You’ve probably never heard of a place called Methow Valley or a town called Winthrop, WA nestled in the North Cascade Mountains, but I shall tell you a glorious tale of a place so heavenly it will take your breath away.
It was not entirely by chance that we discovered this incredible place, I suppose. My sister lives in northeastern Washington and one day had read an article about the Methow cross country ski trails, and the darling Rendezvous Huts which you can only reach in the winter by skiing. She had made a trip there with friends last year, and when I heard of it I insisted we must come along next time. And so it was that when the hut was reserved I booked our airline tickets with my Delta companion deal (2:1), and we prepared ourselves for the adventure. Before this we had managed to get in three days of cross country skiing practice in Flagstaff, AZ just two hours by car from our home, and believe me, I needed the practice.
I know it may be a bit crazy, but I pull off 5 night shifts in a row, and on Saturday morning our flight leaves at 08:00. I get picked up from work early in the morning and we head straight to the airport. We manage to make the flight just on time, and I close my eyes to this world for a short while. I wake up to the captain announcing that below us is a perfect view of the Grand Canyon, and indeed it is! I snap a photo and soon am fast asleep again.
We land in Spokane in the midst of snow flurries. It’s a heavy wet snow, not the kind you want for cross country skiing. My sister and her husband pick us up from the airport and soon we are making the 4 hour journey to Winthrop.
The roads seem a bit treacherous for desert dwellers, but our driver is very experienced. He has even driven big trucks in the far northern stretches of Alaska, and knows the conditions well. I sit back and relax to enjoy the incredible scenery, or what we can see of it in between snow flurries of various intensity as we snake our way into north central Washington.
When we arrive in the most darling town of Winthrop, we immediately go to the ski rental shop called Winthrop Mountain Sports (www.winthropmountainsports.com). I love this store, and I walk around allowing my fingers to run over all the amazing jackets and shirts and hats and pants and vests and socks and every kind of ski gear imaginable! I could spend a fortune here!! It’s obvious that this shop is rooted in “decades of authentic outdoor experience”, as eloquently stated on the website.
It’s the MLK holiday weekend and the shop is busy. We quickly realize we should have reserved our gear ahead of time. Lucky for us they still have some gear available. They pull out two sets of brand new ski boots for us, and David even gets a brand new pair of skate style skis. They need to put bindings on and wax the skis, so I leave them my phone number and first name. They will put on the bindings after the shop closes at 6 pm, and call us to pick them up when they are done. We also arrange to rent two sets of snowshoes with poles. We pick up the Methow Trails passes, which incidentally cost $20 per day.
I am amazed! Is this America? They want NO money down for the ski and snowshoe rentals, and not even a signed contract!!!! We walk out of the store with literally $1500+ worth of gear, with no other information exchanged but my phone number and first name!
It’s pizza for dinner and a phone call that the skis are ready. After that it’s time to head to our hotel. I had booked a really darling hotel room at River’s Edge Resort through bookings.com with a private hot tub on the porch, but they had cancelled our reservation abruptly. I was so annoyed! And so it is that we end up staying at the Abbycreek Inn, which in and of itself is cute enough……but it looks like our hot tub is snowed in……oh well, last one in is the rotten egg!!!!!
In the morning it’s an early start. We get a hearty breakfast at the Duck Brand, which is housed in this cute historic building. I love everything about this place! Our whole crew of 8 is now assembled and ready to go skiing! We will ski up 1400 feet in elevation on the Methow Trails to our little hut in the Rendezvous Pass. The only way to get there is by skiing. The Methow Trails comprise the best groomed cross country ski trails in the country!
Soon enough it’s time to load our gear onto the snowmobile. For $75 they haul up to 300 lbs of gear to the hut. I don’t know if we have 300 lbs or not, but I am glad I don’t have to carry anything! Can you imagine 1400 feet in over 6 miles on a pair of skis loaded down with gear? I wouldn’t make it!
When we depart from the parking lot it is snowing lightly. Now to be perfectly honest with you, I do manage to fall down almost right away, but luckily I went down sideways and it was a reasonably soft landing. As you might well imagine I really don’t want to get injured. I just dust myself off and continue on down the trail.
