Running and biking trails around Salt Lake City are among the best in the west. But when winter rolls in, options for outdoor cardio dwindle, as snow and ice make running and biking unappealing to everyone but the most dedicated. (And with the smoggy inversion that can plague Salt Lake mid-winter, in-town cardio becomes even less appetizing).
Enter cross-country skiing. First of all, there's the cost: Equipment is far more affordable than that of downhill ski gear, and trail passes are either relatively inexpensive or not required at all. And the workout? Hardcore. The effort can stoke the classic endorphin-filled runner’s high, and it burns more calories than running and biking: anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand-plus calories per hour. (If you’re like me, you measure calorie burn in units of earned burritos. And cross-country skiing earns you a lot of burrito credit).
Many sports claim to be a full-body workout, but cross-country skiing has almost all of ‘em beat. You’re using nearly every major muscle group in your upper and lower body—plus some muscles you didn’t even know existed. It’s about power, balance, stability, control, rhythm, and good breathing techniques. And, while both classic and skate-style cross-country skiing are relatively easy to pick up at a basic level, there’s infinite room for fine-tuning technique and strength, making it a pursuit you can progress at for years.
Here are a few places prime for rambling around that are within easy reach of the Salt Lake City area.
1. Solitude Nordic Center
Gear rentals: Yes
Total trail distances: 12.4 miles (20 kilometers)
Perched at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Solitude Nordic Center is a beautiful, 20-minute drive from the valley. It offers lessons, workshops, gear rentals, and tuning services. Beginners can develop their technique on the flat, mellow loop around Silver Lake (stunning views included). Intermediate and advanced cross-country skiers can venture into the gently sloping trails looping through the woods between the Nordic Center and Solitude Resort Village. Warm up in the village with coffee and a hearty lunch at the Stone Haus or Honeycomb Grill restaurant. Then, retrace your route back up to the Nordic Center, or catch the free resort shuttle bus back if your muscles are wiped.
2. Millcreek Canyon
Gear rentals: Not on-site (try a local ski rental shop)
Total trail distances: 5 miles (8 kilometers)
Groomed before and after each weekend
Dog-friendly (but must be leashed on even-numbered days)
Each fall, the upper Millcreek Canyon road closes until the next summer, which is great news for cross-country skiers. The gradual uphill road above the closed gate is the perfect place for a cheap, quick, scenic cross-country outing. While this canyon isn’t groomed daily like some of the fancier venues, it stays in reasonably good shape, particularly in the less-frequented upper part. A bonus for dog owners is that it’s canine-friendly. At times, the road transforms into a rambunctious meetup of happy dogs in their sportiest winter jackets.
Mountain Dell is a popular high-altitude golf course in the summer, but its open, rolling hills are also the ideal setting for a network of groomed cross-country trails in the winter—and it's just 10 minutes outside the city. Hop off the Parley’s Canyon Highway at the East Canyon exit and head toward the golf course north of the highway, where a network of well-groomed trails awaits. (Nordic Alliance volunteers pride themselves on grooming these classic and skate tracks meticulously. The group will even groom twice a day during a storm to maintain the best possible conditions).
4. White Pine Touring
Gear rentals: Yes
Total trail distances: 12.4+ miles (20+ kilometers)
White Pine Touring is not only a prominent gear and guide shop in Park City, it also boasts a full Nordic Center with a network of premium trails spanning from downtown Park City to St. Mary’s church along Highway 224. White Pine keeps these trails in tip-top shape for the athletes and coaches who frequent them—and, of course the average civilian cross-country user benefits from this. The Nordic Center offers equipment, group and private lessons, coaching, and workshops—including several series for ladies only. While it’s a bit of a drive from Salt Lake, the rewards (and the chance to dine in Park City after your workout) are more than worth it.
If you’re interested in learning more about the cross-country ski scene in northern Utah, a passionate alliance of enthusiasts is ready to lend a hand: The Utah Nordic Alliance. TUNA has an extremely informative website about area cross-country skiing, and the organization coordinates races, offers junior skier programs, arranges trail grooming, conducts training sessions, and generally helps promote the sport. Pay them a visit, brush up on your ski-speak, and plan your next glide through the woods. See you out there.