The 55-mile-long Methow Valley in north central Washington is home to only about 4,000 residents, but it's jammed with tourists during summer when it serves as the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park. During winter, however, when the highway connecting it to Seattle is closed due to snow, it becomes a secluded Nordic skiers' Mecca. The Methow's 200-kilometer system of meticulously groomed X-C ski trails is second only to the 330 kilometers at Royal Gorge near Lake Tahoe and puts Mt. Bachelor's 56 kilometers (depending on how you count them) to shame.
Operated by the non-profit Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (www.mvsta.com), the network of ski trails came into being two decades ago when several small systems merged by securing right of passage from private land owners, as well as a $500,000 grant to build a steel suspension bridge over the Methow River. The bridge allowed the three trail systems -Sun Mountain, Mazama and Rendezvous-to be interconnected. Tying them together is the Methow Community Trail, a 28K link along the Methow River.
The trail system begins at the southern end of the valley at the faux-Western town of Winthrop (it reminds me of Sisters) and climbs through the Okanogan National Forest to the ridge where the elegant Sun Mountain Lodge roosts.
At the upper end of the valley are the spectacular Mazama Trails, surrounded by Yosemite-like walls, including 3,000-foot-high Goat Wall on the valley's north side.
The Rendezvous Trails are a high-altitude network on the north side of the river. The Rendezvous Hut system features five backcountry huts stocked with firewood, propane stoves, cooking utensils and sleeping cushions for overnight stays.
I first discovered the Methow when I traveled here to celebrate my 40th birthday (just a few short years ago) at the Loup Loup ski area's Free Heel Festival. We also did the Ski to Eat-you can only imagine what an event of that name entailed. Just how many calories do 20 kilometers of skiing burn anyway? Some events you might want to plan a visit around in 2009 include the Tour of the Methow on Valentine's Day (a ski tour with options from 10K to 80K) and the Winter Triathlon on March 7.
On Christmas Day, we celebrated by skiing the Rendezvous Trail system from the Cub Creek Trailhead up 1,200 feet to the Heifer hut, with my dog Sprocket. Notably, dogs are now allowed on almost all of the 40K Rendezvous system. The next day we skated about 20K of perfect corduroy along the Methow Community Trail from Brown's Farm to the Mazama General Store and back. The Ski Rodeo Nordic race was on Saturday and the kids we watched warming up looked like they were born on skis. That day we skated another 20K of the Mazama system from the store north to Jack's Trail and back. We also did a doggie ski along the Big Valley Trail in the afternoon. Before getting back in the car on Sunday for the long drive home, we did a quick ski up the Rendezvous again, mostly to get the dog as tired out as possible.
I happened to meet Paul Butler, co-owns the Source Weekly, at Open Mic night at the Winthrop Brewpub Friday night. Paul and his family moved here eight years ago. Paul entertained the crowd on his electric guitar while we mingled with locals like cowboy poet John Doran and a saxophone-playing carpenter who stars in a calendar of Methow hunks.
I know a few Bend couples who own lots here, as a backup plan if Bend gets too big. Former Tumalo Langlauf Club President Scott Johnston and his wife Midge Cross moved here about eight years ago and stayed. I can understand why - when you're here, it sort of feels like you just dropped right into a Norman Rockwell painting. An eight-hour drive from Bend, the Methow Valley is definitely worth the roadtrip.