Visitors flocked to the Methow for range of winter activities
By Ann McCreary
Gifted with an abundance of snow over the holidays, the Methow Valley welcomed an influx of visitors who provided a seasonal boost to the local economy and morale.
“It was that kind of holiday season where we had fabulous snow, the conditions were divine,” said Brian Charlton, manager of Sun Mountain Lodge.
Coping with meager snow conditions during the past two holiday seasons, “we made the best of what we could,” Charlton said.
“But this year was just the way it should be,” he said. “The people who were here were extremely happy. It was just the attitude — this is the Methow, this is how it’s supposed to be.”
Guests were taking advantage of all the winter activities available at the lodge, he said. “There were a couple of days when all of our snowshoes were rented out for the first time. And we had to add extra sleigh rides.”
One of the only down sides, Charlton said, was that big snowstorms during the two days before Christmas closed mountain passes temporarily and forced some guests to cancel reservations.
“We probably lost about 40 room nights out of that,” although most guests chose to reschedule their visit for other dates, he said.
At the Mazama Store, the volume of holiday visitors “was quite a bit larger than last year,” said manager Claire LeDuc. “It was nuts.”
She said sales were 10-15 percent higher than the period of Christmas through New Years last year, which was a very strong year because the Methow Valley was one of the only cross county ski areas open in the Northwest.
The groomed ski trail system was busy over the holiday, and sales of ski passes were up significantly over last year, local vendors reported.
“Personally, I’ve never seen so many people on the ski trails,” said Kristen Smith, development director for Methow Trails, which grooms the 120-kilometer trail system.
“Last winter was the best winter ever [for Methow Trails] and we’re definitely going to go longer this winter. With this kind of snow we’re going to easily ski through March,” Smithy said. The trail system opened Nov. 18, the earliest opening in its 39-year history.
Brian Sweet, who sells passes for the trail system at his Cascade Outdoor Store in downtown Winthrop, said he sold 55 percent more ski passes than last year.
Business at the store, which sells sporting and recreation gear, was up considerably as well over last year. “It was a banner December. We were up 45 percent [in sales] over last December.” Part of that increase, he said, may be due to the fact that last year was the first holiday season for the store.
Winthrop Mountain Sports, which also sells outdoor gear, had a strong season as well.
“I would say one of the better Decembers in years,” said Diane Childs, a co-owner of the store. “Just having a winter really helps when your selling winter things. It was about as busy as it could be.”
Although the Methow Valley may have benefited last year from being the only open Nordic ski area in the region, Childs said the widespread snowfall this year has raised awareness and encouraged people to pursue winter activities.
“When everybody has snow it’s a good thing,” she said.
Great start at the Loup
Loup Loup Ski Bowl is off to a great season, said manager C.P. Grosenick. Over the holiday period the downhill ski resort attracted about 4,500 skiers, compared to 3,500 over the holidays last year.
“It was packed every day,” he said. “All the food was getting sold out and we sold out all the lessons on many days. We sold a lot of season passes at the higher winter rate. I think people were holding out after last year.”
The ski area has already been open 18 days, well on the way to beating last year’s season of 34 days and the previous year’s 24-day season, Grosenick said.
A lot of people also came up to the ski area to use the Nordic trails, Grosenick said.
The Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink attracted 2,400 visitors over the holidays, said manager Connor Walsh. “It was incredibly busy,” he said.
Despite a delay in the planned installation of refrigeration equipment, the rink was able to make ice and open on Christmas Day, thanks to cold temperatures.
“We made the decision on the 20th that we were going to go with natural ice, because we wanted to make sure we were open for the holidays,” Walsh said. “We were fortunate that it was as cold as it was.”
The rink was able to put to use expanded facilities built as part of the rink improvement project.
“We were able to use the new overflow changing room, which was really nice during the busiest times, and new bathrooms, a new employee area and the new viewing room upstairs,” Walsh said.
Smith said the ice rink, along with Nordic skiing, fat biking and other winter recreation, have produced record-breaking visitor numbers for the town of Winthrop, as measured by hotel and motel tax revenues.
Methow Trails last winter “sold more ski passes and had more skier days than we’ve ever had in our history,” Smith said.
“That’s why hotel/motel taxes set records in 2014 and beat them in 2015. Even despite the summer fires we’ve been able to set a record because we were so far above for the winter,” she said.
“That’s our disaster planning. No longer can rely on summer. We can provide disaster resiliency by growing our winters,” Smith added.
Sweet said he is encouraged by what he sees as the valley’s growing attraction as a year-round mecca for outdoor recreation.
“We are riding this wave of outdoor enthusiasts who are returning to, or discovering the valley,” Sweet said. “Primarily it’s outdoor recreation driving the economy. If there’s snow in Snoqualmie and Leavenworth, we will still be busy,” Sweet said.
“We have customers I taught to ski in 2002,” Sweet added. “When we sell skis, most people are getting their first pair of skis. So these people have made a new commitment to the sport … these are people who are saying, ‘I’m going to ski at least 12 days a year,’ or whatever. And that has huge ramifications for the valley.”