Now we do make a bit of a mistake, I think. We decide to take a blue trail called Cub Creek in order to avoid skiing up a black trail called Little Cub Creek, however it is about 2 miles longer. Most of the other skiers went up the black trail. As for us it takes us forever to make up the extra two miles that we tacked on.
By the time we are getting closer to the cabin it is snowing very heavily. There is about 4 inches of fresh snow on the trail. Every time I slide my ski out I have to practically pick the ski up over a snow bank to get it back in front of me for the next stride. My hip starts aching every time I pick up my right leg. David has a snow bank accumulated on his head. Even though we are dressed fairly lightly we do not get cold. This is seriously hard work!
At great long last we reach to trail that leads to our cabin. I crawl up the last 1/2 mile in serious agony. I know if I had to go a step farther I would croak! As we round the final bend we behold a most inviting sight! The Rendezvous Hut, nestled right on the edge of Rendezvous Mountain at 4000 feet above sea level, literally miles away from the nearest neighbors. This is my dreamland!
Of course everyone else arrived long before us weary travelers. We take a much needed break before a delicious dinner. Soon the sky begins to dim and we discover that the cabin is equipped with these cool propane lamps. I have never seen the likes! The lantern has a thin flexible copper tube that pipes in the propane from the tank located outside. Just turn the propane on and hold up a flame to the little sock…..and presto……you have light! It’s a bit dim, no doubt, with only two lamps for the cabin, but the ambience warms the heart and soul……coupled with the fire in the stove…….ahhhhhh…….what more could you ask for? This is God’s country!
As I settled in for the evening I find myself reminiscing and hearkening back to my childhood. My parents had won land use rights by lottery on a lakefront lot in the vast untouched forested wilderness past North Bay, Ontario, and they set upon a project of building a cabin there. There was no road into the area. The nearest access point was a four mile walk along a railroad track, and 1/2 mile through a thick forest with the tallest and greenest ferns carpeting the forest floor I have ever seen.
All the building supplies had to be hauled in by float plane. Many times I would be the one to join the pilot on the flight to the cabin site in the plane heavy laden with construction materials, while my parents hiked there along the railroad tracks and through the woods. I remember there would be stacks of wood placed across the floats on the plane, and other various and sundry building materials piled on top. I don’t even know how the plane managed to lift off. Sometimes it seemed the engine was howling its resistance as it propelled itself as though in slow motion across the surface of the choppy Lake Nippising, streams of water spraying up and away as the floats cut through the surface. Finally the front end would lift slightly and the amount of spray would begin to dissipate, and the plane creaking and its engine shaking and shuddering would rise up and up into the blue sky leaving North Bay behind us.
Once the pilot and I arrived at the cabin site he would unload the plane. I don’t remember if I helped or not, but I do remember sitting on our natural stone dock waiting for my parents to arrive after the pilot and plane were long gone. When the cargo was emptied I would watch the pilot carefully maneuver his plane around some rocky outcropping and into the middle of Brûlée Lake. His load was lighter now, but the lake was small for a float plane and he had to hammer it to get the plane to lift off. As the drone of the plane drifted away I was all alone…..in a vast forest…..on a beautiful lake……I never knew to be afraid. I simply delighted in the peace and solitude and beauty of this wild, wild place!
Now when I think about it, I am wondering how it is that as a young girl my parents didn’t think twice about putting me on a float plane going into the midst of this remote northern Ontario bush. What a different era I grew up in! Today I would never even consider allowing my child, girl or boy, to go on such an excursion with some random bush pilot! Nor would one dare to let a mere child be in the middle of a vast wilderness alone……but I know what it did to me. It made me love the place with my heart and soul. It made me have an intense love for the wilderness and nature. It made me crave a sense of adventure. It made me appreciate simple beauty. It made me poetic, and artistic, and nostalgic, and romantic, and old-fashioned, and imaginative, and sentimental, and spiritual, and passionate.
I loved every tree and rock, every fern, and the dark water of our quiet little lake. I loved the bright white three-pronged trilliums that sprouted on the forest floor, the provincial flower of Ontario. I had been told they had nearly gone extinct and it was illegal to pick them, and I delighted that they had come back to existence in full force again from the brink of extinction.
