Discover Northwest—Okanogan Trails and Sherman Pass Byways

Okanogan Trails and Sherman Pass Byways

Coddiwomple: “To travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination.”

The road trip had a well-researched plan. The itinerary? A five-night excursion on two of Eastern Washington’s intersecting scenic byways: Okanogan Trails and Sherman Pass. Ultimately, wildfires and COVID closures required some real time adjustments; fortuitous detours that found us admiring county fair blue-ribbon sheep, searching for sculptures by a Native metalsmith, and meandering the prettiest little drive east of the Cascades.

Pateros, a recreational town at the river confluence of the Methow and the Columbia, anchors the southern terminus of Okanogan Trails Byway. The game plan was straightforward: Drive Highway 97 83 miles north to the Canadian border, following a stretch of the historic 800-mile Caribou Trail. Used by Native Americans and then for cattle drives and by miners making their way to Okanogan and Canadian mining camps, their vestiges became the trip’s waymarks. Then, reverse course and drive east on Highway 20, to Sherman Pass Byway, Washington’s highest maintained pass.

It was in Pateros where we discovered artist Virgil “Smoker” Marchand’s “Memorial to the Methow” installation. His lifelike sculptures, cut from steel then shaped unheated with a sledgehammer and vice, can be seen in multiple locations throughout the region, including the Colville Reservation where he lives.

The search for another artist, the Japanese frontier photographer Frank S. Matsura led us to the Okanogan County Historical Museum where his collection of photos depicting life in the area, circa 1903-13, is housed. The museum was inexplicably closed, necessitating Plan B—a search for nearby Marchand sculptures, including his bighorn sheep perched above another unexpected discovery: Omak Lake. Surrounded by rolling sagebrush hills belonging to the Colville Tribe, the eight-mile body of turquoise water is Washington’s largest saline lake.

By chance, our road trip coincided with the 74th Okanogan County Fair publicized by colorful posters all over town. We spent an evening wandering 4-H barns of squash displays and Nubian goats, sampling barbecue, cheering for bronco riders, and enjoying the camaraderie of a community happy to see each other after the previous year’s fair cancellation.

At the fair we got insider information about Omak’s Breadline Café. Open since 1981, the eatery is a former soda pop bottling plant. The interior is filled with vintage typewriters, musical instruments, and friendly waitstaff and customers. The menu is sizable, all of it homemade (including its bread bar) with drinks poured behind a vintage bar.

Below the Canadian border at Oroville, we ventured east to visit the well-preserved ghost town of Molson. Reached after climbing rolling hills of ranch land dotted with abandoned homesteads, Molson is worth the detour. The former two-story brick school is a museum, and the weathered buildings of the original town (land office, cash-only general store, and bank) have been lovingly restored by the Okanogan Historical Society.

Returning we took a scenic gravel road paralleling Canada; a barbwire fence the only indication of an international border. In Oroville, the Similkameen River Canyon signs stoked our curiosity, and after map consultation, we impulsively followed them down a lush backroad through designated wildlife areas, past Nighthawk, another historic mining town, and into picturesque Conconully, where the devastation of the recently controlled Muckamuck Fire was evident.

Sherman Pass Byway’s 42-mile trip begins in Republic, a former gold rush town famous for Stonerose Interpretive Center & Eocene Fossil Site. For a small fee we spent an afternoon with a rock hammer and chisel at the 50-million-year-old lakebed site in search of fossils lodged in shale. We then quenched our thirst at Republic Brewing Company before wandering main street admiring the town’s history murals.

Outdoor recreation opportunities were plentiful, and we regretted not bringing our bikes. The Golden Tiger Pathway is a 5.5-mile bike/walking trail within Republic. Its northern end connects to the 25-mile Ferry County Rail Trail ending at the Canadian border. At 5,575 feet, Sherman Pass has additional trails used by hikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers providing far-reaching vistas of the Kettle River Range and Eastern Washington. In September, our moderate hike took us through swaths of pink fireweed.

Kettle Falls, on the eastern side of the pass, has an historic museum with information about the indigenous tribes who gathered at the 50-foot falls to salmon fish. It was also inexplicably closed. Alternatively, we wandered galleries of the 30 vendors who share the refurbished Old Apple Warehouse Trading Company and sat on its porch enjoying Crandall Coffee roasted on the premises.

The best experiences were the unexpected when one door was closed (literally) and we stayed open to new discoveries not on the itinerary—an international boundary, a back road that warrants a return visit, and the company of friendly strangers in the stands of a rodeo arena. It was coddiwompling that upgraded a spreadsheet road trip itinerary to memorable getaway.

Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus and Dutch, the Magazine.


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