METHOW VALLEY, Wash. - While developers and government officials spent two decades and millions of dollars trying to turn this valley into a destination downhill ski resort, residents quietly built and maintained a world-class cross-country skiing area.
Now the proposals for a downhill ski
resort appear dead, and the traditional economy based on ranching
and logging is waning. Yet this beautiful valley, snuggled along
the east side of the Cascades, boasts a thriving winter trade
without the impact of an Aspen-sized resort. Some 170 kilometers of
trails for cross-country skiers and mountain bikers connect the
communities of Winthrop and Mazama and the Sun Mountain Lodge - one
of the largest such trail networks in the
The trails are so well cared for that
people here claim they aren't simply groomed, but buffed like the
marbled entrance to the Waldorf Astoria.
trails traverse national forest, state and private land, ranging
from open meadows to dense timber and frequently offering stunning
Serious commercial cross-country skiing
started in the 1970s, when the Sun Mountain Lodge first began
staying open in the winter, says Jay Lucas, executive director of
the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. Over time, other lodges
developed trails for their winter guests. A few ambitious local
residents decided it would be great if the trails were connected
and the grooming regular.
So the first directors
of the trails association re-mortgaged their houses to buy grooming
equipment, Lucas says; the risk paid off when they were reimbursed
by ski-pass receipts. "The bankers wouldn't talk to us. The local
business community (not directly involved in cross-country skiing)
lagged behind us."
But people pitched in,
including loggers who made it a point to build skidding roads to
The cross-country ski
industry here took off when the Sun Mountain Lodge changed hands in
the late 1980s. The Haub family, well-to-do Germans who adopted the
valley when they began vacationing here in the 1950s, bought the
lodge and supported the trails association. Among other help, the
family put in a good word at the bank and "gave trail-based
recreation legs to stand on," Lucas says.
trails association also brought in experts from the Jackson Ski
Touring Foundation in New Hampshire for advice. "They told us if we
were lucky we'd have parking and toilets someday," Lucas says.
Because money is still tight, such facilities remain inadequate.
And there are other problems related to money,
including the high costs of maintaining grooming equipment. The
trails association relies almost solely on revenue from winter ski
passes to pay for trail grooming. A one-day pass cost $10, close to
the price of a lift ticket at the small Loup Loup Ski Bowl east of
Twisp in the Methow Valley.
Some 20,000 to 25,000
paying skiers come here each year, and use is growing by about 10
percent a year. About half as many mountain bikers pedal the trails
in summer and their numbers are growing much faster. But the trails
association hasn't yet devised a method for getting revenue from
Real estate ads that used to speculate on
the downhill resort now boast about how property is near the trail
system. There's an important lesson in that, says Maggie Coon, a
co-founder of the Methow Valley Citizens Council, which fought the
proposals for a downhill resort. "Instead of looking at grandiose
projects to solve the economic woes of the valley," she says,
"let's look at what's special in the Methow and build on that."