Curious about cross-country skiing? There’s no better place to try it than Washington's Methow Valley.
If you have even a passing interest in cross-country skiing and you live in the Northwest, chances are the Methow Valley’s on your radar. With three distinctly pleasant Hans Brinker-meets-“Twin Peaks” towns (Mazama, Winthrop and Twisp) in the North Cascades foothills, and a vast network of ski trails, it’s a paradise for getting your kick ‘n’ glide on, and a longtime favorite among people like my skiing-obsessed parents, who taught me to ski before I could walk. (Your mileage may vary with this!) But while hardcore cross-country skiers adore the Methow Valley — it’s home to some actual Olympians — it’s also a welcoming and rewarding place for novice cross-country skiers to take their first wobbly steps.
Here’s where to begin.
Seasoned skiers know the Methow Valley (pronounced “Met-OW,” the latter part like what you’d say when stepping on a Lego) for its Nordic ski-trail network, regarded as one of the best in the country: 120 miles of groomed routes connecting the towns of Winthrop and Mazama. For folks with limited mobility, adaptive skiing is available in the form of two grant-funded sit-skis; two trailheads also offer ADA-accessible parking.
(Don’t want to ski? You can also take to the trail on a fat bike or snowshoes, and there’s downhill skiing and even lugeing at nearby Loup Loup Ski Bowl. Winthrop also has an adorable outdoor ice rink near the cross-country ski trailhead.)
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If you’re used to downhill skiing, cross-country will be an adjustment — and maybe even a welcome one. When you go alpine skiing for the first time, you’re often taught the pizza ‘n’ French fry technique, then trusted to get down a run on your own. If you don’t pick up technique quickly, it can feel like trial by fire.
Cross-country’s not like that.
It’s less like controlled falling — and there’s not as far to fall — and more like hiking with some glide thrown in. You’ll go up and down, but gradually, and the Methow has a number of short, flat trails and loops perfect for beginners finding their ski legs. Two good practice spots are a relatively flat stretch of the Methow Community Trail that begins at the Winthrop Trailhead, and the big, flat meadow accessible from the Mazama Trailhead. Grab a map or download the Methow Trails Grooming Report app, and follow the green dots to beginner-friendly terrain.
The first rule of cross-country skiing: Don’t wear a cotton base layer. Have you seen “Into the Wild”? Don’t do it! But also don’t overdress. If you’re accustomed to downhill, you may equate skiing with waiting followed by a lot of activity, but there’s no waiting in cross-country skiing, and you’ll heat up quickly once you’re on the trail.
So wear layers: long underwear, a warm moisture-wicking base layer, a lightweight windproof shell and a pair of ski tights. (You may need to size up to get them over your long underwear, but if your legs look sort of lumpy and weird, you’re layering right!) Don’t forget a hat and gloves. The latest craze in cross-country ski gloves are known as “lobster claws” or “split mitts,” a glove/mitten hybrid designed to keep your fingers toasty-warm and fit under a ski-pole loop — the result is warm hands that look like T. rex claws. Don’t worry — everyone else will look as silly as you do. (I love my lobster claws.)
There are two kinds of cross-country skiing: classic (feet parallel, in tracks, slow and steady) and skate-skiing (legs perpendicular, with a motion like ice-skating, outside the tracks). The style of skiing you’re doing will determine what equipment you need. It’s common for beginners to start out learning classic technique, but skate-skiing is fun (and FAST) if you’re up for the challenge.
You can rent equipment from Sun Mountain Lodge (604 Patterson Lake Road, Winthrop), Cascades Outdoor Store (222 Riverside Ave., Winthrop), Winthrop Mountain Sports (257 Riverside Ave., Winthrop) and Methow Cycle & Sport (29 Highway 20, Winthrop) in Winthrop, Okanogan County; and Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies (50 Lost River Road, Mazama) and Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals (42 Lost River Road, Mazama) in Mazama, Okanogan County.
Speaking of which: You should absolutely take a lesson. Cross-country skiing looks easy, but while the skill barrier is low, refining your technique is a lifelong journey: The more you know, the more room there is to grow. It’s also one of those elusive forms of exercise that work your entire body without being high-impact. To get the most benefit — and to ensure you’re using proper technique — a lesson with a pro is essential.
But once you’ve been briefed on the basics, get out there. The only way to get better is to practice. Don’t worry about how slow and plodding you may feel, and don’t be freaked out by veteran skiers cruising down the corduroy. Truly experienced skiers know to respect beginners and give them space on the trail. Everyone who skis has been where you are.
Once you’ve discovered the joy of cross-country skiing, you can discover the joy of being done with cross-country skiing, also known as relaxing and refueling. In Mazama, you can do this right on the trail at Jack’s Hut (31 Early Winters Drive, Mazama). Once a no-frills purveyor of trailside cocoa, it now serves pizza and beer and wine at real tables and chairs. If you’re taking an easy day, an early-afternoon ski to Jack’s for happy hour can be a fun variation on a beer crawl.
