Mazama & Winthrop Nordic Trails
Words and photos by Gordon Congdon
The groomed trails clustered around the little hamlet of Mazama create a wonderful pod for cross-country skiers of all abilities. Most of the trails cover flat, scenic ground over farmland and through woods along the Methow River. Mazama, being a little higher and closer to the Cascade crest, usually gets more snow than the area around Winthrop, so the Mazama trails often are open earlier and later in the season than the lower valley trails. Central Mazama trails begin near Mazama Junction and Upper Mazama trails begin at the Highway 20 Trailhead, 0.5 miles past the Freestone Inn. A complete list of all the Mazama trails can be found on the Methow Trails website (formerly the MVSTA) . Folding trail maps are available throughout the valley, but here’s a link to a schematic map of the Mazama Trails.Because there are so many trails and so many miles of skiing to sample, visitors often don’t know where to start or how to best use their limited number of days to ski the area – it’s the paradoxical quandary presented by having too much choice. To alleviate the worries connected with making a less than perfect choice, here are some selected picks that are the favorites of many:Corral Trailhead at Mazama Junction. This trailhead is located about 16 miles west from Winthrop, down Highway 20. At about 16 miles, turn onto Forest Service Road 2098 and follow to the junction in about 0.5 mile. Parking is on the left (east).

