish. Then explore the many side channels of the San Juan Islands for blackmouth salmon, another variety of chinook. Head to the Olympic Peninsula on your third day either for halibut off Neah Bay or to go after the elusive steelhead—one of the best fighting fish anywhere. Anglers from around the globe make the pilgrimage to the Bogachiel, Sol Duc, and Calawah Rivers, which merge four miles from the Pacific Ocean to become the Quillayute, in search of steelhead. These rivers also host spring chinook runs, with some fish weighing in excess of 50 pounds.
If you’ve tired already of halibut, head instead to Westport. Billed as the salmon fishing capital of the world, it offers year-round action, with excellent king and silver salmon fishing as well as bottom-fishing for lingcod and rockfish, and deep-sea fishing for bulletlike albacore tuna. Drive east on your fourth day to the Yakima River, of which a 75-mile stretch is designated as Washington’s only official Blue Ribbon trout stream, and is a year-round catch-and-release fishery with rainbow and cutthroat trout running up to 20 inches.
Finally, switch things up: hunt upland birds on a guided trip with Red’s Fly Shop, or toss plugs to catch smallmouth bass in the Lower Yakima River.
DIY: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sells fishing licenses, keeps a list of lakes with an overabundance of fish, and has directions on where to go fish now.
If you’re new to fly fishing, consider hiring a guide for the Yakima River at Red’s Fly Shop.
THE ISLANDS AROUND PUGET SOUND have a natural beauty that’s a feast for the eyes, from dazzling mountain views to waterside walks. The rocky refuges provide a wondrous banquet for the palate as well, with chefs creating meals specific to their scenic locales. While ferry rides separate these eateries from mainland supplies, they have abundant natural riches to work with. Here’s how to rest, rejuvenate, and eat like royalty.
Dandelions, elderberries, and sweet spot prawns are the sorts of material chef Blaine Wetzel works with at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island; in his hands they become edible works of art representing a specific season and place. The multicourse dinner, as many as 18 petite plates, is a shared experience as much as a meal, with breathtaking signatures that include a bite of salmon presented in a cedar box that releases a bit of smoke when opened. Fish are caught in reef-nets near the rural island and alder-smoked at the inn.
While it’s tempting to just relax after exploring the artsy little town of Langley, missing dinner would be a sin. Reserve a few hours to appreciate the Inn at Langley’s seasonal fixed-price dinner, the daily invention of Matt Costello, who had already been crowned as one of Seattle’s best chefs when he left for Whidbey Island in 2003. In the years since, Costello’s cooking has leaped forward. His elaborate prix fixe meals, using many ingredients sourced from the island, are thrillingly good to eat, with features as unexpected as a meringue flavored with beets or a spherified bite of tarragon. They are as playful as a hanging window terrarium that turns out to be edible. Even meat-and-potatoes fans will appreciate Costello’s commitment to using the freshest ingredients, such as the rabbit served with “what he ate”—an assortment of vegetables—and a dreamy dessert using pastry cream infused with island spruce.
At Hitchcock, on Bainbridge Island, chef-owner Brendan McGill uses an understanding of the region’s microclimates to tweak recipes. He steams local mussels in a tea made from foraged nettles, cultures his own butter, and ferments wildflower honey mead. McGill lets the peninsula’s products direct his preparations, from gnaw-worthypork chops to pea vines and quince fruits from his own home farm. The restaurant is cozy; he intended it as a place for islanders to find a fine meal. Word spread, national accolades followed, and his island love letter became a destination.
DIY: Touring diners can now reserve more than just a table—they can reserve a spot on the ferry, too.
2579 W Shore Dr, Lummi Island; 360-758-2620; willows-inn.com
Inn at Langley
400 First St, Langley; 360-221-3033; innatlangley.com
133 Winslow Way E, Ste 100, Bainbridge Island; 206-201-3789; hitchcockrestaurant.com
6. Art in Americana
The sun’s last rays spill over the horizon, gold and bright. My car races the shadows up a dirt road, until—yes!—I see the gray, weathered wood of an old homestead. I hit the brakes and jam my Canon out the window. One, two, three times the shutter clicks. Then twilight curves over the Palouse, ending another day in Eastern Washington’s photographic wonderland.
The region’s spotted horses, barns, and vintage vehicles have drawn snap-happy travelers for decades, as has the panoramic vista from Steptoe Butte, which unfurls endless patterns in the luminous landscape. Jack Lien, of Four Seasons Photo Tours, estimates more than 6,000 photographers will visit this year, and more than 30 companies will lead workshops.
Over days roaming among meadows and canary-colored fields of canola I capture tawny plateaus, emerald sheaves of rye, and storm clouds juddering over grain elevators. I watch a moose and calf amble across a back road at twilight. A peace winds through the Palouse, a rare balance between the earth and its inhabitants, and the photographers lucky enough to capture this moment in time.
DIY: Visit for at least five days: May and June offer gold and green tones, July is harvest. The Pullman Chamber of Commerce publishes a road map of Photography Hot Spots on the Palouse.
7. Historic Discovery
Sunlight streams through stained glass, flashing as the cherry-red paddlewheel spins. And the American Empress—the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi—eases passengers through the Pacific Northwest.
Launched in 2014, this Victorian-esque vessel offers nine-day itineraries between Clarkston and Vancouver. I want to go with the flow—toward the ocean—so I fly to Spokane, overnight at the Davenport Hotel (part of the package), then hop on a cruise-line bus, winding south through the Palouse.
