Let’s get one important fact out of the way first: The Nordic trail network in the Methow Valley is the largest in the nation, with 120-plus miles of routes that weave through evergreen glens, cross rivers via elegant rusted bridges, climb lung-searing pitches, and span wide-open farmland.
Grooming machines buff every single mile—often daily—into perfect tracks for classic and skate skiing. You can glide straight from the town of Mazama to the town of Winthrop, from café to bakery, from fancy hotel to rustic cabin. It’s not a loop around a golf course. It’s not an add-on at the base of an alpine ski area. Here, skinny skis rule—so much so that the Methow produced three Olympians this past year, more per capita than any other place in the United States.
You’d think that such a snow-covered utopia would be overrun, but in fact, you never have to worry about someone skiing over your skis or waiting in a queue (unless, of course, you want a sea salt baguette at the Mazama Store during the lunch rush). Winthrop is charmingly remote, and Seattle is a five-hour drive in wintertime, so almost everyone has to come from far away. Distance begets authenticity. And that’s never more true than during one of the bigger weekends of winter, when the nonprofit Methow Trails organizes the Methow Valley Nordic Festival —a three-day celebration of everything that combines snow and, well, working your ass off in some sort of endurance sport.
The heart of it is a series of Nordic races, starting with a 30K classic race on Saturday, from Winthrop to Mazama and finishing on Sunday with a mass-start team relay and a 30K and 10K skate. The hard-core participate in the Pursuit race, with their Saturday classic result determining their seed for skating on Sunday. The field is often packed with strong athletes—sometimes close to a hundred—especially since there are so few cross-country races in the Northwest. Even so, beginners can take advantage of free rentals and free lessons on Friday, or toe the line for their first competition. “It’s a very welcoming environment, even if you are lined up alongside an Olympian,” says Kristen Smith of Methow Trails.
But say you’d rather explore your lactate threshold on your own two feet. The Methow has a huge summertime trail-running fan base, so this year the festival has added a 15K-ish winter race up around the luxurious resort of Sun Mountain Lodge, which sits high above the valley and has its own network of trails, many with spectacular views of North Cascades National Park to the west.
There’s even a skate-skiing clinic specifically for runners. “We want to show trail runners how great Nordic skiing is for training,” says Smith. “And they are some of the nicest people.”
To say that the Methow is trendsetting might be a stretch, but a few years ago it was one of the first places in North America to open its terrain to fat bikes—which, while still pretty obscure, are now the fastest-growing segment of the bike industry.
Here, fat means fat: The tires have to be at least 3.7 inches wide and carry less than 10 pounds of air pressure, helping them float on the snow. “The skiers thought we were crazy and were afraid it would ruin the trails,” says Smith, “but quite the opposite has happened.” During festival Friday, local shop Methow Cycle & Sport is holding a free demo at the Town Trailhead.
Most important for any endurance athlete? Getting fed, of course. And on Saturday, the Mazama Store hosts a chili and beer happy hour (we love that happy hour starts at noon up here). That night, kids from the local Nordic team serve a salmon dinner to raise funds at the Red Barn, Winthrop’s classic down-home gathering spot.
Come Sunday, post-race recovery takes the form of pizza and booze, all inhaled while top skiers collect their awards. And then those with any legs left ski right out the door for more—kind of like any other Methow Valley day. “It’s just magic,” says Smith. “All of it.”
January 23–25, 2015
More info about the Methow Valley Nordic Festival can be found here.