Best Little-Known Spots for Cross-Country Skiing
|Credit: Milton Friend
This, you know: Cross country skiers will choose a secluded forest trail over a popular black diamond run every time. But, shhhh, don’t tell: Backcountry ski trails don’t come much better than those on many national wildlife refuges. That’s still largely a secret.
Scenic wildlife refuges ideal for winter exploration by ski and snowshoe hide in many northern states. The terrain and difficulty level vary widely. Some refuges loan out ski equipment free or rent it at low cost. Wildlife sightings are a bonus.
Here are some refuges ideal for skiing and snowshoeing:
Seney National Wildlife Refuge, MI Ski through a mature stand of sugar maple, beech and yellow birch trees. Admire hardwood forests, marshes and the frozen Manistique River.
Trails: The Northern Hardwoods Cross Country Ski Area includes more than 9 miles of trails groomed for classic cross-country skiing. Trails are rated “easiest” to “most difficult.” Trails usually are groomed weekly. Get a map here.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, bald eagles, coyotes, red fox
Rydell National Wildlife Refuge, MN Ski a rolling terrain along savannah, wetlands and maple basswood forest.
Trails: 7 miles of wide groomed trails, shared by skiers, hikers and snowshoers. A trail guide is available at the refuge.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, fishers (members of the weasel family), chickadees, goldfinches, redpolls, blue jays, nuthatches
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, MN Use an extensive ski trail network in the Minnesota River flood plain to explore parts of the refuge that are inaccessible most of the year. Flat trails lead past forest, prairie and marsh. Borrow snowshoes free with an ID at the Rapids Lake and Bloomington visitor centers.
Trails: About 100 miles of trails include refuge trails that link with those on adjacent state and municipal land. Refuge trails are ungroomed. Some state trails are groomed.
Wildlife you might see: Wild turkey, white-tailed deer, bald eagles, woodpeckers and other forest birds
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, NY Ski flat, mostly wooded trails that circle a large marsh
Trails: Choose between a designated ski trail (7.5 miles) and a hiking trail (2.5 miles). Both are ungroomed and accessible to both skiers and snowshoers through February. From February to July, the refuge is closed for nesting.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, otter, songbirds, bald eagles, squirrels, chipmunks, chickadees
Trempeleau National Wildlife Refuge, WI Ski along wooded edges of prairies and wetlands. Some backcountry trails are shared by hikers. The refuge offers some guided snowshoe tours and cross-country ski tours. See the website for schedule. Snowshoes are available free for use on site.
Trails: Ungroomed trails cover about 4 miles. Pick up a trail guide at the refuge or download it from the website.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, wild turkey, fox, otter, bald eagles, beaver
Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, WV Choose from trails that cross flat, open meadows or climb steeply through the woods.
Trails: 31 miles of ungroomed trails maintained by the refuge plus 10 miles of groomed trails maintained by the privately owned White Grass Ski Touring Center. White Grass also offers equipment rentals. Download a trail map from the refuge website. Call 304-866-3858 for a refuge trail brochure that combines a trail map with trail descriptions and levels of difficulty.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, rabbit, snowshoe hare, rough legged hawks, songbirds
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, ME Ski wooded trails along the upland edge of the saltmarsh.
Trails: About 5 miles of ungroomed trails are shared by skiers, hikers and snowshoers. One trail is flat and easy. Two other trails have rolling hills. A trail map is available on the refuge website. There is no fee for trail use.
Wildlife you might see: White-tailed deer, moose, migratory waterfowl such as black ducks, mallards and Canada geese
Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, ID Ski the wide, largely flat auto tour route on an elevated dike overlooking refuge wetlands.
Trails: 6.5 miles of ungroomed trails (4.5 miles on the auto tour road and 2 miles on a county road that joins it). There is no fee.
Wildlife you might see: Elk, white-tailed deer, Canada geese, tundra swans
Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, ND Take an open or partly wooded trail overlooking a river valley. In January 2012 the refuge plans to host its second annual introduction-to-snowshoeing day, with instruction followed by hot chocolate and cookies.
Trails: About 8 to 9 miles of ungroomed trails. Both the Canada Goose Trail and the auto tour route (together, 5 to 6 miles) are mostly flat. Munch’s Coulee Nature Trail (3 miles) is hilly.
Wildlife you might see: Moose, coyotes, sharp-tail grouse, pheasant, hungarian partridge, white-tail deer, cedar waxwings, chickadees and blue jays
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, MN Ski along scenic lakes through Northern woodlands
Trails: About 8 miles of occasionally groomed trails. The Pine Lake Ski Trail consists of two loops: a relatively flat 2.2 mile loop and a hillier and more challenging 5.7 mile loop. Call for date of last grooming. Pick up a trail map at the refuge visitor center or information kiosk.
Wildlife you might see: White tailed deer, wolves, otters
To find out if a refuge near you offers skiing or snowshoeing, use the refuge finder tool on the Refuge System homepage.