You could stick to the groomed trails–play it safe and easy by riding the tracks of many before you. Or you could cut your own trail. It isn’t easy, but the sweat you trade for the experience you’re rewarded with pays off.
Minneapolis offers many miles of groomed trails and inner-ring suburbs offer many more. These groomed trails are top-notch. Some are just wide enough for a pair of classic grooves, while others hold space for skating as well. At Theodore Wirth Park, where I hold a season pass and ski multiple times weekly, grooms trails at least every morning–sometimes in the afternoon as well, depending on snow and traffic. When I don’t have the time to break out of town to ski (or if I want to skate), groomed trails are the way to go. But when I have a whole afternoon free, the woods and fields outside of the city is where I end up.
With Minnesota backcountry trips under my belt, Audra and I decided to test our skill in Yellowstone last year. We were in Big Sky for a family holiday trip. If Yellowstone is only a short drive away, you make the short drive. Neither of us had explored much of the park, so we hired a guide from Lone Mountain Ranch. Whenever you’re exploring such a large area for the first time, especially in the winter, it is best work with someone who knows their way around.
This Yellowstone trip is why every cross-country skier needs to spend more time off the trails.
The first few miles of the ski were atop snowshoe trails. It wasn’t ideal, but it also means we could conserve energy needed later for cutting through deep snow. Skies were blue and a gentle snow globe-like snow was falling. Countless animal tracks along the trail gave us a glimpse into Yellowstone fauna–weasel, coyote, bird, wolf, mouse. The snowshoe trail ended at the base of a ridge. Time to start cutting a trail. As we began our ascent, a burst of snow moved in from the west and the wind picked up. While we were cutting our own trail in the snow, it was loosely based on a trail that exists during the summer months. Just as we reached the top of the ridge, the clouds parted and we were gifted with a stellar view of the Gallatin River below and the mountains across the valley.
The trail we were to use ran alongside the Gallatin, meaning we needed to descend the ridge to the valley floor below. All that laid between us and the river was about 1,000 feet in elevation loss and waist-deep powder–a piece of cake, if you have downhill skis. While skiing through waist-deep powder is fun on any skis, it isn’t exactly easy if they are skinny skis. Descending took about 45 minutes. The hill was covered with small conifers growing out of the snow and downed trees from the fire of 1988 under the snow. Talk about an obstacle course.
Once alongside the Gallatin, snow wasn’t nearly as deep and we could cruise along the trial, stopping every few hundred yards to hop sideways over open creeks. A few miles later and the trail is meant to cross the river via a bridge. Sticking with our off-trail theme, we elected to ski the final miles of our trek on the frozen river instead.
This is why backcountry cross-country skiing is worth trying. Constantly changing terrain and unlimited trail options opens up the entire skiing experience. Start with short off-trail detours in areas you are familiar with, mixing in groomed trails and cutting trails. If you can ski with friends, do it, because then you’ll be able to alternate between cutting the trail and the easier skiing in their tracks. After you get trail cutting down, get adventurous and explore new areas. Of course, always bring a map, ski with others and don’t forget to have fun.