Methow trails draw crowds, but solitude's near
The sign at the new trailhead parking lot in Winthrop says it all: "NO TRAIL SWEEP. " No, it doesn't mean you're prohibited from cleaning...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Can I do this?Most people with basic athletic ability can be taught to cross-country ski in the "classic" fashion — straight ahead, in groomed, parallel tracks, by kicking and gliding on skinny skis with long poles — in one lesson. (Rookie tip: It's easy to get going but takes more technique than you might imagine to stop.)
Increasingly, more experienced XC skiers are gravitating toward the "skate-ski" style, which is a sweeping, skating motion on even skinnier, lighter skis. Skate skiers, who push off the inside edges of skis in a lateral motion, don't use groomer-set tracks, but prefer to ski in a broader, flat groomed area alongside them.
Veteran ski instructor Don Portman's rule of thumb: If you're comfortable enough on classic skis to stand on one ski while moving, you can learn to skate ski fairly quickly. If you can't, stick with what you're doing. With rare exceptions, people who try to jump ahead tend to fall down a lot. Hard. Beginners: Start with a classic lesson.
If you go
From the Puget Sound area, it's basically a long car commute, via Snoqualmie and Blewett Pass or Stevens Pass to Wenatchee, Highway 97 north to Pateros, then Highway 153 north to your destination of Twisp, Winthrop or Mazama, all of which offer lodging options. Allow for five or six hours in winter, when snow can be present on the passes, and on the highway through the Methow during snowy periods. Check highway conditions before you go.
The valley offers lodging ranging from cheap motels to world-class inns, such as Sun Mountain Lodge (www.sunmountainlodge.com).
A convenient Web site, www.methow.com/lodging.html, offers links to most of them. Note that if you're heading for a ski vacation, ski-from-your-door convenience is a plus, but most lodgings are within a short drive from a local trailhead. Rendezvous skiers also can reserve huts for nightly lodging. See www.methownet.com/huts for information and rates.
Skiing the Methow
The Methow trail system is vast, and offers terrain for skiers of all abilities. Three main areas, Rendezvous, Sun Mountain and Mazama, are all connected by the Methow Community Trail, which runs through Winthrop up the valley to Mazama.
Except for one section in the middle, most of the 32-kilometer Community Trail is flat. It's a great first choice for beginning skiers and also skate skiers who tend to gravitate toward gentle terrain. The most prominent access point, the Community Trailhead, is located near the junction of Highway 153 and Twin Lakes Road, near the foot of the bridge on the east side of Winthrop.
Hard-core Nordic skiers gravitate to steeper trails in the Rendezvous area, but expert-rated trails also can be found in many other parts of the valley. The Sun Mountain trail system offers its own wide array of trails. It's also a good place for beginners, and you can ski there whether or not you're staying at Sun Mountain Lodge.
Pick up a trail map at a local business or see www.mvsta.com for a detailed look, as well as trail difficulty ratings.
How high is it?
The Methow Valley floor is at about 2,000 feet in elevation. Sun Mountain's trail network begins at around 3,000 feet. Rendezvous trails are between 4,000 and 6,000 feet.
One pass is good for the entire network. Adult passes are $20 a day or $45 for three days. Passes for teens 13-17 are $10 daily. Kids 12 and younger ski free. Passes are available at local businesses, lodgings and other venues. It's basically an honor system: Ski cops are not going to check your pass on the trail. But buying one makes the daily grooming of the trail system possible.
Some trails are designated snowshoe and dog-hiking trails. Consult trail maps. Winthrop has a new ice rink, located along the Methow River at the Methow Community Trail trailhead, near the intersection of Highway 153 and Twin Lakes Road. Family skate sessions are scheduled daily, and skate rentals are available at the rink. See www.mvsta.com for more information. Downhill skiers aren't out of luck: Loup Loup ski area, near Loup Loup Pass on Highway 20, 12 miles east of Twisp, is open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Lift tickets are $38. See www.skitheloup.com
Sun Mountain Lodge has its own ski shop, as well as others scattered throughout the valley, offering rental skate and classic cross-country gear and instruction. Winthrop Mountain Sports, 257 Riverside Ave., is the leading ski shop for rentals, gear and repairs in Winthrop; www.winthropmountainsports.com or 800-719-3826.
