The Methow Valley, WA and Sun Valley, ID

FasterSkierFebruary 6, 2003

The Methow Valley is just over the North Cascades mountain range from the coast
of Washington. It is comprised of a number of small towns, including Winthrop
and Mazama. In term of skiing alone, I think the Methow Valley is almost perfect.
Admittedly, I have never even skied there, but after seeing the area in summer
and drooling over plenty of wintertime photos, I can certainly imagine. Consider
a short excerpt from the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association website:

"Blue skies pinned up by rugged winter peaks. Dry powder snow. Sunshine
five days out of seven. Nights so clear the stars come right down to say hello.
Ski tracks outside your door. Enough groomed trails that you can ski for the
weekend or weeks-on-end and never cross your own tracks.
Tucked high on the eastern slope of Washington's North Cascades, the Methow
is the end of the road in winter, and the beginning of possibly the best winter
vacation you'll ever have. With nearly 200 kilometers of machine-groomed, unrepeated
trails surrounded by more than a million acres of national wilderness and forest
lands, the Methow Valley today comprises one of the largest nordic centers in
North America…The Methow's skiing, scenery, and staff are all world-class.
The crowds and the attitude are not. The nature of our unrepeated trail system
provides for miles of skiing in peaceful, uncrowded conditions."

It is the kind of description that makes my mouth hang open, like Homer Simpson
dreaming about beer and doughnuts. After reading all the glowing descriptions
of the skiing in the area, I was amazed that I had never been to the Methow
Valley. As a racer crisscrossing the country for major events, I assumed that
I was always traveling to the best ski places that North America had to offer.
How could I not have been to a place that, by some accounts, is ranked as one
of the ten
best nordic centers
in North America? I almost didn't believe that the place
existed until I saw it with my own eyes.

But to be completely honest, I must tell you that before we even entered the
Methow Valley, I knew that we were not going to move there. We would not be
stopping permanently in Winthrop, Mazama, or any place else in the area.

The reason had nothing to do with ski terrain, snowfall, groomed kilometers,
or even lakes, rivers, or mountains – because the area was overflowing with
all that stuff. It had everything to do with the woman sitting next to me in
the car. Yes, my girlfriend had already vetoed the Methow option. In fact, we
probably wouldn't have even visited the area if I hadn't basically tricked her
into it by promising that this route home would also include Yellowstone and
Grand Teton National Parks.

How could she be so evil as to deprive me of paradise, you ask? Well, now hold
on a minute, let's be fair. A few months prior to our trip, I was doing research
and I began to get very excited as I read about Winthrop, Washington. It was
exactly the place I was hoping to find – the skiing gem , hidden from 99.9%
of the world. I think I might have even started dancing around the room singing
"We are moving to Winthrop! We are moving to Winthrop!" Or maybe not,
but anyway… My girlfriend, who had never even heard of Winthrop or the Methow,
then asked me one simple question, "How many people live in Winthrop?"

"Umm…," I paused, trying to come up with the best way to phrase
it, "About 3600."

"Only 3600?" she asked.

"Well, actually that includes the whole Methow Valley, not just Winthrop,"
I admitted.

"We are not moving there." End of discussion as far as she was concerned.

And despite my persistent pleading, I knew that she was right. It very well
might be one of the best places to ski, but it was not the perfect place for
us to live. We are in the process getting our careers going, by going to graduate
school and by working the best jobs we can find. We knew that there would be
very few career jobs, and no school, in a place with 3600 people. We are looking
for XC Town USA, not XC Trails USA.

I knew I also wanted to race a fair amount during the winter, and it requires
a lot of travel to get out of the Methow to get to other races, especially since
the road we came over is closed during the winter. The only other drawback,
to me, was that the area seemed very dry while we were there in August. It was
quite a shock to see how much the Cascades affect the weather on their western
(wet) and eastern (dry) slopes. Now, this is great if you want lots of sunshine,
but I was just coming from a place with lots of sun and dust (Park City) and
I was ready for more lush vegetation, and grass, and even a decent amount of

I apologize for not having any pictures of the area. My camera was acting up
while we were there. Instead, you can check out the view from the Sun
Mountain webcam

Since we knew we wouldn't be moving there, we decided to be tourists in full.
We wandered the western-motifed
downtown Winthrop area
. We also went for a great mountain bike ride on the
trails at the Sun Mountain Lodge. After exploring the area, I knew it was time
to go – before I decided to give up all plans for a career and just build a
shanty on the side of a trail nearby. After my inspection the best way I can
describe it is this: it is just like Sun Valley, Idaho was before all the people
moved there.

