It's time to visit Sun Mountain Lodge
By Mary Vermillion
I smell sage and pine as I reach the end of the road at Sun Mountain Lodge on a bluff 1,000 feet above Winthrop. I lower my car window to bring the fragrance closer and hear bird song and wind. That is all I hear. On this early summer afternoon, the scent, the silence and the views of gently rolling meadows are powerfully peaceful. Sun Mountain Lodge, which this year begins its 50th anniversary celebration, waits quietly to astonish long-time patrons and first-time guests like me. And, as I pull up to the stately main building, I ask myself: Why have I never visited before today?
I’ll never forget the first time I came here," General Manager Brian Charlton tells me. "It was for the job interview. That was in 1988. Probably about June of ’88. I remember because I had no idea where it was. I came to the top of Washington Pass, stopped the car. I looked down the valley, and I was almost crying. It was so beautiful."
On that day nearly 30 years ago, Charlton stopped in Winthrop for directions to the resort. "No one knew where it was," he recalls. "I ended up going down some dirt road. But then I finally got here to the old building … it wasn’t like this … it was the older place. When I could get to the telephone, I called my wife and said I’ve found the place where I want to spend the rest of my life."
Today, everyone in Winthrop knows Sun Mountain. The lodge is a major employer in the Methow Valley, where the economy relies heavily on tourism. The community has a vested partner in owners Erivan and Helga Haub, who fell in love with the valley on numerous family vacations and bought the lodge and surrounding property in 1989 for $2.5 million. Well-known for their philanthropy in the Tacoma arts community, the Haubs are equally committed to the Methow Valley. In “The Smiling Country,” Sally Portman’s excellent history of the Methow, Helga Haub is quoted as saying they bought the Sun Mountain property to “save it and the land for the community.”
"When I came in 1988, they said they wanted to have a really good restaurant with rooms,” Charlton says. “40 odd million dollars later, they stayed true to the restaurant, but they built this thing out and it just kept going and going. All driven by their absolute love for the area.” While Sun Mountains’ owners have invested considerably in upgrades and expansions, the lodge is not an imposing castle on a hill. Rather, it nestles perfectly into the hilltop site just as original owner Jack Barron envisioned. Barron opened the lodge in 1968 with 50 guest rooms in two buildings and a main lodge. A visionary, he saw the valley’s potential as a cross country skiing mecca.
The Haubs completed the first major renovation and expansion of the three-story main lodge in 1989. The adjacent Gardner building offers additional rooms and suites with fireplaces, decks and views of Mount Gardner and surrounding peaks. Steps beyond the Gardner Building is the Mount Robinson guest building, which opened December 1996. The comfortable, lodge-style rooms feature original artwork, exposed timbers, and handcrafted furniture and fixtures. Much of it was built by local artisans. Bedding, paint color and artwork are subdued; the views from the windows are the star. Sun Mountain also offers 16 lakeside cabins at nearby Patterson Lake. Among the four distinct options, Sun Mountain has a total of 112 rooms. But, Charlton assures me, guests can count on privacy. “That’s one of the great things about it,” he says. “People can come here to get away from the telephone, the noise, the TV (there are none in the guest rooms). They can disconnect. Do nothing. And just relax.”
The lovingly maintained landscaping contributes to that sense of peace. Construction was done in partnership with local conservation groups to ensure minimal impact on the natural environment. The Haubs paid attention to tree preservation; work was delayed by three months to accommodate a blue spruce that was in the path of the main lodge expansion. Sun Mountain’s property now spans 3,000 acres. But don’t expect more rooms or a golf course to fill in the empty spaces. Further development is limited by conservation districts and open space restrictions. And, Charlton says, that type of development was never what the Haub family had in mind. Sun Mountain’s environmental commitment extends to its dark skies pledge. Exterior lighting is cast down to keep nights atop the bluff as dark as possible, perfect for star gazing. There are also charging stations for electric cars.
There are countless ways to appreciate the love the Haubs extend to this incredible place. For me, it was as simple as choosing one of many resort trails. On my post-Solstice visit, grasses and wildflowers just past their prime -- in shades of green, yellow and white – hem the trail. I startle a grouse. A doe followed by her fawn scramble up the hillside and trot away from me. The serenity the Haubs hoped to preserve and to share is on full display; it’s practically showing off. (Notably, the black flies and mosquitos keep my rosy perspective in check.)
And what about that really good restaurant the Haubs envisioned? I’m happy to report – especially after working up an appetite on the trails – they achieve that goal, too. The Dining Room at Sun Mountain Lodge hews to the farm-to-table ethos, featuring local produce, meat and grains. The intimate, wood-paneled dining room is reminiscent of a luxurious treehouse perched atop the bluff with expansive windows that frame the valley and surrounding hillsides. When Executive Sous Chef Willi Nordby stops by my table and notes that I chose the quail stuffed with emmer farro, he nods and points, saying “the emmer farro comes from Bluebird Grain Farms just over there.” On my hike the next morning, I’ll pass the wild rock rose from which Nordby foraged petals to top my dinner entree. Pastry Chef Samantha Huntsman blends fresh, local strawberries in the generous scoops of home-made ice cream I have for dessert.
The farm-to-table approach isn’t a novelty at Sun Mountain. With their commitment to the local economy, working with local farmers is “a natural thing for us to do,” Charlton says, despite the challenges of a short growing season. That attention to locally sourced, quality ingredients and superior service has resulted in AAA Four Diamond dining awards for 25 years and running. The wine program also wins accolades. Casual dining is available at the lodge’s Wolf Creek Bar & Grill.
After dinner that night, I return to my room to sit on the deck and count the stars; the Big Dipper is directly above. Coyotes yip in the distance. When they stop, it is silent except for the sound of wind through the birch trees and Wolf Creek -- heavy with winter snow melt – rushing below. For 50 years, Sun Mountain has waited at the end of the road for travelers like me. I won’t wait to visit again. And neither should you.
ACTIVITIES. I visited in early summer to explore the resort’s 30 miles of hiking trails (and to dine at the lodge’s incredible farm-to-table restaurant), but each season brings its own reason to visit Sun Mountain.
In winter, Sun Mountain’s over 200 kilometers of gently sloping, groomed trails draw cross-country skiers and snowshoers. The lodge was the Methow Valley’s first cross-country resort. There are also winter sleigh rides. In spring, summer and fall, guests visit the on-site activities shop to rent mountain bikes, fly fishing equipment or tennis racquets to play the resort’s three courts.
Sign up for horseback trail rides or the lodge’s popular Cowboy Dinner as well as guided fishing trips and fly casting classes. In season, guests can rent rowboats at the Patterson Lake office. You can also cook up a game of horseshoes, volleyball, pool, foosball or ping pong. Board games are available at the front desk. The resort offers a list of local activities in the Methow Valley and can connect guests with river rafting outfitters or directions to nearby golf courses. Or, if like me, you’re there on a perfect summer night, you can simply lie on your back and count the stars.
AMENITIES AND SPA. The lodge has an exercise room, two outdoor seasonal swimming pools and two hot tubs (with incredible views) that are open year ‘round. The on-site spa offers a full range of treatments for men and women. Current offers and specials are featured on the lodge’s website.
THE DETAILS. Visit www.sunmountainlodge.com for accommodation details, room rates and special events. Follow the Lodge on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.