In spring, mountain bikes take over the golden Methow Valley's sun-kissed ski trails
Central Washington's Methow Valley first earned its reputation as a haven for outdoor fun in the 1980s with its network of cross-country...
Special to The Seattle Times
If you go
Biking the Methow
Informal, guided rides leave at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays from Methow Cycle and Sport, 134 Riverside Ave., Winthrop (509-996-3645 or www.methowcyclesport.com). For more details on rides and trails, contact owner Joe Brown.
Rent a mountain bike from Winthrop Mountain Sports, 257 Riverside Ave., Winthrop; 800-719-3826 or www.winthropmountainsports.com/rentals.html. Rental of basic mountain bikes begins at $8 for two hours, up to $25 for 24 hours.
Wednesday Mountain Bike Races: At 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through September, mountain-bike races for riders of all skill levels take place on Sun Mountain trails. Cost: $5; free for younger than 18. Races start at Sun Mountain's Chickadee Trailhead. More information: 509-996-3645.
Indie Series Race
June 22, Sun Mountain hosts the Winthrop stop in Washington's Indie Series, a series of seven mountain-bike races held throughout spring and summer. Races are offered for riders of all ages and skill levels. Cost is $30; $15 for ages 11-18, free for 10 and younger. More information: www.indieseries.com.
A Methow mountain-biking primerHERE IS A SAMPLING of the Methow Valley's popular mountain-bike trails. Free Methow Valley Summer Visitor Maps are available at many businesses throughout the valley. While not super-detailed, they give a good idea of where trails are located. Other good resources are Web sites for the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (www.mvsta.com/summer/mtnbike.html) and Winthrop Mountain Sports (www.winthropmountainsports.com/bike.html).
Methow Community-Goat Creek Trail Loop: Mostly flat six-mile loop passes in and out of forest while crossing the Methow River back and forth. Park at the Corral Parking Area by the Mazama Community Center. Mazama is 14 miles west of Winthrop. To get there from the west side of the Cascades, head east on Highway 20 to just past Milepost 179. At the sign for Mazama, turn left onto Lost River Road. In about a half-mile, go straight at a four-way intersection. The Mazama Corral Trailhead parking lot is just ahead on the right.
Beaver Pond Trail, Little Wolf Creek Road: This is a gentle .7-mile (one-way) jaunt along Beaver Pond on the north side of Sun Mountain Lodge. Also nearby and fun to ride is Little Wolf Creek Road, a dirt forest road that's about twice as long as Beaver Pond Trail. A loop combining the two is possible. For both, park at the Chickadee Trailhead, about a mile before Sun Mountain Lodge. To get there, continue east on Highway 20 past downtown Winthrop. Just after crossing the Methow River, turn right on Twin Lakes Road and follow signs to the lodge. After about 5 miles, turn left at the sign for Chickadee Trailhead.
Sun Mountain Trails: Most of the other Sun Mountain trails range from beginner to intermediate level. A fun six-mile loop is Yellow Jacket to Black Bear to the Winthrop Trail and, at Patterson Lake, finishing off with the Cabin Trail. Park at the Chickadee Trailhead as described above.
Buck Mountain: A terrific 13-mile, not-too-technical loop. To get there, just before entering Winthrop from eastbound Highway 20, turn left onto West Chewuch Road. Go north for about 5.5 miles and turn left on Cub Creek Road. Follow for about 2 miles to the roadside pullout parking area. The trail starts about 3.5 miles up the road next to a Deer Country interpretive sign.
Pipestone Canyon: A couple loops are offered here: a 14-mile single-track loop and a 16-mile dirt road loop. Best if ridden in the spring before the area's rattlesnakes become active. To get there, follow the above directions for Sun Mountain, but before crossing the Methow River continue straight to the Winthrop-Twisp Eastside Road. In two miles turn left on Upper Bear Creek Road and follow for about two miles to Lester Road. Turn right and follow for another two miles to Campbell Lake Road.
Cutthroat Pass: Epic single-track trail about 25 miles west of Winthrop that climbs about 2,300 feet to one of the most spectacular settings in the North Cascades. High elevation (6,800 feet at its high point) means this 12-mile out-and-back ride won't likely be snow-free until July. Cyclists are allowed to ride up to, but not on, the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through Cutthroat Pass. Head east on Highway 20 to Milepost 167, about four miles east of Washington Pass. Turn left on Forest Road 400 and follow for one mile to the road-end trailhead.
Central Washington's Methow Valley first earned its reputation as a haven for outdoor fun in the 1980s with its network of cross-country ski trails. Once the snow has melted, many of the same trails now draw Puget Sound mountain bikers eastward for a dose of summer sun.
JUST OUTSIDE WINTHROP — We've been riding for about six miles, pedalling our fat-tire rigs up, up, up the side of Buck Mountain, when we reach what locals refer to as "The Log." A fallen ponderosa lying in wait for us to come, take a load off and drink in the view. And oh, what a view.
To the south, that glorious, dry-side Methow Valley opens up wide before us: rolling hills, humps, bumps and swooping lines — all forested, sagebrushed and sunflowered just like you want it. Behind it all, the dramatic backdrop of some serious mountains: the Sawtooths, where frosty clouds and a whitish haze suggest that a mid-May snow dump was being delivered. It's one of those views that strikes you dumb for a few moments while you take it all in. Especially if you're from the wetside where you haven't breathed that eastside pine-forest smell or felt this much sun on your skin in what seems like years.
