Nordic Skiing--It Ain't the Way to Grandma's House

Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

Nordic Skiing--It Ain't the Way to Grandma's House

Over the river and through the woods, six competition-grade networks to challenge even the hard core.
By Mike Steere

Burn up a few miles of a well-wrought trail, and you'll lose any doubt that cross-country is--and ought to be--a thrill sport. There's bliss in the best machine-groomed tracks, in swooping around some trailmaker's art that keeps surprising, flattering, scaring hell out of you. Follow North America's fastest skiers to six competition- and training-grade cross-country systems, and you'll find lanes for skating, machine-cut tracks for diagonal striding, god-awful ups, hysterical downs, and mileages sufficient for a week's entertainment. Some trails will be beyond the skill and sangfroid of most recreational skiers, but others, on flatter terrain, won't scare away even rank beginners. If these loops are good enough for racing's hard core, you know they're graded and groomed so skis perform gorgeous allegretto vivace numbers with snow and gravity.

Soda Springs, California

By far the most extensive cross-country complex on the continent, Royal Gorge keeps redefining largeness. This season's additions bring the total to 200 miles of trails, every mile with skating lane and classic track, on 9,176 acres at Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada. The whole business is groomed daily, a policy decreed in 1978 by founder John Slouber. Royal Gorge also just added its fourth surface lift, the better to cheat on uphills and work on downhill technique. The grooming lets fast diagonal striders and freestylers do the whole complex, including groomed trails to high country usually beheld only by ski mountaineers. Racers like to throw six-mile loops around Van Norden Lake, breaking away from lakeshore trails to make a stiff 400-foot climb on the two-mile Pine Marten Trail--only to lose the elevation fast on drastically steep Nose Dive.

Stay off the road and on the trail at upscale, woodsy Wilderness Lodge (guests and gear are hauled in a sleigh pulled by a snowmobile). Two- to five-night packages, including lodging, meals, and skiing, cost $220-$455 per person. Trail passes are $16.50 weekdays, $19.50 weekends. Two-day ski rental is $28. Call 800-500-3871 (in northern California, 800-666-3871).

Vernon, British Columbia

The Canadian National Nordic Teams have a training base at Silver Star, set in forested highlands above British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. Guest squads (like the Japanese team that came to tune up for last year's world championship) also train on Silver Star's gourmet-groomed 22 miles of trails, which connect to another 30 miles of trails in an adjacent provincial park. At the heart of Silver Star's system, two- to three-mile loops circle a central knoll like grooves on a vinyl record. Warm up on the one-and-a-half-mile Bellavista, then throw in a mile of aerobatics on Beatlejuice and Heartbeat--or go around again and try the less daunting two-mile World Cup 2.

Silver Star's nordic area interconnects now and then with its downhill-skiing runs. The resort's schizoid existence--part family-flavored alpine ski area, part global nordic center--is made stranger yet by a theme-park attempt to make buildings look historic (they aren't). But the skiing forgives all. In mid-November, nordic fantasies are played out at the five- to seven-day Exel Peltonen Training Camps ($380-$729), which consist of coaching, video analysis, and lectures on waxing, training-table meals, and equipment. (Accommodations at the Vance Creek Hotel, 604-549-5191, are $58 per night.) Silver Star's daily trail fee is about $4, equipment rental costs $14.50 for two days, private lessons go for about $21.50 per hour. Silver Star (604-542-0224) is 46 miles from Kelowna, British Columbia, and 290 miles from Spokane,Washington.

Jackson, New Hampshire

Romance and cross-country skiing look deep into each other's eyes in the village of Jackson, a strong medal contender in the New England Quaintness Olympics. Though it could probably survive on its looks and proximity to a cluster of alpine ski areas in the White Mountains, Jackson gives its heart to cross-country, supporting a 99-mile trail system and ski center. And this system puts on every kind of cross-country show: from wide competition loops and thin ribbons of machine-cut tracks through the forest to skier-tracked and untracked backcountry. The ten-mile Wildcat Valley Trail comes down 3,245 feet from the top of Wildcat Mountain (reachable by gondola) to the village, which is 755 feet above sea level. Skijocks are wont to work out on the 17.5-mile East Pasture Loop (groomed for both skating and classic), which starts in the village and crests 2,000 feet higher.

