Natural snow is where it’s at, unless there’s none to be found. In high-elevation places like West Yellowstone, Mont., (roughly 6,600 feet above sea level) and Crested Butte (nearly 9,000 feet), November skiing is almost always a given — which is why those venues have hosted Thanksgiving-week ski camps for 16 to 30+ years. And they are again this year, while looking to the skies and weather forecasts in hope of more snow — much more.
While there are only two well-known Thanksgiving camps currently being held in the U.S., there are dozens of other places around the country you can likely go skiing. We did our best to present some of the most dependable options, so at the very least you can plan a future trip on snow this time next year. No offense to the in-laws, but wouldn’t you rather be skiing on Thanksgiving? Stay tuned for our Canadian early skiing edition, and feel free to share your favorite November ski spot in the comments section below.
What: Yellowstone Ski Festival
Where: West Yellowstone, Montana
When: Tuesday, Nov. 22 – Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016
How many years running: Over 30 years. “It started with Drew Barney, Torbjorn Karlsen and Dick Hunt back in the 1980s as a Fall Camp, offering clinics for coaches and citizen racers looking to improve their technique,” West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation Program Director Moira Dow explained. “Over the years, the camp grew into one of the top training camps available to the cross-country ski community.”
Target audience: Open to the public and all levels of skiers.
Anticipated participation: Around 2,500. “We think it might be a little bit lower this year because of the late snow and the lack of the SuperTour,” Dow noted. “Last year we had a lot. We had really really early snow last year. Around 3,500 in years past.”
Advance reservation required? Yes for clinics and races. Online registration only. “The competitive events and the clinics all require you to be pre-registered, but all the evening events are open to the public,” Dow said.
Trail pass rates: $55 for the month of November for adults. $26 for kids, which is 10 and under. Day passes are $12 and $6
Grooming report: Approx. 20-25 k groomed as of Monday, Nov. 21.
What makes this camp unique?
“Good, early, reliable snow,” Dow said.
“Also it’s a place where skiers from all across the country, juniors to seniors to masters, come together,” she added. “… And as a junior, that’s pretty unique to get to be able to do that. And also to see all the equipment from vendors and see wax clinics. To have all of the elements in one spot is one of the most unique things about this camp.
“We’re a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere,” she continued. “Our ability to put on such a big event, is, in my opinion, probably one of the most unique aspects of our camp. We are almost entirely volunteer run. The fact that the people who run the festival have little to no experience cross-country skiing, but put on these races, is just flabbergasting to me. It’s pretty incredible.”
- Presentation: Wildlife photographer Tom Murphy
- Yellowstone Historic Center presents The Ski Hero Soldiers of Yellowstone
- Whiskers, Whiskey, and Waxing featuring whiskey tasting samples from Willie’s Distillery of Ennis, MT
- Branch Beer Bash: Micro and craft beer tasting
- Presentation: Kaatsu Training by Doug Barnard
- Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival
- Women, Wine, and Waxing
- Keynote speaker Ruff Patterson
- Yellowstone Ski Festival Social
— Gabby Naranja
What: Crested Butte Nordic Thanksgiving Camp
Where: Crested Butte, Colorado
When: Wednesday, Nov. 23, to Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016
How many years running: 16 as an official, organized camp: “In case of a low-snow year, like our current situation, we have a low-snow venue called Lily Lake and that’s up on Kebler Pass which is six miles West of town,” said Drew Holbrook, marketing director for Crested Butte Nordic.
The road up to Kebler Pass is maintained by the county. Individuals or groups can drive up to the pass, but carpooling is encouraged when the low-snow option is in play.
“We have vans to shuttle people up to try and minimize traffic and congestion — it’s kind of like a similar situation in terms of people (but not as and because not quite as many people) as driving up on the South Plateau outside West Yellowstone, so we shuttle people up there. For the people taking clinics we shuttle them all up in vans.”
The Lily Lake area receives 600 inches of annual snowfall and no trail pass is required. As of Nov. 18, Lily Lake had received nearly six inches of snow.
