So Many Choices, How To Decide?

In general, xc skiers select their winter xc ski destination resorts using some rating system of how xc ski areas perform in eight categories of criteria including trail quality and grooming, scenery, food quality, staff friendliness and service, the ski lodge facility and family issues. There is a great range of xc ski areas in North America and in the eyes of xc skiers these characteristics delineate areas without concern to whether the area is an inn, a ranch, a day area, a destination resort, or a recreation park area. I’ve purposely avoided the issue of cost – whether you like to travel to distant resorts or only travel within your region, you will still compare the other criteria to select your destination resort.

The information below describes what a quality xc ski resort is all about in terms of services and amenities at some of the leading xc ski resorts in North America.

XC Ski Trails

Trail Quality relates to the skiers’ comfort on the trails, even though those skiers might be at different skiing or experience levels. The trail signage should help skiers understand where they are on the area’s trail network. And signs should help skiers know the direction that will help them return to their starting place. The trails should provide a skiing flow so there aren’t too many long uphills or sharp turns at the bottom of steep downhills. One idea that is done at Lapland Lake in Northville, New York that makes trails seem less crowded is to have skiers go in the same direction (one-way). The result is that the trails never seem crowded. Jay Richards of Maplelag in Calloway, Minnesota said, “Feedback from the majority of our skiers let us know that they prefer double-tracked trails more than single tracks. And we had overwhelmingly negative opinions about allowing dogs on the trails, too.”

Some of the best xc ski areas are just blessed with great terrain for xc skiing. The location of an area such as Royal Gorge in Soda Springs, California is perfect for xc skiing as the area’s land diversity offers flat, rolling and more challenging variety. And Royal Gorge claims Sierra maritime snow consolidates well and is great for the base on the trails, which means that skiers can count on excellent conditions when they ski there.

Trail grooming can make or break the ski conditions. Olavi Hirvonen former owner of Lapland Lake explained, “We groom every morning unless we have to wait for the snow to dry out or cool off – and I groom the way I like to ski the trails myself.” Hirvonen had the Lapland Lake staff out on the trails after windy periods to rake and pick up the debris from trees like fallen limbs and pine cones so skiers don’t have to ski over the debris as it appears on the trails from the Springtime melt.”

One thing that most of the best xc ski areas share in common is that they acquire and use the latest trail grooming technology to give them a mechanical advantage. They do not skimp when it comes to using snowcats with their grooming attachments to break up ice or powderize the snow into the finest trail surfaces.

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Without getting into the details of grooming machinery and techniques, the personal pride of the area operators is paramount to the trail quality issue. There is pride and commitment to the quality of the trails at many of xc ski areas.

Staff Service And Friendliness

You know it when an area’s staff is a great one – they seem happy to see you. In most instances, areas that have veteran employees have them because it is a great place to work. Most of these great employees do not need “customer service” training. They already have the personal touch. Most of the people that work at the best xc ski areas want to work there as a lifestyle choice. This is apparent with their attitudes with the guests and about working at one of the best xc ski areas.

The Richards family, who own and run the Maplelag Resort in Callaway, Minnesota, treat their guests as part of their family. It may sound trite but their guests sincerely feel welcome and they state it unequivocally in testimonials. The staff often greets the guests by name. The Richards constantly ask their guests if there is anything that can be done and they drop everything to help their guests, be it in the lodge, on the trails, in the rental shop or at the dinner table. Richards feels, “One of us (the Richards family) is always around to help with our guests. It’s fun to chat with and be pampered by the actual owners of the resort.” Many testimonials from different areas claim the same thing with regard to their feelings about the service at the best resorts – they feel welcome, comfortable and “at home.” And Maplelag avoids posting rules or signs saying “Don’t do this or that.”

Resort Lodges

XC ski lodges can be designed to provide space, convenience and efficient utilization, but there are also other factors that make a difference to skiers. The best places are clean, cozy, and convenient, but facilities such as restrooms can get pretty yucky, that have to be kept in good condition throughout the day. Lapland also takes into account brown baggers (bring their own lunch rather than purchase food at the area) by offering them a picnic area. And they have a public shower and changing area for skiers, who want to clean up before their drive home.

At Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, CO, part of their ambiance is the scenic location and rustic looking facilities. They’ve added new updated facilities such as a dining room, lodge and cabins, but many guests go there to enjoy the rustic feel. It looks like what people expect Colorado to look like and they incorporate features such as a yoga studio and spa to provide guests with amenities that they appreciate while on vacation. And Devil’s Thumb has invested in many sustainable aspects, which guests support.

The main lodge at Maplelag is the area’s group meeting place, and it is a living folk art museum. Jay Richards has collected unusual items from around the world. He stated, “We work very hard cultivating this look to be a feast for the eyes.” There are nooks and crannies where people can sit and relax, read a book, play games with the family, etc. The lodge also houses the main dining room, hot tub, sauna, massage rooms, rental shop, gift store and it is where the Saturday night talent show and dance takes place.

Food And Beverage

Whether Nordic skiers bring a picnic lunch, stop at a trailside snack shack or relax with a first class dining experience, the best areas usually are known for their outstanding cuisine. Good food service is a result of the area’s commitment, quality chefs with pedigree culinary backgrounds, wine selection, and so on. The Maplelag kitchen is run by Debbie, the chef who has been on the job on and off for 25 years. There is a window opening to the kitchen where guests can speak with Debbie and see the staff cooking the meals. They make everything from scratch using only natural and fresh ingredients. They call it homestyle, hearty, and wholesome and it is a unique menu that is endorsed by the guests. Richards’ summarized, “Food is a real joy at Maplelag.

Quality Family Time

Some xc ski areas are highly touted for their commitment to families. They cater to family needs by dealing with the kids AND grandparents. So the trails have plenty of flat terrain for kids and they offer pulks (sleds that skiers use to carry small children), children’s sized snowshoes, skis, boots, and ice skates. XC skiing offers families an activity that they can all do together. And that can include a four-year old on Snoopy skis skiing right alongside of grandpa skiing on his pine tarred woody originals.

Child-oriented instructors are a key element for families and so are instructors that can cater to older skiers’ needs. For the kids to have a positive attitude about Nordic skiing they must have positive first experiences and older skiers relate to older instructors because they are on the same wavelength. Kids get comfortable with child-friendly instructors as individuals and on subsequent visits the kids commonly request to take additional lessons so they can spend more time with those friendly instructors.

Another important way to cater to families is to offer a variety of other skiing and non-skiing activities. At Lapland Lake a game played in Finland called Napa Kiikku is organized on weekends and holidays. The game involves a pole on ice with a sled that goes around in a circle. Adult lessons are conducted to correlate to the time that the kids play the game.

The entire family loves a campfire by the lake, sleigh rides, or just playing on a big pile of snow. Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont conducts many kids “classes” from swimming to puppet classes or making stuffed animals. The kids’ classes provide parents and grandparents with some child-free time for going on harder ski trails or getting a massage while the kids are being entertained. And older guests love the tour offered at the lodge with property managers who are often the children of Johannes von Trapp.

Jay Richards (Jim and Mary Richards’ son) of Maplelag commented, “Seeing our large family with our own kids running around, being involved makes families feel welcome here. We try to make parents feel at ease about having their kids run around.” Maplelag cabins and cabooses are great accommodations that can fit large families and the Richards try to help families focus on being together doing family activities. Serving meals “family style” is a key element to the atmosphere. But so are the other family activities such as the dance and the talent show. Baby sitting services are available on site, too. Jay feels that one of the biggest reasons families visit is that there are many families already at Maplelag every time people visit and that makes families feel welcome.

Summing Up

Of course, there are other criteria for selecting winter destinations – for example, couples that are looking for a romantic weekend will have different needs (and desires). There is something more memorable about traveling to a destination compared to going to the local trail network for a couple of hours to xc ski or snowshoe. Whatever your interests, there is a perfect xc ski resort for you.

Editor Note: This article was originally published in XCSkiResorts.com.

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