Van Go: A Breather in Bavaria
Story and photos by Julie Snyder
By the time the hazardous forest fire smoke over Portland had begun to dissipate, my husband, Joe, and I were frantic for fresh air. So we pointed Van Go toward Bavaria.
Not that Bavaria—Americans are still personae non-gratae in Europe. But visitors are most welcome in Leavenworth, Washington, a locus of German kitsch in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Range.
The Leavenworth area was home to Native Americans until seekers of gold and timber encroached in the 1800s. Commerce exploded when the railroad arrived at the turn-of-the-century and fizzled when rails were re-routed twenty years later.
Leavenworth languished for more than thirty years until the town fathers decided to capitalize on the similarity of its spectacular setting to that of Germany’s Bavarian Alps. In no time, the heart of the hamlet sported two-tone timber frames, wooden balconies, and frescoed facades. Next came the festivals—Maifest, Octoberfest, Kinderfest, Snofest, Christkindlmarkt, and more.
Leavenworth built it, and the tourists came—nearly two million annually until this year. In 2020, visitors are a trickle of years past, and most of the signature events are COVID casualties.
Arriving in Leavenworth in the late afternoon, we hung around just long enough to pick up an area visitor guide and a pizza to go. Even in faux Bavaria, bratwurst rules. Naturally, our first choice at Rudloofs Pizza was the Bavarian with stone ground mustard, bratwurst, and sauerkraut. Alas, no wurst was to be had, so we defaulted to pepperoni.
On the west end of Highway 2, just a few miles beyond the Leavenworth town center, we turned south. Curving through Icicle Canyon and its namesake creek, we were cradled by Mount Cashmere and The Enchantments, the wilderness rich in lakes, larch and fir forests, and acres of granite. And wildlife—a bear cub and three deer dashed across the road in front of us before we left the city limits.
When Joe was stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma fifty years ago, he and his climbing pals would beeline to Icicle Canyon for rock recreation. The current generation of climbers still flocks to the region, and Rock and Ice magazine has hailed Leavenworth as one of the top ten climbing cities in the U.S.
Fifty crags within ten miles feature climbs of varying difficulty, and gargantuan granite rocks are ideal for “bouldering” (clambering up small rock formations without ropes or harnesses—mats at the base of the rock cushion any mishaps).
Icicle Canyon is wildly popular with boulderers, though most had called it a day by the time we passed. They were headed to their cars with thick bouldering mats strapped to their backs like folded futons. But fisherpeople were still angling for trout as shadows crept over Icicle Creek.
At mile twelve, we found our destination and the end of the pavement. After a five-hour drive from Portland, a week housebound by hazardous air, and six-month pandemic fatigue, Lower Johnny Creek Campground was heaven on earth.
No neighbors. No internet. No noise but the burble of the creek and the squeaking of squirrels and chipmunks. No campfires either because of fire danger. But that’s what fleece lap blankets are for. We perched our camp chairs at the edge of a low rise above the creek, poured some wine, and snuggled in to watch dusk deepen into dark. Again, heaven on earth.
Reluctant to leave nature behind the next morning, we decided on a hike before Bavaria beckoned. Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery was the entrée to a lush, flat (always a plus in Joe’s book) loop near Icicle Creek. In the parking lot, we learned two things: that the hatchery, built in 1939, is on the National Registry of Historic Places; and that a mama bear and two cubs had recently been spotted along the trail we were about to follow.
“No to worry,” said the dog walker who informed us of the bear sighting. “We’re respectful of them, and they’re respectful of us.” We were both thrilled about and terrified of a potential ursine encounter. With pep in our step, we strode briskly down the thicketed pathway and took a pass on the well-placed benches and wildlife viewing stations.
We stopped long enough to chat with the husband of the dog walker (“just look for the guy with binoculars”) who alerted us to the sights and sounds of Yellow Warblers and Western Tanagers. The bears must have been napping.
The Leavenworth Bavarian experience was about what I expected—artificial amusement in lederhosen. That said, the community must be commended for building something out of nothing over fifty years ago and sustaining its quality. And people have fun. The mostly masked visitors around us were in high spirits (especially in the beer gardens). There were no polka or live music performances while we wandered, though we did spot a woman walking down the street with an alphorn longer than she was tall.
Beyond bratwurst, thematic treats included enormous soft pretzels, strudel, schnitzel, and gingerbread. Nearly fifty options for food, and more than two dozen wine tasting rooms, brewpubs, and distilleries pack the compact town center.
Not every food venue serves Bavarian cuisine. We spotted a Mexican grill and tequila bar and an Italian restaurant. Our neighbors in Portland recommended Sulla Vita for Mediterranean bites, wood-fired pizza & craft beer.
After lunch on the rooftop patio at Rhein Haus (prime rib burger for Joe, spinach, pear, and blue cheese salad with slices of bratwurst for me), we were ready for a respite from the oompah music piped into the central plaza. Peace prevailed a few blocks away in a trio of petite parks along the Wenatchee River joined by bridges and trails.
On our way back, we dropped into Doghaus Brewery, self-described as “a nano brewery with a tiny tasting room and a huge heart.” And dogs are welcome! We also poked around Posy, a kaleidoscope of handpicked goods supports indie artists and makers that we appreciated for its authenticity in a sea of shopping sameness.
Burned out on Bavaria, we jumped back on Highway 2 and headed north to Lake Wenatchee, where a lakeside campground would be home for the next two nights. Though solitude was in short supply, it was rewarding to observe families having fun that didn’t involve a screen.
While we were setting up our site, a young boy on a bicycle stopped to acknowledge the Green Bay Packers decal on Van Go. He was also a fan, he confided, though his family cheered for the Seahawks. “Aaron Rodgers threw some great passes in the win today,” I said. “Yup, he sure did,” he said and wheeled away.
Wenatchee Lake is a grand glacier- and snowmelt-fed pool ringed with peaks and forests of pine and fir. Campers flock to the wide, sandy beach and dive into water sports, from fishing, windsurfing to boating and swimming. And kite flying on the late afternoon winds.
It was such a relief to be eyeing the weather forecast instead of the Air Quality Index (to which I had become addicted during recent smoke-filled days in Portland.) When cooler temperatures were predicted, we decided to take a mini-regional road trip instead of shivering in our camp chairs.
We discovered whistle-stop Plains where the hardware store did triple duty as a gift shop and café. Joe was eyeing a pair of bib overalls when I reminded him that we no longer lived on a ranch.
Gauzy shreds of clouds and pockets of fall color in the Cascades adorned the first leg of our drive home. Then the first serious rain of the season moved in while we were eating breakfast at the Mountain View Diner in the foothills town of Gold Bar.
We felt like aliens walking into the restaurant with masks. The waitress, the cook, and most of the customers were bare-faced. “I swear I saw a sign in the entry that said masks were required in Washington,” I said to Joe.
“You missed the small print,” he said.
I read the sign more closely on our way out. It did indeed exempt those with medical conditions that prevented them from wearing a mask. “If you are without a mask, we will assume you have a medical condition,” the sign proclaimed, noting that employees had such conditions. In front of a building across the road, a large MAGA flag danced in the downpour.
The rainy drive the rest of the way home was miserable and slow, but we didn’t mind—fires were still ravaging the West Coast and needed all the help they could get.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.