Grüß Gott! A Bevy of Beautiful Bavarian Trails in Washington State
Leavenworth, Washington offers a European getaway for trail runners without crossing the Atlantic.
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My first experience with Bavarian trails was in 1984. I was a recent high school grad backpacking with two buddies, going from hut to hut in the Alps, and we soon learned the greeting, “Grüß Gott.”
Although the literal translation is “Greet God,” and it is a wish for divine blessing, it has taken on more of an areligious demeanor and is now somewhat arcane expression, used sparingly by older Bavarian hikers. And only on Bavarian trails. But, after spending a bit of time in Leavenworth, Washington—the “Bavarian Gateway”—I was prepared to hear the salutation as I laced up my trail shoes to run on their spectacular offering of trails.
The Bavarian Alps of the U.S.
Leavenworth remodeled itself as an Alpine village in the mid-60s in an effort to revitalize the town of roughly 2,000 residents when first the railroad and then the timber industry left, severely damaging the municipality’s economic prospects. Because Leavenworth’s surrounding mountains reminded a soldier who had fought in Germany in World War II of the Alps he had seen, the city leaders were persuaded to convert the town in an effort to attract tourism.
The city would look and feel a lot different today had the soldier been fighting Mussolini instead of Hitler—think, more pizza and less wienerschnitzel. Which might have been more fitting because the surrounding area actually resembles the Dolomites more than the Alps, what with the limestone outcroppings that are reminiscent of Lavaredo. But the steep peaks are sufficiently Alpine to make the Germanic conversion feel plausible.
Strict building codes that control architecture and sign font serve to have morphed Leavenworth—often in Disneyesque manner with turret facades and balconies that have no access—into a veritable German hamlet, complete with oompah bands, lederhosen and drindles galore. And, of course, beer, brats, pretzels, sauerkraut, spatzle … and, not being too distant from Seattle’s hipster culture, there are plenty of gluten-free options and Munchen Haus has awesome veggie bratwurst.
The plan was successful. Perhaps overly successful on summer weekends, when traffic is congested and tourists clog the sidewalks. But the Bavarian village concept saved the city and what would have been a ghost town is now thriving to the point where concerned citizens are fighting an Alpine slide and there’s a huge number of homes being let out for AirBnB while service workers have to commute in because they can’t afford housing in Leavenworth. In other words, according to Lori Vandenbrink, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Sleeping Lady mountain resort, it is suffering the same growing pains of other tourism and recreation destinations and Leavenworth needs to decide what audience it wants to attract now that it has reached this level of maturity.
Enchanted, I’m Sure
Nate Hough-Snee, a Leavenworth-based ultrarunner, PhD and ecosystem conservation consultant and planner, is passionate about Leavenworth’s environmental qualities and nature-based recreational opportunities. The Wenatchee River flows from the glaciated peaks of the nearby Dakobed Range, and Icicle Creek from the Stuart Range—both shaping the character and behavior of the valleys and their people. And, seeing things in geological terms, he takes a long-run approach, as in glacial.
Hough-Snee, who married into a local family that homesteaded nearby, has seen a lot of changes occur in the Leavenworth area, doorway to the Enchantments—a collection of high peaks surrounding blue-watered lakes in a basin near the middle of the Stuart range. These glacially-carved, stunning mountains that took millennia to form are now experiencing changes at very human timescales—especially in the last several years.
What had been secluded trails in the Enchantments now require pre-dawn starts in order to get parking within a mile of the trailhead. Vandenbrink and Hough-Snee, separately, fingered Instagram and the geotagging of photos, mostly of Colchuck Lake in the Enchantments, as the primary cause. Yet both explained that it isn’t hard to find less-traveled trails if you avoid it peak times or more popular destinations during high season.
Plenty of Vert
Hough-Snee gave me some local secrets that I swore I wouldn’t share, at least not for another 35 years, when Bavarian trail greetings come back in fashion. He parted ways by telling me to enjoy my visit and the trails around town and the Enchantments in the Stuart Range. “I could pontificate about many a route,” he said, “But if you head into Colchuck Lake, Leavenworth Ski Hill near Tumwater Mountain Road, and Icicle Ridge, you’ll get a representative tip of the iceberg.”
Advice well taken. Running Hough-Snee’s suggested sampling of Leavenworth trails, including a good foray into the Enchantments, provided a playground-like, fun and challenging mixture of technical, rocky terrain, buffed roller-coaster, flowing singletrack and steep jeep roads. It is easy, courtesy of a variety of routes, to quickly ascend above Leavenworth, gaining views of the river valley and town.
A run up Ranger Road, high above the city, brought me to a paraglider launch spot and some scrambling. The soaring descent back to town, in and out of forest with zig-zag turns, included an encounter with a small bear. Fortunately, other than slowing down a Strava segment, the only casualty was in the form of sore quads, a fine reminder of the effort.
Runners will find Leavenworth fine training ground for mountain running and gaining strong legs, pounded out from thousands and thousands of vertical feet of elevation change. The off-road surfaces are varied and the area’s eye candy is both nourishing and inspiring, even with tired muscles. Autumn is an ideal time to explore the region, as it brings magical colors to the Enchantments and Oktoberfest is in full swing.
After running on Leavenworth’s wide selection of trails, you can sample the plentiful pleasurable cool-down activities. A popular pastime in the area is the well-honed practice of “floating” down the Wenatchee River. Depending on the water level, different types of vessels are appropriate but tubes—with one reserved for cold beverages—are quite popular. A walk through Waterfront Park, Blackbird Island and Enchantment Park includes shaded forests and beautiful scenery. There is also a thriving arts community, biking, golf, climbing, and the winter recreation matches Leavenworth’s ice and lights festivals. And, needless to say, you can find a host of German beer and food.