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Jump off the chairlift and cut your own cross-country trail

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Downhill skis tightly lock you — and your feet — in. It’s a lifestyle run by chairlifts and ski lodges and crowded alpine runs. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, puts you in a different pair of boots that leaves your heels free to climb, glide and wander open terrain.

It’s winter-exploration meets wilderness-watching and it’s helluva good exercise.

“If you don’t Nordic-ski, the sport seems a bit weird,” says Tom Schaaf, president of the Spokane Nordic Ski Education Foundation. “It’s not as intuitive as going 30 miles an hour down a mountain and then having some machine drag you back up the hill. It’s a little bit like running. You just have to get out and try it.”

Schaaf says a small percentage of winter athletes have gotten into Nordic skiing, but the numbers are growing. Local ski resorts offer intricate trails systems and miles of groomed terrain. But you don’t need pretty, clean trails to explore. The backcountry is flush with snow and endless destinations to discover.

The sport is divided into two styles. Classic skiing is defined by a straight-ahead gliding motion, while skate skiing involves a V-style glide and a motion like ice skating or rollerblading. Each style requires a different type of snow-grooming and equipment.

Classic skiers can either travel the back-country — trudging through woods without groomed trails — or ski inside grooved tracks laid by a machine. Skate skiers run on corduroy groomed trails that are sleek and similar to Alpine groomed trials.

“We’ve got great access to trails and once people get out and try it, they think it’s a kick,” Schaaf says.

Getting started is easier than it seems. Local Nordic skiing organizations like Spokane Nordic, the Panhandle Nordic Club and the Outdoor Program through Spokane Parks and Recreation offer guided clinics and courses to get you equipped and outside.

If you’re ready to be thrown into the mix, check out these local Nordic trail systems and resorts.

MOUNT SPOKANE

A Nordic skiing Mecca, Mount Spokane boasts 25 miles of trails and is constantly expanding. The trails system features runs for both classic and skate skiers and offers a good variety of clean trails with daily grooming schedules. The park also hosts an assortment of different clinics and teams sponsored by the Spokane Nordic Ski Education Foundation. Amenities include ski patrol, a lodge, restroom facilities and a wood-stove warming hut. Volunteers are in the process of building a terrain park.

49 DEGREES NORTH

49 Degrees North is in the midst of building a new Nordic center. The trail system was completely rebuilt and now offers 15 miles of classic and skate trails throughout old-growth forests. The trail system features upper and lower loops that are groomed weekly and are great for beginner to intermediate skiers. The Nordic center is fully staffed and available to provide directions, information and equipment rentals. Amenities include a wood-heated warming yurt, snack bar and restroom facilities.

FOURTH OF JULY PASS

With a great selection of rolling hills and long treks, Fourth of July Pass offers 15 miles of mixed-use trails. The terrain is speckled with hills and descents and is best suited for intermediate to advanced skiers. The two trail loops are groomed once a week and feature a combination of backcountry opportunities, skate and track trails. Amenities include three wood-heated warming huts, a picnic shelter, various benches and restroom facilities.

LOOKOUT PASS

An untamed winter wonderland, the ski resort offers 15 miles of Nordic trails that lack formal grooming but are great for people who want to get out and wander. The trails are moderately groomed once a week but don’t contain laid track. The trail network is similar to the Hiawatha Trail — a rail-to-trail project that follows the gentle grade of a railroad bed. The area is best suited for beginners and intermediate skiers, but advanced skiers can take longer cross-country treks eastward to St. Regis, Montana.

SILVER MOUNTAIN RESORT

A short drive west of Fourth of July Pass, Silver doesn’t maintain groomed Nordic trails, but the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes passes through Silver Mountain’s Gondola Village. The trail is a 71-mile bike path that follows the Union Pacific Railroad all the way from Mullan, Idaho, to the Washington border. During the winter, a 10-foot-wide path is corduroy-groomed for Nordic skiing.

SCHWEITZER MOUNTAIN RESORT

Boasting spectacular views on more than 20 miles of Nordic skiing trails, the terrain at Schweitzer features a cross section of classic and skate track trails suited for both experienced skiers and novices. Ski rentals, personal coaches and race clinics are made available through the Demo Center and Snowsports School. Features include several Nordic villages and picnic shelters.

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