The Nordic Center located in town is also prepared for low snow, according to Holbrook. “Just in the last three years we have had the trail right next to the Nordic Center in town, called Ruthie’s Run, homologated re-engineered. So it’s seeded with grass, it is mowed and basically we can groom that with literally six inches of snow or so. It’s kind of interesting because it snows a lot more up on Kebler Pass at Lily Lake, it might snow two feet up there and only six inches in town, but it’s easier to actually groom on Ruthie’s down in town if we get the snow. Lily Lake is on Forest Service property, so we have to wait until there is a foot of snow before we are allowed to groom up there.”
Target audience: All ages and abilities. New skiers are encouraged to come try the sport out.
Anticipated participation: Holbrook expects 60 participants for the clinics offered. A round-robin classic “refresher” will be held Thursday, Nov. 25, with full-day clinics on the 26th and 27th.
Advance reservation required? Strongly encouraged. “For the clinics it is best to sign up ahead of time,” Holbrook said. “We never get too many people signing up until it starts snowing, but they do fill up. You might get lucky the morning of and come into the Nordic Center and sign up and get a spot, no guarantees.”
Trail pass rates: $20/day, skiers 17 & younger ski free. $150 for a 10-punch transferable pass.
Grooming report: Lily Lake is receiving snow. The low-snow option looks more than promising.
What makes this camp unique? “One thing that makes it unique, Lily Lakes is a great locals’ place to ski,” Holbrook said. “It’s pristine and scenic. And of course, its great skiing from the Nordic Center in town, too. There is plenty of room on the trails for everybody, you are not getting swarmed by people and not being able to do your workout. It’s easy to get in a good ski.”
- Ski Free Day: Wednesday, Nov. 23 at the Crested Butte Nordic Center
- Crested Butte Mountain Resort “Donation Day”. Donate some money, you decide the amount, and ski with a little help from gravity at the downhill area. All proceeds support the Crested Butte Snowsports Foundation
- Round-robin refresher clinic: Thursday, Nov. 24
- U16 Junior Training Camp: Nov. 25-27
- Alley Loop Race Series (Race #1) 5 k & 10 k skate
- Winter Kick-Off Party (Saturday night): Fundraiser for Crested Butte Nordic, tickets $25/adult,$15/children. (Author’s note: Crested Butte throws fun parties.)
— Jason Albert
NOT CAMPS, PER SE, BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDERING ABOUT:
Birch Hill Ski Area, in Fairbanks, is probably the most reliable spot in North America for groomed early-season skiing. This is the venue that once held a FIS race on Nov. 2. Temperatures are reliably cold, and any snow that falls tends to stay. The Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks grooms approximately 35 k of trails at Birch Hill. The trails are meticulously maintained in summer, if not manicured, and are justly renowned for their ability to provide good skiing after mere inches of snowfall.
Birch Hill again held FIS races on the recent weekend of Nov. 19-20. It had snowed approximately 5″ total in Fairbanks this winter by that point. Weekend racers – and there were hundreds of them, from kindergarteners without poles to the APU Elite Team – skied on trails that had been packed and dragged to create a base of approximately 2″. There were admittedly some leaves and dirt showing through in places – but, crucially, it was leaves, not rocks. Most skiers in the FIS/USSA class of the weekend’s races competed on their prior-generation, few-years-old race skis.
Locals consistently described the conditions, which led half the APU Elite men’s team to make the trek north from Fairbanks for the weekend, as among the worst mid-November conditions in living memory.
Anchorage and nearby
Under normal conditions, as measured by a 30-year average, Anchorage around Thanksgiving is a nordic nirvana. There are at least 40 kilometers of groomed trails at Kincaid Park, on the west edge of town, and another 16 k at Hillside, on the east edge of town. (16 k are lit at Kincaid, and 8 k are lit at Hillside.) The two ski areas are connected by a network of dozens of kilometers of additional trails (also groomed, or at least snowmachine dragged), ranging from moose-dense forest to urban greenbelt, including the Coastal Trail, which runs along the shores of the Pacific Ocean for most of its 15 k. You can ski from Hillside up into the Chugach Front Range, and from the frontcountry into true backcountry. Around 20 miles out of town to the north, Beach Lake has another 20 k of groomed trails (nine of them lit). 40 miles to the south, Girdwood boasts a growing trail network of around 10 k total, including a competition-level 5 k loop. All trails are open 24/7, and there is no trail fee for any of them.
