If you are in the Pacific Northwest and want to experience a small taste of Europe, then we have a place for you. The picturesque town of Leavenworth, Washington, is nestled on the Wenatchee River in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It is located 120 miles east of Seattle on Highway 2 and over Stevens Pass. The drive takes about two hours. However, there are some spots along the way to stop and take in the scenery, so maybe plan on a little longer time.
Leavenworth is on the east side of the mountains, so usually sunny, warm, and dry in the spring and summer, compared to Seattle’s grey, cool, and wet climate. Since the towns sits at 1,200 feet elevation, evenings can get cool, though. On a clear day, you will have spectacular views of Mount Tumwater and the surrounding Cascade Mountains peaks.
So, what makes this place European? Well, in an inspirational moment back in 1962 at a town hall meeting, the citizens of Leavenworth decided to transform their struggling town into an authentic looking Bavarian village. The town was originally called Icicle Flats and was an important Native American fishing ground and pioneer trading outpost. It was incorporated as Leavenworth, after the primary investor Captain Charles F. Leavenworth, in 1906 and was home to the Great North Railroad. When the railroad relocated to nearby Wenatchee in 1920, the town began to decline. Looking for something to revitalize their beloved town, the stalwart citizens seized on the idea of a radical transformation.
Local legend accords the idea of a Bavarian theme to Owen and Pauline Watson, town business owners. They visited Solvang, California, and decided that the Bavarian look of the town would be fitting for Leavenworth since the surrounding mountains reminded them of the Alps. The transformation was done in exquisite detail. It is not some cheap and tacky road-side tourist trap. Although not Europe, it is the closest you will get without crossing the ocean.
The town holds several annual festivals that attract crowds from all over. They host the Bavarian Maifest in May, a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) in November, a music festival in August, the Christmas Lights Festival in December, an Autumn Leaf Festival in September, and of course Okctoberfest, plus many more. Usually during every weekend in the summer there will be some type of event going on. There is even the Icicle Train that runs from Seattle to Leavenworth just for the winter festivities. During festivals, accommodations will book way in advance.
We camped at Lake Wenatchee Lake State Park. The lake is great for fishing, swimming (albeit pretty cold), or kayaking. The camping area can accommodate tents and RV’s. It is just 2o minutes west of Leavenworth off of Highway 2 on Highway 207. There is a camp store that sells basic items and soft serve ice cream. Be aware, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains you are in rattlesnake country. There are also bears and mountain lions around.
There are many good places to eat in Leavenworth, not to mention a few beer gardens to enjoy also. We like Gustav’s Grill and Beer Garden. It is right on the main road with wonderful atmosphere and good food. King Ludwig’s is also very good. Do not worry if you do not like German food, there are other great restaurants, like Country Boys BBQ for good ribs, Los Camperos for Mexican, the 59er Diner for burgers (voted Seattle’s favorite burger stop in 2013 by Northwest Magazine), Wasabi Sushi and Thai for Asian tastes, O’Grady’s Pantry for authentic Northwest food, and many more.
Besides eating and shopping, Leavenworth offers an abundance of outdoor activities. There is a world-class golf course for serious golfers and a mini golf-course for us less serious players. Leavenworth is an outdoor destination. You can hike, fish, hunt, rock climb, rent 4X4 quads, ski nearby, river raft and kayak, horse-back ride, dog-sled, mountain bike, snow sled, and just nature watch until you are exhausted. It is truly a four season destination. Whether for a day, weekend, or longer, you will not run out of things to do.
In the evenings or after you have completely tired yourself from the outdoor stuff, there are more refined attractions. Leavenworth has some very nice spas that will pamper you. You can also take a winery tour and do some wine tasting. Many people do not know that this is a premier wine area with several award winning vineyards. For a very romantic experience, take a carriage ride around the town in the summer or a horse-drawn sled ride in the winter with your special someone.
Before or after your visit to Leavenworth, make sure you drive the famous Cascade Loop. It is rated the number one vacation drive in Washington, for good reason. Few other drives take you through as many diverse ecosystems and dramatic landscapes. This 440 mile drive takes you from the arid high plains of the Columbia Basin through the steep valleys of the Cascade Mountains with raging rivers and waterfalls, by glacier fed Lake Chelan, over the mountain pass at 5,477 feet, down the green rain-forest slopes on the west side of the mountains into Puget Sound, and finally ending in Seattle.
On a side note, if you get a chance, stop by the Reptile Zoo on Highway 2 in Monroe. This seemingly roadside tourist attraction is actually the base camp of the Reptile Man, Scott Petersen. He has in display all 10 of the deadliest snakes in the world along with many other snakes and reptiles in his menagerie. Our youngest son, Elijah, especially likes the scaly critters. The 25 foot anaconda gave me the shivers last time we were there. If you time it right, you can watch the staff feed them!
A vacation in and around Leavenworth will leave you relaxed and invigorated with wonderful memories!