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best cross country ski trails Wisconsin

Winter 2019-20 started early.

10+ inches of heavy snow November 27, 7+ inches of heavy snow November 30, 4+ inches of dense snow December 9, 2.5 inches of light snow December 12. Groomers had their hands full throughout December. This made for very good skiing over the Christmas and New Year Holidays. January added 14" of snow in generally light snow falls. February was dry, only 5" of snow. We had only one major rain event (1.5" of rain December 28), and the rain was absorbed into the abundant base. Trails were in great shape at Birkie time. Then warm weather moved in a week after the Birkie. The last grooming was March 13, but we were able to enjoy decent skiing into the beginning of April. All thanks to the big snows in late November.

We groomed a total of 57 times this past winter. Here’s the breakdown: once in November, 18 times in December, 19 times in January, 16 times in February, and 3 times in March.

Our head groomer and his crew were very willing to use our rollers - both of our rollers were used more this past winter than at any time in the past. As a result, this past winter the trails were groomed wider, and the edges were more firm. Groomers were very willing to try different techniques, and performed far more evening grooming than at any time in the past. This allowed the grooming to set up by the time skiers arrived in the morning. The classic track was in generally good shape most of the winter - the groomers were responsive to input from some of our most enthusiastic classic skiers. Thank you groomers!

The ABR compaction drag (we call it the 'Blue Thing') also was used more frequently this past winter. It was especially helpful removing high spots in the center of the trail, and when the trails needed a quick light touch-up of the skate lane.

Logging along Rut Road kept us from grooming that part of the East Side Core Loop the entire winter. Toward the end of that logging operation, it also disrupted our access to the West Side using the usual East-West crossover trail. However, one of the real pluses this past winter was the newly permitted use of Excelsior Road on the West Side for grooming and skiing. In the middle of December, after the gun deer hunts were done, a berm was plowed to block off traffic at the east end of Excelsior Road. We then groomed the entire 3 km length of Excelsior Road, and skiers were uniformly thrilled with the results.

Overall, it was a fairly long winter with very good skiing and snowshoeing in the Blue Hills. We hope the following photos trigger some good memories.

skate skiing on the Blue Hills Trail
December 6, 2019 - Excelsior Road on the West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
grooming the Blue Hills Trail cross country ski trail
Grooming the 'Gravel Road' on December 11, 2019
map highlighting Excelsior Road as part of the Blue Hills Trail
The blue line shows Excelsior Road - grooming and skiing it for the first time during winter 2019-20
hoar frost on the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
December 21, 2019 on the East Side ridge line
beautifully groomed cross country ski trail
December 21, 2019 - Roundabout Trail
cross country skiing January 2020 on the Blue Hills Trail
January 1, 2020 near intersection #5 on the East Side Core Loop
women skate skiing
January 7, 2020 - the 'Gravel Road'
skijoring on the Blue Hills Trail in northwest Wisconsin
January 9, 2020 - dogs are welcome on the West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
men skate skiing
January 11, 2020 - East Side ridge line on the Grouse Trail
Blue Hills Trail cross country ski trail
January 20, 2020 - late afternoon near the 'Roundabout' intersection on the East Side of the Blue Hills Trail
snowman viewed through warming house window
January 27, 2020 - view from the warming house
unusual snow conditions created a snow roller
January 29, 2020 - perfect conditions for mother nature to create a snow roller
beautifully groomed trail on the Blue Hills Trail ridge line
February 4, 2020 - near intersection #9 on the Core Loop of the Blue Hills Trail
skate skiing on Excelsior Road as part of the Blue Hills Trail
February 8, 2020 - fast and fun skiing on Excelsior Road
Blue Hills Trail snowshoe trail in northern Wisconsin
February 19, 2020 - snowshoeing the Nordic Pines loop of the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
great cross country ski conditions at the Blue Hills Trail
February 21, 2020 - great conditions on the East Side 'Gravel Road'
great cross country ski conditions at the Blue Hills Trail
February 26, 2020 - approaching the wide open Roundabout intersection
volunteers helped move equipment into storage
March 17, 2020 - volunteers socially distancing as they help move equipment into storage
still skiing on the Blue Hills Trail in late March 2020
March 27, 2020 - winter is hanging on near intersection #25 of the Core Loop
winter is coming to an end as snow disappears March 31
March 31, 2020 - time to say goodbye to a great winter


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We have a great new section of trail for skiing. On the West Side of our trail system, beginning this winter, we have permission to close off and groom Excelsior Road for skiing. Look at the map (in the images below) to get an idea where it's located.

