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Sunday, September 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sun Mountain: A Lodge For All Seasons

METHOW VALLEY - Consider Sun Mountain Lodge: a magnificent resort of only 87 rooms on more than 3,000 acres of big-sky country. About 109 miles of trails groomed for skiing in winter, walking and biking in summer. Plus a lake, horseback riding, a first-class chef, the AAA's only four-diamond rating in the state, and an owner who's a devoted environmentalist.

All this in a river valley whose entire 70-mile length contains one-fifth the population of Seattle's Columbia Tower office building on any given work day.

It's hard not to gush about it.

We spent a week at Sun Mountain Lodge in August. The occasion was my husband's annual family reunion. There were 13 of us, ranging in age from 4 to 75, and in activity level from hyperactive to sedentary. Together, we functioned as sort of an Underwriter's Laboratory of hotel guests. (We can take a place and whack it, shake it, drop it from great heights and pour soda pop all over it to see how it holds up.)

We had elected to stay not in the main lodge but a mile away at Sun Mountain's Patterson Lake cabins - 10 tiny cottages on a lake at the foot of the mountain. We had four of the studio cabins and the one larger, two-bedroom.

It was a good choice for a family group because we could cook our own meals - the restaurant has divine food but at steep prices - and play on the shady lawn between the cabins and the lake.

They are handsomely furnished: each has a double bed and sleeper sofa; a kitchenette designed for elves; and a good-size bathroom.

Mucking about

Patterson Lake, a winding 1 1/2 miles long and a half-mile wide, has record low water levels this very dry summer. The receeding water has exposed an expanse of black ooze that distressed the hotel staff but delighted my two little savages.

Left to their own devices for even a second, they stripped down and gamboled in the muck, much to the horror of their more fastidious cousins. We simply gripped them firmly by the ear and dipped them from the dock. A few swishes in the water and they emerged as good as new.

The lake, deliciously icy, was declared unacceptably cold by certain lily-livered factions of the family, and so daily expeditions up to the main lodge were undertaken. There, the children spent happy hours plunging between the moderate-size pool and the large, stone hot tub.

Activity central

Mountain views aside, the resort is heaven for the hyperactive.

The property is criss-crossed with well-designed trails that offer enormous variety of terrain and scenery. There are lovely places to walk, bike and run. In addition, the resort offers an assortment of guided activities at not unreasonable prices - though they do add up. We tried:

-- Guided mountain bike tour. Our two guides were capable and did a great job of acting as if they were having as good a time as we were.

-- The Sun Mountaineers, a 1 1/2-hour program offered three times a day to children ages 4 to 10. Our children, hardened veterans of many little nature camps, and thus harsh critics, actually clamored to be allowed to go again.

-- Cowboy Camp Dinner. This consists of a two-mile horseback or wagon ride to the site of an old homestead, where one is greeted by a singing cowboy with a guitar and a crew preparing dinner from a chuckwagon.

The wranglers (headed by an authentic cowgirl - or cowindividual, as she prefered to be called) were charming; the food was good. On the ride home, the wagoneers scared up a black bear feasting on choke cherries in the waning light.

Back at the Lodge

The main lodge at Sun Mountain is a stone and log affair designed by NBBJ Architects of Seattle and built in 1986-87. The lodge replaced and augmented the original building, built in the mid-1960s by rancher Jack Barron.

Inside, it's spacious and welcoming, with massive armchairs. The ground floor houses several meeting rooms, a game room, bar, restaurant and gift shop. At the activity center you can sign up for tennis, golf and fly-fishing; rent gear; get expert advice on mountain trails; and so on. TheTV room was empty whenever we saw it. Sun Mountain Lodge is just not a TV kind of place.

The two floors of guest rooms are furnished in lodgepole-pine style. And every room has a view.

Just off to the side of the main lodge is the Gardner building. Rooms here are larger, more luxurious - and pricier.

Resort with an attitude

One of the most unusual things about Sun Mountain, as opposed to other resorts, is the landscaping - or lack of it, to an undiscerning eye. Natural vegetation - choke cherry, bitterbrush, coarse grass, wildflowers, aspen and ponderosa pine - grows, undisturbed, right up to the buildings' edge.

And in order to minimize impact on the land, new buildings have been and will be built within the footprint of the old.

Why such unusual consideration for the environment? When Jack Barron died, in 1985, Sun Mountain Lodge had the good fortune to be bought by a German industrialist, Erivan Haub, well known for putting his environmental principles to work in his business practices.

Though Sun Mountain's environmental commitment probably passes unnoticed by most visitors, the results certainly do not. We saw a mule deer doe and fawns and a black bear within a quarter-mile of the main lodge. Down at the lake we glimpsed beavers, owls, killdeer, woodpeckers, turtles and many other forms of wildlife. ----------------------------------------------------------------- If you go

For information on Sun Mountain Lodge, phone (800) 572-0493 or (509) 996-2211.

Summer rates are in effect until Oct. 1: a lodge room starts at $115 midweek, ($130 on weekends); cabins start at $120 midweek. Starting Oct. 2, lodge rooms start at $95 midweek, cabins at $100. Rates fall again Nov. 1-Dec. 15, then rise for the winter season. At dinner, entrees range from about $18 to $25.

Susan McGrath is a Seattle freelance writer.

Published Clarification Date: 09/18/94 - This Article In The Sunday Travel Section, Which Is Printed In Advance, Misstates Sun Mountain Lodge's AAA Rating. It Is The Only Resort In Washington Where Both The Accommodations And The Restaurant Have Been Given The AAA's Four-Diamond Rating. Various Other Places In The State Have Been Awarded The Four-Diamond Rating For Their Lodgings Or For Their Restaurants.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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