Cross-country ski areas in Winthrop enjoy sunny days and light powder snow. The trail system has wide, open landscapes and mountain scenery. (Photo courtesy of Methow Valley Photography)

Cross-country ski areas in Winthrop enjoy sunny days and light powder snow. The trail system has wide, open landscapes and mountain scenery. (Photo courtesy of Methow Valley Photography)

For the truly dedicated, Washington state has a snow oasis

  • By Julia Duin Special To the Washington Post
  • Sunday, January 1, 2017 5:50am
  • Life

By Julia Duin

Special To the Washington Post

The stars arched over us as we made our way up Highway 20 along the banks of the Methow River. 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 in the Methow Valley and home to the towns of Twisp and Winthrop on the eastern flanks of the Cascades.

You couldn’t see them from the road, but 120 miles of ski trails were tucked in the 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 up 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 rental place was packed. These crowds were after Winthrop’s laid-back vibe and inexpensive rates. Many people in the Pacific Northwest can do downhill but prefer what Winthrop offers: a leisurely few days of schussing through a valley rather than a long day waiting in lines at the 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 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.”

We headed toward a nearby meadow and encountered a Methow Trails volunteer at the head of the trail. She checked to make sure we had 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. The money, which was one-quarter that of a downhill ski ticket, 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 his wife. 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, but these cross-country touring skis didn’t have metal edges to help me stop. Heading toward Goat Creek, I encountered a gully and wiped out — only to discover that I could not get back up again. Every time I tried to stand, the skis slipped out from underneath me and the bindings wouldn’t let my boots release so I could stand up. Fortunately, a group of friendly skiers came along and helped me up. (And I eventually learned how to get up in cross-country skis.)

I rejoined my friends and daughter to recuperate 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, baked goods and gourmet cheese.

Eventually, we left this skiing hub and

repaired back to Pam and Dick’s three-story log home, which is on the road to Sun Mountain Lodge, a resort overlooking the valley. 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, 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 6-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. And 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 midway to Mazama at Brown’s Farm (an inn with cabins) and skied through 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 Highway 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 this part of the world. But there was Cleo, curled in a striped ball on the front stoop, waiting for the warmth of the wood stove inside. It was time to go in.

Julia Duin is a Seattle area writer.

Talk to us

More in Life

Dark gray wheels and black exterior accents provide extra visual appeal for the 2024 Subaru Impreza’s RS trim. (Subaru)
2024 Subaru Impreza loses a little, gains a lot

The brand’s compact car is fully redesigned. A couple of things are gone, but many more have arrived.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay walks into the Prohibition Grille along Hewitt Avenue in Everett Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012 while reportedly filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at the Everett restaurant. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
Even more films and TV shows filmed in Snohomish County

Readers point out projects previously missed in this series, from reality television to low-budget indie films.

Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

15-month-old Kantu attempts to climb a pumpkin at Stocker Farms in Snohomish on Sunday, September 20th, 2015. Stocker Farms offers a U-pick patch, farm animals and a corn maze.
Best pumpkin patch in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

The city of Mukilteo is having a naming contest for its new $75,000 RC Mowers R-52, a remote-operated robotic mower. (Submitted photo)
Mukilteo muncher: Name the $75,000 robot mower

The city is having a naming contest for its new sod-slaying, hedge-hogging, forest-clumping, Mr-mow-it-all.

Local musician Alex Johnston, whose newest album "Daylight Fooldream" pairs with short film he made with help from his partner Mikaela Henderson, sits with his morning coffee on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Folktronica musician shoots 37-minute visual album on iPhone in Everett

Alex Johnston, 31, describes his music as ”if Coldplay and Bon Iver had a love child.”

Death of parent with child. Piece of paper with parents and children is torn in half.
Helping children cope with the hard realities of divorce

I’s important to set aside one’s feelings and find a way to make this challenging transition as comfortable for children as you can.

In Belgium, each type of beer has its own glass – whether wide, tall, or fluted – to show off its distinct qualities.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Bruges brews lift a weary traveler’s spirits

The Belgian city is a mecca for beer lovers from around the world.

Children’s author Barbara Herkert to lead Story Time at Edmonds Bookshop, Friday September 29th, 9:30-10:00 am!
Author to read her new kids book at Edmonds bookstore

Author Barbara Herkert will read “This Old Madrone Tree” Friday at Edmonds Bookshop.

Can he get the fare difference refunded after he was downgraded?

American Airlines downgrades Thomas Sennett and his family to economy class on their flights from Boston to Phoenix. Why isn’t it refunding the fare difference?

From left, Elora Coble, Carol Richmond, David Hayes, Karli Reinbold, Giovanna Cossalter Walters, Landon Whitbread in a scene from Edmonds Driftwood Players' production of "Murder on the Orient Express." (Dale Sutton / Magic Photography)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Edmonds Driftwood Players opens its 65th season with Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Photo caption: Back-to-school is an ideal time to pick up new habits that help your family reduce waste and learn about resource conservation.
Go green this back-to-school season

It’s an ideal time for the entire family to learn the three Rs — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Some collectibles are found in nature; some imitate them. If it weren’t for the attached figure, this Royal Dux porcelain vase might pass for a real conch shell.
This shell-shaped vase would make a fine souvenir of summer fun

It may not be a real shell, but this art nouveau piece could still evoke fond memories of days at the beach.