25 miles of trails await cross-country skiers around Lake Chelan

Although it generally basks in sunshine among sparkling peaks on the east slope of the Cascades, a fine trail system overlooking Lake Chelan tends to be in the shadow of the region's better-known nordic skiing destinations.

The Echo Ridge trail system extends 25 miles along Central Washington's high-desert hillsides of bitterbrush and over ridges into scattered ponderosa pines where locals have a classic skating paradise much to themselves.

"Skiing at Echo Ridge is really sweet because the trails loop around ridge tops that feel on top of the world and have panoramic vistas of Lake Chelan and the surrounding mountains," said Ken Dull, U.S. Forest Service Chelan District ranger.

The professionally designed trail system is snowcat-groomed from mid-December to mid-March in a partnership between the Forest Service and the Lake Chelan Nordic Club.

In the past three years, the access road has been improved and nearly 13 miles of trails have been added or renovated to offer something for everyone from classic tracks to skating platforms. The area features easy routes as well as more technical terrain.

New trails and connectors totaling 2.8 miles were constructed this summer and are being groomed and skied for the first time this winter.

Also new this season is a warming yurt in a trail system that's otherwise bare bones on facilities.

A trailhead for snowshoeing was added last year.

Dwarfed by the nearby 105-mile Methow Valley Sports Trails system, Echo Ridge has at least one clear advantage: It's cheap.

While the Methow's daily trail passes cost $20 for adults and $10 for teens, Echo Ridge passes cost $10 and everyone 17 and younger skis free.

A season pass is just $40 at Echo Ridge, which is less than the three-day pass in the Methow.

The big difference between the two is in variety and facilities. The Methow Valley has a huge range of trail options plus food services and accommodations on and off its trail system. Echo Ridge has little more than outhouses and the new yurt at the trails.

Winter in the Lake Chelan area is a huge contrast from the bustle of summer power-boating crowds. The place is remarkably quiet and peaceful when the snow flies.

Snowmobilers head to choice terrain and 140 miles of groomed trails in a different direction, while cross-country skiers pass a mom-and-pop ski hill on their way up to Echo Ridge.

The Echo Valley Ski and Tubing Area offers three rope tows, a 1,400-foot Poma lift and a three-lane tubing hill plus a half-pipe for snowboarders. The lodge has a fireplace and a snack bar.

A few miles farther up the road, the Echo Ridge nordic ski trails are at elevations of 3,000-4,000 feet, and usually above any fog or clouds that might be hanging in the valley.

The yurt is situated near the trailhead at the upper parking lot where it can be accessed from both the trails and the parking area.

Also a popular place for mountain bikers in the off-snow season, more than 70 percent of the trails at Echo Ridge are built especially for nordic skiing. That's unique, Dull said, noting that many cross-country ski areas simply groom roads that double as ski trails in the winter.

An expert nordic ski trail designer helped Dull design Echo Ridge's improved ski system.

Although some of the trails are flat and perfect for novice skaters, Dull said, "Our ski trails are flat-out more fun because we designed them to dip and roll."

Accomodations are plentiful in the Chelan area, but nordic skiers may want to check out the six cabins located between the alpine ski hill and the nordic trails. The one- and two-bedroom cabins feature fireplaces, kitchens, hot tubs and satellite television. (Info: www.uncletimstoys.com.)

If you go

-- The Echo Ridge Nordic Area trail system includes about 25 miles (40 kilometers) of groomed nordic trails above Lake Chelan.

-- Directions: Take Highway 150 from Chelan toward Manson. At Boyd Road turn right and follow signs to Echo Ridge. Upon arriving at Echo Ridge, visitors can choose from four trailheads. The trailheads are 1 to 2.2 miles farther on the road. Trail maps are available at each trailhead.

-- Trail fees: $10 a day for adults. Youths 17 and under ski free. Buy day passes at the trailheads. A $40 season pass is available at the Chelan Ranger District office.

-- More info on Lake Chelan area: www.cometothelake.com.