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Cross-country scheming.

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF WINTER as a season of limits, but to wilderness enthusiasts, it's a season of possibilities. Cold and snow work better than any backcountry permit system to keep wild areas wild, and remoteness begins just out of earshot of the nearest road. If you've grown frustrated jostling for solitude at your favorite alpine lake in summer, try skiing there in winter. Chances are it'll be all yours.

If you're new to cross-country skiing, get a start on the forgiving groomed tracks of an established Nordic trail system. Head out on backcountry trails only when you're comfortable dealing with the vagaries of winter weather and have learned the rudiments of routefinding. (Even a marked and frequently used trail can vanish in a storm.) If the winter-wilderness bug truly takes hold, consider venturing out on the ultimate excursion, a multiple-day trip--one in which you may wind up pioneering your own never-tracked-by-any-other-human route. First, though, you'll need to learn the basics of snow camping and ski-mountaineering. A prudent way to get started is to take an organized tour led by professional outfitters.

Plenty of books can point you in the right direction. For a general introduction to Nordic skiing, read The Basic Essentials of Cross-Country Skiing by John Moynier (ICS Books, 1990) or Backcountry Skiing by Lito Tejada-Flores (Sierra Club Books, 1981). Learn how to tackle adventurous winter trips with the AMC Guide to Winter Camping by Stephen Gorman (AMC Books, 1991) and the updated classic, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers Books, 1992).

What follows is a mere morsel of ski-touring possibilities across the continent, adapted from The Best Ski Touring in North America by Steve Barnett (Sierra Club Books, 1987). A good source for detailed guides to these and other ski destinations is The Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, P.O. Box 577, Hinesburg, VT 05461; (800) 282-3963. The folks there will be able to dig up regional guides that may not be stocked by your local bookstore.


Adirondack solitude, conditions permitting

The roadless High Peaks at the core of New York's Adirondack Forest Preserve offer a solitude, particularly in the dead of winter, that is rare in the thickly populated Northeast. The descent of 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy, the state's highest summit, is a basic eastern "down mountain" ski tour: just under 15 miles round-trip with a 3,500-foot vertical drop, densely forested much of the way, and always at the mercy of notoriously ferocious eastern weather conditions. Locals figure you have about a 50-50 chance of finding good skiing on Mt. Marcy in January and February, and an even better chance in spring.

Despite the odds, an established hiking trail that's wide enough for comfortable skiing (for experienced skiers) and never dangerously steep makes Mt. Marcy the most easily skiable of Adirondack peaks. For beginners or those skiers in no mood to chance an encounter with arctic cold, high winds, and blinding fog, the mountain is merely a centerpiece; a wide variety of easier but still rewarding ski tours can be found in the sheltered valleys below.

Elsewhere in the woods, lakes, hills, and rivers of the Adirondacks, good, long, cross-country trails traverse the near-wild terrain. The ultimate is the 133-mile-long Northville-to-Lake Placid Trail; an eminently pleasurable one-day trip through the heart of the High Peaks goes from Adirondack Loj (accommodations run by the Adirondack Mountain Club) over Avalanche Pass to Lake Colden and back, offering views of the high peaks without forcing you to endure their weather conditions.

For more information call the High Peaks Information Center, (518) 523-3441. Maps of the Adirondack High Peaks are available from the Adirondack Mountain Club, RR 3, Box 3055, Lake George, NY 12845; (518) 668-4447. Useful guidebooks include Classic Adirondack Ski Tours by Tony Goodwin (Adirondack Mountain Club, 1994); Adirondack Cross-Country Skiing by Dennis Conroy and Shirley Matzke (Backcountry Publications, 1992), and Cross Country Northeast by John R. Fitzgerald (Mountain N' Air Books, 1994).


Fine snow in the forests

No New England state has ever considered adopting a license-plate boast like Utah's "THE GREATEST SNOW ON EARTH." It's not unusual for it to be 50 degrees and raining one day and minus-20 the next, making mediocre snow conditions the norm. At New England's downhill resorts, add heavy ski traffic on narrow forest trails, and fresh snow quickly turns to perilous glare ice.

The smart New England ski tourer heads into the forests, which protect soft snow from the assaults of wind and sun (and other skiers). A perfect example, where dense woodlands open up just enough to make ski-touring a pleasure, is a route that circumnavigates Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak. The tour links the descent of a now-abandoned downhill trail built in the 1930s with modern touring trails on the peak's north side. It's a strenuous, full-day trip, and includes tremendous variety, ranging from powder skiing to tree slaloms, from bushwhacking to cross-country on set trails. Skiers must successfully negotiate several trail junctions, which, while marked, can easily be overlooked unless you're an experienced routefinder.

