Pipestone Canyon lunch spot

In early February, we made a trip over to the Methow Valley area, on the east side of the North Cascades crest. It is a long drive in winter, when Highway 20 is closed at Washington Pass to massive avalanches on the west and east of the most lovely Liberty Bell/Early Winters peaks. The Methow Valley was once full of apple orchards, but that ended in a bitter freeze in the 1930’s. Ranches followed, and in the Internet age, dot-com refugees and people looking for second homes. The area wisely introduced covenants, and while 70% of the homes are second residences used primarily for vacation rentals, the area does not feel overdeveloped. The Methow Valley Ski Trail Association maintains a lengthy trail system that winds throughout the valley and up into the forests. In the summer, this is a mountain biking destination.

The town of Winthrop is one of Washington’s five “theme towns”- this one was dressed up as a Western town and still is, although it has gourmet, organic frou-frou food, high end ski gear, heli-skiing operations flying into the North Cascades, and so on.

Deer enjoying ranch life

Deer enjoying ranch life

I used to make this trip annually to enjoy world-class Nordic skiing on groomed trails throughout the valley. I graduated from a first trip to the ritzy but expensive Sun Mountain Lodge to the Duck Brand Hotel and finally, settled on the vacation rental business. I have always bought the trail pass and skied the finely groomed trails until I just ran out of steam.

This time, we did things a little differently. We stayed in a true cabin, small but completely functional and a nice place to cook our own dinner. We spent only a half day the first day we arrived on groomed trails, then wandered off to check out other areas- the closed road to Washington Pass, the trail to Pipestone Canyon, and up Blue Buck Mountain. It was cold the entire time, with a bitter wind the first day as we approached Washington Pass. Conditions stayed somewhat icy even when the sun was out.

MethowRockPipestone Canyon was a real treat, though I took a couple spills hitting rocks sticking up through the ice on the trail. The canyon formations are fascinating, and the rock glows warm in the winter. Coming out of the canyon, you can stop at a quiet, wide valley that slopes gently downhill for miles.

WillowsbyLakeBlue Buck is a delightful place to wander, and perhaps winter camp sometime. There were tracks everywhere, zigzagging across the snow- coyote and bobcat and birds and mice and weasels. We saw coyotes loping across the snow and wrestling. Views of the Methow Valley, the foothills, and the North Cascades are vast and crystalline in clear, cold weather.Views-over-valley

I skied what I could this weekend- I’m still learning my balance with the new faux hip, so there were of sections I walked, like the steep, narrow, windy and icy track out of Pipestone Canyon, but mainly I skied happily, enjoying the ride.