There was a time when cross-country skiers always packed a lunch as they headed out, spending a full day breaking a trail through foot-deep snow, then retracing their path on the “groomed” trail.
Most Nordic skiers today simply stick a Clif Bar or packet of Gu in their pocket, thanks to manicured skate ski trails and hard-fast classical tracks that allow them to cover miles of terrain in an hour. The focus, often, is on whether yesterday’s time can be beaten.
But there’s still room for big, fun sweeping Nordic excursions worthy of kicking back and relaxing, taking in the sights and—yes—chowing down on a picnic lunch.
The Harriman Trail is the most popular long ski on groomed trails. Skiing it from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters racks up 31 kilometers, or 18.5 miles, skiers can brag about later in the evening. The trail is popular in the early season with those training for the Boulder Mountain Tour race in February. But, as days get longer and temperatures warm, it becomes a favorite of Nordic skiers wanting to test themselves.
There are several jumping-off points at Prairie Creek, Baker Creek and Cathedral Pines for those who don’t want to go all the way. And the Ride ‘n Glide bus service from Ketchum to Galena Lodge, now in its second year, offers skiers a way to avoid having to take a shuttle car to Galena. Skiers can hop on the bus Fridays through Sundays from Dec. 15 through Feb. 25 at the YMCA parking lot in Ketchum and ski to any bus stop along the way to return to Ketchum. The bus departs five times daily from Ketchum beginning at 9:30 a.m. The last returns from Galena Lodge at 3:25 p.m.
Boundary Creek is by far the most beautiful trail among Sun Valley Nordic loops. The 6-kilometer trail runs along Trail Creek from Trail Creek Cabin with a little add-on at the end in the 0.8-kilometer Hyndman View Loop. The latter involves a steep climb but it is worth it as it offers a stunning view of 12,009-foot Hyndman Peak.
The Boundary Creek Trail is open to fat bikes and dogs that start on the Dog Loop. Others can reach it from the Nordic Center by taking the Trail Creek Loop.
Billy’s Bridge gets the nod from dogs wanting to make a day of it. Two big loops provide 8 kilometers of skiing with fabulous views of the Boulder Mountains. And they can be skied frontwards and backwards and, then, off trail for those who can’t stand to go home just yet. A little hilltop partway up the north loop provides a convenient place for those who want to take a leisurely snack break and watch the rest of the world ski by.
The perimeter trails at Galena Lodge are among Paul Smith’s favorite trails when he’s out for a long ski. “There may be lots of people around the lodge, but it only takes a few kilometers to get away from everybody,” said Smith, who moved to Sun Valley last year from New York.
The trails make up the Galena Loppett, which comes with free beer and donuts every spring. That route starts at the lodge and heads up Gladiator Creek to Rip and Tear, taking a hard left turn on Jenny’s Way. It follows that to North Cherry Creek, which takes skiers down to the Harriman Trail across the highway. Near the lodge skiers take a jog onto the North Wood River Trail, joining up with Horse Creek Loop before heading back along Gladiator Creek.
“I love the Cherry Creek Trail,” said Courtney Hamilton. “The view from the top is beautiful, and it’s really fun skiing down into the meadow.”
The sum total of the perimeter trails is only about 23 kilometers (14 miles). But it’s more difficult than the Harriman, thanks to several steep climbs. But the reward is a warm bowl of butternut squash soup, a grown-up grilled cheese sandwich with apple slices on it, and a Don Bar back at Galena Lodge.
“Oftentimes, we’ll be out on the trails and we’ll say, ‘Almost 3—gotta get back to the lodge before they close down lunch,” said Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) coach Kelly Sinnott. “The lodge is so special,” added Hamilton. “An intimate gathering of people, and it’s just far enough away from everything it’s like its own special community.”
The Lake Creek Trails are where Rick Kapala’s Nordic squads hammer away before retreating to the Nordic training center for a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and Cocoa Puffs. The loops provide 15.5 kilometers of breathtaking views along the Big Wood River and Baldy. “You can see views from everywhere,” said Paul Smith.
But the trails are not for the faint of heart. Waterfall is aptly named, save for the fact that it’s a slide of packed snow, rather than a rushing torrent of frothy whitewater. And South Bench Trail could easily be renamed Heart-in-Mouth Trail and Stomach-Upside-Down.
The Alturas Lake Trail is hands-down the favored destination lunch spot. The 16 kilometers of interconnecting loops are groomed by a snowmobile and they’re not groomed every day, which means conditions are not as immaculate as they are on the trails groomed by Blaine County Recreation District on the Sun Valley side of Galena Summit. But they follow a rolling landscape with spectacular views of the Sawtooth Mountains. The trails do not require a Blaine County pass but users are asked to leave a donation in a box at the trailhead to help cover the costs of grooming. The most popular trail by far is the one that takes skiers west to the 6.5-kilometer Alturas Lake Trail, which heads along the creek to Alturas Lake. There, skiers can enjoy a picnic, and even ski the lake if the ice is thick enough.
“It’s definitely what I think of when I think of picnicking,” said Ashley Knox, also a coach at SVSEF.