Photography: Courtesy Lone Mountain Ranch
Photography: Courtesy Lone Mountain Ranch

It might be a long way from where cross-country skiing originated in Norway, but the American West has plenty of great snow and hundreds of miles of groomed trails. Here are several of our favorite Big Sky spots to steep yourself in the silent and serene exertion of long skinny skis.

Lone Mountain Ranch

This historic guest ranch between Big Sky Resort and Yellowstone National Park has been around since 1915, making a name for itself as ski-cation heaven among cross-country and alpine lovers alike. Cross Country Skier magazine voted Lone Mountain Ranch the No. 1 Nordic ski resort in North America, and with Big Sky Resort in its backyard, it’s equally a downhiller’s dream.

“It’s really a winter haven for outdoor enthusiasts of all interests,” general manager Paul Robertson says. “Nordic, alpine, snowboarding, snowshoeing — you name it. On any given day, our guests can do all of those things, and it’s all world-class.”

On the cross-country side, it boils down to phenomenal terrain, dependable snow, 53 miles (85 kilometers) of groomed trails, experienced guides, and prime location and scenery. The highest trailhead on the cross-country trail meets the nearest chairlift at Big Sky Resort. Robertson’s suggestion for an ideal day? “Do a half-day alpine, half-day Nordic.”

That might mean clamping on the skinny skis on Walkin’ Jim’s Way. The route — renamed from its historical moniker, Little Bavaria — honors the late poet-musician-environmental activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz, who drove the horse-drawn sleigh at Lone Mountain for 25 years and who particularly loved this trail.

Going cross-country at Lone Mountain, you get the perks of elevation changes in Montana mountain country. “You travel through old-growth Douglas fir forest, and then open up onto really nice mountain meadows. Timber, meadows, creekside — most of our trails on any path you take, you’re going to experience all the different aspects of our environment. You might even chance upon moose and elk.”

Robertson’s personal favorite way to experience a day of cross-country is to take the ranch’s up-mountain shuttle to the upper reaches of the trail. “You get a fabulous Nordic skiing experience, going mainly down a rolling trail from 8,400 feet to 6,600 feet. There are some classic uphill climbs, but over a two- to three-hour period, it’s mainly a nice, gradual downhill drop. If you’re a real diehard, you can always climb up before coming down.”

For superlative scenery, Robertson recommends the Summit Trail, which pays off in an iconic view of Lone Peak — it’s also a nice place to break out the chef-packed lunch and dig into ranch favorites like the homemade berry energy bar. To relax after pleasantly wearing yourself out skiing all day in the fresh mountain air, Robertson recommends the ranch’s saloon for its popular après-ski and live music.

And be sure to enjoy the sleigh-ride dinner excursion, which transports you to the famous and historic North Fork Cabin for a leisurely kerosene-lantern-lit coursed dinner of homemade soup, Montana prime rib, side dishes, and cobbler for dessert. After a blanket-swaddled sleigh ride back to the ranch, it’s a good night’s sleep in newly renovated cabins and fresh powder in the morning. The seasonal ride-and-dine experience is available through April 3 this year.

West Yellowstone

Cross-country skiing probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Old Faithful, but the trailhead of the famed Rendezvous Ski Trails in the Gallatin National Forest starts in West Yellowstone. From there, more than 30 kilometers of groomed trails fan out on U.S. Forest Service land. You’re adjacent to Yellowstone National Park and the Continental Divide here, cruising along on powdery trails at just over 6,800 feet, coursing over gently rolling terrain through stands of lodgepole pine and open meadows. This is the site of the annual Yellowstone Ski Festival, so if you’re not doing anything during Thanksgiving week, think about making this ski scene: Nordic skiing clinics, competitive races, biathlon races, gear demo, indoor ski show, and a variety of other presentations, clinics, and classes.

Bohart Ranch Cross Country Ski Center

If you don’t know telemarking from telemarketing, are not sure you’ve quite got the hang of skinny skis, or just want to improve your cross-country technique, the Bohart Ranch Cross Country Ski Center offers daily lessons and clinics for all levels of skiers in both classic and skate techniques. Located 16½ miles up Bridger Canyon from Bozeman, Bohart Ranch has knowledgeable instructors and 18½ miles (30 kilometers) of scenic groomed trails that loop through private and Forest Service land.

Elsewhere in the West

Not making it to Montana this winter? Great cross-country skiing also awaits elsewhere in the West. Some spots to check out: Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Colorado; The Lodge at Jackson Fork Ranch in Wyoming; the Enchanted Forest Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe Area in New Mexico; Royal Gorge and other Tahoe spots, as well as Yosemite in California; Methow Trails in Washington; Sun Valley in Idaho; and Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah .


From the January 2017 issue.

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