The snow bridge across Bench Creek on the way to Bull Trout Lake looked tenuous, but I like snow bridges. I haven’t broken through one yet in all my years of backcountry skiing.
Cross country skiing in Idaho’s backcountry can be a little out of your comfort zone, but it also can be exhilarating, and you never know what you’ll find — a picnic bench next to a frozen lake, gurgling streams cutting through neck-deep snowbanks or untouched telemark slopes.
Traditional, well-groomed Nordic trail systems are fun, easy to ski and have a nice comfort level. But this winter, why not get some variety in your Nordic skiing?
Venture out. Put the cross country back into your cross country skiing. Do some bushwhacking. Explore that aspen slope way out in the distance off the highway. If you’re up for it, here are a few backcountry areas to try:
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Cross country skiers in Southwest Idaho have a vast array of backcountry areas from the steep, rugged mountains near Warm Lake to the flat mountain meadows near Stanley.
Sometimes it’s trial and error. I’ve gone up some blind canyons and gotten my skis tangled in mountain brush and had to turn around after only being 100 yards from the car and post-hole back to the highway. However, one of the biggest rewards was making it all the way back to Bull Trout Lake and sitting on a picnic bench in the campground gazing over the frozen lake.
Getting out of your comfort zone means being prepared with a daypack stuffed with all the essentials, knowing the weather and having avalanche reports before setting out.
There won’t be a warm lodge where you can take refuge. The ski patrol won’t be going by on the trail. Heck, it’s only going to be you and the noisy Clark’s nutcracker echoing “kra-kra-kra-kra” across the mountains.
In some places you’ll get a good warmup before ever hitting the slopes. You may have to dig out your own parking spot.
OUTSIDE COMFORT ZONE
BULL TROUT LAKE
This is an ideal area to get a taste of backcountry skiing but with a fairly easy, flat 4-mile round trip on an ungroomed, snow-covered road on federal public lands in the Boise National Forest. You’ll be skiing the main road to the lake’s campground that is used in the summer. The whole Bull Trout Lake area, between Lowman and Stanley, offers skiing along roads, across meadows and even to the tops of surrounding mountains for telemark skiing.
If you’re lucky, some snowmobilers might have packed a trail along the road over the last few days. That will make it easier skiing instead of breaking powder.
The taking-off point is a makeshift trailhead along Idaho 21. It’s only good if the highway plow driver is kind enough to keep the shoulder of the highway plowed. Most of the time it is plowed, but Idaho 21 in this area can close frequently because of avalanches. Keep posted on whether Idaho 21 between Lowman and Stanley is open before heading out.
Info: Get a Boise National Forest map and check out the road going into the lake. For more details, look on topo maps of the area.
Getting there: Drive Idaho 21 about two and a half to three hours from Boise to Milepost 107. Park at the junction of the Bull Trout Lake Road and Idaho 21 and head north.
The snow-ladened banks of Capehorn and Marsh creeks are beautiful in the winter and this area is primo when it comes to off-trail exploring in mountain meadows. Skiing along the banks of the creeks on both sides of Idaho 21 offers a unique and wild winter experience. It offers miles and miles of meadow skiing all the way up to the headwaters of Marsh Creek on national forest lands.
There’s usually a large plowed parking area on the right side of the highway as you come from Boise at the turnoff for Lola Creek Campground and the Bradley Scout Camp. From the lot, skiers can go across the highway and ski a logging road to Lola Creek campground or the trailhead to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness along Marsh Creek. The creek in this area is beautiful in the dead of winter.
There also are several large open meadows as far in as Beaver Creek, which flows into Marsh Creek.
On the right side of the highway, skiers can take off along the bluff overlooking Capehorn Creek through stands of pine and fir. There’s an opportunity to go about 2 miles upstream.
Both of these areas are used by snowmobilers, but that’s OK. They pack trails and make it easier for skiing.
Info: See maps of the Boise and Challis national forests.
Getting there: Travel same way from Boise to the Bull Trout Lake turnoff, go another 6 miles on Idaho 21 toward Stanley.
Alturas Lake trails in Central Idaho, about 3 1/2 hours from Boise, offer an up-close-and-personal view of the Sawtooth Mountains and the Sawtooth Wilderness. The good thing about this area is that it’s way out in the middle of nowhere but the ski trails are groomed thanks to the Sawtooth Ski Club in Stanley.
It offers a backcountry feel, and sure, you can go off trail, but why not take the groomed trails over rolling sage and aspen country, along frozen tributaries of the famed Salmon River and through deep woodsy forests. Every place you go offers incredible scenes of the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains.
The trailhead is located at a plowed parking area along Idaho 75, about 21 miles south of Stanley.
From the trailhead, it’s a quick skate or ski over the flats into aspen and fir hills and along Alturas Lake Creek.
The main trail follows the creek to a narrow bridge that takes skiers toward the lake itself.
Getting there: Drive northeast on Idaho 21 out of Boise about 125 miles to Stanley and turn south on Idaho 75 for 21 miles. Look for the plowed parking on the right. If Idaho 21 is closed by avalanches, you’ll have to drive the southern route through Mountain Home, Fairfield and Sun Valley.
