Info:Cross Country Ski Trails

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Cross Country Ski Trails

See Trails page for trail listing.

Typical Groomed cross country ski trail
A hill on a cross country ski trail minus the snow

So how are cross-country (Nordic) ski trails different from other trails? Cross country skis don't turn or stop particularly well and certain ski techniques and maneuvers take a lot of room to execute, therefore trails designed for cross country skiing tend to be wide with more gentle curves than you would find on hiking or mountain bike trails. This isn't to imply that cross country ski trails are straight and flat, on the contrary, the most popular cross country ski trail systems are the ones with a lot of big winding downhills (and a lot of snow, duh). A typical cross country ski trail system is made up of a series of interconnected loops that provide skiers with several options of trail length and difficulty.

In areas of the country that don't get a tremendous amount of snow in the winter (like where I live), cross country ski trails need to be maintained and prepared during the off season to make sure the trail surface is free of any significant protruding obstacles such as rocks and roots which can create some real problems for skiers in low snow conditions. They are also usually mowed regularly to keep a nice short grass surface. These smooth mowed surface conditions are why golf courses make for some pretty good cross country ski trails.

Cross country ski trails are almost always open to hikers when there is no snow on the ground, but some are closed to mountain bike and horse use (and ATV use) where the risk of erosion is significant (especially in low snow areas of the country).

Where do I find Cross Country Ski Trails and are there Fees?

The answer is somewhat dependant on where you live, but here in the Midwest, the big groomed cross country trail systems are most likely found in state parks, state forests, national forests, or at private ski trail systems. Additional ski trails may be found in county parks and city parks, and on public golf courses. Most groomed trail systems will require some type of trail fee or at least request donations at the trailhead. In addition, there may be parking fees required to park at some trailheads.

Groomed Cross Country Ski Trails

Classic-only groomed cross country ski trail Combination skating and classic groomed cross country ski trail

When I first started cross country skiing, I wasn't sure that I liked the idea of groomed trails. I mean, I like the "wild feel" of being out on a trail in the woods, and the thought that a machine had to drive through and prep the trail just seemed kind of wrong to me. That is, it seemed wrong to me before I started skiing on groomed trails. There are a number of reasons xc ski trails are groomed, but it basically comes down to making the trail faster, safer, and more enjoyable for xc skiing.

  • Compacting deep snow: the biggest reason for grooming in parts of the country that measure their snowfall in feet rather than inches, is that it's very hard to cross country ski in fresh deep snow. Sure, you can get some long, stiff, wide (and heavy) backcountry skis that give you some better flotation, but it will still be very slow going. And the typical skis used for skiing on groomed trails simply don't work in really deep fresh snow (you basically sink in the middle of the skis, but the tips and tails of the skis bend up to the point where you think they may be about to break).
  • Creating tracks to help guide the skis: For classic style skiing, nice groomed tracks ( a set of 2 parallel depressions) make skiing so much easier and faster. The machine-created tracks basically imitate the tracks made traditionally when one skier would ski through the fresh snow then others would ski in their tracks. The difference is that the machine created tracks are much better (more consistent, perfectly shaped).
  • Creating a flat skating lane: Skate style skiing is highly dependent upon a flat wide compacted lane to ski in.
Corduroy grooming on cross country ski trail
  • Creating that wonderful corduroy: Corduroy is basically made up of numerous small parallel rills of loose (not compacted) snow set on top of the compacted base. That's right, us skiers are so picky that we want the machine to compact the base so we don’t sink, but then we also want a little loose snow on top. The loose snow makes it easier for your skis to go where you point them (rather than sliding sideways), gives you something to catch with the edge of your skis to assist in turning and stopping, and makes the skiing oh so smoooooth.
  • Loosen up hardpack and ice: Ski trails that get a lot of use will quickly become hard packed. Hardpacked trails make skiing more difficult because you no longer have the top layer of loose stuff to help control your skis. Also, thaw/freeze cycles or ice storms make trails very dangerous. Depending on the sophistication of the grooming equipment used, the groomer will either just loosen up the top layer a bit or completely grind up and recycle the ice and hardpack into something that resembles snow.
  • Patch up ruts and impact depressions: In addition to trails becoming hardpacked from ski use, trails also become rutted and hills become potholed with depressions from the various knees, elbows, faces, and asses that impacted when their ride down didn't go exactly as planned. Regrooming will make it all better (for the trail).