Strenuousness needn't involve privation: Trails lead to 11 restaurants and 18 places for bedding down. The 32-room Christmas Farm Inn ($68 per person, double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner; 603-383-4313), a bit less than a mile by trail from the ski center, embodies everyone's New England country inn fantasy with its 200-year-old farmhouse and converted barn. The nearby Jack Frost Shop (603-383-4391) rents touring equipment for $14 a day; hourlong lessons cost $25. Get trail passes from the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (adults, $10; 800-927-6697 or 603-383-9355). Jackson, about 10 miles south of Mount Washington, is 140 miles from Boston, 360 from New York.

West Yellowstone, Montana

Each November, West Yellowstone's grand gathering of go-fast nordics temporarily outshines the superstar national park. Fall Camp started with the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team's annual trips to train on the area's high-altitude trails and early-season snow, and now draws some 500 team members, coaches, manufacturers, and interested fanatics. The action revolves around the 21-mile Rendezvous system, which starts in the town of West Yellowstone at about 6,600 feet and climbs to 7,200 feet on a bulge of ravine-cut debris from the caldera that birthed the park's celebrated geothermals. Things get high and blowy on the six-mile Windy Ridge Loop, but otherwise the course lacks really horrible steeps and scaries, which is perfect for season's opening, when farther is healthier than tougher.

During Fall Camp, racing clinics open to all levels take place November 18-25 (three, five, or seven days; $175-$300). An additional $52.50 per person per day buys a room (double occupancy) and three meals at the 75-room Three Bear Lodge (800-646-7353 or 406-646-7353). Doubles cost $73 post-camp through April, when nonstars get to hog the Rendezvous system and other nearby trails in the national park and forest. Equipment rentals, available at several shops in town, are about $14 daily. Call the Chamber of Commerce (406-646-7701) or Fall Camp director Drew Barney (406-646-9379) for more information. West Yellowstone is 89 miles from Bozeman, Montana.

Winter Park, Colorado

If the YMCA of the Rockies courted publicity, this 60-mile-plus web of racy trails in Colorado's Fraser River Valley might be swamped with seriously nordic vacationers. But the Y lets the Nordic Center remain an undersung component of its omni-recreational 5,000-acre Snow Mountain Ranch, which has beds for almost 1,800 to concentrate on building healthy minds, bodies, and spirits. The experience is uplifting indeed for anyone who gasps on early-season nordic trails at nearly 11,000 feet, where snow is often deep enough for grooming in October. By Thanksgiving, skiing has usually descended to more sensible (but still thin-air) levels of 8,700 to 9,700 feet. Snow Mountain has been a rapidly rising star among racers, with about 40 percent of the system rated advanced. The Audun-Just loop makes a very technical six-mile dash through tricky ups, downs, and turns. Snow Mountain also has woodsy tracks for old-timey touring.

The closest approach to luxury in the Y's otherwise camplike lodgings are rooms with two queen-size beds and balconies in the new 80-unit Indian Peaks Lodge (doubles, $83), scheduled to open just before Christmas. The coziness rating is also high in two- to five-bedroom cabins with fireplaces ($98-$243). Private lessons are $20 an hour, and daily adult trail fees $6 if you're staying at Snow Mountain, $8 if you're not. Rent a light touring rig for $12, skating skis for $15. Snow Mountain Ranch (970-887-2152) is 78 miles from Denver.

Biwabik, Minnesota

Nordic in heavily Scandinavian northern Minnesota is no mere sport--it's a Jungian ancestral imperative. And at Giants Ridge the 45-mile trail system is worthy of nordic World Cups, three of which have been held here. Link up the new Red and Blue Loops, both six miles long, and you'll have climbed and descended more than 2,000 feet--with one serious 300-foot vertical uphill grunt. Freestylers like to go wild on the roller-coastering, six-mile Silver Loop, while intermediates interested in ridgetop scenics use cutoffs to cherry-pick the racing loops and stay off the major steeps. Even though the trails wrap around an alpine area with a 500-foot vertical drop, they manage to accommodate the go-slow types dawdling to admire the mix of deciduous trees and conifers blanketing Minnesota's Iron Range. The ridgetop's 1,800-foot elevation helps stretch winter sports season to about five months.

Sleep across the road from Giants Ridge in condo-style housekeeping units at the Laurentian Resort on Wynne Lake (800-843-7434 or 218-865-4155), where lodging ranges from one-room efficiencies ($85- $100) to four-bedroom cabins with a fireplace and Jacuzzi ($275-$400). The daily trail fee is $8 at Giants Ridge (800-688-7669 or 218-865-4143), and high-performance skis rent for $15 a day. The center is 207 miles north of Minneapolis.

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