CHELAN — I was 10 years old the first time I strapped on skinny cross-country skis. My parents took our family on an outing that started with a long, luxurious downhill coast. I remember thinking, “This is easy. Cross-country skiing is my new favorite sport!”
But after the first hour, I learned that what goes down must go back up. The long uphill slog that followed was exhausting, and it put me off cross-country for the next 30 years.
As an avid downhill skier, I always thought that cross-country skiing could be fun and so I decided this winter I would stare down defeat and learn to actually enjoy the sport. But first I needed to find a good place to get the hang of it.
That’s how I ended up standing among the crystal-coated pines overlooking the snowy, panoramic hillsides of Chelan’s Echo Ridge Ski Area. Before me snaked more than 25 miles of networked trails — most of them 10-feet wide and groomed with cut ski tracks for classic skiing as well as wide, flat space for freestyle skiing.
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I happened to hit it on a great day. The air was so clear and cold that it almost hurt to breathe. A few inches of new snow gave the surface some grip, and freshly groomed tracks made the skiing almost effortless.
Easy — and fun
Suddenly I found that cross-country skiing was remarkably easy, and, dare I say, fun. All I had to do was stroll in a normal fashion, coasting a few seconds with each step and being careful not to lean too far off center. After the first hour I stopped thinking about my technique entirely. The flat pitch made it hard to fall, especially when using the groomed tracks that kept my skis from drifting.
Rather than watching my feet, I could concentrate on my surroundings. And what views were in store! Trails looped out to rims and viewpoints, each providing scenes of the rolling, powder-dusted valley below, and glimpses of the frosty shores of Lake Chelan in the distance.
Unlike most Nordic trail systems that wind through valley floors, Echo Ridge trails cruise around several ridge tops, with elevations ranging from 3,100 to 4,000 feet. That means groomed trails can usually be found well into March during a typical year — even when spring snow has melted in the lowlands.
Even better, the eight miles of beginner terrain are fairly flat, so I didn’t have to endure exhausting climbs. For those with more experience, steep, challenging inclines await on 16 miles of intermediate and advanced terrain.
Locals nurture it
While you may expect such vast and wonderful skiing to be crawling with out-of-towners, Echo Ridge still feels like a local community hill. The road is plowed and trails groomed through a collaboration of the Chelan Ranger District and the Lake Chelan Nordic Ski Club, made up of local families.
That community spirit is evident most weekends, when volunteers build fires and serve hot soup in a warming yurt recently constructed by volunteers.
Did the locals frown upon a Seattle reporter dropping by to spill their secret? Not so, says Chelan resident Mary Sherer. She skis Echo Ridge at least three times a week and says that a busy weekend may see only 35 cars in the parking lot. “There are so many trails that everyone spreads out, and encountering other skiers is rare,” she says. “On weekdays, you’ll practically have the place to yourself.”
Sherer and others in the community rave about full-moon skiing, which is a tradition at Echo Ridge. “It’s surprising how much light there is. Many skiers don’t even use a headlamp,” says Sherer. “Sometimes we have a bonfire.”
“The snow sparkles in the moonlight!” Lake Chelan Nordic Ski Club board member Tim Agnew agrees. “Full-moon skiing is like being on the moon.”
“Would you be upset if a bunch of Seattle skiers showed up on the next full moon and crashed your party?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” laughed Sherer. “There’s plenty of room for everyone!” (The moon is full March 16.)
Lake Chelan residents definitely have a good thing going. The wholesome sport combined with community efforts to keep Echo Ridge open to all has a small-town Americana feel to it.
As I swished around the bends of the trails, ducking in and out of stunning vistas and around snow-choked evergreens, I imagined what it would be like to have such great terrain in my back yard. By the end of the day, I was having thoughts of moving to Chelan where I could ski Echo Ridge any time I wanted.
That’s when it hit me. In a single afternoon I’d gone from someone who didn’t really like cross-country skiing to someone who was considering moving across the state for more.
Seattle-based freelancer Jeff Layton travels extensively in the Northwest and abroad. He blogs at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.