Skiers uninterested in blazing routes to icy summits can still find plenty of superb touring on the groomed trails of the four nearby Nordic ski areas, including Mt. Mansfield Touring Center. This system includes the popular Bruce Trail, the first ski trail cut on the mountain. A longer but easier tour than the Teardrop is a route that leads from Bolton Valley Ski Touring Center to Nebraska Valley Road. No description of the area is complete without mention of the elegant Trapp Family Lodge, run by the "Sound of Music" family and dripping with Austrian gemutlichkeit. Its 40 miles of groomed trails link up with other groomed and backcountry trails in the area, enabling feather-bed and down-comforter skiers to sample all of Mt. Mansfield's terrain.

For more information and other route possibilities, get a copy of Cross-Country Skiing in New England by Lyn and Tony Chamberlain (Globe Pequot, 1992), or Classic Backcountry Skiing: A Guide to the Best Ski Tours in New England by David Goodman (AMC Books, 1989). The Trapp Family Lodge can be reached at (800) 826-7000.


Calendar-free skiing

The hulking Chic-Chocs rise like mastodons out of the north coast of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, beckoning to Boston-area skiers frustrated by the wildly variable ski conditions in the northeastern United States. The range offers deep and reliable snows that begin in October and last well into summer, a vast skiable area above timberline, steep chutes and bowls for downhill thrills, rolling plateaus perfect for long-distance cross-country tours, and open conifer forests unlike the dense jungles of New England.

Through the entire range there is only one road, and very few people. From the town of Ste.-Anne-des-Monts, Quebec Route 299 heads south across the Gaspe Peninsula and into plateau country. The most accessible skiing is on Mt. Albert, a 25-mile drive from town. From its 3,755-foot summit (more a bump on the plateau than anything else) skiers have access to 10 square miles of treeless expanse. Nearby is the McGarrigles Plateau, a 6-by-10-mile rectangle with sufficient forest cover to provide protection from harsh weather. Thrill-seeking skiers drop off the edges of the plateaus, where they find challenging downhill runs with as much as 2,500 feet of vertical drop.

The Gaspe's reliably heavy snowfall brings penalties along with the rewards of a long ski season. Its above-timberline areas are naturally susceptible to the dense fog and high winds that pour in from the ocean. The best weather for skiing comes late, in April or May, but the Gaspe also tempts New Englanders anytime they're staring at bare ground in midwinter--or simply when they want a French ski vacation just 600 miles from home.

For more information contact the Parc de la Gaspesie, 10, boulevard Ste.-Anne, Ste.-Anne-des-Monts, Quebec G0E 2G0; (418) 763-3301. Useful guides include The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Skiing in Canada by John Peaker (Doubleday, 1987), and Cross-Country Ski Inns of the Northeast U.S. and Quebec by Marge Lamy (Robert Reid, 1991).


Cross-country paradise

While the Midwest offers precious little in the way of downhill skiing, its cross-country opportunities are plentiful. Skiers can choose between one of the most extensive systems of maintained ski-trails in the United States--the North Shore Trails System along Lake Superior--and one of the wildest, untrammeled places to set a pair of skis--the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Some 120 miles of machine-groomed track wind in and out of the hills along the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, about 25 miles of which link winter lodge to winter lodge (and hot shower to hot shower, no small matter in an area where you hope for winter temperatures of 15 to 25 degrees but more often settle for minus-5). What you gain by tolerating that extra pair of warm socks is reliable snow, where thaws and hard freezes are rare.

The rolling terrain is ideal for cross-country trails, which run the gamut from very easy to arduous. A particularly scenic section of the North Shore system is in Cascade Falls State Park, where ski tracks run along the banks of the Cascade River and its waterfalls on its way to Lake Superior. In the southern sector of the system, the Sugarbush Trails swoop 18 miles through a virgin maple forest.

What the North Shore is to trail skiing, the nearby Boundary Waters is to backcountry touring. A forested flatland dotted with lakes, it offers a network of ski trails that in warmer weather are the region's popular canoe routes: lakes connected by portage trails.

While multiple-day trips will take you into the heart of this wilderness, dozens of good day trips are also possible, based from lodges on the wilderness area's border, such as the one at Sawbill Lake, or from lodges on the nearby Gunflint Trail system.

