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7 wintry wonderlands for new cross-country skiers

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Snow Mountain Ranch, cross-country skiing is the main draw.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    At Snow Mountain Ranch, cross-country skiing is the main draw.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Pineland Farms, hungry skiers can find provisions at a market and cafe that sells food and to-go meals sourced from Pineland and other local farms.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    At Pineland Farms, hungry skiers can find provisions at a market and cafe that sells food and to-go meals sourced from Pineland and other local farms.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Craftsbury Outdoor Center, 105 kilometers of trails provide ample variety for skiers of all levels.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    At Craftsbury Outdoor Center, 105 kilometers of trails provide ample variety for skiers of all levels.

Along with other outdoor activities during the pandemic, cross-country skiing experienced a noticeable bump in participants last winter. Newcomers to the sport appreciated the fresh air and exercise, not to mention the relatively low cost when compared with Alpine skiing. And they likely discovered what has long drawn devotees: the carefree pleasure of gliding along a snow-muffled trail, whether in solitude or with a group of like-minded companions, and the understated beauty of a winter landscape.

In Sun Valley, Idaho, revenue at the ski area’s cross-country center increased 25% to 30% last winter compared with the previous one, according to the Nordic director, Steve Haims. He doubled his purchase of apparel, accessories like hats and gloves, and equipment for the center’s shop this winter.

Ready to give cross-country a try? The sampling of centers here all offer a seamless introduction to the sport, through regularly scheduled lessons, meticulously groomed trails, on-site rentals and other activities nearby for when you need a break. But they are only a few options among many: Visit the Cross Country Ski Areas Association website for many more ideas.

(Note that in a holdover from the sports’ European roots, Nordic centers refer to the length of their trails in kilometers, rather than miles.)

Pineland Farms

New Gloucester, Maine

For a ski trip with an agricultural bent, visit this 5,000-acre parcel 30 miles from Portland, which includes a working farm, an equestrian center and 30 kilometers of Nordic trails designed by John Morton, an Olympic biathlete and noted trail builder. After learning the basics in a wide-open space by the day lodge (Nordic centers often refer to this area as the stadium), skiers can ply novice-friendly trails like the River Loop, which meanders for 7 kilometers along the Royal River, and several routes on Oak Hill, where the namesake trees shelter skiers from wind, and the north-facing aspect caches snow. The Holstein Loop pays tribute to the farm’s cows, one of the oldest registered herds of its breed in the country.

Cross-country skiing burns a lot of calories, but you won’t go hungry here. Upstairs in the lodge, a market and cafe sell provisions and to-go meals sourced from Pineland and other local farms, including fresh cheese curds from Pineland’s own dairy company. On weekends, two warming cabins along the trails serve soup, sandwiches and snacks. The property includes four large rental houses for lodging.

Details: pinelandfarms.org; adult day pass, $20; private lessons, from $50; group lessons, $30 per person; daily rentals, $20 to $24.

Trapp Family Lodge

Stowe, Vt.

It’s hard to talk about cross-country skiing without mentioning Trapp’s, as it’s familiarly known. When Johannes von Trapp (of “Sound of Music” fame) added Nordic trails to his hotel’s amenities in 1968, along with rentals and a ski school, he created North America’s first full-service, cross-country center. Now 65 kilometers of trails wind through a classic Vermont landscape straight out of a snow globe, and other Nordic centers have opened around Stowe, making the area a cross-country hub. At Trapp’s Practice Meadow, beginners learn the mechanics of kick and glide before heading out on routes like the wide and gentle Sugar Road, and then, perhaps, skiing Lager Lane right to the lodge’s own brewery and beer hall for apres ski.

Goals to aim for this visit or next: Ascending (and later descending) 800 vertical feet over 5 kilometers to the trailside Cabin, where soup, mulled cider and a welcoming stone fireplace await, or skiing from Trapp’s to Stowe Mountain Resort’s Cross Country Center, which offers another 45 kilometers of trails adjacent to the downhill ski area on Mount Mansfield.

Details: trappfamily.com; adult day pass, $26 midweek, $29 weekends; private lessons, from $80; group lessons, $35 per person; rentals, $30 to $50.

Craftsbury Outdoor Center

Craftsbury Common, Vt.

Situated on a high plateau just east of the Green Mountains, Craftsbury doesn’t have as much hilly terrain as some other Vermont Nordic centers — good news for beginners. Yet the 105 kilometers of trails provide ample variety for skiers of all levels, and many post-collegiate athletes train here. A novel method ensures early season snow coverage: making snow the winter before when temperatures allow for optimum efficiency, then storing it under layers of special blankets and damp wood chips.

Among the center’s beginner-friendly routes, the Great and Little Hosmer Pond trails circumnavigate solidly frozen lakes, which means suitably flat terrain. Access the network’s farthest reaches — the Greensboro Trails — by driving or riding a shuttle ($5) to the trailheads.

Up for another challenge? Thanks to a competition-caliber range installed a few years ago, Craftsbury also gives lessons in biathlon, which combines skiing with rifle shooting (from $50, ages 10 and up). Once a private boys’ school, the Outdoor Center’s campus offers lodging — from dorm-style rooms to trailside cabins — with three meals a day sourced from local farms (guests 5 and over must show proof of vaccination this winter).

