The stars arched over us through the winter sky as we made our way up State Route 20 along the banks of the Methow River in north-central Washington state. We hadn’t encountered much snow since leaving Seattle, but then the temperature plummeted and the landscape got whiter.
We were approaching a place that pegged itself as the nation’s largest cross-country ski area, nestled on the slopes of the Methow Valley and home to the towns of Twisp and Winthrop on the eastern flanks of the Cascades. The 7-million-year-old mountain range separates Washington’s temperate, rainy western coast from its colder eastern half, which gets plenty of dry powder in the winter.
Although you couldn’t see them from the road, 120 miles of ski trails lurked in the nearby woods. Among them were family-friendly routes, dog-friendly trails, snowshoe paths, fat bike trails and ski-in-ski-out cabins.
We turned left onto Twin Lakes Road to drive to the house of Dick and Pam Ewing, friends who had moved to Winthrop 31 years ago while it was becoming the winter sports center it is today. Their place was also home to Cleo, a gray tiger-striped tabby who loves to bound about for hours in the snow. The snow was thigh-deep out by their place, the chilly air was fresh and the surrounding hills were quiet.
The next day, we took off down the road for the rental barn at the Methow Valley Ski School in Mazama, a village down the valley. Dick was an instructor there. We drove through downtown, which has numerous buildings with faux Old West storefronts lining the main street. The town hall was a saloon in 1891.
The downtown is also the start of the Methow Community Trail, which runs some 18 miles between Winthrop and Mazama with several access points (ski huts with parking lots, toilets and drinking water) along the way. The road to Mazama was sparsely populated, with a few farms here and there.
It being the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, the rental place was packed. Although all the state’s alpine ski resorts had good snow last winter, these crowds were after Winthrop’s laid-back vibe and cheaper rates. Many people in the Pacific Northwest can do downhill and cross-country but prefer what Winthrop offers: a chance for a leisurely few days of schussing through a valley rather than a long day waiting in lines at the state’s alpine resorts.
I secured some classic skis. The ski school also rents out skate skis, snowshoes and pulks, which are small sleds for children. Don Portman, director of the Methow Valley Ski School, told me that all 120 miles of trail are groomed daily, and the clientele is growing every year.
“The greater Seattle area is experiencing some of the fastest home and job growth in the country,” he said, “so when western Washington is doing well, we’re doing well.”
“But it’s not easy to get here,” he added. It was a five-hour, 238-mile trip for us, and I was fortunate to have snow tires. Although Portman said his all-season radial tires are sufficient for driving around the valley, more may be required on the mountain passes between the valley and Seattle.
The area attracted large crowds two winters ago when there was almost no snow elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The Methow landscape creates what Portman called a “cool pool,” cool air that stays on the valley’s low-elevation bottom, resulting in a snow pocket.
“Even if it’s raining at higher elevations, it’s snowing here,” he said. “That’s why our snow stays. It’s like a little refrigerated valley.”
East of the Cascades, more often than not, the weather is sunny. Plus, “our elevation here is 1,800 feet above sea level and Mazama is 2,150 feet,” Portman explained. “Most Nordic ski places in the West are at higher elevation, where you’re gasping for air. We have more oxygen, so when you’re skiing uphill, you can breathe more easily.”
We headed toward a nearby meadow to try a short trail and encountered a Methow Trails volunteer at the head of the trail. She checked to make sure we had paid for the required yellow trail tickets, then handed us some mushy s’mores as free snacks. My daughter skied free, as she was under 17, but I had shelled out $24 for a day pass at the ski school. One couldn’t complain about the price, which was one-quarter that of a downhill ski ticket, plus the money pays for a small army of trail groomers operating four Sno-Cats in the wee hours of the morning.
Pam stayed behind to help my daughter navigate her skis while Dick and I skied toward the Goat Creek Trail. He then circled back to check on how his wife was doing. We agreed I’d continue down the trail for another five minutes, then turn back.
I’d been downhill skiing since I was a teenager, so I was used to having metal edges to help me stop. But these cross-country touring skis didn’t have the edges. When I had learned how to cross-country ski the year before in Alaska, no one had taught me how to stop while descending hills. Every time I headed down one, I collided with a tree. I figured the Methow terrain was pretty flat and didn’t bother getting any tips from Dick on how to stop.
So off I went toward Goat Creek. Then I encountered a gully on the way to a small bridge over the creek and wiped out on the way down. And discovered that I could not get back up again. The tricks that got me standing after a fall on downhill skis didn’t work on cross-country blades. Every time I tried to stand, the skis would slip out from underneath me and the bindings weren’t letting my boots release so I could stand up.
So there I lay like a beached whale. Fortunately, a group of friendly skiers soon came my way and helped me up. (I’ve since learned how to get up: Drop the poles, bring your feet together and swing the skis around so they’re below your body. Move your knees up and push down on the ground with your hands while moving your uphill leg back until you’re in a kneeling position on the uphill knee. From there, you should be able to stand.)
After I rejoined my friends and daughter, I recuperated over hot chocolate and pastries at the Mazama Store, a combination cafe and high-end general store selling items including locally made olive oil soap, Arc’teryx outdoor wear, French-made toys, baked goods, beer, wine, hot chocolate and gourmet cheese.