For more information about the trails and lodgings of the North Shore Trail System, contact the Lutsen Tofte Tourism Association, Box 115, Lutsen, MN 55612. Call (800) 897-7669 for updates on snow and trail conditions along the North Shore, and (218) 720-5324 for Boundary Waters. A map covering the North Shore and BWCAW is available from Superior National Forest, Box 338, Duluth, MN 55801; (218) 720-5380. Ski Country: Nordic Skiers Guide to the Minnesota Arrowhead by Robert Beymer (Fisher Co., 1986), and Guide to Minnesota Outdoors by Jim Umhoefer (NorthWord Press, 1992; P.O. Box 1360, Minoqua, WI 54548), provide thorough detail on ski routes in the region.


A prize at tour's end

When you want to see the Grand Canyon without crowds, veterans will tell you, approach the chasm by way of its uncrowded North Rim. Diehards will up the ante, suggesting you approach in winter, on skis, when the park roads and facilities have closed for the season. Unlike the lower, more crowded South Rim, the North Rim is the edge of a high, forested plateau; its many roads make excellent paths for easy cross-country skiing in a sunny and warm winter environment, even in January or February. The most popular tour covers 45 tracked miles of the Kaibab Plateau from Jacob Lake to Point Imperial, a spectacular end to an otherwise gentle tour. From here, some skiers continue across the canyon--on foot--down the Bright Angel Trail and up the other side to exit at the South Rim.

If a 90-mile round-trip sounds excessive, Kaibab Lodge, 18 miles from the canyon rim, offers several options. Skiers can break up the long tour with an overnight stay at the lodge, or they can be shuttled in from Jacob Lake in a "snow van." Once at the lodge, they can ski the final 18 miles to the rim or explore the lodge's groomed-trail system.

For more information check with the Kaibab National Forest office at Fredonia Ranger Station, Kaibab National Forest, Fredonia, AZ 86022; (602) 643-7395. (Some U.S. Forest Service roads may be plowed in the winter, allowing you to drive along the plateau to within a short ski of the rim; other roads, closed and snow-covered, provide ski access to the plateau's remote corners.) Other contacts include Grand Canyon National Park, (602) 643-7395, and Kaibab Lodge, (800) 525-0924. A good guidebook to the area, Ski Touring Arizona by Dugald Bremner (Northland Publishing, 1987), is out of print, but may be available at your local library.


Cold winters and hot springs

High mountains, deep canyons, camping by hot springs, skiing past herds of bison and elk while geysers spout in the background: add a few 30-degree-below-zero mornings, and you've got ski-touring in Yellowstone. This is one national park that encourages winter travelers; the road that runs across Yellowstone's northern boundary is kept open all winter, and there is regular service by "snowcoach" to ski-touring trailheads on remaining park roads. Cross-country tracks are marked near Old Faithful as well as the Tower Falls, Canyon, and Mammoth Hot Springs areas.

For the truly adventurous, a challenging ski tour in the park starts at Old Faithful, heads to Shoshone Lake, and then to hot springs at Three River Junction at the head of the canyon of the Bechler River. It descends the canyon and crosses Bechler Meadows, ending at the Bechler Ranger Station, for a total of 30 miles (with an additional 12 miles along an unplowed road to reach "civilization"). The skiing is generally easy, but the cold can be frightful. Late March or early April is the best time to go, when the snow has consolidated and temperatures are more moderate.

For more information contact Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-7381. Private guide services operating in the park include Yellowstone Expeditions, (406) 646-9333, and Yellowstone Alpen Guides, (406) 646-9591. Good resources include Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone Country by Ken Olsen et al. (Falcon Press, 1993); Yellowstone Winter Guide by Jeff Henry (Roberts Rinehart, 1993), and Fifty Ski Tours in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone by Richard DuMais (High Peaks Books, Wilson, WY, 1990). Yellowstone maps are available from Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 3610, Evergreen, CO 80439; (800) 962-1643; (303) 670-3457.


Volcanoes in springtime

An exceptionally beautiful high-altitude area crowned by four glaciated volcanoes, the Three Sisters Wilderness offers easy day trips for beginners on and around 9, 175-foot Broken Top, and demanding, several-day expeditions that link all four peaks. This is wide-open high country; the four cones rise gracefully above rolling volcanic highlands, without the impasses of deep valleys or high ridges. Skiers can traverse open forests or tackle long and continuous above-timberline glacial descents.

While snow in the Cascades has a reputation for being unbearably soggy, the Three Sisters' cross-country routes are on the range's sunny, high-desert, eastern side, where snow depths routinely reach 15 feet each season. Combine that with smooth, brush-free, volcanic soil, and the ski season stretches from October to July. The best weather and ski conditions, in fact, don't arrive until May, especially above timberline.

Access to the wilderness is from U.S. Route 97 and the town of Bend. Trails fan out from the Forest Service's Dutchman Sno-Park parking lot (a permit is required) near the Mt. Bachelor Ski Area along the Cascade Lakes Highway, Oregon Route 46.