"Everybody remember to punch the clock this morning?" a facetious Joe Brown asks, breaking the reverie on this regular midweek, midday ride.
Ha, ha, the group of us laughs at our ride leader's joke, then finds a comfy spot on The Log to down a PowerBar or two. We've worked to get here, climbed about 1,500 feet of dirt road and skinny trail along the way, but know that much (though certainly not all) of the rest of this Buck Mountain ride is downhill. Better yet, we'll have these views and more for much of the way.
"We'll have a couple screaming descents through the sagebrush and balsamroot," says Winthrop's Bob Alexander. (Arrowleaf balsamroot is the technical name for these eastside sunflowers, which in May transform the Methow Valley hillsides into fields of gold.) "You ride through it and your legs turn yellow."
On the trail of a trail
If there've been bleaker, drearier springs than this one in the Puget Sound area, I don't remember them. So when the idea of mountain biking in the Methow struck me like a bolt of lightning, I went for it. Thing is, the weather hasn't been much better east of the mountains. Still though, it's the Methow. And according to everything I know, between Mazama and Twisp the sun is required by law to shine 300 days a year.
So one morning a couple of weeks ago, under dark, dreary, drizzly-showery-rainy skies, I headed east. Not far past Ross Lake, the rain stopped and the skies brightened, and by the time I began the long Highway 20 descent into Mazama, I was getting high off that eastside pondy pine scent.
Though an avid cyclist, I haven't ridden Winthrop and its environs much and wasn't sure where to go. I headed into Methow Cycle and Sport, where Brown, the store's affable owner — as well as the 2000 Washington State Mountain Bike Champion — leads informal 11 a.m. rides on Wednesdays and Sundays. Buck Mountain, an intermediate 13-mile loop about eight miles north of town, was the day's destination.
"Buck Mountain is the classic Methow Valley ride," Brown told me. "It's good quality single-track through a mix of forest and meadows with some big open views. It's close to Winthrop, too, so a lot of locals use it for after-work rides."
Plus it's got The Log with the view.
What we need is a map
A 15-minute drive north of Winthrop led us to a roadside parking area on Cub Creek Road where, along with Brown, I met up with locals Bob Alexander; Dave Dewbrey; Steve Jones; E.A. Weymuller; and Boris, Weymuller's golden retriever-Irish setter mix. From here, we pedalled about three-and-a-half miles of dirt road to the trailhead, climbing gradually the whole way.
Brown told me about some local mountain-biking maps being produced by Bellingham mapmaker Darrell Sofield that should be available sometime this summer.
"For such a great area, we should have a better infrastructure so that people can find out where to go," Brown said.
Web sites such as Methow Valley Sport Trails Association's (www.mvsta.com) and Winthrop Mountain Sports' (www.winthropmountainsports.com) are invaluable for getting an idea of where a particular trail or trail system is, but they don't always include the latest additions or alterations to the trails. Guidebooks that are updated only every few years can't keep up either.
Brown gives directions as best he can to riders who poke their head into his Winthrop shop looking for a place to ride, but he's closed a couple of days a week. Thus, Sofield's maps should be an invaluable resource.
"Plans are for the first map to be a birds-eye-view of the whole valley, with separate Up Valley, Mid Valley and Down Valley maps coming out down the road," Brown said.
Up, up and away
"Shall we away, gentlemen?" asked Weymuller, who earlier told me that the E.A. stands for Easily Amused.
With that we took our leave of The Log and returned to what was a rollicking, ridiculously fun ride. Unlike Puget Sound-area mountain biking, the trail here was dry and not supertechnical — that is, we weren't relentlessly rolling over logs, limbs, rocks and roots, or diving in and out of mud puddles that we had no idea how deep they were until we rode through them. Here, we dodged softball-size pine cones, felt the crispy crunch of pine needles under tires and had shins grazed by sagebrush and sunflowers. We came across one mud puddle, which Boris used for his midweek bath.
"The trails are really tight today," said Dewbrey at one point. "It's great."
Noting the quizzical look on my face, Dewbrey explained that "tight" means the trails are dry but not yet dusty to the point that one has trouble seeing and even breathing because of dirt clouds kicked up by the riders on the trail ahead.
"Later in the summer, we'll all be fighting to be the first one through," Dewbrey said.
We contoured up and down across the hillside for miles, snaking through forest and fields of flowers that offered more than one screaming, leg-yellowing descent. It was a spectacular cross-country ride, especially for someone who doesn't get his jollies from hucking hits or catching air (me).
After a two-and-a-half hour ride, I arrived back at the car, and I made a not-so-surprising discovery: I wanted to ride some more. I thanked the others for their trail hospitality, then drove to the south side of Winthrop and up to the Sun Mountain trail system.
Here, I could ride seemingly for days on miles and miles of beginner- to intermediate-level single-track trails and dirt roads looping around and below Sun Mountain Lodge. I put in another hour on the well-signed trails, a cool-down ride as it were, and under ever-clearing skies and ever-warming sun, laid down the base layer of the season's first farmer's tan. Given the wet spring we've had, the pain of sunburn never felt so good.
That evening on the drive home, all I could think about was where I'd ride when I go back to Winthrop. And it's not a matter of if, but when.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books).
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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