Outdoors -- For Wet-Side Residents, Methow Valley Provides A Perfect Wintertime Escape

METHOW VALLEY - Over the fence, into the sunshine.

That old expression - probably coined on behalf of an escaping barnyard animal - could be the new motto for snow-play fiends escaping to the Methow Valley, where snow is deeper, air is crisper and crowds are thinner than in any winter in recent history.

Most of Washington's wet-side residents are peripherally aware of the Methow's winter charms: cold, dry skies and snows mixed with long, lonesome ski trails. But the contrast in climate truly must be seen, breathed and skied to be believed.

Last week was a grand example. Leaving Seattle on a perfectly horrid day marked by sheets of driving rain, we packed the skinny skis into the rig and fled northeastward, vowing to keep going until the spigot dried up.

Four and a half hours later, we pulled into Sun Mountain Lodge - and stepped outside into Washington's parallel outdoor universe. The skies in the Methow were mostly clear, the air pleasantly crisp. The sun sank into the North Cascades with a magnificent pink, alpenglow splash. Stars peeked out in the twilight. The silence was overpowering. This was a winter night scene from the high, dry Rockies, not the lowly, wet Cascades.

But that is the enduring beauty of the Methow, one of the state's better-known, but lesser-utilized, winter playgrounds. The very far-flung location that makes it seem daunting to get here makes it that much more unique once you arrive.

Here, taking to winter trails on cross-country skis or snowshoe is the mirror opposite experience of west-side winter snow play, where most skiers commute to cramped Sno-Park areas. Methow skiers wake up late, step out the front door, squint into the sunshine and kick and glide their way onto the valley's most magnificent asset: 175 kilometers of impeccably groomed cross-country ski and skating trails stretching from Mazama to Sun Mountain, 10 miles west of Highway 20 at Winthrop.

On this particular morning, skiing shouldn't have been good. It shouldn't even have been possible. An unexpected thaw two days before, followed by a drop to normal daytime temperatures (around 20 degrees) the day of our arrival, had created an inch-thick armor-plated crust atop the valley's plentiful snowpack. This would be a death sentence for skinny-ski fans on the west side of the Cascades.

Not in the Methow. The valley's fleet of four grooming machines had cranked into operation the night before, churning the hard-packed trails into power-tilled corn snow. The groomed tracks were smooth and fast.

A half-mile from the lodge, the pace of every skier's world narrows into a deliciously simple rhythm: Pole plant, push forward, kick back, glide. Stop to rest, look out over the horizon and admire the jagged peaks of the North Cascades, gleaming in their winter coats.

There is no constant dodging of other skiers. In six hours of skiing this day, we would encounter maybe two dozen. All of them were sweating hard, smiling harder.

Four to 5 feet of snow blanket the valley - the most in recent history. Even winter-hardened locals are weary of the stuff. But they maintain their humor. At the Mazama Store on Highway 20, a new T-shirt designates the winter of 1996-97 as "The Year of the Shovel."

The hefty snowpack should allow valley skiing to continue into late April - at least two weeks longer than normal, say members of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association, which manages the sprawling trail system.

The unusually heavy snowfall has had its downside. The holiday week between Christmas and New Year's - normally peak season in the Methow - turned nightmarish this year, when both Stevens and Snoqualmie passes were blocked by snow and closed.

"We had almost five feet of snow between Christmas and New Years," says Bret Alumbaugh of the Sun Mountain Ski Shop. "The people here were stuck here, the people who wanted to get here couldn't."

Even after the passes were cleared, bookings were down sharply at many Methow lodgings. Only now are crowds beginning to return to normal, merchants say. And the Methow these days is by no means busy. An unofficial count at Sun Mountain Lodge last week showed only nine rooms booked on a midweek night.

But even when local lodges are full, crowd-free ski adventures here are virtually guaranteed by the massive trail system - second largest and arguably the best in the country. Ski trails run the entire length of the valley, thanks to the recent addition of the Methow Valley Community Trail, which connects the Sun Mountain, Rendezvous and Mazama trail systems. Each section has stretches suitable for every kind of skier, from stumbling first-timers to skater gazelles.

