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 Gorge Resort.
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, weather permitting.
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.