The Methow Valley is a great place. It is a great place for a ski vacation,
or maybe the best place to retire and ski yourself silly. But it is not a viable
home for most of us. Right now, it is not what I am looking for in Ski Town
USA, but in thirty five years (thinking optimistically) when I retire, I might
be back. I just hope it doesn't grow too much before then.

I mentioned Sun Valley a minute ago and that is fitting because Ketchum/Sun
Valley is the next town up for examination. (Side note: In case you are confused,
Ketchum is the town, while Sun Valley is the resort area about a mile from the
town. But the distinction is nowhere near as clear-cut as that makes it sound.)
We did not go through Sun Valley on this trip, we stayed north and went through
Spokane and Coeur d'Alene on our way to Montana. A stop was not necessary because
I have been to Sun Valley many times, and I am already aware of its strong case
for being XC Town USA.

I can also tell you that we knew that we weren't moving to Ketchum/Sun Valley
either. I could probably sum up the reason with "Its too similar to Park
City," and just move on. But that wouldn't do the area justice. It is a
very touristy resort town, like Park City. It is beautiful place with plenty
of mountains and trails, like Park City. It is extremely expensive, even more
so than Park City. The big difference, however, is the quality of the xc skiing
in Sun Valley.

The skiing in Sun Valley isn't too bad…

Growing up in the east, I had heard plenty about Sun Valley as a ski destination.
But most of the talk was about the downhill resort. So I was blown away as I
drove into Ketchum the first time. About ten miles from downtown, I noticed
an xc trail on the side of the road. It was about 15 feet wide and perfectly
groomed. The trail went almost right into town. As I drove around the area,
I noticed other places to ski. The golf course, the Gun Club, trails along the
Big Wood river – all with great ski trails. Not to mention Galena Lodge, about
20 miles north of town, which has beautiful scenery and fun trails. The Boulder
Mountain Tour, for the uninitiated, runs from Galena back towards town, generally
following the river and the road.

Other good things: The Sun Valley Ski Team, run by Rick Kapala, is one of the
strongest junior programs in the country. Some good friends of mine also tell
me that the mountain biking in Stanley (just over the pass from Galena) is incredible.
And, like the Taco Stand in Bend, it is almost worth moving to Ketchum just
for the burritos at KB's.

Racers in the 2002 Boulder Mountain Tour

But for me, Sun Valley is not XC Town USA, mainly because it is too expensive
for most of us to afford living there. XC skiing is a sport that can be enjoyed
by every one, and I don't feel right calling an upper-crust place like Sun Valley
"XC Town USA." Similar to what I said for the Methow: We are looking
for XC Town USA, not XC Resort USA.

One last thought for now: I realize that many people will disagree with my
opinions and have their own pick for XC Town USA, and that is great. If we all
agreed on the same place, it would get way too crowded. We'd be climbing over
each other to get first tracks on the same trail every morning.

I've still got plenty of places to write about in the coming weeks, but I'd
be interested in hearing your votes for XC Town USA.

Place The
Methow Valley, Washington Unspoiled area, no
people, 200K of trails
No jobs 8.5
Sun Valley, Idaho Beautiful town, beautiful
trails, beautiful people
Expensive 8
Tahoe, California Tons of trails and
snow, the Great Ski Race, small town but has city nearby, the lake, 4 hours
to San Fran
high altitude, similar
to Park City, not many professional jobs in Truckee area
Bend, Oregon Great outdoors town,
skiing at Mt. Bachelor is very good, the best crust skiing in spring, nice
town with many nice "local" spots
No skiing in town,
housing can be expensive, few jobs


Bellingham, Washington Has a little bit of
everything, actually make that quite a bit of everything
Ski trails are an hour
Salt Lake/Park City,
Great dryland trails,
"greatest snow on earth", spectacular mountains, nearby city,
close to Moab, Jackson, Sun Valley, Colorado
high altitude, no water/forests,ski
trails aren't great, lived there for 6 years already

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