Global warming promises to cause cross-country skiing buffs a lot of heartache, but for this winter at least they are loving every minute. Snow is piled high at all of the usual places—Rockies, Sierra, Upper Midwest, and New England—promising a ski season that runs well into spring.
What makes for a great cross-country ski resort? To our taste it starts with an even blend of difficult and easy trails. We also like diverse terrain, expert grooming, and reliable snow. And don’t forget beautiful views, easy access, nice facilities, good rental equipment, and trailside or nearby lodging.
The intangible qualities that give a resort personality, though, are more difficult to describe. Like a trail whose contour feels so good to ski that it makes you laugh. Or a warm room at the lodge that is so welcoming you’ll feel inclined to introduce yourself to everyone gathered around the wood stove. These 5 Skiing Centers are special places where cross-country skiing is more than an end in itself.
Always take the following thing with you Synthetic wicking layer, Windproof shell, Hat, gloves, Snack, Fanny-pack and water bottle.
Mont-Sainte-Anne is the civilized skiing alternative. Charming, Old World Quebec City is just minutes away, and yet the skiing is on a New World scale—223 kilometers of classic skiing trails, 125 of which are groomed wide for skating, plus seven warming huts dotting the premises to relieve the Quebec chill.
Mont-Sainte-Anne’s vast array of trails can overwhelm the first-time visitor. As a general rule the trails immediately adjacent and to the north of the St. Julien Lodge (the main cross-country center) are flatter and easier. Those to the south and west are rated advanced or most difficult. Bear in mind that length, not terrain, earns some of these harder trails their rating. Once you’re committed to these long loops, you’ll find no short cuts back to the lodge.
A recommended jaunt is the trail that connects the downhill area to the cross-country ski trails, Sentier du Versant Nord. At 13 kilometers it’s on the long side, but finishing lends a sense of accomplishment for both skaters and classic skiers. Mont-Sainte-Anne also offers several kilometers of backcountry (ungroomed and often unpatrolled) trails that skirt the outer edges of the ski area.
If You Go: Mont-Sainte-Anne
Trails: 125 kilometers for skating, 223 for classic (29% beginner, 40% more difficult, 31% very difficult)
Jackson Ski Touring, New Hampshire
Quaint, New Englandy Jackson, New Hampshire, is the town that cross-country skiing built. Ski trails are to be found everywhere: beside roads, vaulting covered bridges, and branching off into the nearby White Mountain National Forest.
At the heart of its system, Jackson has a large, modern (built in 1998) touring center that is fully handicapped-accessible, a rarity among Nordic ski areas. This lodge-like center features a huge fireplace and plenty of room to house the lunch area, ski rentals, and a retail shop under one roof.
The Ellis River Trail is a great place to start your day at Jackson. It follows the Ellis River for nearly 8 kilometers and its flat wide surface is conducive to learning the motions of Nordic skiing or working out the early season kinks. There are several one-way loops off this trail and you can find a warming hut 1.5 kilometers from the trailhead on Green Hill Road.
If you are feeling steady on your boards, head up toward the Wave and the Betty Whitney Trail. The latter reveals some great views of the White Mountains and connects the top of the Wave to Whitney’s Inn. On your way down (it is a one-way trail), the Wave winds through a rocky forest, over some fun rises, and deposits you into the Eagle Mountain fields.
The backcountry skiing at Jackson is limitless. The 75 kilometers of designated backcountry trails (the Wildcat Valley Trail is a personal favorite) are just a starting point for countless wilderness trips into the White Mountain National Forest, given the right experience and equipment.
If You Go: Jackson Ski Touring
Trails: 154 kilometers open to skating, classic, snowshoe, and backcountry
Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Vermont
The Craftsbury Outdoor Center is known for snow. When there’s nothing but frozen mud on the ground in nearby Craftsbury Common, seasoned visitors know they can expect to see the snow-pack appear, or even double in depth, on the short drive down Wylie Hill Road to the Outdoor Center.
A mix of topography, proximity to lakes, and the blessing of the Green Mountain’s fickle weather patterns make Craftsbury the place to go when the inescapable January thaw hits New England. And it will.