A little farther off the trail, the Mazama Store (50 Lost River Road, Mazama) serves daily soups that make a perfect post-ski snack (the sliced baguette that comes with them is my favorite carbohydrate; order a whole loaf if you’re feeling crazy). The store stocks all kinds of delights, from the Landjaeger in the meat case to the pies by the register, and even when it’s swamped during lunchtime the weekend after Christmas, the place has the convivial atmosphere of a true old-fashioned, community-oriented general store.
In Winthrop, the Rocking Horse Bakery (265 Riverside Ave., Winthrop) makes good espresso and even better iced-molasses cookies, and the newly expanded Trail’s End Bookstore (241 Riverside Ave., Winthrop) rightly pairs coffee with its expansive selection of reading material. If you want a bougie meal with a view, drive up to Sun Mountain Lodge (604 Patterson Lake Road, Winthrop), but be ready to empty your wallet. For a solid burger and locally brewed beverage, hit the Old Schoolhouse Brewery (155 Riverside Ave., Winthrop).
And in Twisp, Cinnamon Twisp Bakery (116 Glover St. N., Twisp) sells hearty pastries and excellent bagel sandwiches. A stop in on the way home can make the transition back to reality a little gentler.
No primer on cross-country skiing can dodge this fact: If you’re looking for an outdoor sport with the adrenaline rush of downhill or cute accessorizing opportunities, cross-country skiing won’t be it. Especially when conditions are bad — and especially on classic skis — cross-country can be slow. It’s also the proud domain of middle-aged men in shiny racing suits and pompom hats. Things have improved slightly since the hideous LaCroix palette of the early ’90s, but not much.
Devotees to the sport know it. There is a reason The New York Times Magazine once called cross-country skiing the “least glamorous, least pyrotechnic, least watchable of the major Olympic sports … notoriously, almost inhumanly, exhausting — a brutally sustained nonthrill.”
And while I find that particular condemnation somewhat extreme, it’s true that cross-country skiing is kind of the used Subaru station wagon of winter sports. It’s not particularly cool. It’s bare-bones and, like running, old-fashioned in its requirement of pure exertion. But that’s also the beauty of it. Like a trusty family car, it’s also reliable, it gets the job done, and if you stick with it long enough, you’ll start to feel a unique fondness for it that becomes difficult to explain to other people.
It’s also the used Subaru of winter sports because that is one of the only car makes you’re liable to see in the Methow Valley during peak ski season, when Nordic ski enthusiasts put their four-wheel drives in gear and head to the heart of the North Cascades. The influx of Seattleites is tremendous, and you may even see someone you know while you’re out on the trail.
If you do, don’t worry. It won’t be as awkward as you think. You’ll likely both be in the chilled-out state that comes with slipping through the trees on your skis. In the sharp relief of the backcountry, you’ll probably find you like your acquaintance more than when you saw them back in the city. You’ll say hi, maybe compliment each other’s Lycra and Polar-fleece looks, and discuss your planned routes for the day. You’ll share a moment of mutual self-congratulation for making it this far. And then you’ll part ways, and return to the cool embrace of the sunny valleys and stands of evergreens, breathing in the sharp mountain air as you go, your mind empty of everything but the soft push and pull of your skis.
If you go
Getting there: Highway 20 is the prettiest route to the Methow, but it’s closed in winter. Instead, take I-90 east to U.S. Route 97 to state Route 153. The drive takes about four-and-a-half hours. Anjou Bakery in Cashmere (3898 Old Monitor Road, Cashmere) is a good place to stop for espresso, Parisian-style sandwiches and a bathroom break. The 76 station in Orondo (21318 U.S. Route 97, Orondo) has a surprisingly good snack selection. Groceries, gas and other essentials can be found in Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama.
Where to stay: The Methow is full of jaunty, often Old West-themed lodging options, from quirky roadside motels to palatial lodges. A full list would be exhaustive, but these are all solid choices: Mazama Country Inn (15 Country Road, Mazama), Methow River Lodge & Cabins (110 White Ave., Winthrop), the Freestone Inn at Wilson Ranch (31 Early Winters Drive, Mazama) and the Mazama Ranch House (10 Country Road, Mazama).
Ski passes: You need a pass to ski the Methow Trails. Day passes ($24) and three-day consecutive ski passes ($60, $20 a day for added days) are available for purchase at a variety of locations in Mazama, Winthrop and Twisp. The full list can be found at methowtrails.org/tickets-and-passes. Fat bike day passes ($10) and snowshoe day passes ($5) are also available. Kids under the age of 17 and seniors over 75 ski, snowshoe and bike for free. Dogs are allowed on some ski trails, but their owners must purchase dog passes ($10 daily; $50 annually) and meet conditions outlined at methowtrails.org/ski-trails-for-dogs.
More information, including grooming reports: methowtrails.org
An earlier version of this post contained incorrect details about Methow Trails’ pass discount for seniors. Skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking on the Methow Trails is free for people 75 and older.