Sara Harvey is an oyster farmer and the executive chef at Alderbrook Resort & Spa in western Washington. Her passion for high-quality local ingredients fused with a direct connection to Puget Sound’s natural environments is as inspiring as it is delicious.
Think about the word hostel. What do you see in your mind? If you see a warm and loved home under massive star-filled skies, rugged mountains that are close enough to touch, and a community of dirtbag travelers, you’ve probably experienced the North Cascades Mountain Hostel. For everyone else, check your calendar and start planning your next trip to Winthrop, Washington.
Winthrop is a small town in the Methow Valley on the eastern side of North Cascades National Park. Styled as an old western town, complete with warped boardwalks and swinging saloon doors, Winthrop is a destination for summer travelers and winter recreation enthusiasts.
Population estimates vary, but most numbers hover around 500 full-time residents in just under a single square mile. By comparison, the average population density of Seattle, 189 miles to the southwest, packs in nearly 8,500 people per square mile.
During the summer months, the main drag through town is filled with passing RVs and adventure vans. Hotel parking lots are dotted with out-of-state license plates. This small community in Okanogan County is also one of the last glimpses of civilization for PCT hikers headed north.
Hidden behind a line of trees above the main four-way intersection through town sits the North Cascades Mountain Hostel. Climber and self-described dirtbag, Paul Smotherman, came to Winthrop in 2010 for a teaching job and opened the hostel in 2013.
Paul Smotherman & Liza Hodgins
Paul explains that the first years of the hostel were labors of love. While running the business in Winthrop, Paul was also providing logistical support for scientific expeditions in Greenland and Antarctica.
While the Mountain hostel offers a welcomed bed and roof for PCT through-hikers, it’s also the first choice for many hostel first-timers. In addition to affordable single bunks and shared rooms, the grounds feature private cabins for travelers who want more privacy. The Silverstar Bungalow even has its own bathroom and a private deck. The secret is definitely out and finding a cabin for rent is tough to come by.
Paul tells me that he modeled the Mountain hostel after the hospitality he experienced while traveling in New Zealand. This can be roughly interpreted as “Paul’s house is your house.” And that’s not just a mentality. Paul and his partner, Liza Hodgins, live on the grounds and share the amenities with their guests.
Interior of the main house
I interviewed Paul and Liza on the deck of the Silverstar Bungalow, where I stayed. There was unmistakable ease to the conversation. We drank beers and laughed. The entire place feels like your friend’s house; somewhere that you’re supposed to be. That’s the vibe that Paul and Liza have cultivated.
Paul and Liza make their guests feel welcome, but living on-site, among their customers, comes with challenges.
In November, snow forces the North Cascades Highway, State Route 20, near Washington Pass to close for the winter. 20 is one of the main routes travelers take to the Methow Valley from the west side of the state. While winter and snow enthusiasts still make their way through the mountains and into Winthrop, when the snow falls this small town slows down and, in some ways, is returned to full-time residents.
Fall and winter in the Methow Valley bring relief from summer tourists. Locals return to the massive wilderness expanse that originally brought many of them to the area.
Snow and isolation can’t stop America’s political debates from circulating amongst Winthrop’s residents. Donald Trump and Mike Pence flags are flown on trucks and Black Lives Matter signs are posted in neighborhood windows. Political debates are happening all over America, and Winthrop is no different. But Paul thinks that his small community handles the discourse well.
In 2020, the year of the Pandemic, Paul and Liza were forced to make the same tough decision that so many small business owners faced – they closed the doors to the Hostel.
Fortunately, the hooks of the Methow Valley are lodged deep in many of us, and business for the Hostel is on the mend. Paul and Liza have plans to add more private spaces to accommodate Covid-minded travelers. They’re also in the early stages of expanding the main bunkhouse for more people and larger groups.
The story of the North Cascades Mountain Hostel is as much about Paul and Liza as it is about the town of Winthrop. The Mountain Hostel provides a unique and affordable place to lay your head as you sample the Methow Valley. When you make your way back to your cabin or bunk with memories from the trail and good food in your belly, you may encounter a hiker who has been on the PCT for a couple of thousand miles. Or, you could run into someone experiencing the Hostel for the first time. You might even need to stop and give Paul or Liza a socially distanced six feet while they pass on their way to the kitchen.
If you do see them, think about this: Those affordable bunk and room rates could easily be higher. The unique atmosphere and access to the town could command a much higher price tag on cabins and bunks. But the owner and operators of the North Cascades Mountain Hostel come from the same community that they want to serve. While expansions and additions are on the horizon, both Paul and Liza are committed to keeping their rates affordable.
The Methow Valley takes hold of travelers and renews passions for the outdoors. Several of the residents that I’ve talked to independently describe the experience of coming over Washington Pass and finding a deep connection to the wilderness on the other side.
If you have the opportunity to stay in Winthrop, or one of the nearby communities, it’s easy to understand the romance that inspires a select few to take the leap and move their life to the Methow Valley.
Whether you’ve been to Winthrop or not, plan your trip and try to find space at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel. Talk to Paul and Liza. Talk to members of the community. Try to understand why they make the Methow Valley their home. Ask Paul about his time in Antarctica. Ask Liza about her time in the music business. Strike up a conversation. The mountains and Valley will be why you make the drive. Conversations and encounters at the Hostel will bring you back.
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Quincy and Whitni Henry own Campfire Coffee Co. – a wood-fired coffee roaster and shop in Tacoma, Washington. They don’t use fancy machines or gadgets to roast their coffee. The magic that ends up in your coffee cup is the result of wood, fire, smoke, and grit.