  • Goat Wall Loop (3 k, novice) – This is the perfect area for beginning skiers. Wide,flat, well-groomed trails through open farmland make this a safe, fun loop for skiers of all abilities. Spectacular views of Goat Wall and other nearby peaks also make it very scenic.
  • Flagg Mountain Loop (3.5 k, novice) – This trail connects to the Goat Wall Loop and similarly covers gentle, open terrain.
  • Freestone Inn (6.6 k out and back, novice and intermediate) – Cross the road from the Corral Trailhead and follow the signs to the Freestone Inn. You will ski about 0.4 k and then have to remove your skis to cross the road and walk across the bridge over the beautiful Methow River. Continue skiing until you come to a tunnel under Highway 20. Normally you can leave your skis on and ski through the tunnel, but sometimes there is a steep, one- meter drop into the tunnel that can be tricky. Early and late in the year there may not be enough snow in the tunnel to safely ski through it. Kids normally love to ski through the tunnel and more than a few adults have emerged with big smile on their faces too. From the tunnel it is about 2 k to the Freestone Inn.
  • Goat Creek Loop (10 k, intermediate and advanced) – This is one of the best loops in Mazama and should not be missed. From the Corral Trailhead follow Inn Run across flat farmland down valley. Then follow the Goat Creek Trail as it ascends through pine and fir forest until the high point at Upper Goat Creek Bridge. The last pitch before the bridge is quite steep and will test the climbing skills of both skate and classic skiers. From the bridge, the trail descends gently for about
    1 k before climbing steeply for 200 meters. From there the trail follows a delightful roller coaster of ups and downs and curves until the intersection with the Lower Fawn Creek Trail and the Goat Creek Cutoff. Turn right onto Goat Creek Cutoff. You will have to remove your skis where the trail crosses Goat Creek Road. Another 0 .5 k later, the trail descends very steeply with a sharp left hand turn. Skiers who are not confident about their abilities to descend step hills should use caution here, remove their skis, and walk a few hundred meters. At the intersection with the Methow Community Trail (MCT) turn right to return 4 k to your starting place in Mazama. You can take an interesting side trip from the intersection of the Goat Creek Cutoff and the MCT. Turn left and follow the MCT down valley 0.8 k to the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge over the Methow River. This is a beautiful spot with great views up and down the Methow Valley. There is a picnic shelter on the south side of the bridge.
  • Base Camp “Latte” Loop (11 k, novice, intermediate, advanced) – This loop connects Mazama Junction with the Freestone Inn and the North Cascades Basecamp. The entire 11 k route is flat and very enjoyable for skiers of all abilities. To start, walk across the road from the Corral Trailhead and ski toward the Freestone Inn. If you are cold or hungry stop at Jack’s Hut (part of the Freestone Inn) for a nice selection of food and drink. From the Freestone, follow the Methow Community Trail (MCT) to the Highway 20 road crossing where you will have to take off your skis. Then ski across the footbridge over Early Winters Creek and continue to the intersection of Jack’s Trail and River Run Trail. Turn right and follow River Run Trail 1.4 k through a beautiful mix of fir, pine, aspen, and cottonwood forests until the intersection with the Basecamp Trail. Turn right and ski across the footbridge over the Methow River until you come to the North Cascades Basecamp, a very popular bed and breakfast in a beautiful location on the Methow River. The public warming hut at the Basecamp is a great place to warm up with coffee, tea, and a snack or lunch. You must bring your own food, but tea and coffee are available for a small donation. From the Basecamp, walk across Lost River Road and then ski the Basecamp Trail about 4.7 k back to Mazama Junction. At Mazama, you can warm up and refuel at the Mazama Store, famous for its delicious food, including a variety of fresh baked breads and pastries.
  • Mazama to Brown’s Farm (10 k, novice, intermediate, advanced) – This route is also a favorite for skiers of all abilities. You’ll want to leave a car at the end point or be prepared to have one person hitch back to the start for the car. To start, cross the road from the Corral Trailhead and ski down valley on the Methow Community Trail (MCT). The trail crosses a beautiful mix of farmland and low lying aspen and cottonwood forests and gives frequent views of the Methow River. The trail crosses the Methow River at the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, 4.8 k from Mazama and about halfway to Brown’s Farm. There is a picnic shelter on the south side of the bridge if you need a rest or a snack. Continue down valley 4.1 k on the MCT until the Rolling Huts and Kelly’s Restaurant, where Irishman Steve Kelly serves up delicious food and a wide variety of domestic and Irish brews. You can end your ski here or proceed 0.6 k farther to Brown’s Farm where there is a large, comfortable, and well-equipped warming hut open to the public. If the skiing is great, as it often is, you will want to ski the 10 k back to Mazama. If your legs are wobbly or the hour is late arrange for a ride or hitch a lift back to Mazama.
  • Mazama to Wolf Ridge Resort (21 k, advanced) – This route includes the 10 k route from Mazama to Brown’s Farm described above and continues 11 k further down valley. Unlike the rest of the Methow Community Trail (MCT), this portion includes steep ascents and descents that challenge the ability and the fitness of all skiers. From Brown’s Farm continue down valley on the MCT. After about 2 k, the trail climbs steeply with some occasional dips for the next 4-5 k and then descends very steeply. If the trail is fast and icy the descent can be tricky and skiers will want to use caution in several locations. From the bottom of the hill it is a fast easy ski to the parking area at Wolf Ridge Resort. Strong skiers may want to ski back to Mazama, but most people opt to arrange for transport or hitch a ride back to Mazama.
  • Mazama to Town Trailhead in Winthrop (30 k, advanced) – This popular route for advanced skiers follows the Methow Community Trail (MCT) from Mazama to Winthrop. It includes the two routes described above and then runs an additional 9 k from Wolf Ridge Resort to Winthrop. The final 9 k stretch is great for skiers of all abilities as it traverses flat farmland. Halfway between Wolf Ridge Resort and the Town Trailhead the Powers Plunge Trail, which comes down from the Sun Mountain trails, intersects the MCT. With fast snow conditions, good skate skiers can complete the whole 30 k in about two hours, but it is probably better to allow for three hours. For classic skiers, four to five hours is a reasonable estimate.

Highway 20 Trailhead
This trailhead is located right side (north side) of Highway 20, 0.5 miles past (west) of the Freestone Inn.

