This is the time of year, mid-to-late winter, when Bend residents get antsy.
While your neighbor takes off for Maui (who can afford that, anyway?) why not go the other direction? I propose embracing winter rather than running from it.
The Methow Valley in Northern Washington, the country's largest cross-country ski area, is the perfect spot to do just that. There's a lot to like in and around the small town of Winthrop, Wash., in the heart of the Methow Valley—accessible backcountry skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, charming restaurants and bars—but it was the 200 kilometers of groomed Nordic ski trails that pulled us there in mid-January.
The eight-hour drive north seems casual, since you're basically on Highway 97 the whole time. You can haul ass, the scenery is pleasant and there are plenty of small towns along the way to fill up on gas, coffee and snacks. Since we had only three full days to ski, we left on a Wednesday night, drove partway, slept and arrived ready to ski on Thursday midday. We then skied till noon on Sunday.
And it was amazing.
Every trail we sampled had been meticulously groomed, and there was a variety of terrain at each one of the four trailheads near Winthrop—the primary trailhead boasts 31 kilometers of trails. All the area's other trails, including Mazama, Sun Mountain and Rendezvous, are tied together in some form or fashion. Despite the fact there had been no new snow in weeks, there was no shortage of white stuff.
Since Winthrop, like Bend, is on the east side of the Cascades, residents experience weather patterns similar to those we get here—but their big dumps stick around longer. To date, Winthrop has received nearly 45 inches of snow this season.
"The past few seasons have been the best in our history," said Kristen Smith, the marketing director of Methow Valley Sport Trails Association.
The MVSTA owns four Pisten Bullys and eight snowmobiles for grooming purposes and is the nonprofit behind all of the grooming magic and events staged around the area's myriad trails. Check in with them as soon as you get into Winthrop. Friendly staff members will set you up with maps and local beta. First formed in 1977, and known then as the Methow Valley Family Sports Club, MVSTA continues to forge new ground, especially when it comes to winter events.
This season, for the first time, the organization has opened 22 miles of trails to snow bikes, also called fat bikes. The sport has gone "completely viral," Smith said, and the MVSTA recognizes that its snow bike pilot program is being watched by organizations like our own Meissner Nordic, as well as others across the country.
But it's the abundant snow, variety of terrain and the ability to ski from town to town that make the Methow Valley a winner. You can start a ski in Winthrop, skate 30K on the well-marked Methow Community Trail and you'll arrive in Mazama, where there's a lovely grocery store/café/ bakery—not unlike Jackson's Corner. I recommend the peanut butter brownie.
Mazama, a little town upvalley 13 miles northwest of Winthrop, is home to 33 kilometers of ski trails, which are mostly flat. But over at the Sun Mountain Trails, another of the area's four trailheads, you'll have access to 54 kilometers of challenging-to-bust-a-gut terrain. This was one of our favorite zones to ski, but skip Sun Mountain Lodge—it's overpriced, lacks ambiance and is very bourgeoisie. The 48 kilometers of trail around the Rendezvous area are the most remote, which makes them cool and scenic but there's no chance to get an espresso mid-ski—probably a good thing.
But if the steeps are what you're after, the mountains outside the valley have that, too. The backcountry skiing on the ridges west of the valley, like at Silver Star Mountain, hold some of the best, untracked pow in the Northwest. Unless you're Johnny Charge-Hard (who's also taken an avalanche level 1 and 2 class) give the North Cascades Mountain Guides a call (ncmountainguides.com) or book a heli-ski tour with North Cascade Heli (heli-ski.com).
When your day is done, check out the Old Schoolhouse Brewery. It's in the little red building that looks like a schoolhouse in the middle of Winthrop. The stout has won a number of awards and was my favorite. For dinner, waddle down the street to the cozy Arrowleaf Bistro. It's a touch spendy, but that's the price you pay for quality, local ingredients.
If shopping is your thing (likely not, since this is the Outside section) you might find it in Winthrop, but we didn't bother looking. If you're there you should be skiing, or otherwise enjoying the winter weather.
Ski & Yoga Retreat and Hot Air Balloon Festival, March 1-3
Winter Triathlon, March 3
Spring Ski Celebration, March 9
MVSTA is grooming trails through March 10, at a minimum. Learn more and get a grooming report at mvsta.com.