Excelsior Road has great potential for skiing, but closing it for skiing upset the hunters/trappers that have used that road for decades. To paraphrase Jeremy Koslowski (Rusk County Forest Administrator), we all want to play in the same sandbox, we just need to figure out how to get along.

At the December 2019 monthly meeting of the Rusk County Forestry Committee, the wintertime use of Excelsior Road was on the agenda. After much discussion, a new compromise for shared use was passed by the committee. Please read on...

Background

  • Out of control beaver activity on the West Side trails in August was highly discouraging
  • Because of the beavers, we pictured a future time when we might be unable to maintain parts of the West Side - including the East/West crossover trail
  • The idea of closing and grooming Excelsior Road was discussed
  • A proposal to close and groom Excelsior Road during the winter ski season was presented by BHTA to the Forestry Committee at their September meeting; it passed unanimously
  • With the unexpected early arrival of wintry weather in late November, we started grooming Excelsior Road approximately December 5 during the muzzleloader deer hunt season
  • Vehicle traffic continued on Excelsior Road despite signs requesting it be considered non-motorized
  • After discussions with Jeremy K, we decided to hold off on more grooming until the antlerless deer hunt ended December 15
  • The evening of December 15, we again groomed Excelsior Road and also arranged for a large berm to be snowplowed into place - effectively blocking car/truck access where Excelsior Road meets the Firelane
  • Hunters expressed their concerns to the Rusk County Forestry Department

December 18, 2019 meeting of the Forestry Committee

  • One of our officers represented BHTA and sat next to the three hunters in attendance
  • The hunters don't want to lose access to the many acres along Excelsior Road where for years they've hunted with their dogs; hunted coyote & rabbit through the winter; bow hunt deer into early January; trap during the winter
  • There was a reasonable exchange of ideas, BHTA tried to represent our membership
  • Forestry Committee then unanimously passed a resolution to allow limited motorized access during the winter ski season - allowing ATVs and snowmobiles on the south side of the road, with the north side reserved for ski trail grooming
  • BHTA continued the dialogue with the hunters outside the meeting room
  • We're going to try sharing Excelsior Road and plan on continued exchange of ideas

We're going to give this a try (the newly passed resolution), and review the results at the January 2020 Forestry Committee meeting. Our officers are hoping to dialogue with the hunters and discuss various options prior to the January meeting. We respect their right to use the County Forest, and recognize their time in the out of doors is an example of a healthy activity - not unlike the hunting and trapping that many of our members enjoy.

Mid December conditions on the West Side are excellent. Don't let the idea of sharing Excelsior Road with ATVs & snowmobiles scare you away, we expect that traffic to be light. Ski Excelsior Road when you can, any feedback is welcome.

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Big snowfalls (10+ inches on November 27, 7+ inches on December 1, 4+ inches December 9) have kept our groomers busy. Early December hasn't provided this type of wintry weather in recent memory. Groomers worked 66 man-hours wrestling the heavy snow into shape for the weekend of December 7/8 when conditions ranged from fair-good-excellent.

A couple news worthy items...

