This story originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune, February 11, 2016
Butte gets Nordic
In a town known for its Irish heritage, a Nordic community is taking hold. All around Butte, locals and visitors are kicking and gliding along groomed cross-country ski trails, backcountry skiing in the surrounding mountains, and snowshoeing up tree-covered slopes. They aren’t necessarily ethnically Nordic, but they do love to play in the snow.
“There is a small group of die-hards, but there are a lot of Nordic skiers in general,” said Dave Williams, former president and current member of the Mile High Nordic Ski Education Foundation (MHNSEF).
MHNSEF grooms two Nordic ski areas – Moulton Reservoir, eight miles north of Butte and Mt. Haggin, near Anaconda. They also work with Homestake Lodge, a commercial cross-country ski area on the Continental Divide 15 minutes from Butte, and sponsor “Learn to Ski Days.”
“We have a “Learn Moulton Day” where we show people the trails and a couple of other educational events, including a waxing clinic,” Williams said.
In all three groomed areas, trails wind through conifers, past snow-covered rocks, and over hills. Moulton Reservoir and Homestake Lodge are close enough to Butte that skiers can hit the trails after work.
Now that it is staying light later in the day, Lisa O’Donnell has been fitting in a ski tour after a day in the office.
“I can get to Moulton in about 20 minutes and decompress with a ski after work,” O’Donnell said. “I go a couple of days a week and there are usually six or so other cars in the lot when I arrive. It’s a great spot to run my dog and soak in the fresh, winter air.”
Towns like Missoula and Bozeman are homes to thriving Nordic communities, everything from Nordic racers to backcountry skiers, to after-work fitness buffs, but Butte hasn’t had that reputation. Until now.
“Recreation-wise, Butte has so much going for it,” Axelson said. “With I-90 and I-15 running through Butte, we can pull from Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman, as well as locally.”
Axelson also cites an airport, the right altitude, and a lack of other lodges nearby, as the reasons Butte is ideal for cross-country skiing. Over the course of a season, Homestake Lodge skiers get in thousands of workouts.
“There are a lot of gung-ho skiers and a good group involved with the club,” said Axelson. “I think the Nordic community is growing because there is a lot more exposure now.”
Part of that exposure comes from programs at Homestake Lodge. Local fourth and fifth grade classes get to come to the Nordic ski area for cross-country ski lessons and snow science classes. They run a Junior Ski Program for ages five and older, “Learn to Ski” days, as well as lessons for all ages.
“The kids from the school programs bring their families up,” said Axelson. “We are getting a lot of locals who have never skied before and they love it.”
As further evidence of a growing interest in Nordic activities, Butte held its first Snöflinga: Montana’s Winter Festival at the end of January. The cross-country ski lessons – taught by MHNSEF members and with free rental gear from Homestake Lodge—filled up before the festival even began.
“We had more than 100 people up here for the cross-country ski lessons,” said Axelson. Snoeshoeing was also offered as part of the Snöflinga festival, as well as other winter sports.
Easy access to great groomed trails, and community lessons to make the sport less intimidating, have helped grow Butte’s Nordic community. It doesn’t hurt that the local scenery is so spectacular.
“Mount Haggin is groomed to almost commercial standards,” said Williams, “it has really reliable snow, and the views are great.” A good day at Mount Haggin, according to Williams, will see 30-40 cars in the parking lot.
O’Donnell occasionally skis at Mount Haggin on the weekends.
“The views are amazing,” she said. “All three of the groomed areas really remind you of what a beautiful place we live in.”
Where to ski near Butte
The approximately 14 kilometers of trails are maintained for classic skiing by the Forest Service in cooperation with the Mile High Nordic Ski Education Foundation. All of the trails are dog-friendly and feature lots of hills. Trail names, including Neversweat, Prospect Meadow and Motherlode, reflect Butte’s mining industry. Drive about eight miles north of Butte on Moulton Reservoir Road. The road dead ends at the parking area. No fee.
MHNSEF maintains groomed cross-country ski trails in cooperation with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Great views abound on the nearly 28 kilometers of trails. About 10 kilometers are groomed for skate skiing, and all of the trails, with the exception of the Spire Loop, are groomed for classic skiing. Ski trails can also be used as access to backcountry skiing along the Continental Divide. Volunteers groom the trail system once or twice per week. Drive west on Highway 569 from Anaconda, about 24 miles to the parking area on the left (south) side of the road. No fee.
Nestled at the top of Homestake Pass between Butte and Whitehall, Homestake Lodge grooms 37 kilometers of trails for classic and skate skiing. Ten kilometers of trail are dog-friendly. Trained instructors lead lessons for all ages. Lunch is served in the lodge on weekends, where there is also a ski shop. A yurt, cabins, and bunkrooms are available for rent. Trail passes are $15/adult, $8/child 12+, free/6 and under.
For more info
•Mile High Nordic Ski Education Foundation
•Snöflinga Montana Winter Festival