METHOW VALLEY — The sign at the new trailhead parking lot in Winthrop says it all: "NO TRAIL SWEEP."
No, it doesn't mean you're prohibited from cleaning up after yourself. In the parlance of cross-country skiing, it is a message both simple and liberating:
You're on your own, pardner. Got it?
Nobody's coming through here sometime before dark to make sure you and your skinny skis and bony backside have made it safely back to the Duck Brand Inn, Sun Mountain Lodge or someplace warm. It's symbolic of something the Methow Valley has been offering for a century, and the valley's world-class sport trails have now been serving up for more than three decades.
Anyone who's spent much time around Puget Sound can attest that it's a priceless commodity. But only a fraction of those folks seem to realize that the 200-kilometer Methow Valley ski trail system, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this winter, still serves it up in mother-lode proportions, at least to those who avoid the holiday rush.
Sought-after dry spot
Make a break for Winthrop, Twisp or Mazama during any nonholiday winter week, and you can ski all day on a trail and encounter about half as many humans as deer — a half-dozen or so humans, maybe, most of them smiling. Later, after a dip in the hot tub, you can pick out a dinner spot by walking down Winthrop's Main Street on Highway 20.
Literally, down it. As in, right down the center lane, so devoid is the town of auto traffic.
Don't be fooled. It's all about timing.
The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association, the nonprofit group in charge of maintaining all those ribbons of smooth white, can pause on its 30th birthday and exult in a community experiment gone wildly right: In a good year, the trail system sees more than 40,000 "skier days," bringing in $350,000 in trail-pass cash, and depositing well over $2 million into the local winter economy, according to MVSTA studies.
But the vast majority of that cash — and those skiers — descend upon the rural north-central Washington valley during predictable periods: the Christmas and New Year's holidays, President's Day weekend and the week after, when most Seattle kids are out of school. Many winter weekends find local motels booked up as well.
It's like clockwork, says Don Portman, one of the fathers of Methow skiing, as he rings up sales one recent day at his ski shop inside Sun Mountain Lodge: If school kids on the wet side are on vacation, the Methow gets peopled up.
What draws them? Topography, baby. The Methow, on the northeast slope of the Cascades, is dead center in the rain shadow of predominant Cascade storms approaching from the Southwest. It is to the Seattle area what Sequim is to Aberdeen: The big dry spot on the other side.
Small town, big trails
People like Laura Enstrom, 61, say they've been coming here from Seattle for more than 50 years, just for the "change of weather and small-town feel."
But that inescapable little bonus — the second-largest single Nordic ski network in the country, also used for summer hiking and cycling — has grown into a huge benefit not only for the valley, but the entire Northwest. And it has managed to do so without suffering the overgrown fate of many other Western mountain towns.
To put it simply: The Methow's trail system has created a year-round economy in a small, beautiful, rural place — but somehow managed to leave the place small, beautiful and rural.
"This is some of the greatest scenery in the whole world," says Mike Reithofer, 65, a retired pilot who moved to Twisp two years ago from Spokane. "Everything I like to do is here: cross-country skiing, fishing, backpacking, cycling, you name it."
Reithofer, who has just ended his daily, two-hour morning ski on the Methow Community Trail, which runs along the upper Methow Valley floor between Winthrop and Mazama, has been skiing here since the 1980s. Like other locals, new and old, he's seen the changes as the valley's trail system has slowly, surely lured more visitors — at what most people seem to agree is just about the right pace.
"Sure, it's changed," he says, placing his ski poles into a gun rack in the canopy of his small pickup truck. "It used to be a ranching, farming environment. Now, you look at Winthrop, their whole livelihood depends on tourists. It's just a sign of the times."