Judging from the last three winters, however, Anchorage sadly simply cannot be recommended as a viable option for Thanksgiving snow in these days of climate change. While all three winters saw the first snowfall in October or early November, and some period of good skiing immediately thereafter, all three gave way to wind and rain by Thanksgiving week. As of the weekend of Nov. 19-20, 2016, Anchorage has no natural snow on the ground at Kincaid, a 1-2″ base of bulletproof sheet ice at Hillside, and skritchy skiing on a local golf course. On the bright side, the trail running is amazing (bring your Icebugs), and the nordic skating is world class.
Kincaid has limited snowmaking capabilities, which are capable of covering a loop of as much as 3-4 k centered around the main stadium area. (This is where over 95 percent of Anchorage ski races have occurred over the last two winters.) The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA) turned the snowguns on briefly on Nov. 16, then again on Nov. 18. Recent cold temperatures have allowed them to operate continuously since. NSAA stated on Sunday morning that there were no trails open for skiing yet, but that they were “getting closer” to opening the first loop and had reached the stage where the PistenBully was starting to move snow around. A loop of approximately 2 k was opened amidst single-digit temperatures on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 24.
In a recent email to FasterSkier, NSAA Program Manager Tamra Kornfield addressed the possibility of, for example, guaranteeing skiable snow by Thanksgiving in exchange for attracting skiers and generating user fees. Kornfield wrote, “The theory of trail fees has been discussed for many years, but currently our ski trails are on Municipal Park land, and we cannot charge to access these parks. However, I can say that the snowmaking system was designed to extend the ski season, not create it from scratch, so I do foresee doing more to fundraise for this great expense that has now saved the last two ski seasons.”
The Matanuska–Susitna Valley, approximately one hour outside of Anchorage on a major highway (call it up to 90 minutes to the ski areas discussed here), has been described on this website as having “the season of winter that starts in the fall and ends in the spring.” That’s pretty fair.
The Mat-Su Ski Club, including the redoubtable Ed Strabel and sometime FasterSkier contributor Jeff Kase, typically groom 7 k of Bill Spencer-designed trails at Government Peak Recreation Area (to be expanded as soon as next summer), 7.5 k (one-way) on Archangel Road, and 5 to 10 k at Hatcher Pass. Archangel Road hosted one of the last North American ski races of 2015/2016 and one of the first of 2016/2017. Hatcher Pass is a truly special place, as the groomed trails wend their way past the historic buildings of an old gold mine nestled in a bowl in the Talkeetna Mountains. “Imagine skiing through an Old West ghost town turned collectible Christmas village,” local Master and English professor Shannon Gramse once wrote in these pages.
As of Nov. 19, Government Peak (a one-hour drive one-way from central Anchorage), which is at a lower elevation than the other two areas, did not have enough snow to ski on. Archangel Road (75-minute drive) had a base of approximately 4-5″, but it is bulletproof hardpack that should provide a reliable base until spring. The Mat-Su Ski Club has been grooming there several times a week, and the skiing is good to superb. The Mat-Su Ski Club also groomed Hatcher Pass (90-minute drive) over the weekend.
Trail fees and current conditions
All trails described in this article are open 24/7. None of the trails charges a trail fee or requires a pass. Alaska skiers tend to make voluntary yearly donations in lieu of a trail pass. Donations are gratefully accepted by the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, Mat-Su Ski Club, and Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks.
— Gavin Kentch
Then there are the possible Northwest options for early season skiing, including the well-known:
“I giggle about the current skiing up at Washington Pass which is a the top of the North Cascades Highway,” said Kristen Smith, marketing director for Methow Trails based in Winthrop, Washington. “What they have groomed is almost exactly one mile or a 1.6-kilometer loop. It goes out to the Washington Pass overlook, which is stunningly gorgeous. I mean the whole ski is the most beautiful, their probably can’t be a place anywhere in the world that has more beautiful scenery than this, on this little loop.”
Smith explained the loop is being groomed for skate and classic. “It’s a handful of super-dedicated locals who do the grooming completely on their own and you don’t pay to ski there,” Smith said.
But here’s the important beta: call or check online before you head to the Methow or think you might ski at the top of Washington Pass. The Washington Department of Transportation is closing the pass temporarily due to possible hazardous weather and avalanche conditions as of Monday, Nov. 21.
