Snow, early and often, boosts pass sales
The earliest start ever to the cross-country ski season in the Methow Valley, along with impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, has produced a bumper crop of skiers taking advantage of plentiful snow this winter.
That’s good news for Methow Trails, the organization that maintains the valley’s 120-mile Nordic ski trail system, and for the Methow Valley economy, which benefits from the visitors attracted by the nation’s largest cross-country trail system.
“Our annual pass sales and our daily ticket sales are record-setting to this point in the season,” said James DeSalvo, executive director of Methow Trails.
Also record-setting: the number of days Methow Trails has been grooming, totaling 59 as of Wednesday (Jan. 13) since officially starting on Nov. 16, DeSalvo said.
This is the earliest that Methow Trails has been able to begin continuously grooming its trails, DeSalvo said. “We typically start the first or second week of December. We’re ahead by about four weeks,” he said.
Methow Trails first got its grooming equipment out on the trails after an early snowfall on Oct. 22 deposited enough snow to groom some trails in Mazama. “For the fun of it we groomed it and people were skiing on it,” DeSalvo said. Consistent snow arrived in mid-November and daily grooming has been ongoing since then.
The early arrival of snow encouraged a greater number of people to invest in season ski passes this winter.
“The real big boost for us was early season pass sales … we’re up 34% over previous years,” DeSalvo said. People who might otherwise have purchased day passes “are committing to a full season,” he said.
The early snow and promise of a long ski season may be the biggest factors in higher season pass sales, but the sales also reflect an increase in the number of people who have moved to the valley or are choosing to stay for longer periods this winter — the result of changes in work and school schedules produced by the pandemic.
With many public schools around the state operating virtually, and many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, people have the ability to extend their stay in the Methow Valley.
“Everyone is more flexible as to when they go places. We see a lot of people who have connection to the valley making a commitment to spending months here, taking a season to be in the Methow. A lot of new pass sales fit into that category of people,” DeSalvo said.
Additionally, cross country skiing happens to be an activity that can be done with minimal adjustments to comply with the health safety restrictions of social distancing, unlike some other winter sports, DeSalvo said.
“In the winter sports world, a lot of our competitors are alpine and larger resort areas. But most alpine areas are operating at limited capacity, on a reservation-only system. There is no food or lodge service. The winter experience isn’t really operating the same, and the hassle factor has gone up quite a bit,” DeSalvo said.
DeSalvo said this week that he had not received complete figures on daily ski pass sales from stores and other vendors around the valley, but those appear to be well ahead of normal, just like the season passes.
“COVID benefitted us. We can say with confidence we will be operating through the winter, because we can follow state and federal and county guidelines,” DeSalvo said. “Our operation is humming along, and we have the space where people can spread themselves out. People ask themselves, ‘Where can I get a quality winter experience?’ This is a place that can work. On trails 12 feet wide and a system of 120 miles of trails, people can maintain safe distance.”
Methow Trails reminds skiers to wear masks at busy trailheads and trails, or at restrooms or indoor spaces. “Please be ready to pull a mask over your face to keep our trails open and trail users safe,” the organization advises on its website. Trailheads are posted with signs asking skiers to wear masks if they can’t maintain the recommended distance of 6 feet from other people.
Some of the most popular trailheads in the system, like those in Winthrop, Mazama and at Sun Mountain, have seen high volumes of skiers, especially during the holiday period. But, DeSalvo said, “we are not seeing the peaks of congestion in the traditional areas at the volumes we typically do” during holidays.
“I think people are for the most part doing the right thing and spreading themselves out better than ever and wearing masks when they can’t be more than 6 feet apart outside,” he said. “You can find your own space if you are willing to get up earlier or stay out later.”
Holiday visitation may have also been spread out over a longer period, because of the added flexibility that people have in work and school schedules, he said.
One area that has seen considerable pressure this winter is the parking lot on Highway 20 that provides access to trails in Mazama. On recent weekends skiers have had to compete for parking at the trailhead with truck and cars towing snowmobiles. The number of snowmobilers heading up Highway 20 toward Washington Pass has soared this year — another reflection of people turning to outdoor recreation as a result of the pandemic shutting down other activities.
With the trailhead parking full, skiers have had to park along the sides of the highway for up to one-fourth of a mile away to reach the trails.
Due to COVID, the annual Ski to the Sun race has been changed to a “virtual event,” with skiers timing themselves on the course using an app on their cell phones. Skiers can complete the course between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7. DeSalvo said. Other traditional Nordic ski clinics and races held in the Methow Valley have been canceled this winter.
“We’re focused on the everyday event, the winter experience everyone wants — time outside with family and friends to unwind, relax and recover,” DeSalvo said. “It’s more needed now than ever.”