On track in the Methow Valley

In Washington's North Cascades, cross-country skiers have the run of the hills

North Cascades view

Paul Schofield

High on a hill above the Methow Valley's Sun Mountain Lodge, I stopped to watch three deer bounding across the snow. The air was icy, the sky a shade of blue unimaginable on a winter day in western Washington.

Here on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades, the hills were bathed in sunshine, and powdery snow was strewn with sparkling prisms of light. The ski trail stretched ahead into the distance, a ribbon of corduroy.

At that moment I realized why people are willing to spend four hours or more driving here from Seattle. From where I stood, it seemed I could see the entire valley, which encompasses no less than 120 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, all waiting to be explored.

At many Northwest ski areas, cross-country skiers get the short end of the ski pole. Not so in the Methow (pronounced met-how) Valley. "We have enough terrain so that if you wanted to spend five days here, you wouldn't have to ski the same trail twice," says Jay Lucas, executive director of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA), which maintains the trails.

Options for everyone

The valley's network of ski trails is divided into three distinct systems linked by the 19-mile Methow Community Trail. At the southern end of the valley is the Sun Mountain system, offering the greatest variety of terrain. Here you'll find unforgettable views and trails for skiers of all abilities. Nearby is Sun Mountain Lodge, the valley's most luxurious lodging.

The Mazama area at the northwestern end of the valley has the flattest, easiest trails and gorgeous scenery. Looming above the snow-covered meadows is the Goat Wall, a long cliff that in winter is draped with frozen waterfalls and giant icicles. This area is also home to the Freestone Inn, a deluxe contemporary log lodge.

Intermediate or advanced skiers may want to consider exploring the challenging trails of the Rendezvous system, whose small cabins provide a comfortable backcountry experience.

Even if you're not an avid nordic skier, you'll find plenty to keep you busy on winter weekends. In addition to more than 12 miles of snowshoe trails, the valley offers the only heli-skiing in the state. There are also dogsled tours and even hot-air balloon tours of the valley. Balloons depart from Winthrop, a Wild West town with an interesting selection of shops and cafes; other dining options can be found in Mazama and in the little town of Twisp.

But these other activities are really only distractions from the important business of a winter's day in the Methow Valley. Kicking and gliding under clear skies--that's why people make tracks each winter to this remote corner of Washington's North Cascades.

The Methow Valley is roughly 250 miles northeast of Seattle. Take I-90 or U.S. 2 east to U.S. 97, then drive north to State 153 west.

For general information, contact the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce (888/463-8469 or www.winthropwashington.com). For shuttle service within the valley on holidays and weekends, contact Mountain Transporter (509/996-8294). Area code is 509 unless noted.

 

ACTIVITIES

Dogsledding. Mush with the Malamute Express: $350 for a three-hour dogsled tour for two people. 997-6402.

Heli-skiing. North Cascade Heli-Skiing charges $625 for a one-day package that includes five runs or at least 10,000 vertical feet. (800) 494-4354 or www.heli-ski.com.

Hot-air balloon tours. Morning Glory Balloons charges $165 per person ($110 for children ages 6-12) for flights lasting about one hour plus a champagne picnic. 997-1700.

Nordic skiing. For trail information, contact MVSTA (996-3287 or www.mvsta.com). Trail passes cost $14 for one day, $35 for three days. Passes, ski rentals, and lessons are available at Freestone Inn (see "Lodging"), Sun Mountain Lodge (see "Lodging"), and Winthrop Mountain Sports (257 Riverside Ave., Winthrop; 996-2886).

DINING

Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. A great place to pick up treats for the trail. 116 N. Glover St., Twisp; 997-5030.
Freestone Inn Restaurant. Eclectic gourmet fare in a lodge setting, complete with exposed log beams and a huge stone fireplace. 17798 State 20, Mazama; 996-3906 or (800) 639-3809.
Mazama Store. Fresh baked goods, sandwiches, salads, and espresso. 50 Lost River Rd., Mazama; 996-2855.
Methow Valley Brewing Co. A brew pub with a contemporary feel. Closed Mon-Tue. 209 E. Second Ave., Twisp; 997-6822.
Sun Mountain Lodge Dining Room. Breathtaking views of the valley, regionally inspired cuisine, and an impressive wine list. 604 Patterson Lake Rd., Winthrop; 996-4707.
Winthrop Brewing Company. The perfect spot for an après-ski burger and brew. Closed Sun. 155 Riverside, Winthrop; 996-3183.

LODGING

Up and down the Methow Valley there are lodges, cabins, and motels, many located right along the trails. Make reservations through Methow Valley Central Reservations (800/422-3048).
Freestone Inn. This modern mountain lodge has an intimate feel, with just 21 rooms and 15 cabins. Guest rooms in the lodge overlook Freestone Lake and are perfect for romantic getaways. Cabins are tucked amid the trees along Early Winters Creek. From $120. 17798 State 20, Mazama; (800) 639-3809 or www.freestoneinn.com.
Rendezvous Huts. Five simply furnished backcountry ski huts where you can rent a bed or the whole cabin. You provide the food, but for an additional fee you can have it hauled in for you. Beds from $25, huts from $150. (800) 257-2452 or www.methow.com/huts.
Sun Mountain Lodge. This mountain resort is the valley's premier accommodation, with a spectacular hilltop setting. Facilities include 112 rooms and cabins, along with spa services and two outdoor hot tubs. Guests also have access to sleigh rides, a skating rink, and a sledding hill. The Mt. Robinson wing has the newest rooms. From $120. (800) 572-0493 or www.sunmountainlodge.com.

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