“The cross-country ski industry is expecting a significant increase in skiers this season, based on the increased interest in outdoor activities,” says Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. But don’t worry: there’s plenty of room for everyone to spread out. If you’ve never considered cross-country skiing before, this might be the winter you do. It’s a good way to get outside and explore local areas, and it’s naturally a crowd-free activity. While you can ski through the woods on your own, a designated cross-country ski area comes with grooming, trail maps, gear rental, and instruction. Either way, picture empty trails through a wide-open forest and, unlike downhill ski resorts, little in the ways of lines, lodges, and costly tickets. Here are seven of our favorite places to enjoy this sport.
Tahoe City, California
Tahoe XC (day tickets from $36) isn’t the biggest area on this list—it offers around 30 miles of groomed trails, about a quarter the size of better-known Royal Gorge, 45 minutes away—but it’s full of character and charm. Located in Tahoe City, California, it’s about three and a half hours from San Francisco. From the top of the Lakeview climb, you’ll earn a panoramic view of North America’s largest alpine lake and a wooden bench to catch your breath on. You’ll find three warming huts, snowshoe-specific trails, and six miles of dog-friendly trails. The homemade chocolate chip cookies normally available from a jar in the lodge will be served to go this year.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch
The best way to explore the 75 miles of cross-country ski trails at Devil’s Thumb Ranch is by staying on the property. The resort has 15 private cabins of various sizes, as well as lodge rooms (from $279). Spa treatments like massages and body soaks are currently being offered for lodge guests only, with COVID-19 protocols in place. But you don’t need to be an overnight guest to enjoy the trails, which are open to day visitors for a $30 ticket. Gear rental and instruction can be added. There’s also the option of fat-tire biking on the trails, as the resort offers bike rentals and guided outings. You’re just 20 minutes from downhill skiing at Winter Park Resort and less than two hours from Denver.
It’ll take you four hours to get to Methow Valley from Seattle, but it’s worth the haul. This remote corner of northern Washington looks like Switzerland, with its jagged, snowy peaks. Home to the largest cross-country ski area in North America, Methow Trails boasts more than 125 miles of trails (day tickets from $25; those under 17 or over 75 ski for free). Sections of the system allow fat-tire biking, snowshoeing, and skiing with your dog. The slopeside Rendezvous Huts—which you can connect for a hut-to-hut ski experience—get booked months in advance. Instead, check out the six sleek, architect-designed Rolling Huts (from $145), nine miles northwest, or search for other lodging in the nearby towns of Winthrop, Twisp, or Mazama.
Theodore Wirth Regional Park
You won’t find better cross-country skiing this close to a major metropolis. The extensive trail system within the state’s Theodore Wirth Regional Park (day tickets from $20) has over 20 miles of trails that weave through secluded woods, all with views of the Minneapolis skyline. The Loppet Foundation, a partner of the park, offers cross-country ski lessons for all ages. A World Cup cross-country ski event was slated to take place here last March—it would have been the first Nordic World Cup in the U.S. in nearly two decades—but was canceled due to COVID-19.
You’ll come to Idaho’s Galena Lodge (day tickets from $18) for the cross-country skiing—there are over 30 miles of perfectly groomed trails through a stunning section of Sawtooth National Forest—but you’ll stay for the food. The house restaurant serves up steaming bowls of curry, soup, and chili, plus European-style charcuterie platters and freshly baked pastries. This winter there will also be a food truck in a vintage camper offering easy grab-and-go service. Stay in a yurt on the property (from $150) or in the nearby town of Ketchum. Downhill skiing at Sun Valley is just 30 minutes away.
Dorchester, New Hampshire
There is so much to love about Green Woodlands, a plot of private land between the towns of Lyme and Dorchester, New Hampshire, about two hours north of Boston. The family that runs the Green Woodlands Foundation has opened the land up to mountain bikers in the summer and nordic skiers in the winter, grooming about 30 miles of trails and stocking four warming huts with hot chocolate. There’s no fee to ski here—all that’s asked of you is a positive attitude on the trail. Skis and boots are even loaned out for free via an honor system. The trails were designed by a longtime Dartmouth College ski coach and Olympic biathlete named John Morton.
You can also ski for free at Meissner Nordic, a trail network on U.S. Forest Service land 14 miles west of Bend, along the Cascade Lakes Highway en route to the Mount Bachelor Ski Area. You will need a $4 Sno-Park permit to park here, though, and donations for trail use are encouraged. The club that maintains the area also stocks the trailside warming huts with firewood. Show up for a full-moon night ski, when the trails are lined with candle-lit luminary bags, or opt for the free learn-to-ski days, where volunteers teach lessons and local ski shops hand out courtesy rentals.
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Lead Photo: Courtesy Daphne Hougard