Cross-country Skiing in the Methow

Broad, beautiful and littered with trails, the Methow is to cross-country skiing what Aspen is to downhill, but with only a fraction of the fame. To devotees of the more environmentally congruous free-heel method, this is the primary draw: no crowds, no Gore-Tex fashion parade, and no beer-fueled après-ski – just you, miles of sugary powder and the Cascades.

With 200km of groomed trails, the valley comprises the second-largest cross-country-skiing area in the US (after California's Royal Gorge). But, unlike other ski areas, there's no resort pampering here. A bucolic mix of farmland, aspen groves, rivers and old barns, the Methow is a real-life rural community whose far-sighted residents have created a nonprofit organization, the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA). When it's not fighting off profit-hungry ski-resort developers, the MVSTA promotes and protects a well-maintained trail system that enables skiers to meander at will between a handful of huts, cabins, lodges and small settlements.

The network's 'aorta' is the 20-mile Methow Community Trail (MCT), a flat, central valley route groomed for classic and skate skiing that plies a course between strategically placed warming huts (with water and toilets), linking Winthrop with the even tinier settlement of Mazama. Higher up but equally comprehensive are the interconnecting Rendezvous and Sun Mountain Lodge trail systems.

Between early December and late March you can ski door-to-door between various accommodations options, including Sun Mountain Lodge, Freestone Inn, Wolf Ridge Resort and Mazama Country Inn. For information on the Rendezvous huts (self-catering huts in scenic trail locations placed approximately 8km apart and sleeping up to eight people), check www.facebook.com/RendezvousHuts. Ski rental (adult/child $24/17) and MVSTA trail passes ($24/60 for one/three days) are available at outlets in the Sun Mountain Lodge, Methow Cycle & Sport, and Mazama Junction in Mazama.

The Methow Valley Ski School is based at Sun Mountain Lodge. Group lessons cost $26. One lesson is usually sufficient to get started.

The valley's trails are all clearly marked on a free local map: green for easy, blue for intermediate, black for challenging. Distance markers follow the Nordic metric system (ie kilometers, not miles).