Reithofer, like many others here, still frets about rumored growth spurts, such as a proposed development at the Bear Creek Golf Course, on a ranch southeast of town. But he begrudgingly admits the trail system he loves has kept the Methow Valley humming along in a way it wouldn't without it.
It never gets that crowded on the ski trails, he admits, adding that he's an early riser, and noting: "Those Seattle people, even when they're here, they don't get going until noon."
A dream come true
To get there in the winter, those Seattle people make a trek of five to six hours by car. It's a commitment, for sure, but the remote location also is one of the things that keeps the valley charmingly rural, Portman believes.
He first visited, and fell in love with, the valley with his wife, Sally, in 1972, after trekking to Seattle from his native Michigan. In 1976, he landed a job as Sun Mountain's ski instructor. He'll give it up, he says, when they pry the ski poles from his cold, dead hands.
"It's hard to believe it's been more than 30 years," says Portman, a longtime MVSTA board member. "It still seems brand new. Almost every day, you get up and you look outside and say, 'Wow, what a cool place.' "
When Portman arrived, Sun Mountain already had its own ski-trail system, scratched out from ranch and fire roads and even some local deer trails. Other tourist ranches in the valley also were offering their own ski trails back then, grooming them with homemade snowmobile attachments in the hopes of drawing the skinny-ski crowd from Seattle.
"In the early days, I would get up really early in the morning, go out to groom the trails, and the snowmobile would invariably blow up," Portman recalls with a chuckle. "I'd walk back to the lodge, change clothes, rent skis, teach lessons, then go out and drag in the broken snowmobile so I could start the process all over again."
He and the valley's other groomers eventually began scheming and dreaming about a broad trail system that would link existing trails at Sun Mountain, the Rendezvous area and Mazama, all in one broad network.
A local community group, the Methow Valley Family Sports Club, took up the charge in 1977. The group morphed into the Methow Valley Ski Touring Association, later the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. It began collecting trail fees in the early '80s, sinking the bulk of the money into modern Sno-Cat groomers and employees, who now number more than 30.
Some community dissent was heard early on, but mostly from people who preferred instead going after the big enchilada — a destination downhill ski resort, oft-proposed, but never built, near Mazama.
"We kept saying, 'It doesn't matter, alpine yes or no, because we still want to do this.' "
A key part of the group's successful strategy: making peace, early on, with local snowmobilers, thus avoiding the turf battles that have doomed or spoiled other prime snowy backcountry destinations. They essentially divided territory, leaving the upper Methow and surrounding hills to skiers, and giving snowmobiles free reign up the Chewuch River valley to the north.
A community at work
The group's biggest accomplishment was the Methow Community Trail, the link that finally tied the entire network together. The 32-kilometer path was patched together through the painstaking efforts of local residents John Hayes and John Sunderland, who negotiated delicate right-of-way agreements with 82 separate landowners.
Some of those landowners granted permanent right-of-way deeds to the trails group. Others still operate "on nothing more than a year-to-year handshake," Portman says.
It's sort of a miracle it all came together, and that it persists to this day. But Methow residents and their countless winter visitors have forever been thankful. And the MVSTA, not willing to rest on its laurels, continues to try to cement the valley's reputation as a grand regional winter sports getaway.
The group, in cooperation with another community organization, just opened a new, full-sized ice rink along the river just outside Winthrop. It's open daily and nightly for family skates, hockey clinics and the like.
On a recent weekday morning, sun blazing in the sky as winter storms pounded Seattle, a visitor would have found nobody there except the skate rental guy and another worker driving an improvised snow groomer.
A lot of ice, waiting for skates. And a lot of trails, waiting for skis.
That's the beauty of the modern Methow. Thirty years after dreaming big, it has grown into one of the Northwest's great winter destinations, creating its own economy along the way.
But those who plan a little, drive a lot and time it right can still have the place pretty much to themselves.
You're on your own. And so, in a delightful way, after all these years, is the Methow Valley.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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