Five city girls from Vancouver, B.C. walk into a bar.
“What brings you to Darrington?”
As soon as I say it, it feels all wrong.
Tourists queue in lines and pay admissions. They check TripAdvisor for number-one rated restaurants and leave reviews about their ‘guest experience’, which are without fail, glowing or stark-raving mad. We haven't - and won't - do any of that on this trip.
It’s not to say that tourism isn’t important to the Stillaguamish River Valley. It’s just a different brand of tourism. I dare say, Darrington isn't a place you can even be a tourist. The people here are too friendly to let you remain a stranger.
Anonymity is not an option either. If you want to stay in Darrington's only accommodations - Ellerie's River Cottages - you'll make fast friends with Ellerie, her dog Baxter and the cats, because business here is a personal affair.
And you know what? It's totally refreshing. We're five woman visiting from a city where the pulse is frenetic. It's long hours, traffic, and a succession of impersonal daily interactions. Up the Stillaguamish, it's a quiet wilderness, eagles banking in the wind, and beer brewed 'at an appropriate pace'.
If you're long overdue for some chill, here's a road map for catching some seriously cozy cabin vibes.
Gypset Jenn | Darrington is 2.5 hours from Vancouver
Gypset Jenn | Oso General Store
Gypset Jenn | The River House
Gypset Jenn | View from the Stilly House
Gypset Jenn | Mulled wine
Gypset Jenn | Cabin fashion
When You Go:
Ellerie's River Cottages
Gypet Jenn | Stilly House
Gypset Jenn | Tree House kitchen
Gypset Jenn | Tree House kitchen
Location: 31420 365th Dr NE, Darrington
Until we checked into Ellerie's River Cottages, I thought cabin couture was flannel and wool socks. I was wrong.
A Seattle transplant, interior and landscape designer Ellerie Cain has a knack for sniffing out antiques, which she uses to decorate (curate, really) her haute-rustic cabins.
Admittedly, 'cottage' is a bit of a misnomer. Ellerie's lodgings are spacious and elegant; a marriage of European flair and rustic charm.
"I love texture, and obviously lamps and chairs. The glass is so old and it’s broken, but you know what? We’re kind of rusty."
In fact, the number of doors and windows Ellerie has salvaged would lead one to believe Seattle's antiques suffer a major abandonment problem; I suspect it's her well-trained eye. "That's why I have a van. You should see how fast I can load up and toss into reverse" she laughs.
There are three proper cottages for rent on her tree-lined, riverside property. Each comfortably accommodates five people on two double/queen-sized beds and a single. River House and Stilly House have crackling wood stoves and unobstructed river views, while Tree House is dressed in mid-century charm.
Eccentric, elegant and authentically Ellerie, cabin couture is quietly redefined in quaint Darrington. And there's no better place to stage our cozy cabin getaway.
River Time Brewing
Gypset Jenn | River Time Brewing flight, stout and IPA
Gypset Jenn | River Time Brewing growler
Location: 660 Emens Ave N, Darrington
I'm a self-described IPA lover. Hops are happiness - but not everyone feels the same - so I'm delighted to find two IPAs in my sample flight.
The beer business in Darrington is good, but part-owner Neil shares a laugh about humbler beginnings. "I took equity instead of payment for like, the first eight months. Now, I have a hard enough time keeping up with demand in here. We normally have a really great jalapeno kölsch."
River Time brews were born in a garage, raised in a cabin, and perfected on the Sauk River. Well, almost. "Our stout is terrible. It’s back before I really knew what I was doing. There were a lot of growing pains" Neil admits. He nods at a pair of regulars shored up at the tap room's handsome live-edge bar. "I’m lucky I have faithful locals who will drink terrible beer no matter what!" he teases.
“It’s all good Neil!” the man shouts back.
Neil's earnest self-depreciation is in jest. I gladly drink the stout like a true Darringtonian - which, I am informed, takes three generations to become - because I admire Neil's entrepreneurial moxy. His pursuit is one of home-grown passion and I can't fault him for a malty misstep along the way.
With that, I drain my flight, the girls finish their pints (kölsch, a currant cider from a guest brewer and a root beer), and I order a growler of Hammer IPA for the road.
The Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch
Gypset Jenn | Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch
Gypset Jenn | Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch
Location: 22016 Entsminger Rd, Arlington (Oso)
After some informal polling, Stillaguamish Valley locals agree, the best place to eat is Rhodes River Ranch. Never one to eschew a good recommendation, we drive towards blink-and-you'll-miss-it Oso.
The Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch sits perched above an expansive indoor arena. Outside of special live music events, equestrian entertainment is a side-dish served complimentary.
During our drizzly lunch, smiley kids ride horses around the arena, led by dudes in cowboy hats. We sit adjacent to two large parties and it's obvious that the Ranch is a place where friends and family gather. The menu features pub favourites, served by a friendly wait staff. The ingredients are fresh, making it comfort food you can really get behind.
Gypset Jenn | Stilly Canyon Scenic Float with Adventure Cascades
Gypset Jenn | Stilly Canyon Scenic Float
Telephone: (360) 393-6815
It's funny, locals keep telling us to leave and come back. Well, sort of.
We are invited back in spring for better eagle-watching, and in summer for festival season and to drive the ultra-scenic Mountain Highway Loop.
So what's there to do in winter in a mountain town that doesn't have a ski hill? You float. And why not? In a valley where life revolves around rivers, getting out on the water is the surest way to fall into the local beat.
Brian fetches the five of us from Haller Park in Arlington. We load into his van and head upriver to our launch point at Quarry Hole. I ask Brian if he's an Arlington native and he's quick to inform me that he relocated from Michigan ten years ago. It's a familiar narrative and I'm starting to realize that the Stilly River Valley is populated with lifestyle transplants; people who heard and heeded the siren's call of the mountains.
Our raft is eased into the river and Brian takes his post at the stern. He deftly navigates us down the North Forks Stilly - not that it's a challenge this time of the year. The river is lazy and we're happy to gear down for a scenic ride. Waterfowl wing just above the waterline while a few sentinel eagles take a watchful post in the trees overhead. We gel quickly with Brian, whose laid-back ease makes him instantly likable. Like so many in the area, Adventure Cascades is his personal entrepreneurial pursuit.
We weave around riverbanks and pass beneath a handsome trestle bridge. We spot three cars lodged into the foot of the steep bank, all of which are slowly being reclaimed by nature. We float through an enchanting stretch of woods where the trees wear thick mossy sweaters, and after a quick spin in a whirlpool, our 4.5-mile float comes to an end. We return to solid ground with a fresh perspective of the Stilly's gentle beauty.
Adventure Cascades operates 90-minute scenic river floats in winter (like the one we took) and seasonal full-day floats on the Suiattle and Sauk Rivers. Check out their trips here: adventurecascades.com/ourtrips
After our float we head a bit further afield in hot pursuit of a warm meal.
Gypset Jenn | Polska Kuchnia
Gypset Jenn | Golabki at Polska Kuchnia
Eat: The Polska Kuchnia
Polska Kuchnia's timber accents and string lights radiate warmth, and so does our server. She waits patiently as we indecisively navigate the menu. "It all looks so good!" (And it is.) Sample the handmade perogies before tucking into a sumptuous main; there are no bad selections on this menu. Location: 8620 271st St NW.
Treat: Stanwood Cupcakes
Gypset Jenn | Stanwood Cupcakes
If you can resist this boutique bakery and its Pinterest-worthy desserts, you have more resolve than me. After careful deliberation we leave with a coconut and a salted caramel cupcake, both of which are crowned with a large dollop of buttercream icing. Location: 8719-271st St NW.
Shop: Doilies 2 Doorknobs
Gypset Jenn | Doilies 2 Doorknobs
Like Ellerie, I too am always shopping for the home. There are plenty of shops to nip into along Stanwood's 271st Street, but Doilies 2 Doorknobs stands above the others. This store literally brims with treasures: bronze lamps, chalk-painted shabby-chic furniture, gilded mirrors, banana seat bicycles, and so very much more. Deep in the treasure trove I spy a bronze bar cart with marble inlay. It has my name all over it so I flee the store before I can imagine it in my apartment. Location: 8713-271st St NW.
Have you been to Darrington? Driven Mountain Loop Highway? Gone antique hunting in Stanwood? Let me know which season you went in, what you did, where you played, stayed and ate. Comment below or tweet me: @gypsetjenn