Where to Ski (and Eat) in the Methow Valley

You’re driving into the Methow Valley. The snow is perfect. Small mountain towns greet you, lined with alluring restaurants, tempting bakeries and thirst-quenching pubs. All good….. but where should you ski in the largest groomed Nordic ski network in North America? Hmmm, you only have two days, a long weekend, maybe a week. Difficult choices need to be made. The options are profuse. It takes locals a full season to work through this incredibly large and varied trail system.

As someone who has spent the better part of the last 25 years exploring the trails of the Methow on skis, here’s my advice: Talk with the local professionals at any of the plentiful outdoors shops. Find out which trails have been groomed overnight. Conditions and grooming activities can make all the difference between a euphoric memory…or a slog. Like so much in life, timing is everything.

There are three distinct areas from which to choose: Mazama, Sun Mountain and Rendezvous. The Methow Community Trail connects all three. Lots of options? No kidding.

For locals, another vital consideration is the culinary opportunities available hither and yon. We take our skiing seriously. And, yep, we like to eat.

Photo courtesy of Methow Trails

Mazama Trails

Mazama is the flattest section of the valley. The trails here are great for beginners, families, new skate skiers, veteran skiers desiring long open meadows, and those who want to experience the diverse and tasty snacking options available at the nearby Mazama store.

The main corral parking in Mazama offers a few loops that range from a half-mile to two miles long (the perfect length for a hot chocolate or cold beer afterwards). One common larger loop from Mazama is the “10 K” that can be skied either through the meadows (Goat Wall, Coyote Run, Flagg Mountain), up the Goat Creek section (blue/intermediate), down the short black diamond Goat Creek cut-off and then back on the Founders Trail (or in reverse). A short side trip takes you to a suspension bridge over the picturesque Methow River. This loop starts and ends within walking distance of the Mazama store (a salty baguette from the store might be in order).

The other loop is the “latte loop.”  This can be skied up the Basecamp trail, across the road at the Bush School and back via the Lower River Run and Community Trails. Culinary layovers beckon at Jack’s Hut (great pizza and refreshments) or Freestone Inn (classic scratch cooking).

For the adventurous, Mazama’s upper trails (Jack’s, River Run and the Cow Beach Hut) offer a more remote experience. Accessed via the North Cascades Trailhead on Hwy 20 (just west of the Freestone Trailhead), these trails are spectacular on a sunny day, passing beneath Goat Wall, a 3,000-foot high wall of rock.

Sun Mountain Trails

The trails at Sun Mountain emanate from two main trailheads: Chickadee and the well-known Sun Mountain Lodge (great top quality food and beverage options). These trails are favorites among those seeking variety of terrain. The green/beginner trails include gentle hills and there are plenty of blue and black options as well.

A great loop can be skied—accessed either from Chickadee (2630 feet) or the Lodge (2860 feet)— that includes Little Wolf, Aqualoop, Sunnyside and Beaver Pond. Starting and ending at Sun Mountain will give you a descent at the beginning and a climb at the end, while starting at Chickadee is generally a more level undertaking.

More rolling trails like Yellow Jacket and Rodeo are easily added to this loop. There are many variations to this option; generally skied in under two hours.

Another well-known loop, popular with intermediate skiers, is up Thompson Ridge, around Meadow Lark and down the Inside Passage (1000 foot elevation gain). Some folks like to ski this one in reverse, which breaks up the constant three-mile climb up Thompson by veering off on Meadow Lark, about half-way up. Skiing up Thompson Ridge and around the loop is a 2-3 hour endeavor for most people. Choice digressions include the short (but entertaining) Criss Cross and Overland trails, both suitable for intermediate skiers.

Patterson Lake near Sun Mountain. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Rendezvous Trails

The most remote and challenging section of the Methow Valley is the Rendezvous system, with about 1,500 feet of elevation gain to the top. There are three trailheads to access the Rendezvous. The Cub Creek trailhead is a great place to start, affording an excellent out-and-back or up-and-over, ending at Mazama or Gunn Ranch (you’ll need a car shuttle for this). To make a loop, many skiers of all levels enjoy skiing up Cougar Bait, sampling the Cedar Creek Loop or Cow Creek Trail and then descending Cub Creek.

The Gunn Ranch Trailhead is a personal favorite. On a sunny day, starting or ending at Gunn Ranch is simply glorious—a classic Methow beauty!

Most skiers don’t ski up to Rendezvous from the steeper Mazama side via Fawn Creek due to the almost 2000 feet of elevation gained along the way.

The Rendezvous Huts are justifiably famous. Staying overnight in one of them (while all your gear—including, of course, copious amounts of food and beverages—is hauled up for you!), is a wonderful way to enjoy a weekend and provides a quintessential Methow experience. Day skiers may enjoy the huts if they are empty. Generally speaking, the Rendezvous area is best enjoyed with a half- or full day (or several days!) to devote to the adventure.

Rendezvous Hut. Photo by James Harnois

Methow Community Trail

The Community Trail, connecting Winthrop and Mazama, is generally flat (with a bump in the middle) and offers more than 20 miles of skiing along the way. You can break up the experience into three parts; Winthrop to Wolf Ridge; Wolf Ridge to Brown’s Farm; Brown’s Farm to Mazama (with a couple of other trailheads in this last section). The Wolf Ridge to Brown’s Farm section has some ups and downs (steeper climbs and more gentle descents when skied from Wolf Ridge to Brown’s Farm). Both the Wolf Ridge and Brown’s Farm Trailheads have day shelters and bathrooms.

Thanks to the nearby amenities (food and drink again!), the Community Trail offers myriad options for a group with different abilities and speeds to re-gather without someone having to wait in a chilly parking lot.  Each of these sections is about an hour (one-way) for most skiers. Plan on a vigorous half-day to ski the whole thing from Mazama to Winthrop or visa-versa.

By utilizing parts of the Community Trail or the connective trails down from Sun Mountain, great short loops out of Winthrop beckon those short on time, ideal for arrival or departure days.

Many locals enjoy parking at the Winthrop Trailhead and heading up-valley on the easy and flat Community Trail until they feel half-spent, then turn around and head back to the car (not far from a bakery or restaurant of course). This part of the community trail meanders along the river and across wide-open fields, offering great views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Possible side trips include the Barnsley Lake and Bitterbrush loops, both short-but-sweet loops with rolling terrain (and a few steeper hills). Locals refer to the larger loop as the Town Triangle, consisting of the Community Trail, the Winthrop Trail and Powers Plunge. This latter trail is for advanced skiers and features some stimulating steep sections.

If your party includes snowshoers, excellent options can be found at Sun Mountain, which has a plethora of snowshoe trails, many with great views. Mazama and Rendezvous also have some sweet—and underutilized—snowshoe trails. Dogs favor the Big Valley Loops beside the river and the designated dog trails at Rendezvous.

Again, I highly recommend spending a little time visiting with one of the many ski professionals in one of the many ski shops, bakeries or bars in the valley. Check to see if the grooming activities and snow conditions bode well for your chosen routes.

After that, simply go with the flow.

Kevin van Bueren grew up Nordic Skiing on un-groomed Northwest trails. He started skiing in the Methow Valley in 1990 and worked as a Nordic instructor for the legendary Don Portman and his ski shops for over 20 years. Today, Kevin is living the dream as owner/operator of Methow Valley Ski School & Rentals.

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