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A light dusting of snow on Early Pass. Photo by Bob and Barb.

Northwest Weekend: Mazama

Mazama is an ideal jumping-off point for camping and hiking in the North Cascades | by Lindsay Leffelman

A solo adventure to the mountains is just what a busy teacher needs to recharge for the school year ahead. Every year, I make it a priority to go on at least one weekend excursion by myself. I relish having the time alone to explore the natural splendor of our state. This year, I chose to venture to Mazama, a small community where the North Cascades meets the Methow Valley.

Originally a jumping-off point for the mining towns near Hart’s Pass at the turn of the previous century, the tiny town of Mazama has become quite a hub for outdoor recreation. With a population of 200 people and just a handful of businesses, this one-stop-sign town boasts impressive access to an abundance of outdoor pursuits—hiking, fishing, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, rock climbing and biking, to name a few. Tucked away from the highway, Mazama is the perfect place to get away from it all.

Goat Peak Lookout by Doug Diekema.

My adventure, however, started long before I reached Mazama. Coming from the Puget Sound region, the way to Mazama traverses the North Cascades Highway (closed seasonally in the winter due to heavy snows; check WSDOT for current conditions) through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Washington, and I took full advantage of the many viewpoints along the way. Newhalem, Gorge Creek Falls and Diablo Lake all offered a chance to soak up the scenery and stretch my legs as I worked my way across the mountain passes, with jagged peaks soaring high above.

As I continued on, the peaks became craggier and the forest more stunning as I reached Washington Pass at an elevation of 5,477 feet. At the Washington Pass Overlook, I walked the quarter-mile path to take in striking views of Liberty Bell Mountain and Early Winter Spires and to gaze down at the switchbacking highway some 700 feet below. After enjoying the view and breathing in some fresh mountain air, I resumed my journey.

Newhalem, Gorge Creek Falls and Diablo Lake all offered a chance to soak up the scenery and stretch my legs as I worked my way across the mountain passes, with jagged peaks soaring high above.

Just 4 miles east was my home for the weekend — Lone Fir Campground. After setting up camp, I took a stroll along the Lone Fir Trail, a 2-mile loop through the forest and along Early Winters Creek, before making myself dinner over the campfire and watching as day faded into starry night.

In the morning, my voyage eastward continued. As I drove, I watched as the landscape changed from the dense forests of hemlock and fir typical of the area west of the Cascade Crest to the drier ponderosa pine forest of the east side. After 13 miles of peaceful driving, I turned north from Highway 20 onto Lost River Road, crossed the Methow River and arrived in Mazama. 

My first destination was The Mazama Store. I had heard good things about their pastries, made in-house daily with flour from an organic farm just outside Winthrop. Before I could get my breakfast, though, I had to browse the quality offerings in this delightful general store. From local meats and cheeses to handcrafted pottery and souvenir T-shirts, this store truly has a little bit of everything.

The larches in Mazama are a crowd favorite once fall rolls around. Photo by Mike Mahanay.

After perusing the store, I headed out to the sunny patio to devour my breakfast before walking the short path to Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in the cabin just behind the store. Goat’s Beard sells and rents a wide range of outdoor gear, but perhaps their biggest strength is the knowledgeable staff who can help you plan your outdoor adventure.

After my stop in town, it was time to head to the hills! My main objective for the day was to get into the high country, but since this was supposed to be a relaxing trip and the day was quite warm, I didn’t want to have to work too hard to get there. Luckily, a scenic drive to Hart’s Pass would get me up high without having to hoof it up a steep trail.

Over the years, I had heard about the road to Hart’s Pass. Forest Road 5400 had been described to me using just about every synonym for scary you can imagine. The narrow, one-lane gravel road has steep cliffs on one side, no guardrails and little room to pass cars coming from the opposite direction. Despite the ominous warnings, I also knew the road was maintained for low-clearance passenger vehicles and would get me to the highest point in Washington accessible by car.

Once at the pass, elevation 6,100 feet, I strolled around the campground soaking in the extraordinary views of the Pasayten Wilderness and North Cascades.

Even though Hart’s Pass is just under 20 miles northwest of Mazama, the drive took about an hour given the conditions of the road. I do love a good scenic drive, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Once at the pass, elevation 6,100 feet, I strolled around the campground soaking in the extraordinary views of the Pasayten Wilderness and North Cascades. I meandered up the road to the Pacific Crest Trail and followed it north. I didn’t hike too far, just far enough to enjoy the wildflowers and the breeze. I’ll be back this way again to do some more serious hiking, but this trip was all about taking it easy.

