Winter in Idaho means outdoor adventures. Yearly, Nordic skiers and snowshoes traverse 180 miles of groomed trails and numerous un-groomed trails originating from Park N’ Ski trail systems in four regions. The Idaho Department of Park and Recreation (IDPR) provides plowed parking lots and trailheads with information kiosks and vault toilets.
These backcountry trail systems are the result of a partnership between the IDPR, various national forests in the US Forest Service’s system, the Idaho Department of Lands, and the Idaho Department of Transportation. Fees from the $7.50-per-vehicle, 3-day pass and the $25-per-vehicle annual pass go toward trail improvements and removing mounds of snow from the parking lots. The annual pass is reciprocal with select areas in Oregon.
When users hit the trails, they encounter three types of opportunities. Groomed trails offer a smooth, wide lane for skate skiing. On the side of the groomed trails are parallel tracks for classic skiers. Marked, un-groomed snowshoe trails wind through the forests. Snowshoers may travel on the edges of the groomed trail, staying clear of the skate skiers’ lane in the middle and the classic ski tracks on the edge.
Skate skiing and classic skiing are two distinct types of groomed-trail skiing.
Skate skiing resembles an ice-skating or roller blading motion on the smooth, wide portion of the groomed trail. This high-energy ski technique leaves a V-pattern in the snow. Classic skiers use the pre-set parallel tracks at the side of the trails.
Classic skiing feels more stable to skiers than skating because the technique resembles walking or running, and the grooves stabilize the skis. Telemark touring skiers on wide skis may use the trails to access off-trail terrain and will travel on the edge of the skaters’ lane when their skis are wider than each parallel track.
North Idaho features five Park N’ Ski trailheads, primarily in the Priest Lake area, while central Idaho provides two in the Moscow and the Grangeville area. In east Idaho, four areas near Ashton, Island Park, and Pocatello (with additional parking lots in the Mink Creek area) serve skiers and snowshoers alike. Southern Idaho offers the Idaho City trail system, containing four trailheads and a popular backcountry yurts rental program.
“Park N’ Ski trails are an excellent place to introduce people to the outdoors without beginners getting in over their heads,” said Boise-based Madonna Lengerich. She served on the Park N’ Ski board in the early stages of trail system development and currently volunteers on trail and yurt maintenance projects. Lengerich said the backcountry trails are well-maintained and provide directions, making it easy for visitors to use the trails.
Idaho City Park N’ Ski Trailheads and Backcountry Yurts
Deep in the mountains of the Boise National Forest, there’s an alpine setting with lots of snow and a long season for snow sports. Four Idaho City Park N’ Ski trailheads are located along Idaho Highway 21, between 17 and 24 miles north of Idaho City. IDPR manages the trails and backcountry yurts, which are open year-round. During December 1 through April 15, dogs are not allowed on the groomed trails out of the Banner Ridge Park N’ Ski trailhead, nor at the Elkhorn and Banner Ridge yurts. Dog owners are expected to collect dog poop, pack it out, and keep their pets in control.
This trail system is a popular winter day-trip destination from Boise. You can extend your visit into an overnight trip by renting one of the backcountry yurts in the system. Each yurt site allows for a maximum of 12 users, with beds for six users and room for three more people sleeping on the floor. Three more people can sleep outside.
The Idaho City Park N’ Ski system grew into 55 miles of marked trails, 26 miles of groomed ski trails and 15 miles of designated snowshoe trails. Unfortunately in 2016, the largest forest fire in the nation that summer occurred in the Boise National Forest. Pioneer fire completely destroyed the Whispering Pine yurt and caused substantial damage to three more yurts. The fire impacted several miles of trails, and IDPR is currently in the process of rebuilding the system.
Dozens of volunteers helped IDPR staff to clear trails, replace burned trail signs, and work on yurt construction during 2017, but salvage loggers clearing downed logs are complicating which and when specific trails are open.
“It’s one of these years when things are very convoluted,” said Leo Hennessy, the IDPR’s Idaho Park N’ Ski coordinator. For this winter, the four trailhead lots are open and plowed, about 12-miles of trails are groomed out of the Gold Fork Park N’ Ski trailhead, and an assortment of un-groomed trails are available. Volunteers and IDPR staff replaced burned trail signs.
As logging efforts shift, the usable trails frequently change. “The trails that are available are very specific,” Hennessy said. Trail users should go to the IDPR website for printable, updated maps. Accurate geo-referenced maps for users to load on their cell phones are available and do not require cell phone coverage to access. IDPR plans on opening all trails and yurts later in 2018.
Yurts available to rent for the 2017-2018 winter season include Rocky Ridge (accessed from Whoop-Um-Up trailhead), Skyline (accessed from Gold Fork trailhead), and Stargaze (accessed from Beaver Creek Summit trailhead on an ungroomed trail). Winter weekends are popular, so book early.
Yurt camping is fun and comfortable. Originally used in Asia by Mongolians as portable living facilities, modern yurts consist of insulated canvas materials. They resemble circular tents, 16 to 30 feet in diameter, and set on a wooden platform. Often a plastic ceiling dome permits daylight into the yurt. IDPR stocks the rental yurts with a wood burning stove, propane gas cooking stove, cooking utensils, and cleaning supplies. Renters chop logs from a woodshed, to stoke the heating stove and melt snow for cooking, drinking, and dishwashing. Designated areas away from the yurt are available for disposing dirty dishwater, and there’s an outdoor latrine. Etiquette requires that you leave firewood, clean dishes, and a swept floor for the next group and that you pack out your trash. Sleeping and eating in Idaho’s winter wonderland is always worth the effort.
Relax and Refresh in Hot Springs
After a ski or snowshoe outing, soak in warmth at The Springs, a hot springs resort in Idaho City. First established in 1889, miners and settlers refreshed themselves in the springs. In later years, locals learned to swim in the springs-fed pool. Currently, outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the springs at the modernized resort. Steam rises off the water and mingles with the scent of nearby ponderosa pine trees. Visitors immerse in the 16-foot circular hot tub and the 40-foot by
Reserve a soak by calling (208) 392-9500 or registering online at thespringsid.com. The $17 adult daily entrance fee allows for multiple entries for the date of purchase. While in the area, explore the historic side streets of Idaho City. Find The Springs at 3742 Idaho Highway 21 (north of mile marker 37, about 1.5 miles southwest of Idaho City).
Every year, Nordic areas across the nation celebrate Winter Trails Day on the first Saturday in January. The IDPR waives the Park N’ Ski day-pass fee that day at all participating locations in the IDPR system, so it’s a great way to try a new trail system.
Get going on your next winter adventure by purchasing your Park N’ Ski season pass from IDPR headquarters on Warm Springs Avenue, in Boise, online at the IDPR website, or from local outdoor retailers listed on the IDPR website at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov. View the season pass vendor list, and download trail maps from the IDPR website. For questions call IDPR headquarters at (208) 334-4199.