Details: craftsbury.com; adult day pass, $10 (trail fee included with lodging); private lessons from $45; daily rentals, $15.

Snow Mountain Ranch

Granby, Colo.

An hour-and-a-half drive from Denver, this 5,000-acre ranch run by the YMCA of the Rockies offers a slew of family-oriented winter activities, but cross-country skiing is the main draw. Now, with Olympic silver medalist Todd Lodwick as the new Nordic center director, the 120-kilometer network received a face-lift to ensure even better skiing: Trails were widened, errant rocks and stumps removed, and abrupt transitions, like tricky turns, smoothed out. A new, flatter teaching area makes it easier for beginners to work on balance.

In addition to regular instruction, the ranch now offers skijoring lessons with pups from the ranch’s sled dog teams; the dog, on a flexible lead, tows the skier. What hasn’t changed: the variety of terrain (with something for every skier), the relaxed vibe and the magnificent views of the Continental Divide. The ranch offers hotel rooms or cabins, as well as a few dining options. For even more skiing, the upscale Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa, with another 120 kilometers of trails, is just 10 miles away.

Details: ymcarockies.org; adult day pass, $25 (included with lodging); private lessons from $50, group lessons, $40 per person; daily rentals, $22 to $35.

Sun Valley Nordic Center and Galena Lodge

Sun Valley and Ketchum, Idaho

Sun Valley is renowned for its downhill ski area, but excellent, and extensive, Nordic trail systems make this a first-class cross-country ski destination, too. Start at the ski area’s Nordic center, where a teaching area and a series of unintimidating practice loops adjoin the center’s lavish clubhouse. From there, 40 kilometers of trails meander through two golf courses and into the adjacent forest. Another 200 kilometers of groomed track scribble the Wood River Valley, which extends northwest and south from Ketchum. The Wood River Trail itself, a gentle former railroad grade, provides perfect novice terrain.

Plan a day at the Galena Lodge, encircled by 50 kilometers of rolling trails within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a region of craggy peaks and grand vistas. The rustic venue, 23 miles from Ketchum on the site of a former mining town, offers ski lessons and lunch, fueling skiers with soups and sandwiches on house-baked bread. Free shuttles run from Ketchum to the lodge on weekends through the end of February; the buses also stop at several points along the way that offer access to groomed loops within the North Valley Trails system.

Details: Sun Valley Nordic, sunvalley.com; adult day pass, $32; private lessons from $135; daily rentals, $32 to $38. Adult day pass for North Valley Trails, $18. Galena Lodge, galenalodge.com; private lessons from $70; beginner’s lesson with rental and ski pass, $85; daily rentals, $30 to $40.

Soldier Hollow Nordic Center

Midway, Utah

Soldier Hollow (known locally as SoHo) provides an Olympic-inspired experience — many of the trails were created for the 2002 Winter Games hosted by nearby Salt Lake City — amid a very different landscape than the wooded trails at Lake Placid. Set among former sheep-grazing meadows within Wasatch Mountain State Park, Soldier Hollow’s wide, undulating trails, 22.5 kilometers in all, range from race-ready to novice-friendly. After the Olympics, in fact, several flatter, gentler trails were added to the system, and the Nordic center has taught many local kids to ski through its comprehensive development program. All that’s to say that Soldier Hollow takes its instruction seriously. And with two-time Olympian Luke Bodensteiner as manager, the venue’s grooming and trail maintenance are top-notch, too.

Even though Utah gets plenty of natural snow, Soldier Hollow’s extensive snow-making system guarantees good early-season coverage, as well as prime conditions for the competitions still regularly held here (like the Biathlon Youth and Junior World Championships from Feb. 21 to March 3). The surrounding Heber Valley offers various lodging options.

Details: utaholympiclegacy.org; adult day pass, $15; private lessons from $70, group lessons, $50 per person; daily rentals, $25.

Methow Valley

Washington

Seattle skiers regularly drive four or five hours to this valley in the North Cascades for some of the best cross-country skiing anywhere, with reliable snow, high-mountain scenery — and sun. (Skiers from out of state could also fly into Spokane, a 3-1/2 hour drive.) Two hundred kilometers of groomed track — North America’s largest continuous trail system — connect the five small towns strung along the valley, anchored by the 32-kilometer Community Trail. Get started with lessons at the Methow Valley Ski School in Mazama or at Sun Mountain Lodge outside Winthrop. Then explore gentler routes like the Big Valley Inner and Outer Loops or head out on the flatter parts of the Community Trail from Mazama or from Winthrop (the middle section is hillier).

A highlight: skiing across the Methow River on a 280-foot-long suspension bridge. Sun Mountain Lodge, overlooking Patterson Lake, has trails out its door. A few of them remain closed this winter following last summer’s wildfires, but the lodge itself has been thoroughly restored from smoke damage.

Details: mvskischool.com, sunmountainlodge.com; adult day pass, $25; private lessons, from $65; daily rentals, $25.

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