Cross Country Skiing in the Boundary Waters

Recreation

The Boundary Waters is transformed in winter. The lakes you thought you knew so well, the portage trials you’ve trotted on the previous spring or fall turn into something entirely new. It’s a shame that, compared to summer, so few people visit the BWCA in the winter.

If you haven’t experienced the solitude, the silence and wonder of this winter paradise – you’re missing out!

Perhaps the best, most popular, way to travel in the BWCA during winter is by skiing. As with a canoe on open water, these snow-covered lakes are yours to explore when cross country skiing.

In this blog post, we’ll run through everything you need to know about how to explore the Boundary Waters on skis and what makes wilderness cross country skiing different. We’ll also take a look at the many opportunities to ski outside of the Boundary Waters, along the Gunflint Trail or outside of Ely. 

Skiing in the BWCA – notice the wider skis. Photo: Alex Horner

Wilderness Cross Country Skis

The cross-country skis you want to use in the wilderness are different than the skinny skis many of us are used to. Because you will more than likely be breaking through untracked snow, you want a wider ski that will prevent you from sinking into the deep snow. These wider skis allow you to float on the snow. Somewhat like snowshoes.

As far as ski length goes, longer skis will do more to distribute your weight, i.e., they do even more to keep you from sinking into the snow. The downside with long skis is, as we will discuss, that they become cumbersome and unwieldly on portage trails.

For this reason, many opt for shorter, fatter skis to better tackle portage trails.

Now, you don’t need to go out and buy new, special “wilderness” skis to enjoy the untracked lakes of the BWCA. You can always use the skinny skis you have. They might not be ideal, but they will work. Plus, you can always sweet talk or bribe a friend to break trail then ski in their tracks! Then it’s as good as a groomed trail.

Ice Hazards in the BWCA

On lakes, the greatest hazard to be aware of is thin ice, which can occur on lakes that are otherwise safe to travel on. Pay particular attention to areas where rivers or springs enter a lake. Moving water doesn’t’ freeze as quickly as still water, and can create thin pockets in the ice.

Water flowing in from an underground spring might seem cold in the summer, but it’s considerably warmer than winter air temperatures and can prevent ice from forming, even if it’s twenty below.

Some years, snow will fall and accumulate in the area before the ice has become thick enough to adequately support much weight. In such cases, snow creates an insulating layer that prevents ice from thickening and can leave hazardous thin spots in places. Most years you will be fine, after all, winters in and around the BWCA are infamously cold. Nonetheless, it’s good to check with local outfitters on ice conditions before you go.

Photo: Alex Horner

Ice slush on lakes in the Boundary Waters

One headache you may run into on lakes is slush. Few things are as defeating as gliding over pristine, untouched snow, only to be stopped by a wet, soft layer of slush.

People have been out in -30 temperatures and have had to contend with slush. Why is this? How can there be semi frozen water in such cold temperatures?

The reason has to do with the insulating power of snow, which essentially creates a “thermos” barrier against what can be extremely cold air temperatures and the frozen lake. This then melts the snow and ice to create the watery slush.

Once your ski hits the slush, you’ll have a big clump of frozen ice on your ski, which you can knock off with a pole of a stick. The real hazard is if you step in the slush and get your feet wet. This can be both uncomfortable, and dangerous.

The backache of a portage trail

While skiing over lakes is a truly wonderful experience, the same cannot be said about skiing over portage trails.

The ups and downs, the fallen logs, deeps snow, all of this make you want to trade your skis for snowshoes. 

There is no way around it, no magical piece of advice to change the simple fact that skiing on portage trails is plain hard, and can be extremely frustrating. The best thing to be said about a portage trail in winter is the same thing that can be said about a portage trail in summer: It’s nice when you’re done with it! And once you are at the other end, you will be even more grateful for the lake before you.

Photo: Mark Hennessey

Groomed Ski Trails in the BWCA

For those who prefer groomed trails or skate skiing, both the Ely area and the Gunflint Trail offer world class opportunities for skiing on groomed trails, outside of the wilderness. The spectacular scenery can’t be beat, and trails are almost all maintained by a passionate group of people who have truly made this area a destination for skiers all over the country.  

