by Susan Hamilton
There are no lines, no ropes, no limits. The slopes at this altitude are all yours. As the helicopter thonk, thonk, thonks away, all you're left with is the sound of silence and miles of untracked powder. As you look down the mountain, thousands of vertical feet of virgin snow await you, or...
At your command, the dogs take off at a run and you're flying over the snow. The sled vibrates with the power of the dogs pulling it. All you hear now is the flurry of paws on packed snow as the dogs settle into a trot, the gliding swish of sled runners and the quick breath of the dogs...
This is not Alaska's wilderness or the Arctic. Believe it or not, it's right here in Washington. High on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades, to be exact. Methow's alpine valley is a winter adventure enthusiast's mecca. With its dry powder snow and five sunny days out of seven in winter, you can't ask for much more.
Surrounded by more than a million acres of wilderness and framed by the lofty peaks of the North Cascades, the Methow Valley is known for its natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. And it really comes alive in winter. Here you can experience heli-skiing at its best, dog sledding where you drive your own team, primo cross-country skiing, as well as snowshoeing, snowmobiling, downhill skiing and sleigh riding. Oh, yes, there's hot-air ballooning here, too.
For those in search of the ultimate adventure, North Cascades Heli-Skiing offers skiing through steep, deep, powdery snow. A typical day of skiing includes six to eight hours of skiing on about five runs. You'll get in about 10,000 total feet of vertical skiing as well.
"We specialize in one-day and three-day packages, so you don't need to make the time or money commitments most heli-ski vacations demand," says owner Randy Sackett. "Our professional team of highly trained guides and pilots' goal is to make your heli-skiing or backcountry experience safe and unforgettable."
Just west of the town of Twisp, Malamute Express is the Northwest's premier dog-sledding tour business. These tours don't just take you along for the ride. You'll learn to be a musher from start to finish on the Fullers' handcrafted, traditional oak-and-rawhide dog sleds.
"We limit our guests to two per trip, so you won't be out with a large group of people," says owner Roy Fuller. "The real stars are the dogs -- big, beautiful Alaskan Malamutes that are the traditional freight-hauling variety of sled dogs."
The route covers about 10 miles through the scenic upper Twisp River valley, with changing views of the Cascades, powder fields and frozen creeks. This is a chance to experience what most people only dream about.
The Methow Valley boasts one of the largest and best-maintained cross-country ski areas in the nation. More than 125 miles of groomed trails allow classic and ski-skating enthusiasts to enjoy the rolling, forested terrain of Sun Mountain; the challenging, high-elevation Rendezvous loop; or the gentle, scenic river route near Mazama.
Backcountry telemark skiers can carve S turns in Sandy Butte near Mazama. Or how about a two- to three-day hut-to-hut ski adventure with supplies delivered to your hut in advance? North Cascade Freeheel Institute and Rendezvous Outfitters can set you up.
Snowshoeing is an easy way to explore the area's quiet forests and pristine scenery. Specially designated snowshoe trails in the Methow Valley trail system can be found at Sun Mountain, Big Valley Ranch, Freestone Inn and Mazama Country Inn.
Snowmobilers have more than 400 miles of groomed trails just north of Winthrop. Whether trail riding, freewheeling over meadows or taking a day trip to Conconcully, you'll enjoy breathtaking views.
Loup Loup Ski Bowl, between Twisp and Okanogan, offers runs for alpine skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. The ski area has a quad chair and day lodge.
Sleigh rides allow you to enjoy the scenic beauty of the countryside. From hot chocolate or wine and cheese to full dinner rides, sleigh rides in the Methow Valley range from fun to romantic. Early Winters and Cassal Ranch Sleigh Rides will carry you over the river and through the woods.
Hot-air ballooning is spectacular during the winter months. Morning Glory Balloon Tours will take you flying over the Methow River for a bird's-eye view of the valley, complete with champagne picnic.