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Leavenworth, Washington, Offers Winter Recreation with a Twist of German Kitsch

The Plain Valley, near Leavenworth, offers its own network of Nordic ski trails. [Photo] Courtesy Icicle TV

When Seattle’s incessant winter rains and dank skies sop my soul, dampen my disposition and sodden my socks, the quickest cure for my seasonal blahs is an overnight getaway to the snow zone.

If time allows, my wife and I drive the five hours to the Methow Valley, with its hundreds of kilometers of groomed cross country trails. But when we have only a weekend to spare, the choice is clear: we toss our skis in the car and power over Stevens Pass to Leavenworth, Washington.

Located on the sunny and snowy eastern slope of the Cascades, Leavenworth is known to alpine skiers as the bedroom community for Stevens Pass ski area and to beer chuggers and sausage munchers as the quirky Bavarian-themed town with a massive Oktoberfest. During the holidays, Seattle families flock there for the gargantuan Christmas lighting festival—a multiweek event so bright it can likely be seen from space. 

Leavenworth, however, is much more than a place to glug gluhwein and bust out the lederhosen. For my money, it’s one of Washington’s premier outdoor lifestyle towns, a cross country ski destination with scenic splendor and four seasons of recreational opportunities. I lived in Leavenworth for three years prior to marrying a beautiful Seattle bride, and if not for love I’d be there today.

Three Groomed Trail Networks

I learned to skate ski in Leavenworth, beginning my transition from alpine skier and snowboarder to Nordic skier after decades of treating skinny skis as a weekday workout when there was no time to reach the chairlifts. With multiple cross country trailheads just minutes from downtown, it provided an easy turn for a mid-50s snow lover weary of the schlepping, crowds and expense of weekend resort skiing.

Trails along the Icicle River showcase panoramic views of the Cascades. [Photo] Courtesy Icicle TV

The nonprofit Leavenworth Winter Sports Club drives the town’s abundant snow-play options. The club operates three groomed trail networks (day passes $24) plus a tubing run and rope-tow ski hill where, during workday storms, I frequently logged off the computer for a few hours to bag powder laps on my snowboard—with only a handful of teens and tweens sharing the bounty.

Each of the Winter Sports Club’s trail hubs has its own character. The Ski Hill has the town’s most challenging network, with seven kilometers of groomed classic and skate tracks that rise and fall repeatedly, climbing up and spilling down a hillside beneath tall pines. This is where I learned to refine my uphill skating technique and downhill step cornering. Five kilometers of trails at Ski Hill are also lit for night laps.

The Golf Course trails are my favorite as they are the closest to downtown, with eight kilometers that wind along the Wenatchee River, whose mist rises from the riverbank willows on mild mornings. A children’s sledding hill here offers parents the opportunity to keep the kids busy while banging out laps.

The Icicle River trails are the most popular: eight kilometers that meander through meadows, cross bridges and traverse pine forestlands along the banks of the Icicle River, with tremendous views of the Cascades’ jagged peaks. A short drive from downtown, these trails typically have the best snow conditions, too.

Affordable Family Fun

“With two million visitors a year, people know about Leavenworth,” says Clint Strand, a local whom I bumped into at the Ski Hill during a visit last winter. “But despite all those visitors, the great thing about this town is it’s still very much a close-knit community. And the Winter Sports Club is the hub that gathers the community together during one of the best seasons of the year.”

In addition to Nordic trails, the historic Ski Hill recreation area offers tubing and a small rope tow–serviced downhill ski slope. [Photo] Courtesy Icicle TV

With family season passes for $530 and youth season passes for $90 (both of which provide access to all the Nordic trails plus two rope tows and fat-bike tracks), winter recreation here is “super affordable,” Strand says. It’s also incredibly convenient for locals and visitors who lodge downtown. “We are literally five minutes from our driveway,” Strand says of the Ski Hill. “We can take a couple of runs and head home or ski until dinnertime. It’s beautiful.”

