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Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 02:07 PM

Cross-country skiing takes your breath away, in a good way

By Nicole Tsong
Special to The Seattle Times

EVERY WINTER, the drill is the same. It snows in the mountains. The grooming reports for cross-country ski trails at Cabin Creek Sno-Park are a go. I get excited.

I pull out my skate skis and winter layers and head up to Snoqualmie Pass. I get into my skate stride during the flat warm-up and remember why I love winter. Then I hit the first uphill, and wonder, as my legs burn and I gasp for breath, why I ever decided to take up this cursed sport in the first place.

Seattle is an alpine kind of town. I moved here from Anchorage, a cross-country haven, and have tried many times to convert downhill addicts to skate skiing. You get a great endorphin rush! You don't have to sit on a cold ski lift! Going downhill is still fun! (OK, I admit it's shorter.)

But hey, there's no comparison when it comes to cost. Cross-country skiing's seasonal permits add up to less than $100 and, if you choose well, a ski setup will last you for years.

Luckily, I know a few people with cross-country skiing in their souls, and we are more than happy to skirt the crowds and keep the quiet, forested trails to ourselves.

Seattle has some lovely, well-tended cross-country trails. Several have space for skate skiers, who need a wide, groomed trail for the skating technique, and set tracks for classic skiers.

As for which one to try, athletes tend to love the intensity and cardio that comes with skate skiing up hills, but anyone can do it. Consider skate skiing the winter equivalent of a run, whereas classic cross-country skiing is like a brisk walk. If you prefer a slower pace or have kids, try classics. Or rent both and see which style you like better. Either way, you probably will fall down while learning. It's part of the fun.

Here are some of the great trail choices around Seattle. Make sure to check on permit requirements before you head out:

Cabin Creek: This trail system is my favorite, and a winter stand-by. There is a relatively flat trail for new skiers to get their bearings, and a few different trails totaling 16k that take you through the woods and up and down hills. There's also the steep, stern Mount Ozbaldy, rated black, for the ambitious. http://1.usa.gov/ZvCn54Hyak: With 13k of essentially flat trail, this is a popular skiing location. Hyak is a great place to get your feet under you and learn to ski. With both a skate track and set cross-country tracks, as well as a tubing hill, you will see a lot of families here. http://1.usa.gov/bUlyMQ

The Summit Nordic Center: The center at Snoqualmie Pass is a great place to get everything all at once, including rental gear and great trails. If you want to play it safe, stay on the flat main trail. If you're up for an adventure, including a maze of fun trails, take the ski lift up. Getting on and off ski lifts in cross-country skis takes a certain bravado combined with skill, but you will be rewarded with glorious views and fun terrain, and a long, mostly gentle downhill trail back to the bottom. www.summitatsnoqualmie.com

Methow Valley: For the true cross-country Mecca, head to the Methow Valley, east of the Cascades. An incredible assortment of trails crisscrosses the valley, linking Mazama and Winthrop, and could take days to explore. If you can take a night or two on a winter retreat, it's worth the drive. www.mvsta.com.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: papercraneyoga@gmail.com.


KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The trails at Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow Valley attract a hearty crowd for cross-country skiing in winter. This bunch is doing the classic version, but for a bigger endorphin high, try skate skiing.




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