Editor’s Note (9/3/21): Due to recent wildfires, trails may no longer be accessible. Check local conditions before planning your trip. According to Patrick Walker from Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, “[It] is possible that most of the trails in the Sun Mountain/Chickadee complex will not be open to riding in the next year due to hazard mitigation and trail rebuilds.” Trail updates will be posted on evergreenmtb.org. You can also find trail closure information at methowtrails.org/plan-your-trip.
The Methow Valley is the only place I’ve ever mountain biked where I’ve been passed on a climb by an ultramarathoner.
It’s not terribly surprising: this long valley, on the sunny east slope of the North Cascades, seems to attract fanatical recreationists. A number of former Olympians call the valley home, but that represents only a fraction of the uber-athletes here for whom three vigorous outdoor pursuits a day is a good Saturday. In other words, the spandex shorts-to-party shirt ratio is pretty lopsided.
From Isolation to Epic Recreation
Perhaps because the valley grew up in relative isolation—the paved North Cascades Highway was only completed in 1972—the Methow seems to have developed its own pace of life. That pace roughly translates as “hammering on the trail, laid back everywhere else.”
It could have been different. In the 1970s, the Aspen Ski Corporation came to the Methow to investigate an alpine ski destination, to be called “Early Winters.” Locals fought, citing concerns, including environmental (increased air pollution from more wood-burning stoves) and economical (traffic, utilities).
In the end, the locals prevailed, and Aspen Ski Corporation went on to build Whistler-Blackcomb near Vancouver, British Columbia.
At that point, the locals realized they had the opportunity to build their own world-class ski system—and they chose Nordic over alpine. Easements through private land on the valley floor paved the way for what is today the nation’s largest Nordic ski trail system. As it grew up, the sport of mountain biking naturally followed.
The athletic fanaticism displayed by the valley’s residents extends to trail stewardship too. Minded over by the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA), the singletrack here is lovingly maintained, thoughtfully signed, and always growing.
Mountain biking in the Methow has the same characteristics as the Methow Valley itself: a heavy emphasis on aerobic activity and wide-open vistas. Many of the trails rate intermediate or advanced in terms of fitness, but are non-technical enough that big-hit bikes aren’t necessary.
In other words, you’re more likely to be passed on a climb—with a friendly “Hello!”—by someone training for an endurance event than a bro sessioning jumps. Although the MVSTA has in recent years added some modern flow trails to the network.
Sun Mountain Trail System
The popular Sun Mountain trail system, arrayed around the namesake resort on private and Forest Service land, is the ideal introduction to Methow biking. The extensive—and still growing—network of trails can be pieced together for an endless variety of loops and lengths. On all, the scenery dazzles in the spring with wildflowers, but the views are unbeatable year-round.
Best of all, riders can park downtown and connect with the Sun Mountain trails via the Methow Community Trail—a genius stroke of car-free biking. The most recent addition to the trail system, the Thompson Ridge open loop, rewards a leg-sapping amount of climbing (nearly 3,000 feet over eight miles if riders forgo a shuttle) with a punchy six-mile descent of flickable turns and optional side hits through open pine forest and sloping meadows.
Buck Mountain Loop
The Buck Mountain loop is distilled Methow Valley riding: rollercoaster singletrack; quick, non-technical descents; and views, views, views, of the North Cascades, Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, and the Methow Valley below.
Designed with bikes in mind, with slaloming curves around sagebrush-obscured rocks and a recently built climbing trail, the 14 miles and 2,700 feet of climbing go by surprisingly quick. Bike it in mid-May, and myriad blooms streak by in a Monet-like blur.
If Sun Mountain and Buck Mountain represent the terrain most riders associate with the Methow Valley—drifting hills dotted with ponderosas and painted with wildflowers—the 12-mile Cutthroat Pass ride will remind them that the Methow forms the eastern outpost of the North Cascades.
Carved out of the 1968 legislation establishing North Cascades National Park, the ride is one of few alpine routes in the North Cascades open to bikes. The trail switchbacks—steadily, though not cruelly—almost five miles to Cutthroat Pass. Scores of bright, wheel-catching granite boulders and tight switchbacks will demand your attention, but pause frequently for the views of the steep cirque of Cutthroat Lake and the larch-accented Cascade Crest.
Pausing just before the closed-to-wheels Pacific Crest Trail, riders retrace their route, with views of the Methow filling their goggles and visions of the day’s other athletic pursuits filling their minds.
Originally published as “Methow MTB Magic” in the July-August 2021 issue.
Aaron Theisen has contributed to a number of mountain bike magazines, including “Freehub,” “Mountain Flyer,” and “Dirt Rag.” He wrote about biking in the Yaak Valley for the May/June issue of Out There.