Top Picks

10 Great Places to Ski on a National Wildlife Refuge

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter December Outdoor Living Newsletter

Skiing is a popular winter sport. When winter comes and the snow starts falling, skiing enthusiasts typically head off to ski towns like Aspen in Colorado and Park City in Utah. But did you know that for a mere fraction of the expenses you will incur on a trip to these tourist-oriented ski towns, you can have a jolly skiing holiday at a National Wildlife Refuge? More than that, when you spend your ski holidays at a National Wildlife Refuge, you get to enjoy the beauty of Nature as she puts on her winter coat, pure and unspoiled by artifice or pollution.

Here are our top picks for skiing holidays at a National Wildlife Refuge.

1.  Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Maine

Located near the town of Limestone, Aroostook NWR offers over five miles of skiing trails. These trails are groomed for both classic and skate skiing in winter. These ski trails are easy enough for newbies to navigate, and along the way you can watch moose, deer and black bears. The best time to ski in Aroostook is late winter.

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Woman cross-country skiing
National Wildlife Refuges are excellent ski trip destinations.

2.  Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia

Canaan Valley NWR is a lovely skiing destination. With an elevation of over 4,000 feet, it's the highest valley lying east of the Rocky Mountains. If you go on a ski trip here, you're guaranteed to be treated to some marvelous views. You may even get lucky and come across a rarely sighted bobcat, mink or black bear. The refuge boasts 41 miles of trails, ten miles of which are for the exclusive use of cross-country skiers. Some of these trails are gentle enough for beginners while some trails require the skills of an expert.

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3.  Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

A river valley with three natural lakes lying near the Canadian border, Des Lacs NWR transforms into a snowy wonderland in winter. Whether you love cross-country skiing on wooded trails or open fields, you'd have nine miles of ungroomed snow trails to explore and enjoy on your visit to this refuge. Some of these trails, like the Canada Goose Trail, are flat and great for newbie skiers. Some, like Munch's Coulee Nature Trail, are steep and hilly, challenging enough for skiers with some experience. January is the best time to ski at Des Lacs.

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4.  Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, New York

Iroquois NWR is considered to be one of the best-kept secrets of upstate New York. In winter, its marshlands put on a coat of snow thick enough for skiers to enjoy. The designated ski trails here extend 7.5 miles, though you can also go skiing along the hiking trails. These ski trails are mostly woodsy and flat. Additionally, these trails run around a large marsh, so you can view migratory birds. You can visit Iroquois NWR for skiing from early winter to February. After February, some of these trails are closed until summer to allow birds to nest.

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5.  Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

From February to April, powderhounds flock to Kenai NWR to test their skiing mettle on this ever-changing terrain. There are six trails here that run through frozen wetlands with hills covered with hardwood trees; through boreal forests with their collection of birches, aspens and spruces; and through bare and snowy mountain slopes. This terrain is more for the experienced skier, but the courageous newbies can also have fun and excitement here.

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6.  Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Idaho

Located 20 miles from the Canadian border and sitting at the feet of the scenic Selkirk Mountains is Kootenai NWR. In spring and summertime, Kootenai is more known as a refuge for migrating birds. Come wintertime, though, it becomes a destination for skiers who prefer a gentle run down the refuge's auto tour route. This auto tour route is 4.5 miles of ungroomed snow and has an adjoining country road where you can ski for another two miles more. February is an ideal time for visiting Kootenai, and while you're there you might see some tundra swans and Canadian geese, as well as some elk and deer.

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7.  Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota

Minnesota Valley NWR carries the distinction of being one of only four National Wildlife Refuges that are right within a highly urbanized area. This NWR is just a few miles south of Minneapolis, so if you want to ski in the wilderness but wish to return to civilization by dinnertime, you should take your ski trip here. What makes Minnesota Valley NWR a great destination for skiing is it has more than 100 miles of interlacing ski trails, all ungroomed and following the direction of the Minnesota River. Many of these trails lead to areas that are only open to the public in winter.

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8.  Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

In the summer, Ruby Lake NWR is a prime destination for birdwatchers and people who love viewing wildflowers in bloom. It's a marshland that serves as a very important habitat for threatened Great Basin birds. In the winter, areas in Ruby Lake NWR close to the Ruby Mountains are ideal for skiers of all levels. The snow-covered foothills roll gently, which makes them great for cross-country skiing.

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9.  Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan

Seney NWR has a designated ski area - the Northern Hardwoods Cross-Country Ski Area. Here you can enjoy more than nine miles' worth of ski trails, groomed weekly by the refuge's staff. The ski trails here vary in difficulty, with some trails so easy that even first-time skiers can run them, and some so hard that even experienced powderhounds will find them a challenge. The trails are mostly wooded with birches and maples.

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10.  Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin

Trempealeau NWR offers four ski trails that cover a total of four miles. Some portions of these trails are reserved for the exclusive use of skiers. Some parts, on the other hand, skiers have to share with hikers and snowshoers. These trails will all take you around the edges of the woods, prairies and frozen wetlands of the refuge. The trails are all ungroomed and are great for beginners and experienced skiers alike.

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Ski trips are a great way to enjoy the outdoors in wintertime. But you don't have to go to expensive ski resort towns just to get your powder fix. Go to a National Wildlife Refuge on your next ski trip and immerse yourself in the wondrous beauty of Nature in winter.

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