  • River Run/Jack’s Trail Loop (7 k, novice, intermediate, advanced) – This is one of the most popular routes in the entire Methow trail system. From the Highway 20 Trailhead, ski about 100 meters to the intersection with Jack’s Trail. You can ski the loop in either direction, but most people prefer to turn right on Jack’s Trail and ski the loop counterclockwise because River Run has a gentler grade. In 0.3 k, Jack’s Trail turns into River Run. After 1.4 k, River Run intersects with the Base Camp Trail (See Basecamp “Latte” Loop above). Stay to the left on River Run. In about0.3 k River Run will intersect the Rattlesnake Cutoff coming in from the left. Continue straight ahead on River Run. After about 1.7 k of flat terrain along the Methow River, you will come to the Cow Beach Loop (also known as Schafer Loop) and the Cow Beach Warming Hut, a small unheated hut that offers protection from wind and snow and, usually, is warmer than the outside because the windows trap warmth from the sun. The hut is big enough to accommodate 5-6 people. The Cow Beach Loop is a great place to practice skating technique. It is wide, flat, gets a lot of snow and is almost always perfectly groomed. The views of Goat Wall, Last Chance Peak, and other nearby mountains are spectacular. From the Cow Beach Shelter, River Run continues another 1.8 k until it climbs steeply 100 meters to meet Jack’s Trail. Novice skiers may have some difficulties climbing or descending this short, steep stretch. An alternative that avoids the steep climb is to follow the Methow Trail 1.2 k from the Cow Beach Loop until it meets Jack’s Trail. From this point Jack’s Trail runs 6 k back to the starting point at the Highway 20 Trailhead. When the snow is fast, skate skiing down Jack’s Trail is like riding a roller coaster as it climbs up and down numerous small hills and meanders through dense forest. Because much of Jack’s Trail is shaded it often stays firm and fast when River Run has already softened up in the afternoon sun. The Rattlesnake Cutoff and the Cassal Cutoff offer a variety of alternatives to make the River Run/Jack’s Trail Loop longer or shorter.
  • Doe Canyon Loop and Cutoff (3 k, advanced) – Advanced skiers looking for a challenging climb can add the Doe Canyon trail to the River Run/Jack’s Trail Loop. This trail is infrequently groomed so it is often better for classic skiers than skaters. By either method it is a slow climb up and a rapid glide down.

Winthrop Trails
Town Trailhead in Winthrop. This trailhead is located directly downtown in the town of Winthrop. Off of Highway 20, follow signs for “Town Trailhead & Rink” off to the south west. Parking is available here.This section includes trails that begin or are near the Town Trailhead in Winthrop. Most of the routes along the Methow Community Trail (MCT) have already been described in the Mazama Trails section, so this section will only describe those trails on the valley floor that have not already been covered. See map of Winthrop Trails.

    • Town Loop (1 k, novice) – The Town Loop is a completely flat 1 k loop that begins at the Town Trailhead. This is a great place for beginning skiers to build up their skills and confidence.
  • Community Trail (6.5 k, novice)– An out-and-back tour on generally flat terrain past open fields, and along the Methow river. Pretty, gentle skiing while still getting a feeling of covering ground (not little loops). A common turn around point is the second road crossing on the way to Wolf Ridge Resort area.
  • Lower Winthrop Trail (3.8 k, intermediate, advanced) – This trail splits off the MCT 1.5 k from the Town Trailhead and follows rolling terrain for about 3 k as it climbs up toward the Sun Mountain trails.
  • Upper Winthrop Trail (3 k, advanced) – 3 k from Winthrop, at the intersection
    with Powers Plunge, the Upper Winthrop Trail begins to climb steeply for 3 k more until it meets the Sun Mountain trail system at Patterson Lake.
  • Bitterbrush Loop (2 k, intermediate, advanced) – The Winthrop Trail intersects the Bitterbrush Loop 3 k from Winthrop. This trail loops through gently rolling terrain and offers grand views up and down the Methow Valley.
  • Barnsley Lake Loop (2 k, intermediate, advanced) – Want to ski another gentle loop with beautiful views? Continue on the Winthrop Trail 0.3 k past the intersection with the Bitterbrush Loop and you can ski the 2 k Barnsley Loop which skirts the west side of Barnsley Lake.

