The branches of towering Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines sway in the wind. Wisps of clouds brush the rounded peaks. And snow drops gently from tree limbs like fairy dust. An isolated hut, with nary another person in sight, provides a picturesque picnic spot to survey a bucolic, snow-draped field. Navigating to my lodge, I must first glide past a glacial-carved river bed, and then through a dark corridor rimmed with Western red cedar, cottonwoods and birch where the only sound is the rustling of branches. These observations seem like scenes from an idyllic land far, far away. For me, it's just another afternoon on my solo four-day lodge-to-lodge cross country ski trek in Washington's Methow Valley, almost four hours from Seattle but world's apart.
While many of the ski areas in the East and West have been plagued with less-than-ideal ski conditions, the Methow Valley is tied as the snowiest place in the US. (Especially the Mazama section in the upper part of the valley where I ski.) Unlike downhill areas where cross-country skiing is an afterthought, the Methow is a Nordic skiing-centric locale. Several former Olympians call the Methow home -- namely Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall -- and Sadie Bjornsen, another local, just won her first medal for Nordic skiing at the world cup. Thanks to the diligent and well-organized Methow Valley Sport Trail Association, groomers hit the trails at 2am to begin tracking each of the 200 km of trails. It's not just the powder or extensive trail system that make this area so appealing, but also the comfortable lodges set a mere two to five miles apart and the flat-as-can-be trails. Anyone in reasonably good shape can rent a pair of skis; heft a small pack loaded just with essential clothing, toiletries, snacks and a water bottle; and follow my itinerary through paradise. (It's impossible to get lost: Every intersection displays a huge map with "You are here" signage as well as a wooden plaque etched with the trail name affixed to the tree trunk.)