GUNFLINT TRAIL CROSS COUNTRY SKI TRAILS

With over 400 kilometers of groomed trails that go through spectacular scenery, it’s not an exaggeration to say some of the best cross-country skiing in Minnesota, maybe even the country, is off the Gunflint Trails. Three main trail systems will bring you up rolling hills, through birch groves and stands of Norwegian pines and alongside stunning lakes.

Let’s take a look at them.

Central Gunflint Ski systems

Maintained by Bearskin and Golden Eagle Lodge, the nearly 80 kilometers of trails that constitute the Central Gunflint Ski Trails are impeccably maintained and will lead you deep into the woods.

Trail Access:

Parking and access to the trails can be found at either Golden Eagle or Bearskin Lodge, about midway up the Gunflint Trail.

Ski Pass Information:

The trails on the Central Gunflint Ski system are privately maintained, so you need to purchase a ski pass from either Bearskin Lodge or Golden Eagle Lodge to ski them. Passes are free to guests and are available for purchase from the lodges, which are conveniently located at the trailhead.

Skiing at Bearsking. Photo: Ingrid Thyr

Banadad Ski Systems

Running 27 kilometers (or about 17 miles), east to west, the Banadad trail is the perfect compromise between wilderness skiing and skiing on groomed, maintained trails.

The trail winds its way into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, allowing you to experience true wilderness skiing, on a groomed trail. The1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act banned snowmobiles throughout the wilderness, but a provision was made for the use of snowmobiles to groom the Banadad ski trail.

Trail Access:

The eastern and western trailheads are the primary ways to access the Bandad trail.

Access for the eastern trailhead is located along the Little Ollie Road.

The western trailhead is about a quarter of a mile south of the Loon Lake Public Landing, just off the Gunflint Trail.

Ski Pass Information:

The Banadad ski trails are public trails and require a Minnesota Ski Pass, which can be purchased online from the DNR. Because the trail goes into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you will also need a BWCAW day permit, which you can fill out at a kiosk on trail.

Upper Gunflint Ski Systems

The Upper Gunflint Trail System boasts stunning scenery and top-of-the-line grooming. Several warming shelters along the trail offer ideal locations to stop for lunch or have a hot drink from the thermos your daypack. Because so many of these trails are loops, they make for ideal day outings.

Trail Access:

There are multiple access points to the various trails that constitute the trail system. The main trailheads are located at Gunflint Lodge, Gunflint Pines Resort, or Heston’s Lodge.

If you stay at one of these resorts, you can likely arrange a shuttle to other trails within the Upper Gunflint Ski Trails system.

Ski Pass Information:

Passes range from $18 a day to $95 a season, and can be purchased from Gunflint Lodge, Gunflint Pines Resort, or Heston’s Lodge.

Photo: Mark Hennessey

ELY AREA SKI AREAS

There are numerous ski trails around Ely. Some of the most popular and extensive trails include Hidden Valley Ski Trials, over 25 kilometers of trails maintained by the Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club and has a heated chalet open to club members. The other main trail is the Trezona Trail, a 6.5 kilometer loop that is located within the Ely city limits

Outside of Ely, there is the the Howard Wagner Ski Trails in Tower and the North Arm Trails around the north arm of Burntside Lake.

A Minnesota ski pass is required to ski on any of these trails, and for the Hidden Valley Ski Trails, a donation of $5 to the Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club is recommended for non-members (it’s worth it!).

For up-to-date information on trail conditions and to discover more options for where to explore, visit the Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club website, where you can view maps and follow links to purchase passes. This Club is a great community organization and resource who have done a tremendous amount to make Ely a destination for skiers and bikers alike!

Whether you venture off onto a snow-covered lake or choose to glide down one of the many groomed trails in the communities at the edge of the Boundary Waters, we think you’ll find skiing in the area to be a truly magical treat. If you do go, send us some pics and tell us about your experience!

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