It’s not long after you start snowshoeing that you wonder: Couldn’t I walk this trail in boots?
That’s when it’s time to get off the packed trail.
On Tuesday, I joined a group led by avid snowshoer Leo Hennessy of the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department. He promised 5 miles of total hiking, a chance to check out a couple of the department’s six backcountry yurts and at least a couple of miles of off-trail fun.
Five hours (including maintenance stops at the yurts) and 5 1/2 miles later, my body was exhausted, my hips felt like they were going to shut down and I had a new appreciation for the sport I took up last winter, when powder was almost impossible to find.
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Our journey led us to the Idaho Park N’ Ski system in the mountains northeast of Idaho City. Four parking lots provide access to 60 miles of varied trails for snowshoers and cross-country skiers — groomed and ungroomed, challenging and mild — with some gorgeous views (detailed info below). And all around, you’ll find untouched powder that flies when snowshoes land.
“It’s a great workout. It’s beautiful — the snow, the trees,” Bea Purchase of Boise said. “... Going off trails, it’s a matter of doing it. That’s what snowshoeing is kind of all about. It’s kind of boring if you stay on a packed trail. We all fall — everybody falls. It’s OK. It’s soft.”
Said Hennessy: “When you get out here, stay on the trails initially just so you feel comfortable. And then after you get comfortable with the trails and how to read maps, then you can take off off-trail and see beautiful places. There’s some amazing stuff when you get off-trail.”
The vastness of the system and lack of crowds make for an exceptional place to play. The area has 7 feet of snow.
“Definitely bring your snowshoes,” said Hennessy, who is the non-motorized trails coordinator for Idaho Parks and Rec, “because if you think you’re going to walk off-trail, you’re going to be right up to your neck.”
More funny than scary
Hennessy lowered Purchase into the snow in a spot where he figured she’d sink into a creek bed — and she got stuck. At one point, Andy Traub of Boise also was holding onto her. When he lost his grip, she didn’t move. That’s when we realized she had already hit bottom. Out of the frame to the right was a hole at ground level. Purchase was able to crawl out that way. See the video below.
Purchase never stopped laughing during her time stuck in the hole.
“It was fun,” she said. “The worst that could happen was I might get a little wet.”
What I learned
Pack well: You’ll work harder than you think, so make sure you have plenty of water and food for the day. Hennessy recommends a second pair of gloves, a whistle, headlamp with extra batteries, sunscreen, maps (print them from the web pages linked in this article), sunglasses, a GPS to mark your starting location, a lighter, fire starter and handwarmers — plus other items (see his full winter packing list below). Good leg gaiters also are necessary if you’re going into the powder (my boots were waterproof and I wore snow pants but my feet still got soaked). And don’t forget your poles — they might seem unnecessary on the groomed trail by the parking lot, but you’ll miss them later. A shovel is a good idea for your car in case of a storm.
Dress in layers: If you dress for the cold, you’ll be peeling off clothes quickly.
Don’t go alone: Twice on our trip, someone ended up needing assistance. In addition to the Purchase anecdote above, one of the snowshoers in our group fell and landed in a way that prevented him from moving. Without friends on the trail, he would have been in trouble.
Powder is where the fun is: Snowshoe trails, Hennessy explains, are for climbing. Powder is for going downhill. On gentle slopes, try running with short, choppy steps like you’re riding a bicycle. For steeper slopes, you’ll need to slide — put one foot forward, toe up, and shift your weight back. If you’re good, you’ll slide. If not, you’ll fall on your rear and slide like a kid. Either way, it’s a good time. Also, going downhill, fresh tracks are slick. Make your own trail. When you’re on flat ground or climbing, rotate trail-breakers to spread the considerable workload and follow in your friends’ footsteps. Try to avoid wet, heavy snow and make sure you know where the groomed trails are so you don’t get lost.
For the view: Take the ungroomed Stargaze Trail from the Beaver Creek Summit parking lot. It’s about 1.5 miles each way with 800 feet of elevation gain. It’s not easy — but the payoff is a 360-degree mountain view.
For the family: Take the snowshoe loop from the Banner Ridge parking lot. It’s about 2 miles. You also have the option of connecting to the Banner trail to extend the journey or for an easier, groomed route back to the car.
For the workout: From the Banner Ridge parking lot, take the Elkhorn loop trail clockwise for about 2 miles, checking out the views along Banner Ridge. At about the 2.3-mile mark on the Elkhorn trail you will find an aspen grove and connect to the Lehn’s Loop and Cougar trails, where you can add as much distance and trail-breaking as you’d like.
Bonus: Hennessy recommends driving home through Lowman. You’re likely to see deer and elk this time of year.
Hennessy’s winter packing list
1 liter water in a Nalgene bottle
2 Bic lighters
1 small fire starter
1 pair of warm gloves
1 pair of mittens
1 warm cap
1 insulating coat like polar fleece or down
1 small tube of sunscreen
1 lip block
1 emergency whistle
1 space blanket/bivy sack
1 sun hat with brim
1 full rain/wind shell (top and bottom)
1 small first-aid kit catered to your personal needs
1 head lamp with extra batteries
1 roll of toilet paper in a zip lock bag
2 chemical hand warmers
1 map of area
1 GPS with backup batteries
There are four Idaho Park N’ Ski lots northeast of Idaho City. They start 18 miles north of Idaho City on Highway 21 and end about 25 miles past Idaho City. Here are the trail maps:
Whoop-Um-Up (parking lot on right)
Gold Fork (parking lot on left)
Banner Ridge (parking lot on left)
Beaver Creek Summit (parking lot on left — you’ll need to walk about 300 yards up the road to reach the trail)
For more info, go here, look at the left side of the page and click on South Idaho Park N’ Ski.
Parking passes: You’ll need a parking permit (state parks passes don’t work). A three-day pass costs $7.50 and can be purchased online and printed at home. An annual pass costs $25 and will be mailed if you buy it online. They also are available from quite a few businesses.
About dogs: Dogs are welcome on all trails except the groomed trails at Banner Ridge.