America’s national forests have been enticing lovers of the outdoors for more than a century. Today, some of the country’s most spectacular ski spots are stashed away in national forests – especially for cross-country skiers.
With everything from groomed trail systems to high country meadows to fully staffed Nordic centers offering lessons and gear rentals, the country’s national forests are all brimming with winter adventures for cross-country skiers of all abilities.
First, for a quick refresher on technique, brush up with an introduction on how to cross-country ski. Then, score the right gear, with a guide on how to buy cross-country skis for your winter escapades and the best ski brands to buy.
And, then, seek out some skiable acreage in the country’s 155 national forests. For starters, here are just a few of the best spots for cross-country aficionados.
Anchored by the Allegheny Mountains, much of the central part of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is high elevation — meaning every winter, the protected area gets dumped with fresh powder, and the snow sticks around. And, under a cottony blanket of snow, the 919,000-acre national forest offers endless options for cross-country skiers, from unplowed forest roads and scenic byways to trail-threaded alpine meadows.
For newbies, Canaan Valley Resort and Blackwater Falls State Park are situated just six miles apart in the northern portion of the national forest, and both offer ski rentals and a combined 31 miles of marked but ungroomed trails. Just outside the town of Davis, the White Grass Ski Touring Center dishes up more than 30 miles of maintained tracks garlanding the slopes of the 4,463-foot Weiss Knob. The touring center’s trail network also provides access to the national forest’s massive Dolly Sods Wilderness, a high elevation plateau woven with 45 miles of backcountry trails.
The Sawtooth National Forest treats cross-country skiers to a sumptuous smorgasbord every winter. Covering a 2.1-million-acre swath of central Idaho and northern Utah, the massive protected area is buttressed by five different mountain ranges. It is also packed with glacial valleys, offering plenty of acreages to explore on skis, from groomed trail systems to thrill-inducing backcountry terrain.
The town of Ketchum is a strategic basecamp for skiers — with plenty to offer both beginners and seasoned pros. Just north of Ketchum, the extensive North Valley Trails system provides more than 70 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiers in the Wood River Valley, threading the national forest’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The 20-mile Harriman Trail links the entire trail system for seasoned skiers and provides heady views of the Boulder Mountains.
And for beginners, the Galena Lodge is an ideal starting point. Offering access to a 30-mile trail network situated at the northwestern edge of the North Valley Trails system, the historic lodge has been a hub for cross-country skiers since the 1970s, and amenities include ski rentals, private lessons, an on-site café, and four cozy yurts for overnight getaways.
Crowned by the highest peaks in the Northeast, the White Mountain National Forest is a trail-laced wonderland for cross-country skiers. Extending over 800,000 acres in eastern New Hampshire and western Maine, the national forest is crowned by the 6,288-foot Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak — and a beacon for hardy backcountry skiers. But, the national forest provides a buffet for cross-country enthusiasts, too. Six different Nordic centers scattered throughout New Hampshire’s swath of the White Mountain National Forest provide easy access to more than 250 miles of maintained ski trails.
For a White Mountain sampler, the Bretton Woods Nordic Center serves up more than 60 miles of trails showcasing the national forest and the historic Omi Mount Washington Resort’s stately grounds and offers ski rentals and private lessons for novices still mastering the primary kick and glide. Meanwhile, more experienced Nordic skiers can tackle the lift-accessible alpine trails circling the Mount Stickney Cabin. For a taste of the national forest’s skiable backcountry, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Carter Notch Hut, Lonesome Lake Hut, and Zealand Falls Hut can be rented year-round. Still, winter is the self-service season for visitors.
With more than 445,000 acres of surface water — including the mammoth Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — northeastern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest is an iconic destination for summer paddlers. But, the national forest is equally alluring during the winter. The proximity to Lake Superior ensures the protected area gets dumped with snow — and during the winter, much of the forest is open to skiing, from snowy forest roads to pristine wilderness trails to secluded backcountry lakes. And, while there’s ample backcountry rife for exploration and skis — particularly in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, towns like Ely and Grand Marais also provide convenient access to the national forest’s skiable acreage.
In the heart of the national forest, the Sugar Bush Ski Trails deliver more than 35 miles to cruise, circling a century-old warming hut beside Sawbill Lake. However, to begin with, the basics, the Giant’s Ridge Ski Area features an extensive 35-mile trail system for cross-country skiers – once also famously used as a training location by the US Ski Team. And, for experienced skiers with plenty of cold gear, backcountry permits for the Boundary Waters Wilderness are free from the beginning of October to the end of April – and winter is an ideal time to admire the Northern Lights.
Capped by the Green Mountains, Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest is a snowy Shangri-la for skiers. During the winter, all of the national forest’s trails are open to cross-country skiing — from pristine backcountry circuits to groomed tracks for first-time skiers. In addition to alpine resorts, there are four fully staffed Nordic centers situated in the protected area, along with unmaintained backcountry routes for skiers eager to make first tracks in fresh powder.
For an introduction to the national forests’ offerings, the Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden is an idyllic launch pad — and has been luring cross-country skiers for more than five decades. Today, the resort features over 35 miles of groomed tracks, including pup-friendly trails. And, for an overnight getaway, there are cabins and guest houses, along with rooms at the resort’s main lodge. And for a more extended excursion, the resort’s trail system also connects to the iconic Catamount Trail. Conceived in 1982 and completed in 2008, the 300-mile ski trail crosses the entire state of Vermont, meandering through the lowlands of Green Mountain National Forest and providing access to a bounty of ungroomed forest trails, along with eight different backcountry zones for seasoned skiers.
Home to 11 different resorts and ten different peaks above 14,000 feet (also known as ’14ers), Colorado’s White River National Forest is renowned for downhill skiing — but the 2.3-million-acre protected area is also a wonderland for cross-country devotees. For an introduction to the massive national forest, just outside the town of Frisco, the Frisco Nordic Center caters to cross-country skiers of all abilities, with rentals, introductory lessons, and clinics for experienced skiers, along with 15 miles of groomed trails nestled along shores of the Dillion Reservoir.
And, for a ski trip with a bit of local history, Ashcroft Ski Touring near Aspen offers gear rentals, lessons, and ski tours, along with 20 miles of groomed trails in the Castle Creek Valley circling the Ghost Town of Ashcroft, a 19th-century silver mining town now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. From the lodge at Ashcroft Ski Touring, skiers can also opt for a day trip to the Pine Creek Cookhouse for a gourmet backcountry lunch in the shadow of the Elk Mountains.
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