Evolution of a Mountain Sports Town: From Cross-country and Alpine Skiing to Snowshoeing and Fat Biking, Winthrop Caters to Active Winter Travelers

The Methow Valley, on the sunny east slope of the North Cascades, grew up in relative isolation—the paved North Cascades Highway was only completed in 1972—and seems to have developed its own pace of life.

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, both 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—Nordic, rather than alpine. Easements through private land on the valley floor paved the way for what is today the country’s largest Nordic ski trail system.

Methow Valley Nordic Festival

It helps that the Methow attracts folks who are not only active, but active in their communities. The prime mover behind the Methow Valley’s world-class winter trails system is Methow Trails, the non-profit group that maintains the Methow’s extensive Nordic trail network and organizes events throughout the year, including the weekend-long Methow Valley Nordic Festival. “The Methow attracts fanatical recreationists,” says Kristin Smith with the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. “We have former Olympians here, people who don’t think twice about getting in three vigorous outdoor pursuits a day.” This year is the 40th year of the Methow Valley Nordic Festival, which is set for January 21-22, featuring the Community Trail Loppet and American Marathon Series 2-Day Pursuit, as well as more laid-back Nordic skiing opportunities, live music and other activities.

Fat Biking at Pearrygin Lake State Park 

Perhaps that appetite for activity is the reason the Methow was also one of the first to embrace the then-nascent sport of fat biking with an everyone-wins shared-use trail system. Simply put, the system assesses, on a day-to-day basis, which trails are open to fat bikes, depending on snow conditions and user compatibility. It’s not surprising, on any given day, to see the tracks of skinny skis and fat tires side-by-side on the groomed corduroy of the Methow trails system. Just outside of town, Pearrygin Lake State Park maintains almost twenty miles of fat-bike trails through its arid canyons; winter is a great time of year to bike the park while avoiding its notorious rattlesnakes.

Snowshoeing the Sun Mountain Lodge Trails

In addition to the valley’s extensive Nordic ski trails, Methow Trails also maintains a handful of trails specifically for snowshoers. Sun Mountain Lodge just south of downtown Winthrop is the heart of a network of short trails that meander the rolling ridges abutting the Methow Valley. For a superb introduction to the Sun Mountain trail system, check out the 6-mile Patterson Mountain loop, which departs from Patterson Lake and wanders through scattered aspen groves and sunny slopes above the lake. Time your snowshoe for early morning or late-evening to watch the ever-present Methow sun glance off the showcase peaks of the North Cascades. Methow Trails hosts family-friendly snowshoe tours throughout the winter.

Alpine Skiing at the Loup

Skiers of the gravity-assisted sort need not feel left out in the cold, either. Less than thirty minutes from Winthrop, Loup Loup Ski Area puts the “community” in community ski hill. Like the Methow Nordic trails system, a non-profit group maintains “The Loup,” as it’s affectionately known in the area. It’s a true family ski hill, with toddlers and old-timers sharing the slopes and a bonfire at the base of the sled hill. On the far eastern reaches of the North Cascades, Loup Loup benefits from dry Okanogan powder and little competition for its 300 acres of terrain.

Around Town

Because the Methow caters to a winter crowd, après’ spots are easy to find. Winthrop, which has fashioned itself in an Old West aesthetic, complete with wooden sidewalks and storefronts, is the hub for tourism and outdoor recreation in the Methow Valley. Tiny Twisp, 8 miles east of Winthrop on SR 20, has a vibrant arts community and a more laid-back charm.

Lodging abounds, too, although keep in mind that winter is high season in the Methow Valley. Although the winter closure of the North Cascades Scenic Highway means travelers from the west side of the Cascades must travel some seven hours from Seattle via Highway 2, hotel rooms are in high demand. Come December, “No Vacancy” signs go up as quickly as the rates. Book well in advance, or better yet, come in March for off-peak rates and quiet trails. Try the Chewuch Inn & Cabins, whose owners, Dan and Sally Kuperberg, are serious outdoors enthusiasts and can provide trail-tested knowledge and advice. The afternoon baked goods in the spacious, wood-appointed main lodge make for a nice post-trek treat, as does the outdoor hot tub.

Several locations in Winthrop rent gear, including Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals, Methow Cycle and Sport, and Winthrop Mountain Sports in the heart of downtown which also boasts an impressive array of outdoors clothing and equipment behind its tiny storefront.

Find more event, lodging and trail information and plan your trip at Winthropwashington.com and Methowtrails.org. //

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