December 4, 2011

There wouldn't be so many ways to enjoy snow if winter weren't nature's most awe-inspiring season.

Snow is worth the search for many South Floridians — but you don't need to fly across the country to find it. Nor do you need to flail your way down a steep slope to immerse yourself in the grandeur of mountains. There are slower, safer, saner ways to go.

More people than ever are attracted to alternative sports like snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Both are wonderful, easy-to-learn ways to immerse yourself in winter, but Thom Perkins , a nationally-known New England Nordic ski instructor, says cross country does snowshoeing one better.

"Snowshoeing's fun and most cross country ski spots have snowshoe trails too," says Perkins, who is also the executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation . "But one step on snowshoes takes you ... well, one step. With a single stride on cross country skis, you can glide 20 feet! For me, that's the perfect way to dance through nature."

In the village of Jackson, N.H., one of the nation's top Nordic ski sites, that dance through nature happens on more than 100 miles of cross country trails around a quintessential New England setting that doesn't need faux Bavarian chalets for atmosphere.

Cross country's enticing blend of exercise and a family-friendly learning curve — with no lift lines to wait in or crowds to cope with — is available all over the eastern United States, from Vermont and New Hampshire down to West Virginia and even North Carolina.

The best of these Nordic resorts go way beyond boring cross country trails carved into golf courses near downhill ski areas. Distinctive places like Jackson, N.H., the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont, and Canaan Valley in West Virginia have trails that lead even beginning skiers into close contact with scenic settings that downhill skiers and snowboarders can only imagine.

There's nothing wrong with downhill — in fact, each of these memorable cross country ski destinations is close to great ski resorts. And don't discount snowshoeing if "slower and safer" for you means sticking to feet that don't slide.

Anyone who has post-holed through deep snow can imagine how easy a winter hike would be if you could float on top of the snow. The most casual hiker does just that wearing snowshoes and a light hiking boot — which suggests why the growth rate of snowshoeing has exceeded that of snowboarding the last two winters.

"Disregard the old misconception of waddling around like a duck on big wooden tennis rackets," says Mark Elmore , sports director for the United States Snowshoe Association . "There's no learning curve with today's light, high-tech snowshoes. You can immediately walk in a normal stride."

Most Nordic ski areas offer snowshoeing too, so if your friends set out on skis, rent some snowshoes and have your own "saner" adventure in the winter in woods.



Thom Perkins is the ultimate convert to cross country. For 35 years he's run the foundation that has wrapped this Currier & Ives village in cross country paths and taught the country's top cross country ski instructors how to teach.

"Jackson is not a manufactured ski experience," Perkins says. "I have a photo in my office of Nordic skiers here in 1888."

Jackson's ski culture is the essence of cross country — skiing not just for fun, "but also to school, to work, to lunch, or a great view," Perkins says. "This isn't a place where you ski in circles and then drive home."

From gradual, easy trails near Jackson's classic covered bridge, one of the East's largest Nordic trail networks winds up into surrounding forests. Like the best Nordic destinations, Jackson uses machines much like downhill ski slope groomers to press perfect ski grooves in the snow.

"Anybody will tell you it's more fun to cross country ski behind someone in fresh snow because their tracks guide your skis," Perkins says. "Machine-set tracks do that on all our trails, so even on exciting, rolling terrain, beginners don't even have to steer, just concentrate on fun."

Perkins nevertheless preaches taking a lesson from a professional. "Cross country skiing has a lot of levels," Perkins says. "Luckily the basic skills are easy to learn — especially if you get a complete introduction to the techniques." Perkins maintains that doesn't usually happen when a beginner learns from a friend.

The fun at Jackson ranges far up into the surrounding White Mountain National Forest, where Black Mountain and Wildcat Mountain ski areas offer plenty of downhill thrills — including on cross country skis. One Jackson Nordic ski trail, a favorite of accomplished backcountry cross country skiers, starts atop Wildcat Mountain (a one-time lift ticket gets you a ride to the top). After that, it's a rousing 11-mile run back to the valley village.

Not far away, the Great Glen Trails network in Gorham is another nice Nordic layout with spectacular views of the alpine summits of Mount Adams, Madison, and Washington, New England's highest peaks. In summer, motorists can take a road up Mount Washington. In winter, a van with tank treads can go halfway to the top, permitting advanced skiers an effortless glide back down.



The Trapp Family Lodge, a self-contained, 2,500-acre Nordic paradise near Stowe, Vt., has a huge trail system. It was also one of the country's earliest, most influential popularizers of cross country skiing. The Trapp cross country facility opened in 1968; "popular" Nordic skiing started in the United States in the 1970s.

It also has that rich Sound of Music history. You'll be constantly reminded of the family's saga, which started with fleeing the Nazis in Austria, at Trapp, from the European accents of the staff, to a grand lodge that's warm, cozy and so authentically Alpine in architecture it could be in Austria. Even the guesthouses will have you thinking you're in the Alps.

