No need to fly overseas for a bit of European charm; visit this enchanting Bavarian village, packed with adventure for active families.
If you’ve dreamed of taking the kids to Germany, Austria or Switzerland, but a trip to Europe with the whole family isn't in your immediate future, head to beautiful Leavenworth, Washington. You won't see castles, cathedrals or cobblestones, but this lovely, little, half-timbered town on the banks of the Wenatchee River has just about everything else that you’d find in a traditional Bavarian village, plus plenty of outdoor activities to keep even the most hard-to-please teens and tweens satisfied.
Photo courtesy: Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce
What to do?
The hills really are alive with The Sound of Music, thanks to Leavenworth Summer Theater’s (565 U.S. Hwy. 2) annual outdoor production of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. From the moment the first singing nuns stepped on stage until the von Trapp family escaped into the mountains at the end, this show was an absolute delight! One of “my favorite things” to do in Leavenworth, I'd go back just to see it again. My teens and the younger kids sitting around us loved it, too. The show is family-friendly, and the actors make it even more so by visiting with you as they usher you to your seats and again as you head back to your car.
KidTripster Tip: They say that there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and we agree, but we recommend sitting about ten rows back for the spectacular view of the mountains behind the stage.
The company performs two other musicals. We enjoyed Annie at the Fish Hatchery Stage, but the seating wasn’t as steep as the Ski Hill Amphitheater (home to The Sound of Music), so my youngest had a hard time seeing all the action over the people sitting in front of us. Both venues are a few minutes drive from town, but you’ll want to arrive 30 minutes early; it’s a bit of a hike from the parking lots to the theaters. Performances run early July through the first few days of September and tend to sell out, so buy your tickets when they go on sale in June. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend. Cost: $14, $25 or $35, depending on seat location.
KidTripster Tip: Seats are plastic folding chairs, so rent a seat cushion for a buck at the concessions stand or bring cushions from home.
Take your family on a stroll through the flower-filled streets of downtown, popping into shops like Kris Kringl (907 Front St.), where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. If you're in the market for freshly-made chocolates, nutcrackers, music boxes, wooden toys or silly hats, you're in the right place. Weekends are more crowded on Front Street, but the atmosphere is livelier, often with horse-drawn carriage rides and musicians playing in the park’s gazebo. During the summer and fall, Lederhosen-clad, alphorn players perform the Alphorn Serenade every Saturday night at 8 p.m. If you'd like a little more oom pah pah, check out the various festivals held throughout the year.
KidTripster Tip: Parking can be crazy, especially on weekends, so leave the car at your hotel and walk. Most hotels in town are within walking distance from just about everywhere.
Don’t miss Leavenworth’s hidden gem, the Nutcracker Museum (735 Front St.). Arlene Wagner, the grandmotherly curator in the Bavarian dress known as “The Nutcracker Lady,” loves to show off the enormous collection of over 6,000 nutcrackers. Kids can do the scavenger hunt, searching case upon case of fairytale characters, historical figures, animals, and more. The hunts are set up for all ages and difficulty levels, and Frau Wagner will help you if you get stuck. My kids’ favorite nutcrackers were Al Capone, Darth Vader, and a metal alligator. (Note for families with nut allergies: All nutcrackers and nuts are behind glass. Nuts are only cracked in the museum one day a year as part of Nutcracker Day activities. Both my children are allergic to nuts, so we almost skipped the museum, but I'm very glad that we didn’t.) Cost: Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-16) $2, Adult $5; open daily from 1-5 p.m.
Shoot the rapids with Osprey Rafting Company (9342 Icicle Rd.) Kids (9 and up) are old enough to take on the Class III rapids that bookend a peaceful float through town on the Main Event trip. (There’s a milder trip for kids as young as 4 called the Family Float.) If you’re visiting mid-summer when the river is low - a great time to introduce kids and beginners to whitewater rafting - and your guide asks if you'd like to hop out of the raft and get into an inflatable kayak, say “yes.” My husband and I saw a lot more action from our kayaks than our boys did from the raft. We could crisscross the river and choose where to tackle the next series of rapids. It’s also a lot easier to splash each other (and your kids) when you’re closer to the water, which is not nearly as cold as you'd think. With capable yet easy-going guides, comfortable life jackets, and just enough training to get you started, you’re in for a fun (and safe) few hours on the water. The scenery is stunning, and we saw some wildlife on the riverbank, including a deer with a huge rack of fuzzy antlers. Our boys loved doing the “arctic crunch” by leaning backwards out of the raft and dunking their heads in the water before using their abs (thus, the crunch) to pull themselves back up. Our oldest also got to sit on the bow like a mermaid on the prow a ship as we went through a series of rapids. Yes, we made him yell, “I’m the king of the world!” A photographer follows the trip down river, taking great shots that you can purchase later. Basic burgers are included at a riverside barbeque before you’re shuttled back to town. Cost: Main Event $85-$95, Family Float $60, Youth (ages 4-6) $30.