CAT CREEK SUMMIT
The windswept rolling hills of upper Camas Prairie, High Prairie and the headwaters of Camas Creek offer miles of skiing across open hills and down aspen-filled bowls. It’s one of the best-kept telemark skiing secrets in southern Idaho. It’s wide-open yo-yo skiing — up one hill, down a slope; up another hill, down another slope; and, so on.
There are a few groomed snowmobile trails in the area, one being on Bennett Mountain Road. It can be used for quick access to get away from the highway. However, most of the time skiers are off-trail or breaking their own trail on forest roads. There is a checkerboard of private, state, Bureau of Land Management and Boise National Forest land in the area. Respect private property. Stay on back roads if you are not sure of land ownership. The Bennett Mountain Road and what is called Old Highway 68 are good ski treks.
Rolling hills and back roads on both sides of U.S. 20 from Little Camas Reservoir to Cat Creek Summit can offer excellent tele skiing in aspen groves depending on the snow year. When the snow covers the sagebrush, the tele skiing is superb.
Be forewarned, in heavy snow winters, cornices build up on some of the mountain ridges in the area, such as Packer Butte, and avalanche danger can be high. There’s a lot of wind in the area.
Also, GPS your car and the highway parking spot. Everything looks the same out here.
Info: Look on a Boise National Forest map and then check out topo maps of the area for details.
Getting there: Take I-84 east to the Sun Valley exit in Mountain Home. Head north and east on U.S. 20 past Little Camas Reservoir to Cat Creek Summit.
WARM LAKE HIGHWAY
There’s a lot of solitude in the mountains between Cascade and Warm Lake and lots of advanced, steep mountain terrain. It’s definitely backcountry skiing for those who know what they’re doing. It’s best to stay on logging roads because the area is laced with steep mountain ridges with dropoffs into bush-tangled ravines.
There are several logging roads going off the Warm Lake Highway on national forest lands that can be skied to high points. Most of them go uphill, but hey, the downhill run back to the car is fun. There is also the possibility of hitting a lot of dead ends so be prepared for turning back to the car early. It might be good to drive the Warm Lake Highway in winter to scout areas before actually doing a full-blown trek.
The Big Creek Summit Trail near Big Creek Summit is popular with advanced backcountry skiers. It goes off to the north and is marked by a plowed pullout.
Continuing east on the Warm Lake Highway toward Warm Lake is Curtis Creek Road, which takes off to the south. It goes all the way to Railroad Pass and beyond.
The biggest problem with skiing areas off the Warm Lake Highway is finding parking pullouts. You might have to dig your own.
Info: Check Boise National Forest map and individual topo maps for each area.
Getting there: Drive about 70 miles north of Boise to Cascade on Idaho 55. Just north of Cascade turn right on the Warm Lake Highway. After about 10 miles start looking for side roads.
IDAHO CITY PARK N’ SKI TRAILS
Normally this area has groomed trails for snowmobilers, Nordic skiers and snowshoers, and the comfort level is good. However, there will be no groomed ski and snowshoe trails this winter because of the devastation left by the Pioneer Fire, which ripped through the pine forests last summer. Most of the 60 miles of Park N’ Ski trails will not be available to skiers. There will be limited skiing on ungroomed trails from all four parking lots in the area along Idaho 21, and it will give skiers the opportunity to see the effects of the fire.
Since ski trails will not be groomed, it will also give skiers an opportunity to experience breaking trail and being prepared for a little different backcountry experience than they’ve experienced in the area in past years.
This area is popular because the trailheads are about 90 minutes from Boise and a quick day trip.
Mores Creek Summit, Whoop Um Up, Gold Fork, Banner Ridge and Beaver Creek Summit parking lots will be plowed.
Telemark skiers will be able to ski the road to Pilot Peak and some of the areas toward Sunset Lookout off the Mores Creek Summit parking lot. The lot is popular with snowmobilers, too. It’s a shared trail system but hard-core backcountry skiers love the area.
The Whoop Um Up parking lot will be plowed but Nordic skiers will be limited to groomed snowmobile trails. Snowmobile trail grooming will be limited to two primary routes, the Forest Service road (Edna Creek) accessed from Whoop-Um-Up parking lot as well as FSR 380 accessed out of the Mores Creek Summit parking lot. It’s best to avoid these areas if you want a non-motorized experience.
The Gold Fork parking lot will be available but only the Gold Fork Loop will be open for skiing. It’s a 5-mile trek through high ridges and ravines that are mostly burned. Although the Forest Service says it has reduced hazardous conditions, the agency is advising recreationists to keep in mind the continued hazards as a result of the fire. There are still burned and unstable trees that can fall, and the danger of avalanches and landslides on the unstable, bare, open slopes will be increased during rain and snow storms.
The Banner Ridge parking lot will be plowed and the trail from the parking lot to Banner Ridge Yurt will be open.
The north side of the road will be open to telemark skiing in the open bowls where tele skiers have traditionally gone. Everything on the other side of the Banner Ridge Road toward Elkhorn Yurt will be closed because of the fire damage.