Craftsbury’s trail designers mastered the elusive balance act of mixing challenging and mellow terrain when laying out the trail system. For the more adventurous, the 5K Race Loop doles out what so many Western trails lack: a narrow, twisting forest track. Just watch out for the barbed wire fence at the bottom of Bailey-Hazen!
Countless gradual meadows await you, connected by thickly forested stretches of trail whose silence embraces you like only a New England wood can under a blanket of snow. If the trail around Perman’s Field (accessed by Murphy’s Field and the Duck Pond Trail) doesn’t make you stop in your tracks to admire its beauty, you should simply pack up your skis and go home. If you are planning on staying, Craftsbury also has rustic trailside lodging.
If You Go: Craftsbury Outdoor Center
Trails: 100 kilometers, groomed and backcountry, skating, classic, and snowshoe
Sleepy Hollow, Vermont
With the inconsistent snowfall of recent winters in the Northeastern U.S., running a cross-country area would seem like a labor of love. Starting one seems crazy. But that is exactly what Dave and Sandy Enman did in 1999 in Huntington, Vermont, just 20 minutes outside of Burlington in the foothills of the Green Mountains.
To counteract Mother Nature’s whimsy, the Enmans plan to install snow-making equipment during the winter of 2001/2002. This coming attraction and the two kilometers of trails that are currently lighted for night skiing make Sleepy Hollow a standout in New England.
When covered in snow, Sleepy Hollow’s graceful trails seem to anticipate the rhythm of both classic and skating skiers. There are gentle fields, undulating traverses, and rollicking connectors—many named after Enman family members.
Dave’s Dive and Eli’s Escape will keep any speed demon satisfied, provided they can stay on top of their skis (hint: soak up the bumps over Bear Claw to avoid getting airborne). Molly’s Meadow and Sandy’s Slide are for more easy-going souls.
The steady climb up the Butternut Cabin Trail rewards determined skiers with a spectacular view of Camel’s Hump, one of the only prominent mountains in Vermont without a downhill ski area marring its face. Ridge Road is an excellent intermediate trail for those who have a handle on the basics.
At Sleepy Hollow, the expertly groomed ski tracks mingle with snowshoe trails and pass by a pond hockey venue that should stir the heart of anyone with childhood memories of a firm check into a snow bank.
The Enmans rehabilitated a comfortable Inn not 10 feet from the trails and filled it with only a fraction of Dave’s immense book collection (Dave also runs a used book store in nearby Williston). This is the place for arcane out-of-print volumes on the history of U.S. cross-country skiing.
The literary feel of the place doesn’t stop there. Locals say that on a quiet February night, through the snow-dampened silence, you can hear a headless skier screaming down one of the area’s steeper trails: Ichabod’s Revenge.
If You Go: Sleepy Hollow
Trails: 40 kilometers, skating, classic, and snowshoe
Gunflint Trail, Minnesota
Often referred to as the “Norwegian Riviera,” Minnesota’s north shore of Lake Superior is home to a huge network of cross-country ski trails, which extends north and west into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). This entry in the Top 10 list is more an amalgamation of several ski areas than a distinct destination.
The Gunflint Trail Association is made up of the lodges that dot this 60-mile stretch of winter heaven from Grand Marais, Minnesota, up County Road 12 and into the Sawtooth Mountains. These establishments team up to maintain the Nordic trails and cater to aerobic vacationers; most offer both ski rental and lessons.
There are four separate trail systems along the Gunflint Trail. The Pincushion Mountain Trail System has 25 kilometers of varying difficulty just 3 miles outside of Grand Marais, on the Sawtooth Mountain Ridge and along the Devil Track River Valley. Along the midsection of the Gunflint Trail, up near East Bearskin and Flour Lakes, you can ski the 60 kilometers of trails in the Central Gunflint Trail System.
The Upper Gunflint Trail System surrounds Gunflint Lake with 97 kilometers of trails in the heart of the BWCA. The 35-kilometer Banadad Ski Trail is a moderate rolling link between the Upper and Central Gunflint systems that creates an immense complex of routes for Nordic skiing.
Getting There: Gunflint Trail
Trails: 200 Kilometers open to skating, classic, and snowshoeing