KidTripster Tip: Wear swim trunks, a Dri-FIT-type shirt, water shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen; bring a towel. The office where you check in sells aqua shoes for about half of what we paid in town. The staff also provides wet suits during cooler weather. You can send dry clothes ahead to change into at the barbeque. Leave all your valuables behind. I met an unlucky tuber on the river who’d dropped his cell phone into the water and lost it.
Tubing is another popular river activity. The water is shallow enough to see the rocky bottom in most places near town. You can rent tubes from Osprey or Leavenworth Outdoor Center (321 9th St.), which also rents bicycles. We rented bikes from Icicle Junction (free to guests of Icicle Village Resort) and rode into town along Highway 2 which felt a lot safer than it sounds. To get back, we took the path along the river, riding through woodsy Waterfront Park, Blackbird Island, and Enchantment Park. It was fun, but the bikes are single gear (as are the ones you can rent in town), so riding uphill at the end of our route was, well, an uphill battle. Cost varies.
Giddyap and giddalong at Eagle Creek Ranch (7951 Eagle Creek Rd.), where our family took a five-mile trail ride up into the mountains on gentle, experienced horses. After your kids strap on riding helmets, the guide teaches them how to control their horses and makes sure they feel safe and comfortable before starting off. My youngest had never ridden solo and our two hours on horseback was his favorite part of our trip. Our guide, Christine, entertained us with trivia about the area, survival tips for encounters with wild animals, and exciting stories of her experiences being stalked by wolves. The ride takes you way up into the Wenatchee National Forest for a glorious view of Sugar Loaf Ridge and the valley below. In winter, this family owned-and-operated ranch offers horse-drawn sleigh rides. Five-mile ride cost: $50; ages 6 and up.
You’ll want a car (or some serious cash for a taxi) for your next adventure, flying through the forest with Leavenworth Ziplines. Located at the beautiful Mountain Springs Lodge (19115 Chiwawa Loop Rd.) in the town of Plain, a 25-minute drive from Leavenworth, this activity is a must-do for active families. There’s a nine-line morning tour and a five-line afternoon tour, which is what we did and what our guide recommends to his own family and friends. Both tours take you on the highest and longest lines. We saw some gorgeous scenery and had a blast zipping through the trees. Zipping was my oldest son’s favorite activity. Our guides were friendly, funny, and knowledgeable. We felt safe and secure the whole time, even those of us who were afraid of heights. (OK, that’s just me.) Kids must be at least 7 years old, and participants must weigh 70 to 270 pounds. Short tour cost: Youth $75; Adult $85; Long tour cost: Youth $95; Adult $105.
KidTripster Tip: If you or your children are nervous, ask to do the practice line at the beginning of the tour.
KidTripster Tip: Get there early or plan to stay a few minutes afterward, so you have time to feed the fish in the trout pond. It’s a feeding frenzy when the pellets are dropped in. My boys have never had so much fun for fifty cents!
Climb every mountain or at least hike some of the nearby trails with options for every difficulty level. After our time rafting, ziplining, and horseback riding, I can't imagine a place in or around Leavenworth that isn't beautiful.
With so many things to do, we succeeded in wiping out our boys, but they still had enough energy to beat us in a round of mini golf. You can play at one of the two 18-hole putting courses in town, Icicle Junction at the Icicle Village Resort or Enzian Falls across from the Enzian Inn.
Photo courtesy: Spencer Flodin
Where to eat?