Beaver Creek Summit parking lot will be moved north and skiers can still climb the ungroomed trail to Stargaze Yurt.
It will be worth skiing the Idaho Park N’ Ski trails just to see what an area looks like after a massive burn. And, it’s still one of the best backcountry skiing areas fairly close to Boise.
Getting there: The trailheads are reached by driving on Idaho 21, northeast of Boise, between 20 and 25 miles past Idaho City.
INSIDE COMFORT ZONE BOGUS BASIN
INSIDE COMFORT ZONE
It’s a given that Bogus Basin has one of the best Nordic trail systems around with more than 20 miles of groomed trails, including 4 miles of well-lit trails for night skiing, which can be a surreal experience.
Bogus has a wide range of trails. The Nordic Highway is a relatively flat trail where Bogus Basin instructors teach beginners classic and skate skiing. Loops branch off the Nordic Highway and several of them can get your heart pumping. The staging area for the trail system is the cozy Frontier Point Lodge, at about 6,000 feet in elevation, which provides an area to relax by a fireplace and eat a brown bag lunch.
A favorite run for many skiers is to take the Nordic Highway about 3 miles to Shafer Butte Campground, where you can shovel snow off the picnic tables in the snowbound campground and have lunch.
Info: Find fees, hours and other details at bogusbasin.org/ nordic_center
Getting there: Drive 16.5 miles up Bogus Basin Road, and go past the Simplot Lodge on your right and the tubing hill on your left.
PONDEROSA STATE PARK
The 5-mile round trip to Osprey Point from the park’s trailhead is one of the best Nordic treks around. That’s because it takes you to a high point in the park where you can see Payette Lake, the 1,000-acre state park and the town of McCall in the distance. Don’t let the 5-mile trail scare you. The park has a lot of variety in trails in a 13-mile groomed Nordic ski trail system. So go a mile or two out and back. Have a picnic on the lakeside after a half-mile trek. There’s variety in one of the most scenic winter areas around.
Info: Go to parksandrecreation .idaho.gov/parks/ ponderosa
Getting there: Drive 102 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55 to McCall. Turn right on Railroad Avenue. Follow the signs to the park.
This trail system operated by the Payette Lakes Ski Club has about 30 kilometers of groomed trails. All trails are groomed for skate and classic skiing. The trails have a real woodsy feel through pine forests.
Getting there: Drive north from Boise on Idaho 55 about 102 miles to McCall. Continue about 3 miles west of McCall on Idaho 55.
JUG MOUNTAIN RANCH
There are more than 15 miles of groomed trails for skiing at this cross country ski area, southeast of McCall. The golf course and mountain biking trails are transformed into Nordic trails in the winter in a scenic area on the east side of Long Valley in the shadow of Jug Handle Mountain.
Getting there: From Boise, drive about 100 miles north on Idaho 55 and turn right at the Lake Fork Merc and Sinclair gas station onto East Lake Fork Road. Drive 1.5 miles, crossing Farm to Market Road, and then straight through the entrance to Jug Mountain Ranch.
The resort outside Donnelly offers groomed classic and skate ski trails. About 6.5 miles are groomed, starting at the Sports Dome and winding through the foothills below the main ski area.
Getting there: Drive about 90 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55 to Donnelly and turn west on Roseberry Road. Follow the signs to Tamarack.
LAKE CASCADE STATE PARK
The Crown Point Trail at Lake Cascade State Park is groomed and offers 2.5 miles along the reservoir with nice views of West Mountain in the distance. The state park also grooms its Park Loop at the south end of Lake Cascade.
Getting there: Drive north on Idaho 55 for about 70 miles to Cascade. Look for the Lake Cascade Parkway (Old State Highway) turnoff to Lake Cascade. Turn left.
GALENA LODGE AND WOOD RIVER TRAILS
There is so much Nordic skiing in the Sun Valley area it’ll take all winter to do it. The North Valley trail system covers more than 70 miles of terrain, mostly in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The main systems include the Lake Creek trails, Billy’s Bridge, North Fork Loop, the Harriman Trail, Prairie Creek Loop and the Galena Lodge trails.
Galena Lodge has about 30 miles of groomed trails at the northwest end of the Boulder Mountains in the shadow of mountaintops such as 11,170-foot Galena Peak.
Getting there: As soon as you start driving north out of Ketchum, you’ll start seeing ski and snowshoe trails along Idaho 75. It’s the North Valley trail system. Drive 24 miles north of Ketchum and you’ll come to the Galena Lodge.
Exploring the backcountry
Here’s what you’ll need to do before exploring those areas outside your comfort level (and remember, never ski alone):
- Check the weather.
- Tell relatives and friends where you are going and an estimated time of return. Give specific details on your car, license and where you will be parked.
- Check avalanche danger at sawtoothavalanche.com or payetteavalanche.org.
- Pack a daypack with extra clothing, first-aid and survival supplies, food, a space blanket and GPS. Have an avalanche shovel, avalanche probes (some ski poles convert into avalanche probes) and an avalanche beacon.
- Pack a larger snow shovel for digging out a parking spot.