The reopening of the North Cascades Highway two weeks ago lured some tourists back to the valley, but continued closure of campgrounds, lakes and trails, and major resorts – and uncertainty over air quality and wildfires – have kept it from looking like a normal summer.
The valley’s biggest resorts, Sun Mountain Lodge and the Freestone Inn, were evacuated in mid-July as the Cedar Creek Fire burned perilously close. Pearrygin Lake State Park and Patterson Lake were both closed, limiting water sports in an extra-hot summer. Hiking trails along the North Cascades Highway, in the Chewuch, and on Twisp River have all been off limits because of wildfires. Even state lands not threatened by the fires were closed because the extra-dry conditions made the fire risk too great.
“We’re starting to see more people walking around the streets,” said Marlene Temple, information clerk at the Visitors Information Center in Winthrop on Sunday (Aug. 22). Midweek is still very quiet, she said.
But with schools starting up again, the clear air and reduced fire risk have come too late to rescue the summer, Temple said.
Even hopes for a Labor Day boost were dampened when the Methow Valley Rodeo was canceled because of lingering concerns about fire and smoke. The next big event is Winthrop’s 46th-annual Vintage Wheel Car Show on Sept. 11. “There are normally a lot of people in town for that, but who knows, this year,” Temple said.
Pearrygin Lake State Park is opening on Thursday (Aug. 26) for the first time since July 20. The lake and campground have been closed because of the wildfires and the firefighting aircraft that have been using the lake to scoop water.
Fire managers allowed the Silverline Resort to launch boats on Pearrygin again on Saturday (Aug. 21), owner Joey Ellingson said. Although people have been able to swim, kayak or paddleboard in Silverline’s roped-in area, the smoke and fires kept things pretty empty at the resort this summer, Ellingson said. “Some people still think the town’s about to burn down,” she said.
Patterson Lake was shut down in July because of the proximity of the Cedar Creek Fire, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Manager Staci Lehmann said. They’re hoping to reopen soon, but are still awaiting word from the state, she said.
Things are definitely starting to pick up, Methow Cycle & Sport Sales and Operations Manager Dave Dewbrey said. The biggest issue is that some visitors arrive, hyped for outdoor activity, and want to know where they can ride or hike or paddle. Dewbrey has to tell them that pretty much every trail and lake is closed. “It’s frustrating for us – we’d love to be the bastions of good cheer,” he said.
But Methow Cycle is benefiting from the huge demand for bikes that drained inventory across the country during the pandemic. “The bike boom is still happening out there,” Dewbrey said. Customers have been coming from as far as Seattle and Portland to buy a bike, he said.
Although business has picked up at the Courtyard Quail in Winthrop, it’s still less than half of a “normal” summer, owner Rachel Layne said. “The reopening of the pass gave us a bump,” she said. Layne kept the store open as much as possible all summer, but some days – with just $10 in business – she closed early. “I’m looking forward to local holiday sales,” she said.
The Cedar Creek Fire came within 1/4 mile of Sun Mountain Lodge. “Yet, the Amazing Structure Protection Fire Crews kept Sun Mountain Lodge safe from all flames,” said Eric Christenson, the lodge’s director of sales and marketing, in an email update.
At the Freestone, the fire scorched Sandy Butte just behind the inn, coming within a couple hundred yards of two cabins, Freestone General Manager Marvin Sutton said. Scars are visible on the hillside of Sandy Butte, but “it’s not a total wipe-out – there are still some green trees,” he said. Fire crews said that Firewise measures had helped protect the inn, Sutton said.
Sun Mountain and the Freestone had hoped to reopen on Sept.1, but both sustained heavy smoke damage. Both resorts will get a full cleaning – in fact, from the same smoke-abatement company, Sutton said. Sun Mountain expects to reopen on Oct. 16. The Freestone will reopen mid- to late October.
The rehab will entail a rigorous cleaning of all buildings, indoors and out. Big charcoal filters will clean rooms and heating and cooling ducts to eliminate the smell of smoke. Carpets will be shampooed, wood surfaces will be scrubbed, and rooms will be repainted, Sutton said.
All furniture, floors, and soft surfaces will be cleaned and replaced. The exteriors of each building will be pressure-washed and retreated, Christenson said.
The extensive cleaning is covered by insurance. Sutton said the Freestone will also file a claim for loss of revenue for the months of closure.
In addition to loss of overnight guests, both resorts had to cancel numerous weddings. Some have been rebooked for later this year. “People weren’t worried about the weather; they were worried about the Freestone,” Sutton said.
Sun Mountain was also flooded with notes of encouragement, prayers and well wishes from locals, guests and firefighters, Christenson said.
“We hope to finish strong, as well as the rest of the community. It’s been a little bit of a glitch,” Silverline’s Ellingson said.
“We’re not back to perfect, but we’re leaning toward better,” Dewbrey said.