Autumn in North Central Washington means good food, and lots of it. Chelan county shares it’s food with the world. Be it fruit, food or our famous wines, fall is the season of the harvest. And what a bounty it is!
This region’s reputation for food production is a relative new industry, one made possible by the vision to dam the Columbia River. The open plains and barren hills offered rich soils and plentiful sunshine without the most important element: water. Thousands of gallons of the precious stuff flowed downstream every minute, but early irrigation was mostly a crude affair, with industrious farmers and communities pumping or diverting what they could.
Two large scale irrigation projects changed the economic future of the region; the Icicle Creek irrigation ‘ditch’ and the system of Columbia River dams. Massive quantities of water could now be consistently controlled and irrigation infrastructure spread far and wide. The doors to a new life were sprung wide open, Chelan County was catapulted from a dusty backwater to one of the world’s largest food production regions.
Washington’s Playground took a tour of some of our region’s best eats, traveling from the pear orchards that surround the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, east to Wenatchee’s new Pybus Public Market and north to Chelan, the county’s wine capitol. We stopped all along the way, visiting restaurants, fruit stands, vineyards and markets that feature locally harvested food and specialty food products and sampling the best that the season of the harvest can offer.
Leavenworth’s Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort’s Kingfisher Restaurant might be one of the world’s best places to eat local fare. Vegetables and herbs grown in the resort’s expansive 2.3 acre garden travel 500 feet to the kitchen, where executive chef Joshua Holmes creates a light , yet lively menu that celebrates food harvested and prepared at its peak of freshness.
Diners can eat inside the Kingfisher’s beautiful main dining room or enjoy their meal outside under the pines, the Icicle Creek flows past peacefully. Hidden above on the mountainside is the Icicle Canal, it’s 1% downhill grade providing water via gravity to the expansive orchards down valley.
The Wenatchee Valley is traditionally famous for apples, but the Red Delicious is more of a memory than a reality anymore. These days pears are king and the savory green fruit trees dominate orchards from Leavenworth to Wenatchee and beyond. Roadside fruit stands populate the area, from the humble tent awning and a couple boxes of local fruit and veggies to elaborate properties with shelves full of delicious delicacies from around the world.
Smallwood’s Harvest is one of the largest and well-loved operations, with attractions for families and foodies alike. Located along Highway 2 east of Leavenworth, Smallwood’s is just that: an amazing harvest of specialty foods from around the region and fresh produce fresh from the orchard, vineyard and garden. Kids love the animal petting zoo, cow train and prop maze.
The newest destination for the dedicated foot tourist is Wenatchee’s Pybus Public Market. Housed in a former steel mill, the market opened in 2013 with much fanfare. Diners can sit inside or out, both enjoy expansive views of the Columbia River and the adjoining Apple Capitol Loop Trail just yards from the market. Musicians play from a stage fashioned a push car from the former steel mill’s railroad service. The stage rolls in and out depending on the season; totally cool. Visitors may access Pybus by bicycles, on foot, or even paddle a kayak, providing an alternative to the traditional box store experience. This is our kind of place!
The road takes us north on highway 97 along the Columbia River, passing numerous apple, pear and cherry orchards, some with waterfront property, some industriously perched high on the hillsides. Its harvest time and the work is all or nothing. Workers quickly pick the fruit at precisely the right time of year based on the ripeness. The fruit is trucked to packing houses across the valley where it’s distributed further. Orchardists work long hours to pick and ship the year’s harvest. Tiring work, but done with pride, NCW’s orchardists feed people worldwide. The road rises up from the river and through a narrow (and exciting) tunnel and into the heart of Chelan County’s wine producing country, Lake Chelan.
One of the state’s most popular recreation areas, Lake Chelan works hard, but has a good time doing it. The once popular apple producing region cut down its trees and planted grapes. These days Chelan and its sister city of Manson produce dozens of award winning wines, ones best enjoyed on the back deck, the grill and conversation humming. In Lake Chelan, wine is like life itself, something to be savored and enjoyed.
Benson Hill Vineyard enjoys one of the best views of Lake Chelan, as well as the distinction of being one of the only 100% estate grown wineries in the area. Along with consistently producing award winning wines, the Mediterranean-inspired Benson Hill plays hosts to weddings and events throughout the summer and is the perfect place to stop in and enjoy a glass of red or white while taking in the setting sun. Benson Hill Vineyard offers free wine tasting daily of their premium-quality Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ice Wine and more.
Some wineries have branched out to offer a host of choice edibles to pair with their delicious vintages. Tunnel Hill Winery’s Sunshine Farm Market is one such specialty outlet. This open air treasure is an amazing shopping experience. Great food and a great view, Sunshine offers foods and gift items crafted with care and attention to detail, be it their own line of super cool preserves (Corn relish, baby carrots to pickled quail eggs and about 20 other unusual and delicious old fashioned preserves) or locally produced fruits, veggies, wine, cider, and treats. Sunshine is the goods and everything is indeed that; really, really good eats!
Chelan County is Washington’s Playground, and also its garden. Take a tour for yourself this fall and taste the difference!