Sun Mountain Lodge

Methow Valley Magic

by June Hawkins
Picture the cross-country skier’s paradise: endless groomed trails weaving o’er hill and dale with breathtaking scenery greeting the eyes at every turn, dotting the trails are warming huts, rest stops and shops with food and warm drinks, varied choices of accommodations, all amidst the serenity of a winter valley. Picture the Methow Valley — at one end, nestled against the rock walls of the North Cascade Mountains the town of Mazama, and 15 miles down valley the picturesque town of Winthrop. These two towns are linked with more than 200 kilometres of ski trails.

Welcome to the Methow Valley and a cross-country skiers’ paradise.The Methow Valley is located in a high, sunny pocket of the North Cascades in Washington State. The Methow Valley Sports Trail Association (MVSTA) operates more than 200 kilometres of machine-groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The trail system is divided into four areas: Mazama Ski Trails to the west, the Rendezvous Ski Trails to the north and Sun Mountain Ski Trails to the east, with the Methow Community Trail running on the valley floor, connecting them all.

I knew that during my short stay in the valley, it would take a herculean effort to ski all 200 kilometres, so I decided to start in the west end of the valley at Mazama, with its 30 kilometres of trails. Jack’s Trail, first to greet my skis, wound along the Methow River, the gentle rock walls of the Cascades ringing round the upper meadow. Sunshine beckoned a quiet moment to sit on the bench overlooking the grand panorama of snowy meadow and mountains. Jack, I don’t know who you are or why you have been honoured with Jack’s Trail, but thank you! During the exploration of these picturesque trails, I bumped into the Mazama General Store, which served the perfect hearty lunch to keep me going for the remainder of the day.

There is a wide variety of accommodation choices up and down the valley, from hostels to bed and breakfasts to hotels. I am staying at the Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop, a monument to Jack Barron (could this be my Jack?), the original owner and designer of Sun Mountain. Sitting atop a 3,000-foot mountain, the lodge has a stunning 360° view of the valley, with the Cascade Mountains to the west. Sun Mountain Lodge has undergone several renovations over the years, but has maintained its understated, earthy and stately elegance. Blending with its environment, the Douglas fir beams and Idaho quartz stone floor in the main lodge create a sense of serene space. No detail has been left undone — from the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning dining room and wine cellar, to the deep-tub relaxation and in-room music, Sun Mountain is a welcoming retreat after a day of skiing.
The Sun Mountain Trail system connects to the Lodge, with a short downhill run to the Chickadee Trail Head. Trails wind up and down the mountain side. The six-kilometre Thompson River Trail climbs 1,000 feet up to Thompson Ridge, with stunning views of the valley below and a yahoo-making descent back to the trailhead. Lunch beckons, time for the nine-kilometre descent to the Methow Community Trailhead in Winthrop and another yeehaw ride down the Winthrop Trail.

The Methow Community Trail is the MVSTA’s backbone. It is the brainchild of John Hayes and John Sutherland, and its existence is what creates this unique and varied trail system of today. They worked with the MVSTA and government agencies to obtain easements from 82 landowners to piece together the 32-kilometre trail system, linking Winthrop to Mazama. Signs all along the trail read “You are about to cross Private Land. The owners graciously permit us to maintain and use these trails on their land. Please help us assure continued access by respecting this property. Pack out litter, leave all fences and gates as you find them and stay on the trails. Stay safe and have fun.”

The Community Trail, complete with a 230-foot suspension bridge over the Methow River, winds along the Methow River, through aspen groves, cradled in the gentle terrain of the valley. With many areas to stop and enjoy the scenery, this trail system can be skied in one day and is suitable for the entire family.

The Rendezvous Ski Trails add a uniqueness not found on most trail systems: hut-to-hut overnight skiing. The trails can be accessed from the Mazama Trails or from trailheads accessible by vehicle. Five huts are linked by groomed trail on this 42-kilometre system. The huts are modest but cozy, with all the basic set-up. Heated with wood, the huts have sleeping pads, fuel stoves and cooking gear. There is no electricity or plumbing. Only minutes from the valley below, the skier here feels a million miles from the bustle of life. An added benefit: all personal gear can be transported in by skidoo, leaving skiers unencumbered to enjoy skiing to their hut, and upon arrival, all essentials await them.
The MVSTA not only oversees the trail system, but also hosts a wide variety of events throughout the season. It all began in the early 1970s when Sun Mountain had just opened. Jack Barron decided to promote skiing as a way to drum up business during the slow winter months. Barron scouted out game trails that would double as ski trails, and in 1974 arranged for Seattle residents to come to Sun Mountain by bus for a weekend of skiing. The weekend of the event, there was plenty of snow, but it had frozen, creating an unbreakable crust on the surface, terrible conditions for skiing. Despite treacherous driving conditions that saw the bus arrive at 3:00 a.m., the skiers were not deterred. They raved about the ski terrain, the scenic beauty and the gracious lodge. The whole group signed up for the next trip the following year.

The MVSTA was originally the Methow Family Sport Club. The organization was created in 1977 and designed to maintain ski trails in the valley. Sun Mountain brought in Don Portman, a certified ski instructor, to operate a ski area at the lodge. Portman cleared trails, marked them and taught lessons in the winter months. He still runs the ski school, but the trails are now groomed by MVSTA.

During those years, other areas in the valley were developing trail systems, and Jay Lucas was hired as the first, and so far only, executive director of MVSTA. In 1983, MVSTA received its first permit from the US Forest Service to charge fees to support cross-country trail grooming. Skiers were willing to pay to use groomed trails. “That led to the organization thinking about expanding and refining the existing trail system,” says Lucas. Today, MVSTA operates and maintains 200 kilometres with five Piston Bullies, four alpine skidoos, and six full-time and six part-time groomers. The volunteer ski patrol, all in radio contact, check for passes along the entire system.

From its humble beginnings as a ranching valley, the Methow Valley has grown to become the second-largest Nordic ski centre in North America. But wait, back to Jack. As it turns out, Jack Barron, the original owner of Sun Mountain, is not my Jack of Jack’s Trail. Jack Wilson is. Wilson helped build the North Cascade Highway, connecting the Seattle basin to the valley and fell in love with the Methow. He started a dude ranch after the highway was built, which is now the elegant Freestone Inn in Mazama. The Mazama Trail system is the remnants of Jack’s original horse trails.

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