Eventually, we left this skiing hub and headed east toward the house. Had we headed west, we would have run into the stunning North Cascades Highway. The continuation of State Route 20 goes all the way to the Olympic peninsula, but the mountainous portion is closed in the winter. There are mountain ranges almost everywhere you look; the Canadian border is only 28 miles north of Mazama.
We repaired back to Pam and Dick’s three-story log home, which is on the road to Sun Mountain Lodge, an elegant resort overlooking the valley and local peaks, such as Mount Gardner to the west. It is surrounded by 34 miles of cross-country trails. I had wandered through its golden aspen forests during other visits. Several weeks after my Methow sojourn, I met Denise Waters from Redmond, Wash., who visits the lodge twice yearly with her husband and three boys, ages 14, 12 and 7. They plan to retire in the area.
“We like being off the grid,” Denise said, adding that the boys had lots to do outside: sleigh riding or skiing in the winter and biking in the summer. If the adults wanted an evening alone, she said, the lodge located a sitter for the boys. The lodge has the most luxurious digs among the valley’s many lodgings, plus it has two outdoor hot tubs facing west toward the Cascades.
“It’s our little piece of heaven,” she told me, “the people, the weather, everything about it is wonderful.”
If they tired of the nearby trails, it’s an easy six-mile ski down the mountain on Winthrop Trail leading to their favorite restaurants: the Duck Brand Cantina and Three-Fingered Jack’s Saloon. A local cab company is available to take Sun Mountain guests back uphill.
They also patronized the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink across a pedestrian bridge from downtown. The rink had refrigeration coils installed underneath it this year, enabling it to stay open more consistently. Kristen Smith, marketing director for Methow Trails, the nonprofit organization that manages the ski areas, said that it’s one of a shrinking group of open-air rinks in the country.
“You don’t get to have outdoor ice rinks anymore,” she said, “especially with a view of Mount Gardner. Kids never get the opportunity to skate outdoors, so when people come here to skate, it’s like a Norman Rockwell moment.”
Even if there is another snowless year in much of the state, the Methow Valley is immune, she said.
“Unlike Alpine skiing, we just need a small base of six-to-eight inches and we’re set,” she said. I asked her how the Methow Valley measures up to the Royal Gorge in California’s Sierra Mountains, which also bills itself as the country’s largest cross-country ski resort with approximately 124 miles of trails.
“They do not groom near 120 miles,” she said. “They are a tiny area with tons of trails. We are spread out among many more square miles, and we groom all of it.”
Despite its remote locale, many top athletes train in the valley because of the predictable snow and variety of trails.
“We’ve got more Olympians per capita here than anywhere else,” she said. “Winthrop has 400 people, and we had three people, born and raised here, who were in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.”
The next day, we parked the car midway to Mazama at Brown’s Farm (an inn with cabins) and skied through the falling snow along the community trail and through the woods. There are three major groups of trails: the Sun Mountain trails; the 53-mile Mazama network extending along State Route 20; and Rendezvous, which has steeper terrain and several overnight huts along 21 miles of paths.
Nighttime temperatures were frigid enough that when we got back to the house, I waded through the snow back to Dick’s garage to make sure my car was ready for the trip home the next day. We had barely touched the surface of all there was to do and see in the valley.
The gray-black evening sky hid any hint of stars, much less the brilliant northern lights that are sometimes visible in that part of the world.
And then I saw Cleo, curled in a striped ball on the front stoop, waiting for the warmth of the wood fire stove inside. It was time to go in.
Duin is a writer based near Seattle.
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Sun Mountain Lodge
604 Patterson Lake Rd.
This destination lodge has great views of the mountains and valley floor from its mountaintop perch, a 3,500-bottle wine stash and get-away-from-it-all accommodations. Most rooms are TV-free. Rates start at $150.
The Winthrop Inn
960 State Route 20
This hotel is easy on the budget and located on the road into town. There’s a hot tub in the winter and a swimming pool in the summer. Rates start at $89.
The Mazama Ranch House
10 Country Rd.
This country inn offers horse facilities in the summer and is next door to many ski trails in the winter. Rates range from $90 for a suite for four to $385 for five bedrooms that can fit up to 13 people.
50 Lost River Rd.
This is the place where everyone gathers for après-ski food and browses for baked goods, groceries and other cool, exotic stuff.
The Duck Brand Hotel and Cantina
248 Riverside Ave.
This inexpensive Mexican-themed restaurant has a great second-floor balcony with a view. Pets are welcome. Dinner entrees start at $14.95.
The Arrowleaf Bistro
207 White Ave.
Having just moved to this new locale at the southern edge of town, the upscale bistro is striving to be the area’s go-to place for fine cuisine. Dinner entrees start at $25.
Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals
Locations at Mazama Junction, Sun Mountain Lodge and Methow Cycle and Sport, 29 State Route 20, in downtown Winthrop.
The Mazama Junction location is probably the busiest, but it’s also the closest to the most trails. Trail passes, for kids age 17 and younger are free; adult passes cost $24, with a discount for three or more days. A snowshoe pass costs $5; a dog pass costs $10; and a fat-bike pass costs $10. Ski lessons cost $60 an hour for one person; $70 an hour for two and $30 each for three or more skiers. Typically, kids can get lessons starting at age 6, although separate arrangements can be made for younger children.