Good year for cross-country skiing

FT. STEVENSON STATE PARK – The nearly silent swish of skis moving stealthily over the snow is a faint but familiar sound to cross-country skiers. Cross-country enthusiasts utilizing freshly groomed trails enjoy fresh air, brisk exercise and a pristine outdoor experience during a North Dakota winter.

Several miles of groomed cross-country ski trails exist in the Minot region, ranging from the Turtle Mountains to the Missouri River bottom. Unlike last winter, snowfall has been more than adequate and cross-country trekkers have gleefully been taking advantage of the favorable conditions.

Several North Dakota State Parks maintain groomed trail systems throughout the winter. At Lake Metigoshe State Park cross-country skiers can choose from nearly 10 miles of groomed trails, mostly through Turtle Mountain woodland that offers protection from chilling winter winds. The 10 miles of cross-country trails are part of nearly 18 miles of winter trails within the park.

“A lot more trails in the park are snowshoe trails. One of the newer ones doesn’t even have signage up yet,” said Larry Hagen, park manager. “Right now the ski trails are in excellent condition. We try to groom them once a week, depending on the weather and amount of snowmobile damage.”

Hagen estimates this winter’s snow depth in the area of the park to be “35 to 40 inches on the level.” Roughly 10 inches is required for trails to be groomed, so there is no lack of snow for outdoor enthusiasts at Lake Metigoshe State Park. Rental cabins are also available.

“We do have some skis and binders and poles available for rent,” reminded Hagen. “The trailhead warming house is located about a half mile into the park.”

Cross Ranch State Park

Another park that offers groomed cross-country trails is Cross Ranch State Park. Cross Ranch is situated along the Missouri River south of Washburn. Some of the oldest and tallest cottonwood trees in the state provide stately protection from winter’s elements.

“We’ve got 10 miles of trails that we groom, most on Nature Conservancy property that is heavily wooded with cottonwoods,” said Eric Lang, Cross Ranch State Park manager. “Seeing white-tailed deer and bald eagles is pretty common. We’ve got skis and snowshoes available for rent at $15 a day.”

A winter outdoors festival was held at Cross Ranch last weekend. It attracted more than 80 participants, including about 30 cross-country skiers who trekked park trails.

“They said the trails were good,” said Lang. “But snow conditions here have not been great. I know warm weather and rainfall has made the trails crusty in a few spots, but overall they are in good shape.”

A unique feature at Cross Ranch is the availability of cabin and yurt rentals throughout the winter season. That allows skiers to choose the best times each day to ski and also to tuck into a warm enclosure after spending time on the trail. One of the rental yurts is four miles from park headquarters and can be reached only by cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

Fort Stevenson State Park

Fort Stevenson State Park, south of Garrison, hosts a growing number of cross-country skiers each winter. This winter the snow has been deep enough to be inviting for those wishing to get out and enjoy the outdoors.

“We’ve got three miles of groomed trails,” said Dick Messerly, park manager. “This year we’ve had good groomed trails since the first decent snow and fairly good participation. We have grooming equipment here to pack it and also set our track. Skiers like the trails groomed so they don’t have to knock it out themselves. It’s nice.”

Cross-country skiing at Fort Stevenson began shortly after Thanksgiving but really began to pick up during the Christmas season. According to Messerly, skiers are likely to see owls, hawks, deer and other wildlife along the trails. Trails are groomed each Friday unless weather conditions don’t cooperate.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years,” noted Messerly. “A lot of people are surprised at how nice the trail system is here. We’ve had some nice compliments. Skiers can ski here and ski Cross Ranch all in the same day or two and enjoy two different parks and different scenery.”

Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery

Relatively new to the cross-county craze is the trails located below Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. A groomer was purchased two years ago. The grooming equipment sat idle last winter due to the lack of snow but that has has changed.

“This year there is snow to groom,” explained Rob Holm, hatchery manager. “There’s cross-country skiing available from the hiking trail below the hatchery all the way to the campground.”

The trail is located in the river bottom, so it offers both protection from adverse winter weather and a good opportunity to view wildlife. It is not uncommon to see deer, a variety of waterfowl and both golden and bald eagles along the trail.