The End of the Road

Mid-summer in the eastern Cascades usually means hot temps and endless sun, so any chance to get in the water is readily welcomed. Spencer Paxson takes whatever refreshment he can get on the trek up Angel’s Staircase. NIKON, 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 2000

The End of the Road Methow Valley’s Truly Wild Offerings

Main street may be paved, but it’s not hard to imagine John Wayne moseying past the wooden boardwalks and weathered storefronts of Winthrop, WA, headed toward the swinging doors of Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon as he prepares for a shoot-out with some villain inside.

Everything from the general store to the gas station to fonts on the signs could be pulled straight from an old Western movie, an appearance the town has cultivated for more than 45 years.

The irony, however, is that while Winthrop’s current appearance may be artificial, the iconic cowboy style was actually born in this tiny, rural hamlet of barely 450 people. Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, “The Virginian,” is regarded as the first true American Western, and was inspired by his honeymoon to Winthrop. More than a century later, Wister’s muse may seem far tamer, but it remains a frontier for backpackers, rock climbers, mountaineers and—most recently—mountain bikers searching for rowdy, wild terrain.

Located in North Central Washington, Winthrop sits in the upper end of Methow Valley, a roughly 50-mile stretch running south from the crossroads of Mazama to the agricultural town of Pateros, at the confluence of the Methow and Columbia rivers. Along its rapid-filled course, the Methow River passes through sage and grasslands, towering stands of ponderosa, and steep, thick Douglas Fir forests of the deeper Cascades.


Angel’s Staircase is one of Washington’s only high-elevation epics, and it’s as hard-earned as it is incredible. The monster loop requires pedaling a minimum of 20-plus miles and climbing more than 5,000 feet, usually in 90-degree temperatures, but those willing to put in the work can enjoy some of the state’s highest singletrack, reaching to elevations upward of 8,000 feet. Spencer Paxson takes in the Staircase’s glory. NIKON, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3, ISO 640
It wouldn’t be Washington without some extreme variety. The dry, high-desert-esque climate of the Sawtooth’s peaks and ridges quickly changes in the lower, wetter forests, cramming alpine ridges and loamy roots all into one incredible ride. Spencer Paxson enjoys the variety on the descent from Angel’s Staircase. NIKON, 1/800 sec, f/4, ISO 2500
True alpine riding is really only possible on the east side of the Cascades, where the Sawtooth Mountain’s wide-open ridges and fiery sunrises make for a backdrop to match anywhere. Spencer Paxson and Joe Erfle race the morning alpenglow to the summit. NIKON, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 2500

Today, the entire valley is home to some 5,000 people, an eclectic hodgepodge of farmers, ranchers, artists, aging hippies and even a United States Forest Service smokejumper crew (an art that also originated in Winthrop). But when Wister first arrived, the town was only one of the area’s bustling hotspots, and far from its largest. Farther north, past the treacherous climb to Hart’s Pass, the dual gold mining towns of Chancellor and Barron were already home to nearly 3,000 people. Both towns were abandoned by 1915, but the road remains the highest in the state.  

Unlike mining, agriculture—particularly apple farming—continued to thrive in the valley, as did ranching, as evidenced by the annual “’49er Days Celebration” in Winthrop, a rodeo and horse-centric country festival (2018 will be its 74th year). The USFS built a fire lookout on the 7,440-foot Slate Peak in 1924, and in 1940 established the (disputedly) first smokejumper base.

Meanwhile, hunters, trappers and hikers continued to ply the surrounding heights of the Cascades—or, in the case of the Department of Defense, take those heights down a little. In 1956, the agency blew off the top 40 feet of Slate Peak with plans to build a radar station, plans that never materialized. Instead, the USFS rebuilt the lookout on 40-foot stilts, putting it at the same height as the original.

By the early 1970s, an influx of artists, bakers, organic farmers and free spirits began arriving in the valley, blending with the traditional residents into somewhat of a “Cosmic Cowboy” culture. That influx became a steady stream in 1972, when workers completed the North Cascades Highway. Highway 20, as it’s officially called, opened the Methow directly to the denser population centers of the Puget Sound, and to draw tourists over the mountains Winthrop took on its “American West” veneer.