The equipment used to groom cross-country ski trails ranges from a special sled dragged behind a snowmobile to large equipment designed specifically for snow grooming. Though the big expensive grooming equipment has some significant advantages over the lower cost snowmobile/sled option, a highly skilled operator can produce some excellent groomed trails with a snowmobile (and an unskilled one can make a real mess of the trail). The quality of grooming can sometimes make the difference between great skiing and very aggravating skiing. It's generally assumed (and rightfully so) that you can expect very good grooming at the private ski trails. They tend to be groomed far more frequently than many of the public trails in state parks, state forests, and national forests. Grooming on public trails tends to be far more inconsistent. Most public ski trails I've skied tend to have very average grooming (I guess you could say, mediocre), some have rather poor grooming, and some have outstanding grooming. A lot here depends on the person doing the grooming and the budget allotted for trail maintenance and grooming. Some trail systems are groomed by local volunteers (often a local ski club); these systems often have very good grooming because the groomers are also skiers.

Cross-country ski trails are groomed for classic and/or skating. Classic grooming is for the classic (kick and glide) style of skiing and consists of the two parallel tracks formed into the snow base. Classic-only trails tend to be narrow (maybe 6 feet to 8 feet wide) and generally have one set of classic tracks (one pair) formed in the middle of the trail. Skating lanes for skate style skiing are wider and consist of the base groomed flat with the corduroy rills formed on top. Skating lanes are generally at least 8 feet wide and can be considerably wider. Though there are occasionally trails groomed only for skating, it is far more common that trails are groomed for either classic only (on narrower trails), or a combination of classic and skating. A trail groomed for both skating and classic will have a set of classic tracks down near the side (or both sides) of the trail, with the remainder of the trail being groomed flat for skating. These combo trails will usually be at least 12 feet wide and can be significantly wider (The Birkebeiner Trail in northern Wisconsin must be at least 30 feet wide).

A good groomer (though not enough of them) will often end the classic tracks at difficult downhills (fast winding downhills) and leave the flat skate-style surface on the hill to allow better control for the skiers.

Groomed cross country ski trail systems are almost always made up of one-way trails but may have some sections that allow two-way traffic (usually connector and main access trails). Hiking is generally not allowed on groomed ski trails.

Ungroomed Trails

Example of a shared use (hiking and skiing) ungroomed trail

Though I've certainly grown to appreciate nicely groomed trails, there is still a lot of skiing to be had on ungroomed trails. Ungroomed trails may be trails designed for skiing but are no longer groomed (thanks, budget cuts) or never were groomed. These trails will have similar characteristics to the groomed trails in that they are generally wide and have gentle curves. In parts of the country that don't get a whole lot of snow, you can pretty much do the same type of skiing on these trails (with the same equipment) as you would on groomed trails. Classic skiers will generally follow previous skiers tracks resulting in a similar track to what they would ski on a groomed trail. Skate skiers will have a much more difficult time on ungroomed trails though it is possible. In parts of the country that get a lot of snow, an ungroomed ski trail that gets a fair amount of skier use will eventually result in a trough running down the trail where the skiers originally set their tracks (and others followed). This starts to make skiing more difficult because the snow where you are planting your poles is a foot or more higher than the base you are skiing on. In addition, hills basically turn into bobsled chutes negating any way to control speed or direction.

Example of a backwoods trail (hiking trail) in winter

Another type of ungroomed trail skiing is what I like to refer to as Backwoods Skiing. Backwoods skiing is skiing on hiking trails, frozen lakes and rivers, old forest roads, or bushwacking where no trails exist. Skiing on hiking trails can be extremely challenging because you are often dealing with very narrow trails, steep hills, and very sharp turns. In addition, large rocks, protruding roots, downed trees, and steep gullies, that are hardly an issue for a hiker can be a real challenge when you're on skis. Some hiking trails (or at least some sections of trails) are simply not skiable, so it's a good idea to be familiar with the terrain before attempting to ski a hiking trail. That being said, I've had a lot of fun skiing hiking on hiking trails, and I'm not just talking about slowly trudging through deep snow. If the hiking trail gets some hiker/snowshoe use during the winter, you will likely find it compacted enough to provide some pretty fast skiing (faster than you may want on those narrow downhills).

And then there's Crust Skiing. Crust skiing is more of a snow condition than a skiing technique or type of trail. When a thaw and refreeze (or multiple thaw/freeze cycles)in uncompacted snow result in a crusty surface strong enough to support a skier, you have crust skiing. Crust skiing is not done on trails since most trails would have already been compacted by skiers or hikers (and would typically be very icy under the conditions that make for crust skiing), but rather crust skiing is done off-trail through the woods provided the snow is deeper than the underbrush or can be done in open areas such as in parks and on golf courses or on frozen lakes. The nature of the crusty surface created under these conditions makes for some great skiing (either classic or skate style). See my video of Crust Skiing

This is what I call the backcountry

The final type of ungroomed trail skiing is known as Backcountry Skiing. Though some may think my definition of backwoods skiing is basically backcountry skiing (and some equipment vendors categorize products as backcountry that are actually for backwoods skiing), I consider them to be very different (and no, I'm not looking for a fight here). What I consider backcountry skiing is essentially ungroomed mountain skiing. And the types of equipment and techniques used for backcountry skiing are significantly different than those used for backwoods or typical groomed trail cross country skiing. And in backcountry skiing, there really aren't any trails in the conventional sense. So to be honest, backcountry skiing doesn't even belong on a page dedicated to cross country ski trails, so I guess I'll let it go at that.

