Icicle Creek Road, a Place to Explore

Icicle Creek

How often have you passed a road whose very name rouses your desire to leave the traveled highway and explore? Icicle Creek Road is one of these for us. We’d seen the sign many times over the years while passing through the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth on our way to eastern Washington. This summer we took the time to satisfy our curiosity while celebrating our anniversary.
The road follows close beside turbulent Icicle Creek. Is it named Icicle Creek because of its cold waters? Or do icicles hang from the rocks in winter? No, the name comes from the Indian word na-sik-elt, which means “narrow canyon.” (Pronounce the word icicle with an n at the beginning and a t at the end for a good approximation of the Indian pronunciation.)

Wildflowers and wild water

The stream originates near the crest of the Cascade Range and drains Josephine Lake. The first part of its course lies through a deep, narrow canyon. After a few miles, the cleft takes on the classic U-shape carved by a glacier. Still, until it nears the town of Leavenworth and its confluence with the Wenatchee River, there is scarcely room for the road beside the foaming water.

Bicycling up the Icicle Canyon

  The creek’s watershed is the rugged, mountainous land of the Wenatchee National Forest and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The area is a magnet for campers, hikers, and rock climbers. Bicyclists pedal along the wildflower-edged road. Forbidding spires thrust into the sky in some views; in others ridges are studded with dead trees left from the Icicle Creek fire that raged through these mountains in 1994. Always, Icicle Creek plunges its way toward the Wenatchee River, growing by the mile as tributaries dump their loads of snow melt into it.

Click for a better view of fire-killed snags against the rugged spires of the Wenatchee Mountains.

We thought we saw an anniversary heart on this boulder.

Peaceful canyon drive

There are eight first come-first served campgrounds along the road, and numerous trails leading up into the mountains. But for time or mobility-challenged visitors, the drive alone, with its wild and lovely wilderness vistas, is well worth the effort.

Leavenworth Anniversary


    For each of the thirteen years of our marriage, we’ve spent our anniversary exploring some part of this beautiful northwestern corner of the United States. We’ve stayed on the Olympic Peninsula, ferried to Victoria B.C., and one time drove only five miles away to a local Bed & Breakfast.

    This year we took one of our favorite drives, the Cascade Loop, crossing Stevens Pass, driving north along the Columbia River, and home via the North Cascades highway. On the way we spent the night at Washington’s own Bavarian village, the little town of Leavenworth.

    Where Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River come together, several tribes had long fished for salmon. The first white settlers established a trading post there. In 1893, the Great Northern Railway came through Tumwater Canyon. The town was platted that same year by Captain Charles F. Leavenworth, for whom it was named. With the coming of the railroad, timber companies’ logging flourished along the nearby hills and valleys. People poured into the thriving town.

    Then, following the great Wellington avalanche disaster, the railroad changed its route, bypassing Leavenworth in favor of the less dangerous present route. The timber companies along Icicle Creek went out of business, many townspeople left, and by the 1960s, the town had nearly gone extinct.

    Town leaders came up with a plan to base the town’s economy on tourism. They would transform the frontier town of Leavenworth into a Bavarian village. The setting already greatly resembled the Bavarian Alps. With the addition of a series of annual festivals to bring in a million tourists a year, Leavenworth quickly became a popular tourist destination.

    We didn’t need a luxury hotel or souvenirs so we skipped the fascinating stores, except for a cozy little bakery-coffee shop with a porch. We ate delicious pastries while gazing past the building tops to the nearby mountains.
 After exploring Icicle Canyon, we drove through town, looking for a place out of the ordinary but inexpensive where we could spend the night. We crossed the Wenatchee River and found ourselves on our way to Peshastin, so turned around and headed back. As we again approached the bridge, we spied a sign nearly hidden in the trees. It read “Bindlestiff’s Cabins.” A narrow road led into the canyon.

“Turn here,” I suggested, my serendipity meter pinging like mad. A row of tree-shaded, one-room cabins lined the edge of the bluff, each with its own railed deck overhanging the river below.  The rushing river drowned out any sounds of civilization. The water tumbled past, powerful, foaming, swirling. No rafters braved its rapids while we watched, but the river itself provided hypnotic entertainment.

Our cabin had the necessities: cleanliness, an adequate bed, kitchenette with fridge and microwave, a shower. We didn’t turn on the television. Instead we watched swallows dipping after insects just above the water’s surface.

Next morning we watched the sun strike through the trees to the green water below while we ate our breakfast of coffee, fruit, and white-chocolate raspberry scones from the bakery.

Soon we were off on the next leg of our trip, up the Columbia River, then west over the North Cascades Highway and home.

Mountain Top Waterfall in the Tumwater Canyon

Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon

 Stevens Pass on Highway 2 crossing the Cascade Mountains is a spectacular route for a roadtrip anytime, but particularly in early June. As we headed east toward Leavenworth to celebrate our anniversary, we watched for the changing vegetation to signal our crossing into Eastern Washington. Soon lodgepole pines infiltrated the Douglas firs and vistas became more open.

  We knew we were almost to our destination when we entered Tumwater canyon. Nineteen years ago, beginning in July, 1994, a raging wildfire had started on nearby Icicle Creek, destroying a number of homes near Leavenworth. It burned over the mountains and down to the tumbling waters of the Wenatchee River, leaving a blackened skeleton forest interspersed with untouched trees. Now the slopes were green again, though bleached and ghostly snags still stood along the ridges.

It was while I gazed up at some of those craggy ridges that I glimpsed a waterfall I’d not noticed before. It seemed to pour out of the very top of a mountain as if blasted from a fire hose. I saw it for only a minute before another mountain’s shoulder hid it from view, although we saw a large creek plunging down the rocky bank into the Wenatchee River.

Next morning we went back, hoping for pictures. Fortunately not too many people were on the road that early, because we had to drive back and forth several times before we found it again. We pulled off where the shoulder widened a bit and I shot the photo below. The waterfall looked much smaller than it had the afternoon before. I wondered if it came from snow melt which would increase as the day warmed. Perhaps it isn’t even there later in the summer. (Can you see it, next to the peak in the center?)

An east-side Cascade waterfall and snags burned in the 1994 Hatchery complex fires

Through a telephoto lens

From http://www.iciclevillage.com :

In 1994, about 180,000 acres of forested land in Chelan County burned. In Leavenworth two fires – “The Hatchery Complex” and “Rat Creek” – burned out of control and people were forced to evacuate.

• 2,400 firefighters from 24 different states worked to save the town.
• The fire traveled at speeds exceeding 50 mph.
• 950,000 gallons of retardant were dropped over Chelan County.
• 14 homes were destroyed in the Icicle Creek Canyon.
• The fires started July 24th and were out December 24, 1994