You've seen it during the Winter Olympics, but did you know that recreational luge sledding is a thing? With a new run at the Methow Valley's Loup Loup Ski Bowl, writer Jeff Layton put it to the test. The result? A real-life game of Mario Kart that's surprisingly kid-friendly.
On a snowy hillside high in the mountains above the town of Twisp, Okanogan County, I’m absolutely flying down a groomed cat track.
I’m about 30 minutes from the Methow Valley’s cross-country ski trails, but this has nothing to do with skis. I’m doing something that would have been an empty brag when I was young: Wouldn’t it be cool to sled all the way down that ski hill?
My 12-kilometer descent comes courtesy of a European performance sled with wide stainless-steel runners and enough control to make it down a mountain road filled with arching bends and tight turns. For anyone who grew up around snow, sledding is a cherished winter tradition. And if you’re the kind of person who only stubbornly gave up your childhood pursuit, riding a luge is a next-level adult thrill ride.
And it’s right in our backyard.
The luge comes to the West Coast
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Even if you’re a serious winter junkie, luge sledding is probably a novelty.
Outside the Methow Valley’s Loup Loup Ski Bowl, there are only two other commercial operations in North America — the others are in Michigan and Quebec.
Most people are familiar with the Olympic sport of artificial luge, with its high-banked walls and breakneck speeds. But recreational luge sledding is ideal for steep mountain roads, and uses sleds almost anyone can ride. They look a bit like the vintage Flexible Flyers — but with some upgrades for improved handling and stability.
Even luge-run operators Steve and Julie Nelson didn’t know the sport existed until a few years ago, when they were on a family ski vacation and encountered a group of sledders flying past. That brief encounter stuck with them and they scoured the internet to make sense of what they had seen.
In Europe, luge sledding is popular on some ski runs, but may go by a different name. (The terms “rodel,” “rodeln,” “sledge” and “luge” are all variations on the word “tobaggan.”) There’s even a kind of luge sledding that has a world-cup circuit, they say.
As longtime ski racers, ski coaches and board members at Loup Loup, the Nelsons immediately recognized that a sled run could broaden the ski hill’s family-oriented opportunities.
Soon they were shipping $300 sleds from Austria, buying a snowcat and converting an underutilized Nordic trail into a weekend luge run.
“It’s such a unique sport that it puts everyone on the same plane,” says Julie. With no minimum age requirement for young riders sledding with adults, it’s an activity that everyone can do. It also makes for an exciting option for older skiers with knee problems, says Steve.
Don your crash helmets
“Look up there,” Steve said, pointing to the summit of Loup Loup Ski Bowl more than 1,200 feet above the lodge. “That’s where we will be sledding from today.”
While it’s an activity fit for the whole family, luge sledding is extreme enough to require an hourlong training course and crash helmets.
Our group’s morning session started off with the basics of steering and stopping.
Near the ticket office, we learned the art of the luge. First: the foot drag. Point your feet forward and you go fast. Drag a foot and your sled bends around corners.
Next, the hand drag: Keep your opposite elbow pointed skyward in a motion that makes your body lean into the turn. Finally, we learned how to emergency-stop by pulling up the front of the sled — just like an Olympic racer.
It seemed simple enough, but I wondered how much I would remember during a steep descent.
All aboard the snowcat
Kid sledding is pretty simple. Climb a hill. Slide down. Repeat.
Adult sledding takes the legwork out of climbing with a much cooler ride to the top.
With our training complete, it was time to ride the snowcat — an experience that was new for most in our group. Everyone piled into the back, and our snowcat began growling the 5 kilometers uphill using its Caterpillar tracks to scale impossibly steep terrain. As we ascended through larch country, the scenery gradually opened up along the mountain crest with peek-a-boo views through the trees.
I suspect that riding a snowcat will be the highlight of recreational lugeing for some. Unless you work at a ski resort, it’s not something that many of us do. It’s bonus added, and once at the top of the hill, a broad carpet of groomed corduroy was waiting. The snow was the perfect consistency for sledding: soft and light, with enough moisture to pack it firmly. With giddy anticipation (and some mild nerves) we hopped aboard our sleds.
Down we go
From the top there was no choice but to put our training into action. With a gentle shove, I was off and picking up speed. The scenery roared past in a blur, but I was more focused on guiding my sled around hairpin curves and trying not to soar over an embankment (thankfully there were safety nets, and soft snow on the edges to protect me from disaster).
With a bit of speed, the sleds were easier to turn than I’d expected they would be. But it was also easy to overcompensate. As in auto racing, it takes some practice to choose the best line through the turns. On the first tight corner, I tried to do what I would on my alpine skis, and aimed too tightly into the turn. Instead of holding the turn, I skidded into the soft snow and stalled out.
As my instructor Steve blew past me, I quickly learned two important lessons: First, wide sweeping turns were preferable over tight ones. Second, I’m probably not destined to be an Olympic luge sledder.
Rather than a single long descent, the sled run is a series of steep descents broken up by short flat stretches where you walk with your sled. This keeps newbies from feeling out of control on an uninterrupted decline, and allows time for reviewing your steering technique.
About a third of the way down the hill, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Loup Loup and the jagged summits of the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Area. Then it was onto a challenging section with roller-coaster bumps and some really fun curves.
This time, I nailed my line and even caught up to other riders in our group with a finale that felt like a real-life Mario Kart race. Three of us arrived at the bottom together, skidding, spinning and coming to a rest at the same time.
Through the haze of adrenaline, my brain tried to permanently burn the feeling into my long-term memory. But the most vivid image from that moment will probably be the face of my 4-year-old son, who was riding with my wife. From beneath his winter coat and crash helmet his beaming face bore an expression of pure bliss: “Let’s do it again, Mom!”
Sure, I had fun, but luge sledding was also a huge parenting win.
If you go
The Bear Mountain Luge Experience (skitheloup.com/bear-mountain-luge-experience) is located at the Loup Loup Ski Bowl near Twisp, Okanogan County, about 35 minutes from Winthrop. Sledding takes place on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays throughout the winter. Four sessions per day (9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m.) host a maximum 16 sleds per session. Reservations are required. Riders must arrive an hour before sledding to take part in a training session. To reserve a time, call 509-557-3401.
There is no minimum age for young sledders who ride tandem with an adult. The youngest age for solo riders is 10, because kids must have enough physical strength to stop their sleds. If you’re weighing your options and want to get a sense of what the sledding is like, watching Loup Loup’s video of a luge run at youtu.be/hIvHIvgnoJI may be helpful.
Rides are $23 for the 9:30 a.m. session, $29 for all other sessions.