Stars light up the night sky at Hart's Pass. Photo by Chris Campbell.

Once I was back in Mazama, I wandered along the Methow Community Trail to the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge. It was good to stretch my legs, inhale the scent of ponderosa in the warm afternoon sun and watch the serene waters of the Methow River before making my way back to town for dinner. I stopped in for some pizza from Jack’s Hut at the Freestone Inn. A personalsize pizza and crisp salad satisfied my taste buds before I made my way back to the campground for one last night sleeping under the stars.

In the morning, I woke early to the sounds of birds chirping and watched the sun start to peek over the mountaintops as I packed up my gear. On my return trip over Washington Pass and through all the twists and turns of the North Cascades Highway, I felt grateful for my time spent exploring Mazama and all of its peaceful charm.

Where to Hike

  • Pacific Crest Trail—Windy Pass: From Hart’s Pass, northwest of Mazama, the Pacific Crest Trail winds its way through remarkable scenery. It’s an ideal area for backpacking or day trips. Try the 3.5-mile section north from Hart’s Pass to Windy Pass for an iconic day hike. The price is a long, slow drive up Forest Road 5400 to the trailhead. 
  • Goat Peak Lookout: At the top of Goat Peak, a notable landmark throughout the Methow Valley, a historic fire lookout tower perches at 7,000 feet. Hikers who venture this way will be rewarded with outstanding 360-degree views of countless North Cascades summits. The trail is 5 miles roundtrip with 1,400 feet of elevation gain.
  • Methow Community Trail: Stretching between the towns of Mazama and Winthrop and generally following the course of the Methow River, the Methow Community Trail offers gentle terrain for a casual stroll. Used as a cross-country ski route in winter, the trail is open to hikers and bicyclists the rest of the year. It can be accessed from several different trailheads along the 15-mile route.
  • Cedar Creek Trail: At 3.5 miles roundtrip and 500 feet of elevation gain, the trail to Cedar Falls is a familyfriendly option. The trail gently climbs through forest and meadows before reaching the waterfall. The flow of the falls varies depending on the season and there are some steep drop-offs, so exercise caution when exploring.
Map by Lisa Holmes.

Where to Stay

  • Lone Fir Campground: On the banks of Early Winters Creek, 13 miles west of Mazama and 4 miles east of Washington Pass, the Lone Fir Campground offers 27 first-come, first-serve sites. With great mountain views and a 2-mile interpretive loop trail, it’s a family-friendly campground just off Highway 20.
  • Hart’s Pass Campground: Sitting at just over 6,000 feet with incredible views of the North Cascades, this primitive campground is a real gem. There are just five first-come, first-serve tent sites, and while the campground has a pit toilet, fire rings and picnic tables, it does not have water or trash receptacles.
  • Mazama Country Inn: This quaint inn, with 18 cozy and comfortable guest rooms, has the amenities you might expect at a big-city hotel: heated pool, sauna, hot tub, fitness center, tennis court and on-site restaurant. With no televisions or telephones in the guest rooms, you can truly let yourself unwind.
  • Mazama Ranch House: With its combination of cabins and suites, the Mazama Ranch House has accommodations to fit everyone’s needs. Tucked away in Ponderosa pines, hiking and horse trails extend from the Ranch House’s front porch and lead you into the magnificent wild areas just beyond town.

Where to Eat

  • The Mazama Store: This charming general store describes itself as having “a little bit of everything good,” and it certainly lives up to that description. From delicious pastries and sandwiches made in-house to locally grown produce and handcrafted items from local artisans, there’s plenty here to browse before you eat.
  • Freestone Inn: After a long day on the trail, you need some serious refueling. The Freestone Inn offers two distinct dining options: Jack’s Hut has you covered if you’re in the mood for a casual meal of pizza and beer, and the Sandy Butte Bistro will tempt your taste buds with a fine dining experience.
  • Mazama Country Inn Restaurant: The Mazama Country Inn Restaurant offers breakfast daily and dinner Friday through Sunday. Before you hike, fill up on the Mazama Hiker’s Breakfast. After a day in the mountains, a hearty portion of ribeye steak or wild-caught salmon will satisfy your hunger.