Friday, November 25, 2011

Nordic skiing brings access to winter wonderland

Wood River Valley dubbed ‘Nordic Town USA’


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

Nordic skiers jockey for position in the annual Boulder Mountain Tour race north of Ketchum. Photo by Mountain Express

Alpine skiing may have put Sun Valley on the map back in the 1930s, but over the last few decades the surrounding Wood River Valley and mountains have quietly become a leading destination for Nordic (cross-country) skiing.

Coursing through pristine forest, and between towns, is the winter activity of choice for many locals. The excellent conditions and 200 kilometers of groomed trails also draw the world's top Nordic racers to train and compete.

Legendary Olympic ski champion and coach Leif Odmark founded the Sun Valley Nordic Ski School and Touring Center in 1970. It was considered the country's first Nordic ski school, drawing members from many cross-country "touring clubs" that had existed since Sun Valley was founded in 1936.

Today, there are trails for all levels of skiers, stretching from Bellevue at the mouth of the Wood River Valley to Galena Summit, 30 miles north of Ketchum, as well as several trails deep in the Stanley Basin. The variety of quality trails and facilities has earned the Wood River Valley the label of "Nordic Town USA."

The Blaine County Recreation District grooms 160 kilometers of these trails, including 32 kilometers open to snow-loving dogs.

Quigley Nordic trails are in Hailey's backyard. Made possible by the generosity of the owners of Quigley Canyon, 13km of trails, a warming yurt, a stadium area and sledding make this a great place to take lessons or ski during a lunch break, but bring your own gear since there are no rentals.

A 20-mile stretch of groomed trail links Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Built on an old railway line, this trail is the only free trail in the valley. The rest require day passes or season passes.

About 40 kilometers of Nordic trails just east of the Sun Valley Resort are groomed for all levels of skiers. Lessons and rental equipment are available, as are the resort's world-class amenities and lodges.

"This is better than where we train in Norway," said Norwegian Nordic Team coach Steinar Mundal last year while putting his team through the paces in Sun Valley. "We don't groom every day over there. There are often good classic tracks, but it is not this good for skating.''

For a more remote wilderness experience, head to Galena Lodge, 23 miles north of Ketchum in the heart of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

The 32km Harriman Trail system links the SNRA headquarters north of Ketchum with Galena Lodge. This is where Olympic gold medalist Petter Northugg saw a mountain lion while training several years ago. The story made front-page headlines in the Norwegian press.

"It's OK. I need some speed training anyway," Northugg said in Sun Valley two winters ago before winning gold at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Galena Lodge boasts more than 50km of trails and is a good spot to view one of the premier annual events such as the Boulder Mountain Tour, the culminating race of the mid-winter Sun Valley Nordic Festival.

Galena Lodge has rentals, lessons and warm food, as well as yurts for staying over night.

There are several areas for Nordic skiing that are offshoots of the Harriman Trail, or connect with other parts of the Blaine County Recreation District system, including Lake Creek near Hulen Meadows, a site of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships last year.

Prairie Creek and Billy's Bridge, north of Ketchum, offer tours in the woods beneath the Boulder Mountains and are good places for dogs.

Over Galena Summit, one can find the Alturas Lake trail, which offers a pristine tour of alpine wilderness. Twenty miles farther north and west, the Park Creek Trails offer extraordinary views of the Sawtooth Mountains and easy access from the town of Stanley.

For 37 years, the Boulder Mountain Tour Nordic ski race has attracted top competitors for a challenging race beneath the Boulder Mountains north of Ketchum. The race draws about 1,000 competitors each year.

The Sun Valley Nordic Festival takes place for nine days, leading up to the Boulder Mountain Tour race, with clinics, pass discounts and fun events culminating in the world-famous Boulder Mountain Tour on Feb. 4.

By then, a lot of locals should be in good enough condition to compete.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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