For more information contact the Bend Ranger District, Deschutes National Forest, 1645 Highway 20 East, Bend, OR 97701; (503) 388-5664. The Mt. Bachelor Cross Country Center maintains a network of groomed trails; (503) 382-2442. For more detailed trip descriptions, pick up a copy of Cross Country Ski Routes Oregon by Klint Vielbig (The Mountaineers Books, 1994) or Cross-Country Ski Tours in Central Oregon by Virginia Meissner (Meissner Books, 1984; P.O. Box 5296, Bend, OR 97708).


British Columbia glacier-hopping

Nothing in the Lower 48 can match the extent of glaciation found in British Columbia's Coast Range. Here, interconnecting icefields tempt skiers looking for the consummate high-altitude ski tour, but most of the icy wilderness is inaccessible. Except at the edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park, that is, where a commercial quirk placed the alpine-ski resorts of Blackcomb and Whistler next to some of the best backcountry ski possibilities in North America.

The quintessential tour here is the Spearhead Traverse, a three- to four-day excursion crossing nine glaciers between the two resorts. The terrain encompasses a spectacular mix of glaciers and peaks, reached directly, albeit mechanically, with a one-way ride up one of Blackcomb's chair lifts. There's a first-come, first-served hut available the first night out, but the rest of the trip you're on your own--and must be able to deal with steep slopes, avalanche hazards, and navigation if the weather deteriorates. It's normally a trip for advanced skiers only (and can be undertaken all winter because of the chair lift access), though in late spring, when the weather is most forgiving and there's little chance of avalanches, it can also be a satisfying trip for intermediate skiers with some mountaineering experience. Required equipment for glacier travel includes avalanche beepers, shovels, light rope, and prusik loops (for "walking" up ropes).

There are also plenty of shorter and easier ski-touring possibilities in Garibaldi Park, including a group of warming huts only 40 miles from Vancouver that serves a beautiful volcanic region of open forests and gentle glaciers.

For more information contact B.C. Parks, Garibaldi/Sunshine Coast District, Box 220, Brackendale, B.C. V0N 1H0; (604) 898-3678. The Canadian Avalanche Association provides information on snow conditions at (800) 667-1105. Lift access into the Spearhead region must be arranged in advance from Blackcomb Resort, (604) 932-3141. Guidebooks include Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis by John Baldwin (John Baldwin, 1983); The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Skiing in Canada by John Peaker (Doubleday, 1987), and A Guide to Climbing and Hiking in Southwestern British Columbia by Bruce Fairley (Gordon Soules, 1993).


A full spectrum of skiing along the Range of Light

The Sierra Nevada offers an enviable mix of alpine mountain scenery, reliable snow, excellent ski terrain, open forest, easy access, and an unbroken high crest for more than 200 miles. From Carson Pass near Lake Tahoe, south to Mount Whitney and beyond, no plowed roads break up the massif in winter; intrepid skiers can take on the whole enchilada, the Sierra Crest Traverse, roughly following the John Muir Trail. No other range in North America lets skiers tackle such a high-level traverse for so many miles.

Day-trippers can bite off smaller portions of the traverse, poling their way into the range along trails and closed summer roads from the west (state routes 108 over Sonora Pass, 4 over Ebbett's Pass, and 120 over Yosemite's Tioga Pass), or using all-year U.S. Route 395 along the range's precipitous eastern slope to reach short but steep trails to the crest. (North of this "roadless" region skiers will find still more routes for single- or multiple-day ski trips fanning out from the all-weather highways that cut across the Sierra.)

Spring is the best time to take on the Sierra Traverse; the hot sun transforms the white stuff into "corn" snow. Avalanches are normally a worry only during and immediately after storms, since the region's ubiquitous fair weather rapidly settles and stabilizes the snowpack.

For more information read Backcountry Skiing in the High Sierra by John Moynier (Chockstone Press, 1992). For tips on shorter trips in the range, check out the four-volume series Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada by Marcus Libkind (Bittersweet Enterprises, distributed by Wilderness Press; 1985). A classic (but out-of-print) volume is Ski Touring in California by David Beck (Wilderness Press, 1980). Professional guides include Alpine Skills International, P.O. Box 8, Norden, CA 95724; (916) 426-9108, and Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School, Yosemite, CA 95389; (209) 372-1244. A perfect home base, of course, is the Sierra Club's own Clair Tappaan Lodge, P.O. Box 36, Norden, CA 95724; (916) 426-3632.
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Title Annotation:best wilderness areas for cross-country skiing
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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