These qualities make the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club incredibly popular, with about 3,000 passholders in a town of some 2,000 residents. When the club built a new patio and completed other renovations to the Ski Hill’s historic lodge—where adults can get a beer and kids can warm up with a hot cocoa and fries—locals rallied to the cause by donating nearly $200,000 to cover the project’s cost.

A Man for All Seasons

Overseeing it all is James Munly, the club’s general manager. He works 50 to 70 hours per week in winter, supervising a staff of more than 80 instructors, groomers, ticket sellers, coaches and volunteers.

“Being general manager of a small, nonprofit ski hill may sound super glamorous,” Munly jokes, “but the duties include everything from making sure the dumpsters are emptied on Tuesdays to cleaning bathrooms, putting tracks on the groomers, splicing the rope tow, selling tickets or running a groomer when someone calls in sick. There are countless moving parts and duties.”

Just a couple of blocks from downtown Leavenworth, Waterfront Park features three kilometers of trails along the Wenatchee River. [Photo] Courtesy Icicle TV

With the brawny physique of a tank mechanic and a friendly demeanor that makes him one of Leavenworth’s best-known and most beloved characters, Munly—a father of two teen boys—is fully invested in making Leavenworth a great place to live and visit. He moved here full-time in 1994, working winters at Stevens Pass and operating the legendary, and awesomely named, local mountain bike shop Das Rad Haus during the summer. He has since sold the shop—a loss for him personally, but a gain for the town. The career change enabled Munly to devote his labor year-round to building up and supporting Leavenworth’s outdoor recreation economy. 

When the Winter Sports Club ceases operations in the spring, Munly still transitions from skis to bikes, now working as the lead trail builder in central Washington for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. Leavenworth is one of Washington’s best mountain biking destinations, thanks to the many miles of singletrack that Munly has carved from the area’s steep hillsides. 

I befriended Munly while living in Leavenworth, sharing more than a few pilsners with him at Icicle Brewing Company, pedaling and skiing his trails and seeing firsthand his work ethic and impact. Every great ski town has a Munly, someone whose enthusiasm and devotion to a community’s quality of life can never be quantified. I’m just a sodden English major from Seattle with no accounting skills, but I’d calculate that value as priceless.

Getting There

Leavenworth is about two and a half hours by car from Seattle via scenic Highway 2, which goes by Stevens Pass ski area or, alternately, I-90 east and Highway 97 north.

Where to Stay

Bedazzled with Christmas lights, the Bavarian Lodge (rooms from $156) is located across the street from a kids’ sledding hill and a short walk from Enchantment Park, whose snowy paths wind through the woods along the banks of the Wenatchee River. The Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, a few steps from the Icicle River trails, offers rooms and deluxe cabins for overnight stays (from $185), as well as a restaurant and coffee shop.

Leavenworth’s annual Village of Lights display gives the town extra glow. [Photo] Courtesy Icicle TV/Brian Munoz

Ample Après

With multiple microbreweries and food options, from fine dining to bratwursts, Leavenworth serves up a wide range of post-skiing food and fun. Icicle Brewing Company offers outdoor seating, plentiful heat lamps and fire tables, live music and a wide selection of brews, including Dark Persuasion, a delicious German chocolate cake ale with hints of cocoa and coconut.

Additional Trails 

The nearby town of Plain, about a 20-minute drive from Leavenworth, offers 25 kilometers of cross country trails groomed by Plain Valley Ski Trails. Day passes are $20.

More to Do

Take the kids for a slide on the tubing hill, ride the rope tows and get a beer or cocoa to sip beside the fire pits at the Ski Hill’s lodge. Or, if you visit anytime from Thanksgiving through mid-February, fill your thermos with hot gluhwein and stroll downtown to enjoy the dazzling light festival, when the community strings more than half a million colorful bulbs from every tree and business—it’s a spectacle that will warm the heart of the grumpiest grinch.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Cross Country Skier (41.3).