One of the phrases you frequently hear being bandied about in the Methow Valley is the "end of the road." Far from being a fatalistic comment on one's opportunities or a metaphor for throwing in the towel, waving the white flag or otherwise just giving up, the "end of the road" in the Methow Valley means just that. The treacherous Ross Lake-to-Mazama section of the North Cascades highway is closed in the winter months, making the small town of Mazama the bona fide end of the road.
But it's just the beginning in terms of wintry fun. The Methow Valley is home to world-famous cross-country skiing, as well as snowmobiling, heli-skiing, dogsledding and even alpine skiing. And as the first flakes of snow skiff the nearby hillsides, the towns themselves are gearing up for tourist season, not to mention a healthy bit of civic rivalry.
"Twisp is really moving forward as more of an arts center for the Methow Valley, while Winthrop is positioning itself as a straightforward tourism destination," says Vicky Wilson of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce. "We even have a store, Bryan's Clothing and Sporting Goods, where you can finally buy underwear and shoes now. You used to have to drive out of the Valley for that kind of thing."
What to do -- The Methow Valley boasts some of the nicest winter weather in the state, with an average of five sunny days out of seven. This is good news for the hordes of cross-country skiers who come to the Valley for its gently rolling terrain, remarkably affordable accommodations and congenial weather conditions. The Methow Valley trail system is the second-largest in the U.S., with 200 km of machine-groomed paths. Within that system, there are three distinct areas: the Mazama, Sun Mountain and Rendezvous, all of them connected to each other and to the towns of Winthrop and Mazama by the 25 km Methow Valley Community Trail. The Mazama trail region is best for beginners, with nine easy paths and gentle, wide open slopes. Sun Mountain is a little trickier, but it's great for families and anyone else craving a bit of the "scene." In addition to offering the widest variety of easy, moderate and difficult trails, there's also a rental shop, a lodge and ski lessons. Rendezvous, at an elevation of 4,000-6,000 feet, is for experienced cross-country skiers only, but it's worth the work -- the views are incredible, and you can practice the European tradition of skiing from hut to hut with Rendezvous' safe, affordable hut accommodations.
In addition to cross-country skiing, there's plenty of alpine skiing (and snowboarding) to be had at the nearby Loup Loup Ski Bowl, 12 miles outside of Twisp. The resort has just added a new inner-tubing hill as well.
Back in the Methow Valley Trail system, snowshoeing opportunities are plentiful, whether you want to strike out on your own or enjoy a guided tour, such as the "Nature of Winter" tours offered by the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA), which begin Dec. 25. Led by local naturalists, the Nature of Winter trips incorporate a variety of experiences, including visits to beaver dams, tracking of wild animals and discussions of winter ecology. They're offered on Saturdays, three-day weekends and holidays. they're free (including snowshoe rental), but you'll need your MVSTA or snowshoe trail pass.
If you've ever thrilled to the idea of running the Iditarod but lack the necessary stamina, orienteering experience and, well, a professional dogsled team, take heart. Just outside of Twisp, Malamute Express has the sled, the route (10 miles of gorgeous North Cascade scenery), and a team of big, fluffy and hard-working Alaskan malamutes. The folks who run the Express have 40 working dogs, including "Sparky," "Aaron" and "Siska," all AKC-registered and ready to take you -- yes, you -- on the trip of a lifetime. Excursions are limited to two humans at a time; you and your companion will serve as "mushers."
Heliskiing and hot air balloon rides are two ways to get the "big picture" view of the Methow Valley. A number of heli-ski outfits take adventurous skiers where the deepest powder and steepest slopes lie, while Morning Glory hot-air balloons offer spectacular views and a gentler but nonetheless thrilling aerial experience. Closer to ground, the Methow Valley is perfect for sleigh rides and snowmobiling, what with the forests, meadows, rural lanes and open air.
If the road conditions allow, consider spending part of your visit to the Cascades region in the Bavarian village of Leavenworth. While not part of the Methow Valley proper (in fact, it's about 105 miles to get there), Leavenworth has a lot of the same recreational opportunities and the whole Old World thing going on. With all the beam-and-plaster architecture, embroidered lederhosen and various wurst-and-grog specials at the city's numerous pubs, you'll be yodeling "Edelweiss" and slipping schnapps into your cross-country hot cocoa in no time.
Where to stay -- The Mazama Ranch House is right on the Methow Valley Trail System and accommodates everyone from small families to large groups. All units have kitchen facilities and open onto a large communal hot tub. The Sun Mountain Lodge is one of the most elegant options available, with an extensive wine list, unusually beautiful rooms and several restaurants. People who've stayed there rave about Leavenworth's Hotel Pension Anna and its 15 authentically Austrian rooms, not to mention the accompanying German breakfast (heavy on the breads, meats and cheeses).
Insiders' tip - Winter roads can be a little iffy in this area, with the occasional freezing rain, avalanche dangers and big heaps of snow. For the latest conditions, check out the Dept. of Transportation Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov or call 800-695-ROAD. If you want to take in some local color, consider the following celebrations: Christmas at the End of the Road (Winthrop, Nov. 30-Dec. 7), Christkrindlmarkt (Leavenworth, Nov. 29-Dec. 1) and the Village Lighting Celebration (Leavenworth, Dec. 7, Dec. 14 and Dec. 21).