Big Valley Trailhead
(7 miles west of Winthrop on Highway 20)

  • Big Valley (8 k, novice, intermediate, advanced, snowshoes, dogs) – The Big Valley Trail consists of an inner and outer loop that total 8 k of delightful trail through Methow Valley bottomland. The 1160-acre Big Valley Wildlife Area is
    owned and managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as prime riparian habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead, but it’s also beneficial for neotropical birds, mule and white-tailed deer, bears, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, mink, otter, and beaver. The multi-use trail in Big Valley is open for skiing and
    snow shoeing, and unlike most of the MVSTA trails, dogs are welcome here too. The trails are groomed less often than some of the other trails in the system so this area is usually better for classic skiers than skate skiers. Consider this more of a nature trail with good wildlife viewing opportunities than a purely recreational ski trail.

Details, Details

Geography & Trail Maps. The system of cross-country trails throughout the Methow Valley is the second largest groomed trail system in North America. It takes some time to get a handle on the monster, but studying these schematic maps prepared by Methow Trails (formerly the Methow Valley Sports Trail Association) will help you visualize how the different pods of trails piece together. The Mazama Trails covered in this article are the farthest west (closest to the Cascade Crest). The Winthrop Trails also covered in this post are down valley and southeast of Mazama so they are a little lower and a little drier. The Sun Mountain Trails (covered in another guidebook entry) are close to Winthrop to the west and the Rendezvous Trails (also covered in another guidebook entry) are situated between Mazama and Winthrop but are higher and to the north.

Ski Passes. Ski passes are required on the groomed trails managed by the Methow Valley Sports Trail Association (MVSTA). In 2014, daily trail passes cost $22 for adults (ages 18 to 74). Multi-day passes for adults cost $57 for the first three days and $19 for each consecutive day. Children 17 & under and seniors 75 and over ski free.

Passes can be purchased at the following locations:

  • Twisp: Methow Valley Inn, Twisp River Suites .
  • Winthrop: Chewuch Inn & Cabins, Methow Cycle and Sport, Methow Trails Office, Nordic Ultratune, Red Apple Market, River Run Inn, Rocking Horse Bakery, Sun Mountain Ski Shop, Winthrop Ice Rink, Winthrop Inn, Winthrop Mountain Sports .
  • Mazama: Brown’s Farm, Jack’s Hut – Freestone Inn, Mazama Country Inn, Mazama Store, Goat’s Beard, MV Ski School & Rentals, North Cascades  Basecamp, Rolling Huts.

About Dogs. Information here about skiing with dogs, passes required for dogs (and cost), leash rules, poop rules, and number of dogs allowed. Aggressive dogs and dogs that chase wildlife are not allowed. Dog are welcomed only of these groomed trails within the Methow Trails system:

  • Rendezvous System This map shows detailed info about which Rendezvous trails allow for dogs (28 k).  Access to the dog trails are only from Cub Creek and Gunn Ranch, no dog access from Mazama side. Dog pass is required for all the trails in the Rendezvous system.
  • South Spring Creek Ranch Loop– located at the Winthrop Town Trailhead
  • Big Valley Trail – Big Valley Trailhead (4 k and 8 k loops). No dog pass needed.  This is a multi-use trail available for free to all users.

Other Trail Uses. A wide number of trails throughout the Methow Valley accommodate snowshoers (details here). Recently fat-tired bikes (details here) have been allowed on designated groomed trails within the system.

Grooming Report. In winter, read the daily grooming report for all trails here.

Gordon Congdon has a home in Mazama but in past lives has also been a cherry orchardist, the Executive Director of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, and a conservation manager with the World Wildlife Fund working to save freshwater dolphins in Cambodia.

This post was originally published on 11/26/14.

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