By Katie Smith Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Southwest Montana is a nordic skier’s heaven. Winters start in November and stretch well through May, and snow conditions are consistent and perfect. The region draws Olympic-level athletes, quiet souls seeking solitude in snow-covered woods, and everyone between.
Cross-country skiing is a relaxing break from the busier downhill ski areas and a great way to relieve stress from a hectic workday. The sport is growing quickly, with people seeking ways to recreate and stay in shape during the winter.

Yellowstone country’s backcountry trails allow intrepid wanderers to lay their own tracks and forget the troubles of the world. The miles of professionally groomed trails draw runners and bikers with the aerobic challenge of skate skiing. Kids are drawn to the buzz too, pulling tricks on nordic terrain parks.
Whether you’re a first timer or an expert looking for new terrain, here are a few of Southwest Montana’s best spots to travel on skinny skis:

Lone Mountain Ranch

Lone Mountain Ranch is in the heart of Big Sky country. It boasts one of the most extensive trail systems, and 2,200 vertical feet of skiing. Advanced skiers will love the uphill challenges that end with beautiful views, and beginners can test their skills on the golf course loops. LMR also grooms more than 15 kilometers of dog-friendly trails for those who like to strike out with their canine companions.

Location: Big Sky
Kilometers of trails: 100
Grooming: skate and classic
Trail to try: Summit Loop (difficult)
Information: LMR Nordic Center (406) 995-4734

Rendezvous Ski Trails

The West Yellowstone Rendezvous trails are a favorite for high altitude training, and for their beautiful rolling terrain minutes
from Yellowstone National Park. The trails are on Forest Service land and have some of the most fun and exciting ski races such as the Spam Cup and the Equinox Ski Challenge.
Location: West Yellowstone
Kilometers of trails: over 35
Grooming: skate and classic
Trail to try: DejaView (easy)
Information: Freeheel and Wheel (406) 646-7744

Mill Creek Ski Trails

Paradise Valley earned its name for a good reason. Surrounded by the towering Absaroka Mountains, and situated beneath Arrow Peak, the Mill Creek trails weave in and out of dense woodland and open meadows. Perfect for those seeking a wilderness adventure and beautiful views.
Location: Livingston
Kilometers of trails: about 16
Grooming: snowmobile/backcountry
Trail to try: Snowbank Ski Trail (moderate)
Information: Timber Trails (406) 222-9550

Hyalite Canyon

Hyalite Canyon, 20 minutes south of Bozeman, has some of the best groomed wilderness skiing in the area. Narrow trails wind along old logging roads and hiking trails, through thick forests, and around Hyalite Lake. A few trails access forest service cabins, making for a unique backcountry getaway.
Location: Bozeman
Kilometers of trails: 30
Grooming: skate and classic (some are narrow and better suited to classic), backcountry
Trail to try: West Shore Loop (moderate)
Information: Bangtail Bikes and XC skis (406) 587-4905

Homestake Pass

Fifteen minutes east of Butte, Homestake Lodge is home to some of the most interesting ski terrain in Montana. Large rock outcroppings, beaver ponds and aspen groves provide beautiful scenery along gently rolling trails. Make a weekend out of it by staying in the two-room bunkhouse with other nordic adventurers.
Location: Homestake Pass
Kilometers of Trail: 35
Grooming: skate and classic/touring
Trail to try: Huff and Puff (difficult)
Information: Homestake Lodge (406) 585-8052

Cliff and Wade Lakes

A designated wildlife viewing area, the groomed ski trails at Cliff and Wade lakes are home to river otters, swans, moose and elk. These trails glide past two beautiful lakes and through old growth fir forests, then out to the Wade
Lake Cabins; a perfect winter getaway.
Location: Cameron
Kilometers of trails: 35
Grooming: classic/touring
Trail to try: Wade Lake Trail (Easy)
Information: Wade Lake Cabins (406) 682-7560

Chief Joseph Pass Ski Trails

Chief Joseph Pass is home one of the area’s most pristine nordic areas. With eight loops ranging from easy to difficult and a cozy warming hut for lunch or breaks, these trails are an escape from the daily hustle and bustle. The Bitterroot Cross Country Ski Club maintains and grooms the entire system through volunteers and donations. They also offer free lessons for anyone interested in learning the sport.
Location: Wisdom
Kilometers of trails: 24.6
Grooming: classic
Trail to try: Gold Medal Loop (moderate)
Information: Bitterroot Cross Country Ski Club, brxcski@cybernet1.com

Equinox Ski Challenge: March 21, 2012

Sam Newbury was headed back from Moab’s 24-hour
mountain bike race in 2006 when he had an idea: Nordic
skiers might also love the physical challenge and camaraderie
of a 24-hour race. From this musing, the Equinox
Ski Challenge was born.
Now six years later, the ski race is held annually on the
spring equinox and has become a season capstone for
people of all ages and abilities. Hosted at the Rendezvous
Trails in West Yellowstone, the event promotes community
and camaraderie through costume contests, a potluck
dinner, and fundraising for the West Yellowstone Ski Education
Foundation and the Manaia Youth Programs.
The number of participants has grown each year, and race
categories include kids races (ages three to six); three, six
and 12-hour events; as well as the uber-challenge—the
24-hour race. This year, Equinox may also add categories
for running, snowshoeing and snow-biking.
“It’s exciting seeing people having fun and pushing themselves,”
Newbury said.
In the main endurance event, teams or individuals try
to ski as many loops as possible in 24 hours, a race that
attracts endurance athletes and skiers looking for a personal challenge.
Novice and intermediate skiers are welcome in the other
divisions, and the afternoon and evening festivities give
racers and supporters a chance to hang out and cheer
each other on.

This story was first published in the winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.