“It will not mean a loss of skiing,” Smith explained in the event the pass is closed for the season. “If the gate is closed farther down on the road to Washington Pass, they will start to groom different areas that we can still access. So to get the snowfall that is expected, they will start to groom just start to groom a bit lower, but bigger loops than what we have up there at Washington Pass. If we are really lucky we will get a big snowfall here on the valley floor and then Mehto Trails who I work for, we will start grooming our system. And we are all set and ready to go the moment we get six inches of snow we will start grooming our trails here.
Where: Washington Pass/Methow Valley, Washington
Elevation: 5477 ft / 1669 m
(As of Monday, Nov. 21)
Temperature/weather: Not Available
Conditions: Pass is closed. SR 20, the North Cascades Highway, is closed from milepost 134 to milepost 171 due to impending weather and potential increasing avalanche hazard.
Restrictions Eastbound: Pass Closed
Restrictions Westbound: Pass Closed
— Jason Albert
While they’re often among the last to get on natural snow, let’s throw eastern skiers a bone. Wintry conditions exist in New England and northeastern New York. While we can’t list them all (and are obviously unable to cover all the open nordic centers across the country), here are a couple weather-dependent options in this region’s “North Country”.
Gore Mountain Ski Bowl
According to general manager Mike Pratt, Gore Mountain in North Creek, N.Y., expects to open its newly homologated ski bowl on Friday, Nov. 25. Gore’s new 4.24-kilometer trail network includes 3.19 k of trails with snowmaking.
“We should have quite a bit of terrain for an opening weekend,” Pratt wrote in an email, adding that they’re hoping for trails A, B, C, and G, which would amount to a total of 2.3 k. “The open stadium could accommodate more lanes if needed, but next week’s weather will ultimately determine how much terrain is available.”
This Friday through Sunday at the Ski Bowl, the Hudson United Race Team (HURT) is holding a three-day ski camp for its junior members. Skiers of all ages not associated with the club can buy a day pass and ski on the trails as well.
“We set up this camp as a way to highlight what Gore has been doing,” HURT coach David Kvam explained.
Then there’s the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, the Northeast Kingdom’s iconic ski center. Although the ski trails were dry as of Nov. 18, the forecast has potential. According to Craftsbury’s Marketing Director Sheldon Miller, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for six to eight inches of snow by the end of Monday. Asked about snowmaking, Miller replied, “We’re looking for cold and dry for snowmaking, but there’s definitely some potential this week. We do need 28 [Fahrenheit] at a minimum, but colder is always better.”
With overnight temperatures forecast for low to mid 20s Sunday through Thursday, the weather looks inclined to support snowmaking.
Craftsbury has Masters’ Camps planned for Dec. 1-4 and and 8-11. More info: http://www.craftsbury.com/skiing/ski-camps-and-group-sales/masters-camps/
Elsewhere, Prospect Mountain in southern Vermont received snow. According to their conditions page, they’re closed, but Zach Caldwell posted this photo montage on Sunday:
According to Prospect Mountain Nordic’s Facebook page, Prospect opened Monday after receiving 26 inches of snow, the most in Vermont and Northeastern New York.
As of Tuesday, Prospect reported more than 28 inches of packed powder. Current conditions
Mt. Van Ho
In Lake Placid, N.Y., Mt. Van Hoevenberg reported “beautiful packed powder” and 30 kilometers of skiing open on a 7-inch base. Current conditions
“The Olympic Cross Country ski trails of Mt Van Hoevenberg have been graced with just under two feet of snow in the last few days,” nordic program manager Kris Cheney-Seymour wrote in an email. “We have a little over 30k of trails groomed very good skiing. Classic tracks are set on varied terrain.”
The lodge is open with rentals and a snack bar for Thanksgiving, along with Josie’s Cabin, a “ski-to destination.” and a ski-to destination
“Upgrades over the last two summers on the famous Ladies 5k have allowed for the earliest opening of this trail in our history,” Seymour continued. “Our 5k homologated loop will be the primary course for the upcoming 2017 Junior National Championships hosted here this March.”
— Peter Minde & Alex Kochon
WE WANT PHOTOS! Share your Thanksgiving week ski photos with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (please note when and where they were taken). We’ll post our favorites to Instagram, and if you’d like to share a firsthand trail report from your favorite spot or nordic center, do so in the comments below!