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Originally published November 19, 2009 at 12:22 AM | Page modified November 19, 2009 at 12:43 PM

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Great places to cross-country ski for free (or almost) in the Methow

For the truly budget conscious, here are places to cross-country ski for free, or almost free, in Washington's Nordic-skiing sunshine capital, the Methow Valley.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Sno-Park permits

For information on Washington state Sno-Park permits and how to obtain one (including online ordering): www.parks.wa.gov/winter/permits or 360-902-8684. For each vehicle: $21 per day or $41 for the season. They are also available at many outdoor-gear stores and retail locations that sell state licenses.

Trail information

Methow Valley Sport Trails Association, www.mvsta.com or 509-996-3287. Trail report: 800-682-5787. Pick up a Methow Valley Winter Trails brochure in Winthrop for MVSTA trail maps and skating rink hours.

Grooming updates

For the Methow Valley snowmobile Sno-Park grooming schedule, check the Mountain Trails Grooming Association Web site, www.methow.com/groomer.

Rentals and more

Ski shops for rentals, information and Methow Valley Ski School lessons: Mazama Ski Shop (509-996-3744), Sun Mountain Lodge Ski Shop (509-996-4735), and Methow Cycle and Sport, 509-996-3645.

Rentals are also available through Winthrop Mountain Sports (www.winthropmountainsports.com or 800-719-3826).

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Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

If ski-lift ticket sticker shock has prompted you to dust off your cross-country gear and you're rewarding your thrift with a trip to the Methow Valley, here's a secret: You can enjoy the valley without ponying up the not-insubstantial fee to tour the famed ski trails of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA).

With a little research and a Sno-Park permit ($21/day per car), you can ski nearly (or completely) free on trails of all ability levels in our state's sunny winter wonderland. The snow is predictably skiable, the sky is usually a welcoming blue and the attitude laid-back.

You can't top the Sport Trails Association's impressive 124 miles of groomed ski trails in and around Winthrop and Mazama if you have the time and money. A trail pass is $20 per day for adults, or $51 for three-days; 12 and younger and 75 and older ski free. But if you're coaxing kids, trying Nordic skis for the first time, or pinching pennies so hard that Lincoln's lost his face, investigate the numerous low- or no-cost opportunities in the Methow. These include two free MVSTA-groomed trails, both ski and snowmobile designated Sno-Parks, and a number of scenic Forest Service roads.

Ask around first

Jay Lucas, executive director of the MVSTA, has been skiing the Methow since 1980. Before you set out for the day, he recommends you visit a ski shop to ask where the best skiing is to be had. "Talk to the locals. They'll tell you most of the good places, but not all of them," he says with a smile.

One of the Methow's biggest draws is that it's not crowded, even on the busiest holiday weekends. "We're so far out in the boonies — when Highway 20 is closed [most of the winter], there just aren't that many people over here," Lucas said. As for insider tips, he's surprised by how few people, even locals, take advantage of groomed snowmobile Sno-Park trails.

"What a snowmobiler can do in 10 minutes a skier can do in a couple of hours," Lucas said, explaining that skiers need not worry about being overrun by snow lovers with motors. "A fantastic skier would have to stay out all day just to put a dent in a snowmobile trail, so we're not competing for the same use."

Bev Schultz, with the Mountain Trails Grooming Association and Methow Valley Snowmobile Association, is a snowmobiler who welcomes skiers at the snowmobile Sno-Parks. Along with several other couples, she and her husband are responsible for grooming the valley's seven snowmobile Sno-Parks, all of which, Schultz says, are used by skiers.

"We welcome cross-country skiers, snowshoers, runners and dog sledders on our trails," she said, adding that skate skiers love the wide tracks they lay down and often call her up anxious to know when the next grooming is scheduled. Dogs are welcome at these Sno-Parks, which is not true of all valley ski trails.

Libby Hillis, a 25-year Methow Valley resident and ski instructor with Methow Valley Ski School, says it's a great place to learn to ski or improve your skills. "We've got the scenery, the sun and all these great trails. Where else can you get trails groomed so beautifully and consistently without traveling way further?"

Six favorites

Here are our top Methow low-cost (or no-cost) cross-country ski trails. Most can be located easily; pick up a MVSTA map at Methow ski shops or hotels, or see maps online (www.mvsta.com). For Sno-Park locations and printable maps, see the Washington State Parks Web site, www.parks.wa.gov/winter/trails.

South Summit Sno-Park. Cost: Requires Sno-Park permit. 12 miles east of Twisp, off Highway 20, at Loup Loup. Nonmotorized use only.

All levels of skiers will find a Loup loop that pleases. Combine trails 1, 7 and 6 for a good beginner's glide. Enjoy the mountain views from Trail 1, then enter a forest where quiet is interrupted only by ski swoosh and ravens calling your location to one another. Towering ponderosa pines surround the bud-studded, spare beauty of Western larch. If you have an animal track field guide, bring it along and look for rabbit and coyote tracks in the snow. Excellent map signage makes it nearly impossible to get lost if you stay on the trail.

Smith Canyon (and nearby Elderberry Canyon), both free. 9 miles from Carlton, Okanogan County. Trail length: 3 miles round-trip.

Travel a Forest Service road through a ponderosa forest. The tree bark glows red in the sunshine, branches festooned with chartreuse wolf lichen.

After about one mile, the trail opens up to expansive views of the canyon and the Methow Valley. Though this area is not groomed, snowmobilers have often laid tracks for you. Nearby Elderberry Canyon offers a ski with similar knockout views, though a bit steeper and more challenging (5 miles round-trip).

Directions: From Highway 153 1.2 miles south of Carlton, turn west onto Libby Creek Road. At 2.4 miles, turn right onto Chicamun Canyon Road. At 3.7 miles, veer right onto Smith Canyon Road. (Stay left for the Elderberry Canyon ski, and continue ¼ mile to Road 200 — there is usually a small plowed parking turnout.) For Smith Canyon, continue 1.9 miles to the end of the plowed road. Park out of the way of other cars and the snowplow. The Smith Canyon ski begins on a logging road about 200 feet before the end of the plowed road.

Pipestone Canyon. Free. Four miles from Winthrop. Trail length: 10 miles round-trip. For directions: www.methowdata.com/mtnsports/pipestone.cfm.

So close to the center of Winthrop, yet it feels utterly remote. The beauty of the canyon is worth the uphill climb. Work your way through aspen groves to a wide meadow where your efforts are

rewarded as you enter the 2-mile-long canyon.

Twisp River Snowmobile Sno-Park. Sno-Park permit required. 10 miles west of Twisp, off Twisp River Road. 25 miles round-trip on the Twisp River Loop.

Skate skiers love the wide tracks laid by snowcat groomers here. Don't worry too much about the snowmobiles — they'll be miles ahead of you in no time.

Big Valley Trail. Free. 8 miles from Winthrop. 5 miles round-trip.

Affectionately known as the Barbara Stanwyck trail (because of the 1960s "Big Valley" TV Western in which she starred), this 5-mile, mostly flat double loop brings together some of the Methow's best traits: riverside overlooks, sunny exposure and ponderosa pines. Dogs, walkers, joggers and snowshoers are welcome, too.

Town Trailhead. Free. In Winthrop. 0.7-mile loop.

At the Town Trailhead, there's also a free loop track just outside the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink, so parents can ski while kids skate. This trail and the Big Valley Trail are no-permit-required free trails groomed by the MVSTA, so honk to say "thanks" on the way home.

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