Northern Minnesota is beautiful and punishing in winter. The crystalline snow crunches underfoot. Every naked birch is illuminated by the distant sun, and the silent world is drenched in white. Some days the snow is so cold that it sounds like squeaking Styrofoam. On the best subzero bluebird days, I have one clear purpose: to Nordic ski as fast and far as I can before my face freezes off.
People who live in more temperate climates think we northern Nordic types are masochistic nuts, cross-country skiing through winters that can last from October to April. I prefer to believe we’re practical, with a built-in survival compass that points toward sanity by way of burning calories and staving off cabin fever.
It’s true there’s a steep learning curve to Nordic skiing, both the centuries-old classical form where skis glide straightforward in tracks as arms pump along in synchronicity; and skate skiing, the faster technique brought to the world’s attention by Bill Koch when he glided in a V-formation to the 1982 World Cup Nordic title. When mastered, both styles provide a rush akin to human flight.
A descendant of Swedish immigrants on my maternal and paternal sides, I grew up in Duluth, a hilly, forested city on the western edge of Lake Superior. Almost every Saturday in the winter, my parents would bundle their five kids in patched snowmobile suits and my grandmother’s knitted hats and scarves. Off we’d trudge to 660-acre Hartley Park at the top of our dead-end street, where we would buckle our boots into three-pronged bindings and stride off on pine skis, shuffling behind Dad like overstuffed elves.
Everything about Nordic skiing—the difficulty, the still wonder of the woods, the powerful efficiency required of my body—connects me to a joy I’ve had since my childhood. I seek out that feeling when I travel in the winter, purposely choosing destinations within close proximity to ski trails.
After nearly two decades of living in New Mexico, I’ve moved back to Duluth, where the average mean temperature in January hovers around five degrees. When my dad, the grounding force in my life, died a few winters ago, Nordic skiing was my saving grace. I’ve made a habit of leaving my fancy, faster skis in the closet and instead I used my Dad’s sturdy, 40-year-old fish-scale skis. Gliding over the calming trails, I remember how he taught us about the importance of squeezing every last drop of joy out of northern Minnesota winters.
Here are a few of the best Nordic ski spots in the U.S., sourced from National Geographic’s new book 100 Slopes of a Lifetime, written by Gordy Megroz.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch (Tabernash, Colorado)
Despite being just an hour-and-a-half from Denver and right down the road from Winter Park Resort, Devil’s Thumb Ranch feels remote. The property sits in a quiet valley, spread out across 6,500 acres of windswept fields and dense forest.
The ranch was built in the 1930s and was named for the Devil’s Thumb, a prominent rocky outcropping that juts out from the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Legend has it that after decades of fighting, the Utes and Arapaho declared peace and buried the devil, leaving only his thumb exposed. In 1975, former Olympic ski racer Dick Taylor began developing cross-country ski trails on the land.
Over the years, that’s expanded to almost 75 miles of groomed trail, the best of which are Lactic Grande and Waxwing. Make the 2 mile climb to the ranch’s highest point, the best spot to take in views of Byers Peak, the highest nearby mountain, and the sinuous Fraser River. Then make the harrowing 30-degree, mile-long descent that leads to Waxwing, a trail that meanders for 2 miles through lodgepole pines and aspens. Here, besides the breeze through the trees, the babbling of a nearby brook, or the rustling of a moose, you’ll discover utter silence and blissful isolation.
Jackson Hole (Wyoming)
In 1963, Paul McCollister, one of the founders of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, strapped some climbing skins to his skis and, along with Barry Corbet, a ski mountaineer and guide who’d earned a reputation making first descents throughout Wyoming’s perilous Teton Range, headed to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, a 10,450-foot peak within the Tetons.
In a little more than two years, Jackson Hole would open to the public. In 2017, the ski area began hosting the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s, an event in which professional skiers and snowboarders speed off the lip of the couloir’s cornice, flying 100 feet through the air while performing backflips, spins, and grabs.
The sloping Shooting Star Nordic track spans over 9 miles of gently rolling terrain, including a dog-friendly loop dubbed Buddy’s Trail, which was recently expanded. The Teton Pines Nordic center maintains 10 miles of groomed trails for the past 27 winters, and offers trails for all abilities. Along with views of the Tetons, you may see moose, deer, trumpeter swans, foxes, coyotes, and bald eagles on your ski.
Turpin Meadow Ranch offers a cozy place to stay with 12.4 miles of groomed trails right outside your door. Designed by Olympic Nordic skiing and biathlon athletes, the trail system is made up of seven connected loops with views of the Grand Tetons. Their trails are dog-friendly too.
Korkki Nordic Ski Center (Duluth, Minnesota)
Around the middle of the 19th century, when large numbers of Scandinavians immigrated to Minnesota, several newcomers began building ski trails in their backyards to make it feel more like home.
In keeping with that tradition, Charlie Banks, a popular cross-country ski racer with Finnish roots, used an ax and grub hoe to craft a tangle of singletrack behind his house in Duluth in 1954. For the most part, Banks allowed only friends, family, and a handful of local ski racers to ski his trails. He also hosted ski races, including the Erik Judeen Memorial Classic (named for Banks’s former coach), a 6.2-mile event that was started in 1963 and grew to become one of the biggest ski races in the Midwest, even drawing international talent from Italy, Germany, Russia, and Canada.
In 1992, Mark Helmer, a local skier who’d met Banks and started using his trails a decade earlier, suggested that he open the beloved network of trails to the public.
These days, other than a small warming hut that was constructed in 1993, the 6.8-mile trail network is much the same as when Banks built it. Only wide enough for classic skis, the nonprofit draws skiers who come to test their skills on the original 10-km loop where the Erik Judeen Memorial Classic was first held.
