Our first stop this trip was Leavenworth, a little town in Washington nestled in the Cascades, was completely remodeled in the 1960's to look like a little Bavarian village. The first time I visited Leavenworth I was slightly concerned that we were about to walk into a total tourist trap, but I left completely convinced that Leavenworth was worth the drive.
After leaving Leavenworth we drove West through the Cascades, and looped back down to Portland via Mount St. Helens. And who says March is too early for mountains?
Day One: Portland, OR to Leavenworth, WA
Driving Details: Portland to Leavenworth, 277 miles
The best route from Portland to Leavenworth is I-84 E & US-97 N, and you'll be treated to stunning views practically the whole way. For the first 1.5 hours of the trip you'll drive parallel to the Columbia River, giving you plenty of chances to stop in for a short mid-morning hike if inspiration strikes.
If you pass through the Gorge too early & aren't quite sufficiently caffeinated for a hike, consider stopping later in the day for a short hike to break up the drive. The drive takes you through both Yakima and Ellensburg, and there are plenty of trails to choose from in both areas.
Lake Wenatchee State Park is just about 30 minutes North of Leavenworth, and they have year-round camping available. The regular campsites are closed, but there's dispersed camping available in the South portion of the park on the shores of Lake Wenatchee. The best part? There are a few little shelters available in the winter camping area with wood stoves that you're allowed to fire up as long as you can find wood. While we decided we'd rather sleep under the stars we were fortunate to make friends with a guy staying in an RV in the parking lot who fired up a nice hot blaze in one of the shelters and invited us to share the warmth before we went to sleep.
Day Two: Exploring Leavenworth, WA
After coffee & breakfast, we headed towards town to get an early start on the popularIcicle Ridge Trail before it fills up. Icicle Ridge Trail is a 5 mile out & back trail that gains 1,800 feet total. The views from this trail blew me away; you're treated to views of Tumwater & Icicle Canyons, the Wenatchee & Icicle Rivers, and plenty of surrounding mountains.
The hike winds fairly steeply up for about 2.5 miles (a friendly local on the trail with GPS confirmed that length, and gave us the tip that there are trail blazes nailed into the trees at the 1 mile and 2 mile marker!), but luckily there are enough switch backs that the elevation gain isn't too tough on the knees.
Once we arrived at the summit we sat down and pulled out some homemade bread & cheddar cheese and a celebratory Fort George Plaid. Plaid is my current favorite beer, and it only felt right to cheers the mountains and drink it down at the top.
After re-fueling, we continued to explore the top. There's an extra little section of trail that goes to a beautiful viewpoint that we wandered into, despite the fact that there was some stubborn snow covering the last couple hundred feet of trail. It was well worth it for the views.
The trip back down went considerably faster than the trip up... and not just because descents are easier. About twenty minutes into our descent we heard the familiar grunting and snuffling of a black bear very close by in the trail ahead. We stopped, listened for a few seconds, glanced at each other to confirm, and burst into Timbers' chants, our preferred method for getting loud and scaring bears away. We continued the trail slowly but surely and didn't even catch a glimpse of the bear.
Post-hike I suggest bee-lining straight for Leavenworth's Munchen Haus, your local source for the best bratwurst & pretzels around- they even have vegetarian wurst! I'm fully convinced that they have the best set-up in Leavenworth. You begin by ordering food at the first window, then you're guided into a hidden courtyard that boasts fire pits in the middle of the picnic tables, space heaters a-plenty in the winter, a balcony with stunning mountain views, and a second little window exclusively serving craft beer from the localIcicle Brewing Co. Oh, and it's dog friendly. What more could you want?
Day Three: Crossing the Cascades, Leavenworth, WA to Gold Bar, WA
Driving Details: Leavenworth to Gold Bar via Stevens Pass, 74 miles
I've driven through the Cascades before (although the last time was at sunrise after having driven through the night from Glacier National Park after a sketchy nighttime Grizzly encounter), but this drive through Stevens Pass really blew me away. Maybe it was the snow, maybe it was the majesty of the mountains, maybe it was the thrill of the trip, or, just maybe, everyone should drive this road and enjoy staring out their window in awe.
On the other side of the mountains lies the little town of Gold Bar, Washington. We made the decision to stop in for coffee & pie at the local Mountain View Diner and it might have been the best decision all day. Pumpkin pie in March? I was in heaven.
Just a few miles past the Mountain View Diner you can find Wallace Falls State Park. There are five cabins and two campsites available at the park, as well as dispersed camping on a few trails later in the season.
Day Four: Wallace Falls State Park, WA to Portland, OR via Mount St. Helens
Driving Details: Wallace Falls State Park to Portland is 215 miles. A stop at Mt. St. Helens adds about 83 miles total to the trip, it's about an hour off of I-5 each way.
Since long drives with no fun hiking detours aren't really my thing, we decided to make a stop at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on our way back to Portland.
Most of Mount St. Helens was covered in snow... and we were on a time constraint to make it back to civilization to see the Oregon Ducks appear in the Elite Eight, so we decided to hike around in the Ape Caves instead of attempt something a bit more treacherous and exciting. Next time, Mt. St. Helens, next time!
The Ape Caves ended up being completely worth the stop. While it was full of hikers, there were a few moments when we found ourselves completely alone in our section of the trail, deep underground. I stopped a few times to turn off my flashlight and marvel at the feeling of being in complete darkness, with just the sound of dripping stalactites nearby.
The Ape Cave Lava Tube is actually the longest lava tube in the continental U.S., and offers two hiking options. The lower Ape Cave is about 1.5 miles out & back, and is easy enough to bring kids along. The upper Ape Cave is about 1.5 miles total underground, and you can return on a surface trail.