A short drive off Highway 20, the Cutthroat Pass trail climbs 2,200 feet to an alpine saddle, where it connects to the Pacific Crest Trail—and becomes off-limits to bikers. While early area riders were lucky enough to taste the goods of the PCT, the ride down Cutthroat Pass is plenty satisfying. Joe Brown climbs past alpine larches on the way to the summit. NIKON, 1/3200 sec, f/4, ISO 250
The geology of the North Cascades is wildly diverse, the result of 400 million years of subterranean mayhem. It’s made the range one of the most geologically complex zones on the continent, and made the trails absolutely rowdy. Descending back to Highway 20, Joe Brown rides a few eons’ worth of history. NIKON, 1/5000 sec, f/3.5, ISO 250

The highway brought another first as well: it split the massive expanse of wilderness that once stretched interrupted from Stevens Pass to the Canadian border, giving easy access to trails and locations that once required days to reach. Farther south, horse packers and early dirt bikers were following old Civilian Conservation Corp trails along the Colorado-esque ridges of the Sawtooth Range. Sometimes called the “Chelan Summit,” the spine of 8,000-plus-foot peaks separate the Methow and Lake Chelan and allow adventurers to remain above tree line for miles, a rarity in a land of jagged peaks and valleys.

But by the late 1970s—beyond one cowboy riding a cruiser into the middle of the Pasayten Wilderness on a dare—bicycles in the Methow had yet to leave the pavement. So when Steve Barnett brought the first mountain bike (a custom rig built in Seattle) into the valley at the cusp of the ’80s, the options were endless and, for a time, rules non-existent. The USFS had yet to figure out how to manage bicycles, and a small group of locals began exploring this new frontier. They even tasted parts of the Pacific Crest Trail where it crossed Highway 20, before the USFS amended the Wilderness Act in 1984 to exclude bikes. Luckily for Methow mountain bikers, one of that original crew was Ardis Bynum, a USFS official and avid rider who was able to exempt Cutthroat Pass from the ban. To this day, Bynum’s alpine out-and-back remains one of the area’s must-ride epics.

With the wilderness closed, local riders began converting the area’s winter XC ski trail network—already one of the largest in the country—to year-round use. As the 1990s ticked into the early 2000s, the sport saw pulses of popularity in the valley. Singletrack began appearing on nearby Buck Mountain, which still serves as a good after-work lap, and the Methow Valley Trails Alliance put together events like the Methow MTB Festival, which included shuttles and the infamous “Boneshaker” downhill race. A new bike shop, Methow Cycle & Sport, opened in 2006 and replaced the defunct (and Western-themed) shop downtown.

Sun Mountain is just a few miles west of Winthrop and is home to some of the Methow Valley’s most progressive riding, everything from mellow XC pedals to flow trails like Wild Turkey. Every day can’t be an alpine epic, and the network has added a modern flair to the area’s after-work hot laps for locals like Delilah Cupp. NIKON, 1/2500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400
Joe Brown and Delilah Cupp contemplate the good times to come at the top of the Sun Mountain trail system. NIKON, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400
It ain’t eastern Washington without a little dust. Luckily, Pete’s Dragon, a Sun Mountain classic, isn’t too far from Patterson Lake, so it’s easy to beat the heat after a ride. For the savvy locals, like Jonathan Baker, swim trunks often double as riding shorts (or vice versa). NIKON, 1/1250 sec, f/5, ISO 640

In 2012, local riders partnered with Evergreen to establish the club’s Methow Chapter, which has brought a modern flair to the local trail systems, with flow lines like Pete’s Dragon at the Sun Mountain network, and a new level of energy with work parties and events like the Methow Valley Singletrack Celebration and Brewfest. The area’s storied XC ski heritage has continued to provide as well: the Rendezvous Huts, a system of cabins and Nordic trails just north of town, opened to mountain bikers and now offers a unique, quasi-backcountry experience.

But the Methow’s truly wild offerings still lie in the surrounding mountains, particularly the Sawtooth Range. Partly due to Bynum’s behind-the-scenes work, when the Sawtooth Wilderness area was created in 1984 the southern end was left open to motorcycles and mountain bikes as a “backcountry area.” This includes Angel’s Staircase, a grueling, 25-mile loop that climbs more than 5,000 feet to the highest singletrack in the state. The ride can take eight hours, and that’s without any detours.

Once you reach the summit of Angel’s Staircase at 8,087 feet, miles of singletrack drop off in all directions, past alpine lakes, through fields of wildflowers, and—in the fall—under forests of golden larches. It’s an experience unique to the Cascades, a timeless world to outdo any John Wayne movie. Because when it comes to mountain biking, the Methow very much remains a wild frontier.