The main Nordic network is 37 miles of groomed trails with another 62 miles of adventurous backcountry paths that explore more distant forests and connect to other cross country trail systems. The resort's trails also link to the Stowe downhill ski area on Mount Mansfield via a classic Civilian Conservation Corps -constructed trail, one of the earliest ski trails in the East. Paths also reach the Catamount Trail, a 300-mile Nordic path from Vermont's northern to southern border.

For competent skiers, a favorite tour leads three miles one way to the Slayton Pasture Cabin. This is more than the rudimentary warming hut found at most cross country ski areas. It's a comfy spot for a homemade lunch no matter how many miles you ski before, or after, you get there.

If you're skiing in the spring, you might see workers skiing through the woods during maple sugaring season.



West Virginia is a "Land of Canaan" for cross country skiers. This mountain destination defies expectations from the start — first by dispensing with the Biblical pronunciation in favor of kuh-NANE, and following with big snow. Accumulations rival those of New England. 19th-century locals called Canaan "Canada."

The South's first skiing started here in the early 1950s when the Ski Club of Washington, D.C. skied natural snow-slopes that club members dubbed "Driftland." One of the East's most rustic 1950s ski lodges is still in use as the region's premier Nordic ski resort, White Grass Ski Touring Center.

Groomed trails lead from the valley floor up to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. One stride-and-glide through this winter wonderland and you'll see why owner Chip Chase is a real cross country character, a granola-culture leprechaun whose love of the sport and boundless energy inspire guests, while his wife, Laurie, fuels them for adventure at her natural foods café.

The center rents and sells the South's largest inventory of Nordic gear and offers professional lessons on 31 miles of machine-groomed trails from easy to expert. Trail shelters provide hot drinks and snacks for skiers.

Two of West Virginia's immaculate resort state parks flank White Grass, and all are linked by cross-country trails. Both Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley state parks offer lodge rooms and cabins. The former lodge, with Civilian Conservation Corps architecture, is perched on a canyon edge.

Two ski areas flank White Grass: Timberline Resort, with the region's longest ski run, more than two miles; and Canaan Valley ski area, with 37 slopes. B&Bs and dining spots populate the nearby timber town of Davis. You might not believe you're south of the Mason-Dixon Line.



South of Canaan Valley, there are cross country opportunities near Snowshoe, the South's biggest downhill ski resort and a major ski area by any definition .

Elk River Touring Center sits in a valley below Snowshoe and has been offering Nordic skiing and accommodations since the 1980s. It's a popular mountain biking and fly-fishing resort in summer, and in winter, trails encircle the valley lodge. Not far away, at a much higher elevation, the Highland Scenic Highway is closed to vehicles and very popular with Nordic skiers.



The Boone area of northwestern North Carolina celebrates 50 years of downhill skiing in 2012 — a landmark of success for some of the first ski areas to embrace the fledgling technology of snowmaking. Whether you think a resort out West needs snowmaking or not, the technology is now a staple at ski areas worldwide.

Resorts around Boone wouldn't be in the ski business at all if this part of the southern Appalachians wasn't a snowy spot. Beech Mountain, the East's highest ski area, and much higher surrounding summits, receive more than 100 inches of annual snowfall — more than Buffalo, N.Y.

Nordic skiing is plenty popular in the so-called High Country near Boone and Blowing Rock, home to the High Country Nordic Association . One major cross country ski shop in the area sells and rents a selection of skis and even offers lessons.

Grab your rental skis and head to the Blue Ridge Parkway's easy "leg-stretcher" trails. They're designed for motorists but make wonderful ski excursions, especially the 25 miles of gradual horse-and-carriage roads built a century ago at Moses Cone Park. These trails through towering white pines are the best trails for beginners.

Under significant snow, portions of the parkway are closed to motor traffic, making them perfect for beginning skiers. One such section is the Linn Cove Viaduct, south of Moses Cone Park. The bridge soars around Grandfather Mountain, offering awesome views.

The best snowshoe bet near Boone is to take a guided tour at Sugar Mountain ski area. On Jan. 7, National Winter Trails Day, the resort's snowshoe rentals and one-hour guided tours are free; .

For a more backcountry experience, head to the town of Beech Mountain where the new Emerald Outback trail system lies above 5,000 feet in elevation. Snowshoes are available for rent at Beech's Buckeye Recreation Center . The first-ever North Carolina State Snowshoe Championships will be on Jan. 7, with a "snowshoe scramble" for those under 12, a 5k fun run, and a competitive 10k race in five age groups; .

About an hour from Boone, nearly 6,300-foot Roan Mountain receives substantial snow. A summertime road to the top is gated in winter so cross country skiers have gradual touring to the peaks. Adjacent trails wind among spruces and firs in a decidedly northern setting — aptly named the Canadian Forest Zone .

You won't find machine groomed trails at the North Carolina sites. But as Thom Perkins might say, if you ski behind one of the many Nordic skiers who are out enjoying the area's trails, you should have a smooth stride and an easy glide into a winter wonderland.

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