The trail is composed of brutal climbs, steep, flume-like descents, and sharp turns, and each section has its own name and a little story to go along with how it was christened. For example, Cook’s Fall is named after Sam Cook, a Duluth local who barreled face-first into the deep snow on this part of the hill.
There’s also Salmela’s Curve, which was the scene of a legendary incident in which Chad Salmela went too fast into the curve, taking out a number of other skiers and causing a pileup.
Methow Trails (Methow Valley, Washington)
In the mid-1970s, Methow locals enlisted help from Seattle environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and after decades of lawsuits—one of which made it to the U.S. Supreme Court—fought off chairlifts, condos, and a base village. Opting instead for human-powered skiing as its economic driver, the Methow Valley developed North America’s largest cross-country ski area. This connected its small towns with more than 125 miles of groomed Nordic trails, preserved its rural setting, and created an invested community—as well as multiple Olympians.
The vast majority of trails are beginner or intermediate terrain, including the region’s most popular attraction: the Community Trail. It's an 18-mile, mostly gentle stretch that runs north from the southern end of Methow Valley, meandering along the crystal clear Methow River, ending in the town of Mazama. There, you can reward yourself by buying a famous sea salt baguette, smeared with homemade goat cheese, from the beloved ski-in, ski-out Mazama Store.
The best way to experience the system of trails is by staying overnight in the Rendezvous Huts, a network of five wood-frame shelters spaced 5 miles apart. Built between the 1980s and 1990s, each spartan hut has a wood-burning stove, a full kitchen with a propane stove and oven as well as pots and pans, and bunk beds.
Rikert Nordic Center (Ripton, Vermont)
The woods tucked beneath Bread Loaf Mountain drip with Vermont charm. As you cross-country ski along the trails here, you’ll slide through maple groves and farm fields, over babbling brooks, and past stone walls, as well as the former summer cabin of famed poet Robert Frost.
The best skiing is on the Tormondsen Trail, which was designed by John Morton, a noted cross-country trail builder who has created Nordic networks all over the country. It opened in 2011 and added snowmaking in 2012, with 10 to 15 snow guns that each blow 250 gallons a minute. That same year, the NCAA skiing championships were held on the trail, and it has been used for countless races since.
But there’s no need to race through the 3.1-mile loop. It’s better, in fact, to take it slow and enjoy its features. “It’s wide—about 30 feet wide—and it’s skier-friendly, even for nonracers,” says Andrew Johnson, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team and current Middlebury College coach. “Most race trails aren’t that way, but this one is.”
Ideally, you’re finishing the trail as the sun is setting so that you can watch Bread Loaf Mountain, a long, rounded peak that resembles a loaf of bread, light up pink in the evening alpenglow.
Skookum Glacier (near Whittier, Alaska)
They call it crust skiing, named for the icy layer that forms overnight on the surface of snow. For decades, between about mid-April and mid-May— the only time of year that the crust forms—Alaskans have used skate skis to soar across the smooth, supportive surface in the same way that ice-skaters glide across a lake.
One of the more popular places to crust-ski is on the Skookum Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula, just a 40-mile drive southeast from Anchorage on the Seward Highway. To find the way in, you’ll need a GPS device or, better yet, a guide who can also steer you clear of hidden crevasses that scar the glacier. And to improve your chances of good snow conditions, leave early in the morning—because by about noon, the sun will have melted the crust into slush.
As you enjoy miles of skiing, you’ll pass a tree graveyard, the remnants of a 1964 earthquake that caused the ground level to drop nine feet, flooding this valley with ocean water that killed the still-standing gray and gnarled forest. You’ll pass a 100-foot-high ice cliff and onto the glacier, where you’re surrounded by the peaks of the Kenai Mountains. There are no trails here.
On the crusted surface, you’ll travel twice the speed you normally would, which means that making it to the end of the 4-mile-long glacier can take as little as 10 minutes. There, you’ll find ice caves, stunning blue-ice walls, and giant columns of blue ice.
Wolverine Nordic Trails (Ironwood, Michigan)
When the glaciers that carved out most of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula receded two million years ago, they left behind rolling hills and the largest freshwater lake in the world, Superior, which produces lake-effect snowstorms that blanket the region with some 200 inches of snow each year. The snow and topography, along with long, cold winters, make for ideal cross-country skiing conditions. So when a number of Finns and Swedes emigrated to the Upper Peninsula, bringing their Nordic traditions with them, it was no surprise that they cut hundreds of miles of trails to slide along.
Some of the best trails are found in the Wolverine Nordic Trail System, a 15-mile network of tracks on the Wisconsin border that are known for their consistently good grooming (for both skate and classic skiing) and the fact that during the ski season, they’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The gems of the system are the Cliff and Cliffhanger trails.
Though a daytime ski through the poplar, aspen, spruce, and white birch trees is nice, skiing them at night is an otherworldly experience. That’s particularly true when you get to the cliff section of the Cliff Trail, where the rocky outcroppings bordering the trail are plastered with ice and the minerals that create a kaleidoscope of frozen colors.
Stephanie Pearson, a contributing editor of Outside magazine, lives in Duluth, Minnesota. Her essay was adapted from one in National Geographic Traveler’s January 2019 issue. You can find her on Twitter.
Gordy Megroz is a contributing editor of Outside magazine. His work has appeared in Wired, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and SKI. Born and raised in Vermont, he now lives (and skis) in Jackson, Wyoming. You can find him on Twitter.
Find additional information on the destinations listed here and dozens more dream ski getaways in National Geographic's new book, 100 Slopes of a Lifetime.