I loved our little cabin that was without electricity, the awesome wood fired sauna, the loft which was covered with huge foam mattresses that my mother and I had lovingly crafted by hand, which is a whole other story in and of itself. I loved the sound in the evening of dad pumping up the gas lantern and the soft roar as it caught light, flickering a second and then burning bright and intense, and the feeling I had every night when the lantern was shut off, how it immediately was silent, yet the light burned on for a moment or two until it flickered out and darkness fell upon the room.
I loved so many things about our little cabin in the woods. I loved waking up in the morning to a fire burning in the woodstove, and the smell of coffee wafting up to the loft, and the sound of thick slabs of bacon sizzling in the pan. I loved mom cooking outside on the open fire, a pressure cooker over the flames full of the juiciest and most delicious pork chops I have ever eaten in my life. I loved the canoe that we would paddle out on the lake with, and once we even portaged to another lake where we camped out under the stars. I loved running from the hot sauna down to the lake, jumping into the chilly water and rushing back again into the warmth of the sauna. Back and forth we would run, deftly jumping from one flat rock to the next on the path that led to the lake. I loved watching the hundreds of little tadpoles in the shallow water, flitting this way and that, and listening to the chorus of frogs croaking once evening set in.
And it is thus that in the midst of my crazy busy life of raising my family and working that I seek these moments of tranquility, a connection with nature, a momentary respite from the craziness that is our world today. And these are the thoughts that whirl about my head as I lay peacefully upon the bunk in our delightful little hut at Rendezvous Pass in the North Cascades, while our fellow travelers enjoy some games. They invite me, but I politely refuse with my usual excuse that I don’t play games because I hate to lose, and when I start to lose I start to cheat. Besides, I quite enjoy my reminiscing in my own little la la land.
Now you would know that I am not lying to you when I say that the next morning dawns bright and beautiful. I feel refreshed, having slept well squished right next to my husband on the double bunk, although admittedly I did wake up a few times to our fellow travelers making their way intermittently down the steps right next to us and out the door into the chilly night. David popped out of bed a few times too, to throw a log or two into the woodstove. Others in our group did not have the good fortune of sleeping as well as I did, but nonetheless we are all eager this morning to hit the trails again. But first we must make breakfast. Let’s start with Snoqualmie Falls pancakes and bacon!
And so it is that we take off with intentions to visit the closest neighboring Gardner Hut, but we didn’t look at the map very closely and soon discover that we passed the turnoff two miles ago. We decide to ski up to visit the Cassal Hut instead, but it is an arduous uphill climb. Up and up we go. Now I might tell you that the huts here are not locked, so you are free to enter for day use. If someone else is there you may knock and ask to enter. Just as we reach the Cassal Hut we see this cabin’s inhabitants leave. Thus we enter in and rest awhile. The Cassal Hut is where my sister and company stayed last year. It is notably smaller than the Rendezvous Hut, but the views are equally stunning!
Anyway, we make our way back home. It’s downhill a ways, but then about a 3 mile uphill stretch, which knocks me out! My body is literally screaming at me when I finally drag my aching carcass the last few yards to our hut.
Despite my weariness I insist that we must go snowshoeing since we had rented snowshoes. Waste not, want not, right? I discovered a mountain biking trail that goes right behind our hut, and we start to forge a trail.
It’s very silent. We don’t see or hear any wildlife but do come across tracks now and again. These tracks catch our attention…..a mountain lion? Probably not.
Before we all head to bed I convince others to join us for a night snowshoe down the trail we had forged. We don headlamps and hit the trail. The forest is still in the night, and I wonder what lurks out there beyond the sphere of our headlamps.
Another beautiful day dawns in the mountains, which makes us all happy.
After another hearty breakfast five members of our party prepare to leave back home. They have things to do and places to be. Of course this means some group shots….. And couples together……can you tell who the goofballs are?
We head back inside after everyone leaves. It’s now just my sister, my husband and I. It’s very quiet.
We decide to head on over to Gardner Hut to check it out. My sis decides she will stay at home to rest. It’s two miles to this hut.
There she is, Gardner Hut, cute as pie! This is the biggest hut, and next time I think we will stay here! They even have a double outhouse!
I know my story is getting long, but I have so many more beautiful things to show you and tell you about, so please be patient! On our last evening we decide to take the snowshoes for a whirl. This time we are going up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. Now truthfully, I would not even attempt such a feat except that yesterday two of our fellow skiers had ventured off trail with their skis and forged a trail clear to the top of the mountain. We follow in their tracks with David in the lead since he is strong and eager. The only problem is I have to keep harping at him to take smaller steps since he is so tall and I am so short. We really should have left an hour earlier since darkness is descending upon us. It is snowing again.
I am wearing my down filled Russian hat that I bought in Finland in 2001 from the Kärkkäinen’s store, which was our favorite place when we lived there. The zipper on my jacket is giving up……
Darkness settles in as we reach the summit. We are working harder and harder to reach the top before it gets dark. The snow is falling heavy. This is when my sister decides to tell me about wolf packs that roam these woods, and how a friend of theirs got chased up a tree one night by a wolf. That’s great! I wonder is a hungry wolf pack would hunt down three of us? Or maybe just grab and drag just one of us away? Lucky for us my sis has a huge can of bear spray along, although I have my doubts that could hold back a wolf pack. But that’s probably the least of my worries. How about if we set off an avalanche as we scurry down off the mountain? To finish off the exhilarating trek we slide down the last 100 yards or so on our butts, back to the relative safety of our unlocked cabin.
Our last morning is once again stunningly beautiful. Fresh snow blankets the ground. Fresh groomed trails await us.
The space in the top bunk is not really that conducive for a good night sleep. If you wake up and forget where you are you might get a pretty big knock on your noggin……
You may be wondering how we washed up……well, it’s simple! Melt snow for water and sponge away…..or if you are adventuresome you can go outside and pour water over yourself while you stand in a snow bank…….
And when Mother Nature calls there is this really nice little place……
No, my dear! You can’t drive the snowmobile off the mountain! You must ski!
We say goodbye to our little hut. Do you want to know how awesome it is skiing down off the mountain? It’s 1400 feet down to the car…..the weather is amazing! The trail is untouched and beautiful!
Just as we get down off the mountain our gear show up! Perfect timing!
This is the awesome grooming machine that kept the trails perfect!
We found our wheels at the Cub Creek Trailhead just as we had left it. Let’s go……
Wait…..someone is stuck in the deep snow!
Virginia and her husband Ben Nelson originally from Alaska purchased the Rendezvous Huts in 2013. They run the show together, and do an incredible job. Thanks so much, you guys, for keeping it an authentic off the grid ski-in experience! We absolutely loved it!!!!!!
As we head down off the mountain we see that Winthrop is covered in fog while we are basking in the bright sun.
It’s foggy…..it’s a cool mist…..
We decide to walk the streets looking for a cup of coffee.
Hmmmmmm……the gas station sign says espresso…..but I hate gas station coffee……
Ahaaaaa….this is Washington state style gas station coffee!
Seriously? This is the cutest gas station I have ever seen in my life! It’s for sale! Only $650,000 if you want to live in Winthrop!
We hit the road, back to Spokane. On the way this sharp contrast of the blackened trees against the white snow catches my eye. Last summer they had huge fires in this area. It’s beautiful in an eerie kind of way.
Now I know this has been a really long story, but I have so much to share. I am so happy that we had this incredible opportunity to come to this heavenly place to cross country ski. It is truly an awe inspiring place.
Next time……next time I want to bring the kids…..they would love this place too, and when the time comes they might want to share such similar experiences with future generations…..a wild and lonesome place in a vast wilderness in the stillness of winter – when all you might hear is your own breathing and that of your fellow travelers, a crackling fire in the dark night……and when you awaken in the morning the first sound might be the clicking of someone’s ski boot buckles being tightened down as they attempt to slip out quietly for that first early morning run on the crisp freshly groomed corduroy…..and that you might say, “Hey, wait for me, may I join you?” And that you might slip silently out the door with that someone special for that exhilarating dash down the trail, and the breathtaking arduous climb back for some fresh coffee and a delicious breakfast cooked on the gas stove by the window with the most incredible views a person could ever fathom. Does life really get any better than this?