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Snow-shoeing, skiing offer healthy ways to enjoy Montana winters

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Years ago, I decided the only way to make peace with Montana’s long, gray, and often-frigid winters was to get outside and find ways to enjoy them. Since downhill skiing fell by the wayside, I’ve amped up my cross-country skiing. It’s a much cheaper pursuit than its downhill cousin (for the most part, once you have the equipment, it’s free), and I love the quiet delight of shooshing through the winter woods, whether on a path of my own making or on a groomed trail. 

On a winter unlike this one, when snow piles up all around, local options abound. Flathead Reservation wildlands offer plenty of skiing and snow-shoeing adventures (non-tribal members need a tribal recreation permit). My favorites include tribal lands at the top of Jette Hill, north of Polson, and Hellroaring Road, just off Highway 35 (make sure you have good tires and 4-wheel drive for this one), which leads to a network of logging roads with views of Flathead Lake below. 

The canals that feed the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project are rimmed with seldom-traveled dirt roads that make perfect, level skiing terrain. Find those in the foothills from McDonald Lake to North Crow, and winding above the farmlands south of Polson to Pablo Reservoir. When snow abounds, local golf courses often have cross-country tracks cut through them by eager skiers. 

Further afield, Blacktail Mountain Nordic Trails is a favorite. Just 45 minutes north of Polson and located eight miles above Lakeside at an elevation of 5,000 feet, the area offers about 15 miles of varied terrain that’s groomed daily from December through March. Even with scanty snow in the valley, we found great skiing there this month (northshorenordic.org/blacktail-mountain-nordic-trails/). 

The North Shore Nordic Club, which maintains Blacktail, also manages Foothills Nordic Trails near Bigfork. According to a recent post from the club however, “Trails are sheer ice right now, better suited to hockey skates then skis.” A few late-winter snowstorms could remedy that predicament (northshorenordic.org).

Further north, the Glacier Nordic Club, headquartered at the Glacier Nordic Center in Whitefish, maintains an elaborate system of trails at Big Mountain, the Whitefish Lake Golf Course, and the River’s Edge Park in Columbia Falls. Snow is an issue for the lower-elevation courses, with the Nordic center posting its first mid-season closure in at least 20 years.  

The Big Mountain Nordic Trails are groomed daily with traverse lush cedar forests and views of Whitefish Lake, the Flathead Valley and surrounding mountain peaks. The upper trails are challenging with steep accents and fast, fun descents while the lower trails are more moderate.

The Glacier Nordic Shop is open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily for rentals and sales. Learn more at www.glaciernordicclub.com.

Glacier National Park is a mecca for cross-country skiers and snow-shoers this time of year, with trails offering access to spectacular scenery. While weekends can be crowded, especially at the West Glacier entrance, weekdays are usually less congested. 

Park Service maps (www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/crosscountryskiing.htm) show trails ranging from two-three miles round trip to 12-mile treks. Launch your adventure from Apgar, McDonald and Avalanche Creeks, Polebridge Ranger Station, and Two Medicine Valley or St. Mary Lake on the east side of the park. 

Not all the skiing fun lies to the north. The Missoula Nordic Club grooms ski trails at Pattee Canyon, in the Rattlesnake, and at Lubrecht Experimental Forest, east of Missoula on Hwy. 200. Volunteers also host clinics, races and youth programs. 

The club’s website (www.missoulanordic.org/trail-reports) offers an extensive list of additional cross-country trails in western Montana, including those that allow dogs. Among the ones we’ve sampled and relish returning to:

The Seeley Creek Nordic Ski Trails (www.seeleylakenordic.org) offer 11 miles of groomed skate and classic cross-country trails, groomed on a consistent basis. There’s a warming hut near the parking lot and courses deliver a wide range of terrain for skiers of all levels. 

Lolo Pass on Hwy. 12 provides some of the most reliable snow in the region (10 inches of fresh snow fell over the weekend) and offers eight miles of trails groomed for skate and classic skiing, plus a network of groomed multi-use trails suitable for skiing. Passes range from $5 per day to $35 for the season (www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nezperceclearwater/recarea/?recid=80112).

Located on the Continental Divide, 95 miles south of Missoula, Chief Joseph Pass encompasses more than 33 miles of trails, groomed for skate and classic skiing by the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club (www.bitterrootxcskiclub.net). Like Lolo Pass, it offers consistent snowfall and typically good conditions into early Spring.

The Mile High Nordic Ski Club (milehighnordic.org) maintains 17 miles of groomed cross-country trails on the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area, 11 miles south of Anaconda on the road to Wisdom. Trails are groomed one or two times a week. Echo Lake Trails (echolaketrails.org) are adjacent to Discovery Basin ski area and Echo Lake, near Philipsburg, and offer 8.6 miles of trails for skate and classic skiing. These two courses are on the list for our next adventure: two days of skiing, paired with two nights of soaking at Fairmont Hot Springs. 

Hot tip: before you load up the pups, make sure your destination is dog-friendly.

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