Difficulty Ratings

Cross country ski trail difficulty rating symbols

Cross country ski trails are often assigned difficulty ratings. The good news is that there seems to be a standard set of symbols used to represent the difficulty ratings. You basically have the easy trails (also called easier, easiest, beginner, etc.) designated with a green circle with an almost flat wavy line going through it. Then the more difficult trails (also called intermediate) designated by a blue square (or sometimes a blue circle) with a more wavy line (looks like hills) through it. And finally you have the most difficult trails (also called difficult, expert, etc.) designated by a black diamond with a jagged line (looks like mountains) through it. But wait, there's more, in some cases you get a safety yellow symbol with a big exclamation point (!) in it that is sometimes displayed in addition to the black diamond symbol just to say "we're not kidding here".

The bad news is that applying these difficulty ratings is rather subjective and therefore you can't necessarily compare a trail designated as easy in one system to be comparably easy to a trail labeled as easy in another (or more difficult, or most difficult). That being said, easy trails should be trails that are mainly flat to gentle grades with maybe a few small hills. More difficult trails can be dramatically more difficult than easy trails and may have very large hills with gradual turns in them or steep fast hills. Most difficult trails tend to have very steep (as in almost straight down) hills or fast hills with tighter turns. To my disappointment, I have occasionally skied black diamond trails (most difficult) that really weren’t any more difficult than the "more difficult" trails in the system but were designated as "most difficult" simply because they were longer (had more miles).

The reason difficulty ratings are so important with cross country ski trails is that, as mentioned earlier, most groomed cross country ski trails are one-way trails and therefore if you start skiing down a trail that turns out to be well beyond your skiing ability, you can't just turn around and go back to the trailhead. Also note that difficulty ratings are based on good snow conditions. In icy conditions, even an easy trail can get scary fast and a more difficult or most difficult trail can become unskiable.

It's important to note that the color codes (green, blue, and black) used for the difficulty rating symbols are often completely separate from the color coding used for navigating the trail system (for example the "Green Trail" may not be the "Easy Trail").

How much snow?

So how much snow does it take to turn a trail into a ski trail? Well that depends on where you live. In the often snow-starved area of southeast Wisconsin where I live, if we get three or four inches of new snow on top of bare frozen ground or an inch or two on top of ice, we are out skiing (and some places in the area may even be grooming). On the other hand, I recall one December driving up to a big private ski area in Canada where they had over a foot of snow on the ground only to find they only groomed a few trails because "they didn't have enough snow yet". And to be honest, they may not have had enough snow for their grooming methods and trails. We have some skilled groomers in my area that can turn six inches of uncompressed snow into nice groomed trails (though there won't be much of a classic track), but I've been to trails up north where they are used to much more snow and their groomers will take 8 or 10 inches of snow and turn it into a mess of dirt and leaves mixed with snow.

Typical minimal snow conditions where I live Marginal conditions after a partial thaw, but still skiable in my book

The photos above show some marginal snow conditions, one with just a small amount of snow on the ground and the other with old snow conditions after a partial thaw. Not the best conditions, but I enjoyed skiing both those trails.

Lift-assisted Cross Country Ski Trails?

Some downhill (Alpine) ski areas also have cross country (Nordic) ski trails that basically go down the back side of the mountain/hill and therefore allow the opportunity to use the ski lift eliminate the uphill portion of xc skiing. I think for most cross-country skiers, there is something inherently wrong with this concept, but that doesn't mean it's without merits. I did lift-assisted xc skiing once, and though I wouldn't rule out doing it again, it did feel a little wrong. My lift-assisted xc ski adventure started by me falling as I got off the chair lift (I had never been on a ski chair lift before and getting off with xc skis is tricky depending on the shape of the off-ramp) and then it got really scary when I found the first section of trail was covered with ice and very steep. But it got better after that when I was able to enjoy a seemingly endless, nicely groomed, winding downhill. As I recall (this was many years ago), I had do buy a special lift ticket for xc skiers which was substantially cheaper (I think it was 5 or 10 bucks) than a downhill lift ticket but only allowed for a single trip to the top. This particular trail system also had the option to ski up the back side of the mountain on another trail and still get the same long downhill experience without compromising your xc values. I personally prefer to earn my downhills the old fashion way..

This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki