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Originally published Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 12:10 AM

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Washington's best: Five top towns for outdoor jocks and nature lovers

In August, Outside magazine named Seattle to its list of Best Place to Live for the outdoors-oriented. Now, here's our list of Washington's other best towns for getting out of the house.

In August, when Outside magazine ranked the top 100 cities in America, Seattle came in second, behind only Colorado Springs. Along with considering each city's cost of living, nightlife possibilities and the like, the rankings took into account outdoorsy-type factors such as access to green space and what the magazine called its "multisport factor" — a rating of the city's biking, running, paddling, hiking and skiing opportunities.

That got us a-thinking: Discounting Seattle (which already received its share of props), what are Washington's top five outdoorsy towns? After spending painstaking hours in research and study (that would be pedaling, paddling, hiking and the like), we came up with the following five, which we list in no particular order. Enjoy. (And let the debating begin.)

Winthrop

Why chosen: Mountain biking, cross-country skiing, running

With its vintage 1890s storefronts, wooden sidewalks and hitching posts, this beloved Methow Valley metropolis (pop.: less than 400) nurtures one's inner cowperson. And the surrounding trails, of which more than 120 miles-worth meander up and down the nearby hills, dales and valleys, nurture one's inner mountain biker, cross-country skier and runner. Just not at the same time.

Warm and sunny means sagebrush and sunflowers, and that's when the valley's pathways are crawling with the fat-tire and rubber-souled sets. Flip the seasons, and when it's cold and sunny — for it's almost always sunny in the Methow — cross-country skiers have the run of the place. That's when the Methow Valley earns its reputation as one of the top cross-country ski spots in the United States.

The main instigator in all this outdoor activity is the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (www.mvsta.com), which maintains the trails, and promotes outdoor recreation through, among other things, a series of ultra-fun mountain bike, trail-running, and ski races.

Then there's Sun Mountain Lodge (www.sunmountainlodge.com). Mmmm, Sun Mountain Lodge. (That's me sounding like Homer Simpson when he thinks of doughnuts.) Kind of the top of the food chain when it comes to places to stay, Sun Mountain not only boasts posh accommodations but a spectacular setting overlooking seemingly every nook and cranny in the valley. Best yet, it's a hub for one of the MVSTA's three main trail networks, meaning you're out the door and into the wilderness in no time.

Annual events: Fall Bike Festival the first weekend of October; Methow Olympic Experience, various skiing events and clinics inspired by the Vancouver Winter Olympics taking place at the same time; and a summer trail-running series. Find info for all these events at www.mvsta.com.

Leavenworth

Why chosen: Hiking and backpacking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, skiing

Sure, with its nutcracker museum, accordion festival and the whole Bavarian shtick, Leavenworth has kitsch by the truckload. But it's also home to Icicle Canyon, a 25-mile-long gorge that features some of the most lusted-after rock walls and bouldering spots in the state. And with Peshastin Pinnacles State Park, another cragging hot spot, just east of town, it's no wonder Rock and Ice magazine named Leavenworth one of the top 10 climbing cities in the country.

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Icicle Canyon is also the springboard to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. That's where you find most every hiker's and backpacker's favorite: the Enchantment Lakes basin.

"The peaks surrounding this basin, including Dragontrail, Enchantment, McClellan and Little Annapurna, are among Washington's highest and they offer stupendous views in all directions," says Lace Thornberg, editor of Washington Trails magazine.

In just a matter of weeks, those Enchantments will be decked out in fiery golds and yellows when the larch needles go through their seasonal change. A few years ago, Thornberg was lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time.

"On a three-day backpacking trip up there, I watched as larches literally turned from green to gold during the cool crisp nights," she says. "It was gorgeous."

For climbing info, gear and advice, hit up Leavenworth Mountain Sports (www.leavenworthmtnsports.com). Northwest Mountain School (www.mountainschool.com) offers intro, advanced and private rock- and alpine-climbing instruction on routes throughout Icicle Canyon and up into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

L-town is also the place to go for a bumpy ride. And a wet one. Several outfitters, including Osprey Rafting Company (www.ospreyrafting.com), offer trips down a stretch of the Wenatchee River that includes Class III and IV rapids, many with names such as Shark's Tooth, Drunkard's Drop, the Suffocator and the like.

Outdoorsy folks who'd prefer a comfy bed to a sleeping bag benefit from Leavenworth's tourist focus as the town boasts more than 150 accommodations and lodgings (impressive for a town with a population of not much more than 2,000). A convenient choice is the Best Western Icicle Inn (www.icicleinn.com), located mere yards from Icicle Canyon.

Annual events: Autumn Leaf Festival (www.autumnleaffestival.com) this weekend; Bavarian Bike and Brews Festival (www.indieseries.com/bavarianbb) in June.

Port Townsend

Why chosen: Sailing, kayaking, all-around boating opportunities

Surrounded by water on just about all sides, Port Townsend is THE place for sailing, kayaking, rowing and boating fanatics of all stripes.

"Because we're right on the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) there's almost always wind in Port Townsend so sailors love it," says Ted Pike, longtime sailor and past president of both the Port Townsend Sailing Association and the Wooden Boat Foundation.