Most beginners start on the Sun Mountain or Mazama trails, where healthy supplies of flat terrain - and ski instructors - are available. The Mazama area is a beginner's favorite. Ski paths there wind through gentle pine forests and through picturesque ranch lands. A large supply of reasonably priced, ski-to-your-door lodging is available.

A good network of beginner trails also is found at Sun Mountain Lodge, which offers the valley's plushest lodging, best views and usually best snow conditions, thanks to a higher elevation (about 3,100 feet) and more frequent grooming.

More adventuresome skiers can venture out on Mazama Trails for "lodge-to-lodge" or "hut-to-hut" skiing, making tracks all day toward a waiting hot fire and/or hot meal at a resort or backcountry yurt. Outfitters can arrange an unforgettable, multinight trip through highlands of the Pasayten Wilderness. They'll even haul your gear ahead by snowmobile or helicopter.

Advanced-level day skiers make their fast tracks on Sun Mountain's expert trails, on high-country trails at Early Winters or Goat Creek, or the steep, challenging trail network at Rendezvous, in mid-valley.

Virtually anyplace one chooses to ski, trail passes ($13 a day; $30 for three days; kids under 12 ski free), rentals and lessons are available. The valley is home to the largest cache of certified ski instructors in the Northwest.

Even ardent non-skiers are drawn to the Methow. Many other activities are available, from sleigh rides to dog sledding, heli-skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating and wildlife watching.

The latter is an easy - and often heartbreaking - pursuit. Thousands of deer are lining lower-valley roads such as Highway 153, searching in vain for food in the unusually deep snow. Motorists need to keep a sharp eye out for deer bounding onto the road.

The Methow and Chewuch rivers also are home to a growing flock of bald eagles and other wintering raptors.

Perched in bare trees along the ice-encrusted river, the eagles keep their heads tucked deep in their shoulders, staving off the frosty air. They already know what more Western Washingtonians discover every year.

The Methow Valley is the coldest place in the state. Also one of the finest.


If you go . . .

Tips and information sources for visiting the Methow Valley:

Access: Because Highway 20 is closed through the North Cascades between November and April, the Methow Valley is reached by driving U.S. 2 (or Interstate 90 and the Swauk/Blewett Pass Highway) to Wenatchee, U.S. 97 north to Pateros, and Highway 153 northwest up the Methow River Valley. Winthrop, in the central valley, is about 240 miles from Seattle. Allow four to five hours. Through much of the winter, roads are bare or wet all the way into the valley, but side roads remain snow-covered. Carry chains. For pass conditions, call (888) SNO-INFO.

Lodging: A wide range of accommodations - from small private cabins to massive, multiroom lodge suites - is available. Leading sites are Sun Mountain Lodge, Mazama Country Inn, North Cascades Basecamp and the new Freestone Inn and Wilson Ranch Cabins at Arrowleaf, a developing cross-country and golf ranch at the old Early Winters site near Mazama. Most lodgings offer midweek discounts, and bookings are heaviest on holiday weekends. Reservations for any and all can be made through Methow Valley Central Reservations; (800) 422-3048.

Gear: Skis, snowshoes, sleds and other gear can be rented at Sun Mountain, Mazama, Winthrop and many of the larger lodging establishments in the valley. Rates generally are similar to or slightly higher than rentals at Seattle-area shops. Winthrop Mountain Sports, (509) 996-2886, is the valley's leading gearhead stop.

Outfitters: For guided backcountry trips or yurt-to-yurt skiing, call Mazama Mountaineering, (509) 996-3802, or Rendezvous Outfitters, (800) 422-3048. For alpine heli-skiing, call North Cascades Heli-Skiing, (800) 494-HELI.

More information: For ski conditions, call the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association hotline, (800) 682-5787. For general visitor information, call MVSTA at (509) 996-3287; Sun Mountain Lodge at (800) 572-0493. On the World Wide Web: http://www.methow.com/ welcome.html