I board the Empress near Clarkston, where wheatfields give way to the basalt columns and sagebrush bluffs of the Snake River. A jet-boat day trip takes me into Hells Canyon: the deepest river gorge in North America. At the Tri-Cities, the American Empresschurns onto the mighty Columbia. During the day, a shore excursion lets me explore the Red Mountain wine region. I buy a lemberger at Kiona Vineyards, then tour the French-chic Hedges Family Estate and the more down-to-earth Black Heron Spirits.
The 223-passenger sternwheeler lazes downstream, bursting with spirits, food, and entertainment ranging from New Orleans honky-tonk piano to lectures on everything from Sacagawea to manifest destiny. My waistband strains despite complimentary bikes for roaming on shore. The landscape greens steadily, until I wake moored in Vancouver. I stand on my balcony at dawn, steeped in the nearby Pacific’s fog and brine.
A sea lion surfaces and barks, challenging me to the territory. Then we sail for Astoria, to explore Lewis and Clark’s old haunts on Cape Disappointment.
DIY: The American Empress sails the Snake and the Columbia Rivers April through November.
8. Summitting Mount Rainier
EVERY YEAR MORE THAN 10,000 PEOPLE attempt to summit Mount Rainier, to stand above the clouds on top of the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48. Less than half make it.
That’s part of why it’s so special—not just anyone can climb to 14,410 feet through snow, rock, wind, and altitude change. Proper training is always important, as is keeping fingers crossed for optimal weather conditions.
There are dozens of ways to the top, the most common being the Disappointment Cleaver route, done over two or three days. Summit day generally starts around midnight, with climbers in various states of a zombie trance while roping up to teammates.
Soon, you get into a rhythm. In the still of the night, headlamps steadily bobbing their way up the mountain look like fireflies dancing. It’s a reminder of how small each of us is on this great big mountain—and how magical the journey really is.
Those first few hours in a cover of blackness are “a time of self-doubt, anxiety, reflection, and wonderment if the wrong hobby was chosen,” says Seattle’s Len Kannapell, who first summited Mount Rainier in 1988. “When that first streak of light illuminates the sky, there is relief, for there is hope.”
Suddenly, nearby mountains such as Adams and St. Helens seem to spring from nothing, bathed in an elegant orange glow. You need that hope, and your weary legs, to propel you those last couple of thousand feet. When you arrive, the summit crater is vast; the relief you feel even grander.
Trudging down isn’t the highlight. But as you take one step at a time back toward earth, you’re warmed by the thought that today, you stood atop the Pacific Northwest.
DIY: Mt. Rainier National Park has information on planning, regulations, and permits. Climbing passes—valid for the calendar year—are required to summit, as is a wilderness permit if camping overnight.
Start training early—specifically four to six months prior. Consider long hikes with big elevation gains and a heavy pack, working up to at least 40 pounds— about how much weight you’ll carry the first day.
Odds of good weather are best in July and August. If you’re new to mountaineering, it would be wise to use a guide service such as Rainier Mountaineering Inc. or International Mountain Guides.
» rmiguides.com; mountainguides.com
9. Gunkhole the San Juans
We shove off from the dock, floatplanes drifting nearby, and thread our way among sailboats at anchor. Before we can leave the harbor Terry, our captain, stops and drags in a crab pot he’d dropped earlier. After a skirmish with an undersize Dungeness, we’re off, gliding away from Friday Harbor and into the Salish Sea.
Some 172 islands make up the San Juan archipelago although only a handful are habitable. Still, even tiny ones that seem to drift in the middle of a channel can provide hours of adventure when you’re gunkholing these waters. And that’s what gunkholing is: the art of drifting in and out of bays and coves, dropping anchors—and crab pots and fishing lines—into the inky depths along the way.
After an hour or two, Terry sails up to a tiny island and anchors in a cove. We drag the dinghy off the boat and head for shore. It’s a tiny, rocky, forested island, and we spend an hour discovering the shoreline and watching seals at play. Then we head out again and rendezvous with other sailboats in a bay at another island, a few miles away. As the sun sets after dinner, the stars come out in a breathless pattern overhead, while we drag our feet and toes in water, watching the phosphorescence spool around us.
—Julie H. Case
DIY: Several companies offer sail or powerboat charters out of the San Juans, some of which include crew and have optional provisioning.
10. Driverless Wine
Wine-loving cyclists have been making the pilgrimage to France on two wheels for years, but wine tasting in Washington offers that and other unique ways to tour. By bike: The roads around Lake Chelan offer countless miles of biking loops and access to the local wineries. Heading around the north shore from downtown on two wheels means passing between the lake and rising cliffs. Stop to taste at wineries just out of town, then continue on to Winesap Avenue for a sample at any of the three wineries here before ascending the long, sloping road that rises between vineyards and plateaus, with a sweeping lake view. From here, spin downhill to the small town of Manson and the tasting rooms that surround it. And in Walla Walla, oenophiles cycle mile after mile of hilly terrain, stopping to taste along the way. By horse: In the Yakima Valley, wine lovers and horse lovers meet in Zillah at Cherry Wood for long tours among the grapes on horseback. By air: Aficionados who want to go to new heights can take a hot-air balloon ride out of Snohomish and finish it with wine tasting in Woodinville. Or, best of all, drift or soar in to Rio Vista, near Lake Chelan. Nestled on the Columbia River, it’s accessible by both boat and floatplane.
—Julie H. Case
DIY—Pick up a bike map around Walla Walla, or download one in advance. wallawalla.org/things-to-do/cycling.htmlFor horseback rides try Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn in Zillah or Red Mountain Trails in Benton City.
» cherrywoodbbandb.com; redmountaintrails.com