Finding the cross country in Southeast

Local options for Nordic, backcountry striding abound but are often dependent on snow conditions, weather

Posted: Friday, December 25, 2009

When thick crust in the high alpine drives even the most hardcore speed-hounds down from the slopes, the Nordic skiers come out to play. This is when groomed cross country trails reach perfection - clean corduroy and perfect parallel tracks meet with just the right amount of ice and glide. This is when pre-traveled tracks firm up cleaner than a dry day in July, and when backcountry ski tracks hold an easy-to-follow trail through the woods and meadows.

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Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire

So where does one go when winter's cabin fever is too much to take?

Even in this sea-dwelling community, where snow conditions can change faster than ravens can find a scrap of food, options abound.

Eaglecrest Ski Area

This local ski hill sees more snow than other locations around Juneau. Hence, it's often a good choice if warm weather rolls through. And while Eaglecrest's Nordic ski trails have been around for years, they haven't always seen the attention they're getting this year.

Ken Leghorn, a Nordic ski instructor for the area, said this year the mountain has made a decided commitment to improving both the user experience and the nearly 6-kilometer trail system.

"Improvements were made to the lower loop trails over the summer resulting in better grooming and good drainage, even during low snow or warm weather," Leghorn said.

The improvements seem to have paid off. A recent outing on the trails proved satisfying as skiers enjoyed classic striding and skate skiing on less than six inches of snow in many areas on the main loop.

"Without the work we did this summer, this area wouldn't be groomable," he said, gesturing to a historically wet and canopy-covered area on Meadow Loop.

Leghorn said they plan to groom trails five days a week by 9 a.m.

The area has also been grooming on what many skiers call the Upper Loop trails. These can be accessed by hopping on the Hooter lift (which is a free ride with trail pass) and skiing down to Williwaw. From there it's a short jaunt up to nearly 4 kilometers of rolling terrain.

On top of the trail improvements, Eaglecrest now offers a variety of instruction for skiers of all abilities. Certified instructors are available on a walk-in basis, Leghorn said.

Other notable improvements to Eaglecrest's Nordic side include the re-vamping of the A-frame structure near the main lodge from a shack-like apparatus to a waxing room and clothes storage area.

"We also welcome snowshoers to use the groomed trails," Leghorn said. "We just ask that they be considerate of the (classic) tracks."

And although not yet complete, there's also been preliminary work done to a few new trails that will extend the existing Lower Loop trails. Those may be ready this season, Leghorn said, but the snow levels are not yet what they need to be.

For the remainder of December, a cross country day trail pass at Eaglecrest costs $5. Day passes will increase to $15 on Jan. 1. Season passes are available for $79.

Mendenhall Campground and Mendenhall Lake

This multi-use area sees traffic from a variety of users. Whether you're a skier, ice skater, snowshoer or dog-walker, chances are you've enjoyed what Mendenhall Campground and lake have to offer once the snow flies.

And while it doesn't have the elevation of Eaglecrest, once it gets a base layer of snow, things tend to stick around due to the colder temperatures brought on by its proximity to the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nikki Becker, a hydro meteorological technician with the National Weather Service, said this area is typically about 4 degrees cooler than downtown Juneau from December through February. Hence, this location is a good bet if temperatures are hovering just around the freezing point.

Local volunteer efforts by the Juneau Nordic Ski Club and members of the Snowmobile Club have made grooming at the campground a regular occurrence.

Jack Kreinheder, a Snowmobile Club member, said this area is "usually groomed daily, snowpack permitting, for both skate and classic skiing."

And as the ice firms on Mendenhall Lake, the trails extend past the campground onto what might be the longest (around 7 miles) and flattest loop in the area.

Dredge Lakes

A neighboring area to the Mendenhall Campground and lake trails, this area features loop after loop of wide paths. And while much of the area might be flooded for most of the year due to beaver activity, winter, on the other hand, is a great time to access Dredge Lakes.

Mary Willson, a local outdoor enthusiast and retired professor of ecology, said the Dredge Lakes area is one of her favorites to cross country ski.

Scott Fischer, co-owner of Foggy Mountain Shop, said track-setting here does happen, though not as frequently as in past years. He said the U.S. Forest Service will set tracks when staff time permits.

Trails in this area can be accessed from either the Mendenhall Lake trails or from the trailhead at the Brotherhood Bridge on Mendenhall Loop Road.

Eagle Beach State Park

For an out-of-the-way option for cross country striding, cruise 29 miles out Glacier Highway to Eagle Beach State Park. This park is frequented by summer recreators and is also a good bet for winter use.

Fischer said recent lobbying by proponents has increased the amount of track-setting that goes on in the area.

"The Juneau Snowmobile Club will go out there to periodically to do some track-setting," he said. "It happens, and when it does we try to get the word out."

The best place to find out if the area has been set recently, said Fischer, is to log on to the Juneau Nordic Ski Club Web site and check the most recent trail comments (http://jnski.org/?p=19#comments). It's here that many users weigh in on a variety of skiable areas.

Kreinheder said the area is most often "packed by State Parks staff after big snowfalls with a snowmobile, but currently the area is not groomed for classic or skate skiing."

The terrain here is mostly flat and Fischer said there is about 3 kilometers of skiable trails.

Herbert River Trail

Anyone who's ever done this trail in the summer knows that the rewards at the end are great and well worth the 4 miles of rolling terrain to get there. In the winter this trail is not groomed or track-set except by those just out for a tour through the woods.

"If there's new snow and someone skis up and down (the trail), it can be really nice," Fischer said.

But this area, like Mendenhall Campground and the Dredge Lakes area, is open to walkers, snowshoers and dogs, hence the trail can become what Fischer describes as a "moonscape for skiing."

Windfall Lake Trail

On the other side of the Herbert River is the Windfall Lake trail. Fischer said this trail is rarely visited in the winter by walkers, which makes it a good bet for skiers. He recommended skiing up the Herbert River once the conditions are just right.

"Once the Herbert River freezes, temps have to be in the teens, it's just an awesome ski," he said.

As with any body of water in the winter, Fischer said, it's important to exercise caution.

"See how the river looks," he advised.

If there's water over the ice, or the temperatures have been fluctuating greatly, it's probably not a good idea.

Spalding Meadows

This area boasts three access points: The Lake Creek trail, the Spalding Meadows trail or the John Muir Cabin via the Peterson Lake trail.

Fischer said this area is the best known for its popularity among backcountry users and that the Lake Creek trail is a good access point for ski touring because it's also the access point for snowmobiles - hence, it's packed down.

In the past, members of the Juneau Snowmobile Club had granted rides to skiers up the trail, but this year Kreinheder said it probably won't happen.

"It was just too time consuming," he said.

But once up in the muskeg meadows, users can ski for quite a while. In fact, Fischer said the tour from John Muir cabin to Peterson Lake cabin, while long, makes a great "hut-to-hut" ski.

Dan Moller Trail

Historically, this area was the go-to place for any type of skiing in Juneau. But since the opening of Eaglecrest, it's most frequented in the winter by snowmobiles, hikers/snowshoers and the occasional winter biker. But this area is a closer-to-town option for backcountry skiing, as well.

The best access is the snowmobile trail at the top of Blueberry Hill in West Juneau. From there the trail heads up onto the Treadwell Ditch trail and by following the signs it's easy to continue the climb up to the Dan Moller Cabin, and even further into a the bowl above.

Fischer recommends metal-edged touring skis for anyone concerned about the descent, which can be a little hairy.

January is historically Juneau's coldest month, and now that snow has fallen in the mountains it's a great time to take advantage of Juneau's backcountry options. Many are out-of-the way, but some rival ski areas down south with their vistas and trail conditions, and all areabsolutely unique.

• Outdoors editor Abby Lowell can be contacted at 523-2271 or abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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