The Methow River Valley’s premier cross-country trail system has the diversity to attract skiers ranging from shufflers to members of the U.S. National Team. Take your pick of routes on the meadow flats, up the timbered hills, over the river bridges, past hot tubs or away from it all.
With more than 200 kilometers – 120 miles – of groomed trails, the linked network has terrain for every skill level and the wherewithal to absorb whatever sucker punches the weather lands in northcentral Washington.
The system is groomed with a fleet of five snowcats, eight snowmobiles pulling Ginzu Groomers and 12 skilled groomer operators.
The payoff is a local economy spiced with unique winter tourist attractions – outdoor ice skating, snowmobiling and skijoring with the family dog are in the mix – along with notable accommodations and eating and drinking establishments that lure visitors from both sides of the Cascades.
Build a trail and they will come.
Next weekend, the Methow is honored as a venue for the last in the national SuperTour race series, which could determine which skiers fill remaining slots on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team for the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Citizen master skiers can rub their Lycra-clad shoulders with these elite skiers and test their endurance on the same Olympic-quality 5K course during some of the SuperTour events Saturday and Sunday.
“For people interested in nordic skiing, the Super Tour is a fabulous opportunity to watch elite skiers and masters in a spectator-friendly venue,” said Julie Muyllaert, Methow Valley Sport Trails Association events director.
The newly developed 5K course, which is not generally open to the public, has been developed to meet international racing standards as it sweeps past the Liberty Bell High School stadium in Winthrop.
Such world-class opportunities have not escaped the local youth.
“In most towns, the best young athletes play traditional sports like football and basketball – here, they’re cross-country skiers,” said Carl Miller, a retired Spokane Valley firefighter who relocated to his childhood home in the Methow.
The Winthrop area had several teenagers competing last week in the top tier of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Methow Valley Sport Trails System also has a biathlon course, where skiers rev up their heart rates racing between stations where they must stop, compose themselves, aim and fire .22-caliber rifles at targets.
A leap of faith was required over the holidays for Spokane-area cross-country skiers to leave the security of Mount Spokane and venture on vacations to the Winthrop area.
Mount Spokane was providing perhaps the best groomed nordic trail conditions in the region while the Methow Valley was suffering from an uncharacteristically late arrival for its trademark winter blanket of snow. Some lowland trails were bare at Christmas.
But the ski trail system still delivered for those who had made their holiday reservations at accommodations that range from bunkhouses and ski-in huts to luxurious resorts and cozy bed-and-breakfast homes.
“It says something about our trail system to be able to provide the quality of skiing we had despite one of the latest starts to the snow season,” said Jay Lucas, MVSTA executive director.
“It was a little tight, since we had to direct all of our visitors – and their dogs – to the one higher elevation area where we had good snow. But it worked out, even though our most popular dog trail, Big Valley, wasn’t open until after the new year.”
When snow coverage is normal, the Methow Valley has 57 kilometers of groomed trails open to skiing with canine companions.
“Skiing with dogs is very popular with a portion of our skiers,” Lucas said.
The Doggy Dash, a special team race for skiers tethered to their dogs, is growing in popularity, he said.
This year, the Doggy Dash will be part of a Feb. 12-28 festival of nordic events for the whole family – including the dog – coinciding with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall, former nordic skiing Olympians who live and teach skiing in the Methow, are scheduled to provide commentary to some of the Olympic nordic racing events that will be shown live on big-screen TVs in Winthrop.
Advanced skiers who are inspired and sign up for the vigorous ski camp McCabe and Hall will conduct Feb. 23-24.
But most of the activities are within the realm of families who simply have a yen for winter activities such as guided snowshoe treks, snowshoe softball, kids ski camp, ice skating lessons or skiing with a naturalist on a winter ecology field class.
“We wanted to celebrate the Olympics and showcase all the similar things we offer regularly,” Muyllaert said, noting that the Methow Olympic Festival starts Feb. 12 with a torchlight parade and fireworks.