Visceral, low impact, easy to learn and filled with plenty of
opportunities to commune with nature, cross-country skiing offers a calmer
alternative to the busier, brasher, more glamorous world of downhill skiing.
Yet contrary to its understated reputation, the sport is not entirely lacking
in adrenaline-charged moments, especially if you head to Washington State’s
Methow Valley near the US-Canadian border.
Watched over by the saw-toothed North Cascade Mountains, the Methow is a
rugged, picturesque agricultural enclave reminiscent of the Old West, which, during
winter, maintains North America’s second largest dedicated cross-country ski
area after California’s Lake Tahoe Royal
Scattered across a 125-mile network of well-marked trails managed by the local
not-for-profit Methow Valley Sport Trails
Association lie aspen groves, isolated ranches, foraging mule deer, and
enough slippery descents to make even the most experienced powder hounds grip tightly
to their ski poles. It is a misconception to think that cross-country skiing is
confined purely to flat terrain. Although the lion’s share of the Methow’s
trails parallel the broad valley floor, they are complemented by some short but
steep downhill stretches which become all the more formidable when undertaken
on slim, light-weight cross-country skis. But the biggest challenge for those
reared on downhill skiing and unused to the pulse-raising effects of working
against gravity is the absence of any energy-saving tow-lifts. When you reach
the bottom of the slope, your only option is to take a deep breath and climb up
the next one.
Practiced by humans since prehistoric times using wooden ski-shaped contraptions,
cross-country skiing was popularised as a sport by the Norwegian military in
the mid-1700s and was first imported to North America by Scandinavian
immigrants in the 1850s. Using almost every muscle group in the body, the sport
has long been hailed for its all-round fitness benefits. Less heralded are the
numerous non-medical pluses; since cross-country skiing does not necessitate a
huge infrastructure, its practitioners rarely have to worry about chair-lift
queues, embarrassing collisions on the nursery slopes or the nightly fight for breathing
space in a crowded après-ski bar.
Located on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, 185 miles west of
Spokane, and largely cut-off from the Pacific Northwest’s main urban centres of
Seattle and Portland (240 and 400 miles
away by road respectively), the Methow’s ski trails fan out like a spider’s web
across an expansive valley where you are just as likely to spot a wintering
golden eagle as a Gortex-clad human.
With a history anchored in farming, the settlements that punctuate the
region are more like hamlets than towns. Winthrop (population 394), made over
with a Wild West theme in the 1970s, is a bizarre apparition, especially in the
winter when lines of skinny Nordic skis instead of horses stand sentinel
outside the storefronts.
Blink and you will miss Mazama (population 230), little more than a gas
station, a cosy mountain inn and a mercantile store that, between November and
April, is the last stop on the road west when Highway 20 across the North
Cascades to Seattle is closed due to snow.
Eschewing the manufactured resorts common in other North American ski
areas, the Methow remains a lightly populated but ultra-friendly rural
community, whose varied trails are spread over a wide area. The cross-country “super-highway”
is the flat Methow Community Trail which plies its way for 20 miles between
Winthrop and Mazama, passing a handful of strategically placed ski huts (with drinking
water and toilets) and connecting to other more precipitous routes that climb
up and down the valley sides. Given over to mountain bikes, horses and hikers
in the summer, the trails are groomed for skiing between December and March,
If you are a beginner, the Methow
Valley Ski School offers lessons in classic cross-country skiing and more
technical skate-skiing at three locations, Winthrop, Mazama and the Sun Mountain Lodge. Skate-skiing, a
faster but harder-to-master skate-style motion that originated in Europe in the
1980s, is growing in popularity across North America, and the Methow has plenty
of dedicated followers. A full gamut of rentable ski equipment is available at
the each of the school’s locations.
Wilderness notwithstanding, the Methow has some stunning accommodation.
Indeed, one of its premier draws is that you can slide between a varied stash
of upscale hotels and basic cabins without having to take your skis off. At the
luxury end of the scale is the intentionally rustic Sun Mountain Lodge, which
sits atop a hill 10 miles west of
Winthrop. Equipped with a ski shop, spa, restaurant and possibly the US’ most spectacular
outdoor hot tub perched above the gorgeous valley, the lodge is both gloriously
located and handily self-contained. Stick to the ski-trail network on the adjacent
hilltop, or try the tricky six mile descent into Winthrop, best done early in
the morning to allow time for a fortifying breakfast of omelette and oatmeal at
the village’s Duck Brand Cantina before
branching onto the flatter Methow Community Trail for some wildlife-spotting
along the Methow River (everything from wolves to cougars prowl the valley).
The 17-room Freestone Inn, a deluxe
log cabin with wi-fi, fireplaces and fluffy bathrobes, lies a skiable 14 miles west
of Winthrop. The Mazama Country Inn
nearby is another pretty lodge in the eponymous village. For a true backcountry
experience, spend a few nights skiing between the Rendezvous Huts, five simple cabins
that dot an interconnected group of much steeper trails on the Methow’s
northern slopes. Not far to the west, the North Cascade Mountains, immortalized
by Jack Kerouac in his book Desolation Angels and speckled with such spine-tingling behemoths as the 8,151ft-high
Mount Terror and the 7,296ft Mount Despair, remind you that raw wilderness is
never far away.
If a trip to the Methow pricks your interest in cross-country skiing, or
if you would prefer to nurture your fitness at a smaller venue first, there are
plenty of other options in the Pacific Northwest region. Family-friendly Leavenworth, designed in the style of
a Bavarian village, 115 miles southwest of the Methow, has a small network of
community-run trails, high-quality hotels and a diminutive, easy-to-master “ski
hill” that will give you a brief taste of downhill skiing. Across the border in
Canada, Whistler’s Olympic Park,
78 miles north of Vancouver was a venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics and has 32
miles of cross-country trails in a dedicated park. Stevens Pass, 80 miles east of Seattle,
has a cross-country skiing park and downhill area.