Kayakers and other paddlers love it because of the area's abundance of protected inlets and numerous islands to explore.

"Marrowstone Island has a whole inland waterway which is great for gunkholing and exploring."

As for Port Townsend itself, its Victorian mansions high on the hill and cutesy shops down on Water Street draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to PT each year. But walk the streets a bit and you'll appreciate the town's unique Old Town waterfront vibe. Brick buildings and sandstone storefronts. Funky shops. Cool cafes and terrific restaurants with outdoor seating.

Incredible setting, too. On clear days, it's possible to see almost all of Washington's big-name peaks: Baker, Shuksan, Rainier, Glacier Peak and the Olympics. Poking its nose into Admiralty Inlet just north of downtown is Fort Worden State Park, a one-time military installation. Along with a lesson in early 20th century naval history, the park offers miles of trails for hiking and biking, as well as a couple miles of shoreline to explore.

Earlier this month marked the opening of the 26,000-square-foot, $17 million Northwest Maritime Center (www.nwmaritime.org), reflective of the community's long commitment to boats. It's a kind of one-stop boatbuilding, maritime-education, and all-around waterfront resource center featuring a 289-foot pier.

Want to get out on the water yourself in Port Townsend? Save a few bucks and assure yourself a spot on the ferry by parking in Keystone and walking on for the half-hour sailing across Admiralty Inlet to PT. Once there, head 500 feet to the right to PT Outdoors (www.ptoutdoors.com; 888-754-8598), which rents kayaks, starting at $20 an hour; offers guided kayak tours of the waterfront, Fort Worden and to nearby islands, and offers instructional classes, too.

Annual events: Rhododendron Festival (www.rhodyfestival.org) in May; Wooden Boat Festival (www.woodenboat.org), which annually draws thousands the weekend after Labor Day.

Bellingham

Why chosen: Downhill skiing/snowboarding, alpine climbing

With water on one flank and mountains on another — and seemingly a million miles of trails and waterways connecting the two — this author's city on the bay wins the award for most versatile outdoor town. City of Subdued Excitement might be its moniker but B-ham is anything but when it comes to the outdoors.

For our purposes, we're focusing on snowsliding and mountain climbing, lasering in on Mount Baker, home of the world record snowfall (95 feet during the 1998-99 season) and the Mount Baker Ski Area (www.mtbaker.us). One of the first ski areas in the country to allow snowboarders, Baker wears its lack of glitz and apres-ski as a badge of honor — there're no neon signs, no corporate presence, not even any phone lines, just loads of epic terrain with incredible riders and skiers catching air off every hit and bump in sight.

Bellingham itself is home to the American Alpine Institute (www.aai.cc), generally regarded by experts far and wide — i.e., Jon Krakauer, Backpacker magazine, The New York Times — as the country's top climbing school. Mount Baker is AAI's classroom; it's where they offer avalanche and glacier travel training as well as prep courses for climbing Mount Rainier, Denali and other big peaks.

A university town that's the largest of the five towns on our list (pop. about 75,000, depending on your source), Bellingham has a wide range of places to stay and eat including all the usual motel and eatery suspects. For true Bellingham flavor, try La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza (www.lafiamma.com) or Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro (www.bbaybrewery.com), famous for its award-winning beers.

Annual events: Legendary Banked Slalom (www.mtbaker.us) in February; Ski to Sea (www.skitosea.com) multisport relay race in May; Bellingham Traverse (www.bellinghamtraverse.com), a multisport relay race in September (this year's was last weekend).

Eastsound

Why chosen: Camping, paddle sports, whale watching/ bird watching, skateboarding and scenic vistas

Eastsound is the jumping off point for spectacular Moran State Park, that 5,200-acre forested wonderland of hiking and biking trails, swimming holes, waterfalls, campgrounds, and Mount Constitution. At 2,409 feet high, Constitution is the rooftop of the San Juan Islands and as such rewards with a 270-panoramic vista that's arguably the best in the state. Islands, sounds and straits; mountains, forests and seaside cities — from Canada's Gulf Islands to Vancouver to Bellingham to Mount Baker and Mount Rainier — it's all to be had from the top.

Along with nearly 40 miles of trails, Moran boasts 151 campsites spread out across five major areas, the majority located either lakefront or within view of Cascade or Mountain lakes. On Orcas' west lobe, there's Turtleback Mountain, which opened to the public in 2007. Though about 900 feet lower than Mount Constitution, Turtleback amazes with its own impressive island vistas and is less crowded.

Eastsound itself, a tiny enclave that boasts an artsy island vibe, is four miles from the park and offers everything a parkgoer needs — plus a world-class skateboard park. A grocery store, movie theater, bookstore and some terrific eateries. Bilbo's Festivo (360-376-4728), which features Mexican and Southwest cuisine, is a fave.

Events: Steve Braun Memorial Triathlon (www.orcasrec.org/sbmt.html) in early September; Constitution Climb bike race (www.islandathleticevents.com) in May.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" (Sasquatch Books) and "Insiders' Guide Bellingham and Mount Baker " (Globe Pequot).

He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net. Blog: mcqview.blogspot.com.

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