Enjoy some traditional German brats and kraut at München Haus (709 Front St.), a family-friendly Bavarian grill and beer garden that hosts different live bands on Thursday through Saturday evenings in summer. Half the fun of getting a sausage here is selecting which of the 15 different kinds of mustard to put on it. The kids and I liked the Champagne Honey Mustard best. I’d put that mustard on just about anything! The Big Bob Bratwurst is the best seller, but we preferred the juicier and more flavorful Helga’s Giant Kelbassi. Got a picky eater? München Haus also serves all-beef hot dogs and apple slices, as well as yummy giant pretzels.
When traveling as a family, we always stake out the local burger joints, and there are several options in Leavenworth. Fresh Burger Cafe (923 Commercial St.) came highly recommended by everyone that we met. Self-professed meat eaters even raved about the veggie burger. Or, just for fun, take a 15-minute drive to the neighboring town of Cashmere and grab an old-fashioned malt or milkshake with your burger and fries at the 50s-themed ‘59er Diner (15361 U.S. Hwy. 2).
If you’ve got to have some schnitzel or other traditional German fare, there are plenty of restaurants to chose from, including some with wait staff in traditional Bavarian clothing. However, most restaurants that were recommended to us weren’t German. South (as in “South of the Border”) (913 Front St.) is popular for its Latin American fare. The menu at Visconti’s (636 Front St.) looked amazing (I still want to try the ravioli di zucca), but when it came time for dinner, our kids were so tired from all the outdoor activities that we’d done that they ate chicken nuggets lying on the hotel bed. Thankfully, we had a little, private balcony with a beautiful view, so my husband and I could sit at a table and eat real food from our hotel restaurants. (The pear gorgonzola salad from the Connections Cafe was quite good.)
And don’t forget dessert! It doesn’t have to be Christmastime to enjoy a good gingerbread cookie from the Gingerbread Factory (828 Commercial St.). The decorated gingerbread figures are cute, and the gingersnaps are soft and delicious. Need to cool off? Treat yourself and the kids to a cone of gelato or sorbetto at Viadolce (636 Front St.), serving 14 made-from-scratch flavors.
Photo courtesy: München Haus
Where to stay?
Icicle Village Resort (505 U.S. Hwy 2) is the most family-friendly place to stay in town with large, clean rooms, comfortable beds, and loads of activities for the kids. Seconds after we arrived, our kids were asking when we could come back again! With a basketball court, swimming pool, free bike rentals, mini golf course, arcade, and movie room, your kids will never be bored. A model train runs through the dining room of JJ Hills Fresh Grill, where a full, hot breakfast is served buffet-style each morning. An easy half-mile walk or bike ride from Front Street, you’ll appreciate the quiet that comes from not being right on the main strip. And there’s an onsite spa, so parents with sore muscles from all those outdoor adventures can get a massage.
At approximately 420 square feet, the premier room had plenty of space for our family of four. There were two queen-sized beds, a nook with a large sofa bed, fireplace, microwave, mini fridge, two TVs, and my favorite part, the private balcony covered in flower boxes facing the beautiful Tumwater canyon and surrounding mountains.
KidTripster Tip: Not all rooms come with balconies (family rooms don’t, but all premier rooms do), so be sure to ask before you book. You also can book one-, two- or three-bedroom condominiums that have full kitchens.
If you don’t mind the drive or prefer a more secluded retreat, try Mountain Springs Lodge (19115 Chiwawa Loop Rd). It’s 25 minutes from town and has a restaurant, lovely swimming pool, and other onsite, outdoor activities including horseback riding and ziplining.
Photo courtesy: Icicle Village Resort
Nestled in the mountains of the central Washington Cascades, Leavenworth is a 2-1/2-hour drive from Seattle and 5-1/2-hour drive from Portland. It’s accessible by Amtrak, but we think that you’ll prefer having a car. Both I-90 and Highway 2 (Stevens Pass Byway) connect Seattle to Leavenworth. We took the byway, because it’s part of the scenic Cascade Loop. It was fast-moving and beautiful most of the way, but we experienced a slow down of epic proportions for no apparent reason that added an extra 45 minutes to our drive time, so be mindful of that when planning your trip.
Elizabeth Ely Moreno studied German for five years in junior high and high school, then traveled through the real Bavaria where she was asked by locals to please just speak English. Though she still remembers how to sing Christmas carols in German, none of that was required in Leavenworth, where she visited with her husband and their two teenaged boys.