Im the first to admit it: Im a wimp about winter driving. I dont have an SUV, Ive never put on chains, and I get nervous on ice. But I do love train journeys the relaxation, the scenery. The solution to visiting Leavenworth in winter is easy: Take the train.
Sure, you have to plan. You have fewer options about winter sports. And you might face Amtraks legendary delays at some point. But the bonuses are a carefree trip through the pass, staying in the cute German-style downtown and scenery to die for.
The first thing youll hear about Amtraks daily 4:40 p.m. train from Seattle to Leavenworth is that its always late. Since the Empire Builder route began stopping at Washingtons most famous renovated mountain town (Leavenworth shrugged off a decaying logging history and reworked itself into Little Bavaria in the early 1960s), travelers have realized a sad fact about Americas rail service: Were a long way from Swiss precision.
But dont let that put you off. Out of three winter train trips to Leavenworth over as many years, Ive had late trains twice. Admittedly, the last one was a doozy: a two-hour wait in Seattle, followed by a three-hour wait at Everett and a post-midnight arrival. But if the 6:08 a.m. trains late returning, thats a good thing extra sleep-in time. Just bring plenty of books, electronics and snacks in case.
What youll get on the train far outweighs any delay. On the way out of Seattle, youll catch a stunning sunset over Puget Sound all the way to Everett, which you couldnt enjoy while driving and which you wouldnt see anyway traveling east on Interstate 90. You get to kick back, shut your eyes and relax, eat in the dining car and generally begin your vacation right at the start, rather than battle speed-crazed trucks up the mountain. You dont have any worries about snow or ice, and on the way back, your reward for getting up early is a magnificent unveiling of the Cascades in all their winter glory: evergreens steeped in snow like a fairy tale, frozen ponds and icy rapids, tiny hamlets just waking up and everything gradually revealed as the sun comes up.
If you book ahead, the Leavenworth Shuttle will meet your train (yes, whenever it arrives, even at 1 a.m.) and ferry you straight to your hotel for just five bucks. They also will pick you up for the return, calling you beforehand to update you on the train status.
At $80 for a round trip, its not too much more than the gasoline cost would be.
There are plenty of cabins and resorts within a 10-minute drive of Leavenworths downtown, but if youre on the train, you should stay in the town center and luxuriate in the ability to wander from hotel to shops to restaurants to parks in a truly European manner. Its hard to resist the Innsbrucker Inn, perched atop the towns bookstore and overlooking the park, magically lit at night. You can shop, sled, hike, eat, then go back and rest in one of their book-themed rooms. (The Secret Garden is flower-strewn, the McManus comes with oars and deer head and the Chocolate Suite is self-explanatory.) Having a coffee shop at the bottom of the stairs is another bonus. Other downtown hotels include the Bavarian Ritz, Enzian, Leavenworth Village Inn, Linderhof and Obertal.
WHAT TO DO
Leavenworth in winter almost doesnt need explanation think sledding and ice sculptures in the towns central park, pretty lights, snowshoeing or walking the riverside trails, cross-country trails, an Alpine ski hill with tubing, sleigh rides, frosty air and delicious German pastries on every corner.
But theres one important difference you need to plan for if youre going by train: You cant take your skis. Because Leavenworth is an unattended train station (dont worry, it does have a covered and heated area on the platform), theres no one to handle luggage and you can take only what fits Amtraks carry-on parameters (and carriage storage bins).
This doesnt rule out skiing or snowboarding. Der Sportsmann, on Front Street opposite the park, will rent you any kind of gear you like, including skis, snowboards, snowshoes and sleds. A cheaper sled option is to take the roll-up kind in a separate bag on the train, and snowshoes as well. Bringing your own boots can save money, too.
After that, its a question of getting to the slopes. While the riverside trails are beautiful with their hushed bare forest and frozen banks, and only a blocks walk from town, they often dont have enough snow for cross-country skis.
Take the shuttle taxi to the Icicle River or golf course for groomed beginner-intermediate Nordic trails, or the Ski Hill for alpine, boarding and tubing. Daily Nordic passes are $10-$15; alpine tickets are $12-$15; both are free for seniors and those younger than 6. Tubing is $17 between 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The shuttle taxi charges a $2 per-person pick-up fee and $2 per mile.
If you dont want to ski, there are other ways to enjoy the snowy wonderland of Leavenworth. Eagle Creek Ranch, Icicle Outfitters, Mountain Springs Lodge and Red-Tail Canyon Farm all offer horse-drawn sleigh rides bundle up with a blanket and pretend youre in another century as the steaming horses plow through the snowy fields. Most places offer hot drinks afterward in a heated tent. Again, take the taxi.
And of course, theres the wealth of shops and restaurants downtown. Leavenworth is clustered around a few small, walkable blocks, so even if its really cold, its still a delightful experience cruising nutcracker and music box shops, gift and clothing shops, European delicatessens and any number of cafes. Try the Cheesemonger down the stairs at 819 Front St. for yummy samples of smoked Gouda and caramelized onion cheddar; or the Gingerbread Factory on Commercial Street; and dont miss the Australian Shop just past the park on Front Street, where you can stock up on Vegemite, ginger beer and Drizabone stockmans coats straight from Down Under.
TIME TO EAT
Leavenworth is full of restaurants, and most are downtown and easy to get to from any hotel.
Andreas Keller Restaurant does a mean schnitzel and cheese noodles in a basement venue straight out of Bavaria, with an accordion player at 6 p.m. and booths inside beer barrels. Café Mozart offers romantic European fine dining, Café Christa has views of the park and King Ludwigs has family-sized Bavarian platters and a dance floor on weekends. Warm up under the open-air radiators at the two wurst joints on Front Street near the Innsbrucker, and dont miss the Italian gelato and superb coffee at Via Dolce next door.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568