  • WE NOW ARE GROOMING EXCELSIOR ROAD up to and well beyond Letter A on the West Side. There's great skiing available out to the end of Excelsior Road, 3 km in one direction if you start at the Firelane Road. Either park along Firelane Road (well to the side of potential logging traffic), or at the warming house. Please do NOT try to drive on Excelsior Road up to Letter A, that's where we plan on grooming. Look at the modified West Side map (below) to better understand this change.
  • If the beginning of Excelsior Road is rutted (hunters may be driving there until the gun deer hunts are completed December 15), you can enjoy the West Side trails by starting at the warming house on the East Side and skiing the trail that crosses from East to West at Letter L. Or you can park at Letter L - just be sure to leave plenty of room for logging trucks.
  • Loggers have been working on the northwest part of the East Side this fall - along Rut Road in the vicinity of intersections 20-21-22 and Hemlock Canyon Trail between 21 & A - avoid this area until they're done. Images below include an East Side map that shows trails that are groomed, and how to avoid the logging activity.

Picture(s) with this message were taken the first week of December.

good cross country skiing in early December 2019 at the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
December 7, 2019 - East Side 'Core Loop' near #5
good cross country skiing in early December 2019 at the Blue Hills Trail
December 7, 2019
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Plenty of trail news from this past week. Find a comfortable spot, grab your favorite beverage, and read on...

1 - Trail Conditions


Fall colors are very good right now. Ignore the damp weather and go hike the Hills. The trails are firm, well mowed, and a great place to unwind. Be sure to wear a bit of blaze orange: it's archery season for deer, there's a youth deer gun hunt this weekend, bear season is winding down, and various bird hunts are taking flight.

2 - Work Day results


Our Annual Trail Work Day (Saturday morning, Sept 28) was attended by 15 volunteers, and their 40+ hours of work accomplished a lot - THANKS! Kneeling in the group photo below are Tom Paulsen, Sam Behrends, Ben Behrends, Jenna Behrends; standing are Tom Ralston, Lori Larsen, John Ziemer, Paul Johnston, John Olson, Irene Olson, Mike Cragg, and John Hinde; photo take by Jan Paulsen; missing from the photo are Frank Lowry and Kate Plachetka. Their accomplishments:

  • As the above photo shows, we like to start 'em young. An eager two-year-old makes a good helper when cleaning the roof on the warming house.
  • We brushed and cleared branches and windfalls from about 70% of the trail system.
  • Two East Side bridges had their lifespan extended by adding fill and/or riprap rock where it had disappeared.
  • Trenched a 30-foot section at the edge of an East Side trail to help channel water off the trail.
  • On the East Side ridge-line, saved a culvert by exposing a hidden bypass water channel - filling it with rock then topping with soil.
  • Cleaned interior and exterior of warming house.
  • Stuffed gaps in the warming house logs with wool batting.
  • Caulked cracks on top surfaces of warming house logs (to avoid standing water).
  • Caulked a gap in the soffit.
  • Removed dirt adjacent to the foundation, wire brushed the exposed pink foam insulation, painted the foam with a foundation protector, then replaced the dirt.

3 - Camoplast tracks - SOLD!

The evening of Sunday, September 29th we posted an ad to sell our old set of Camoplast tracks that were installed on the Gator in 2014. The listing appeared on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Already Monday morning there was a big response, and the tracks sold the next day (the 30th) to the first person to inspect them. We're now running the Gator with a new and improved set of Camoplast (Camso) tracks. Your financial support keeps things running smoothly!

4 - Busy Beavers

In mid August, when performing touch-up mowing on the West Side, we were stunned by the amount of recurrent and new beaver activity that was flooding the trails. As of this past week, with a little help from our friends, the beavers have vacated the premises, water levels have dropped, and trails appear usable. Over the past several years, West Side beaver flooded trails have been a persistent and worsening problem. To address this, we met with the Rusk County Forestry department; and at their September departmental meeting, we were granted permission to close off and groom Excelsior Road during the winter months. In the future, if we need to abandon certain West Side trails, we can instead use Excelsior Road (this is the road we all use to access the West Side trailhead) as an option for skiing routes that wouldn't be impacted by beaver activity. In fact, there's a pending West Side timber sale that will eventually create a hauling road that could connect the Lollipop Loop (near Letter E) with Excelsior Road. Check out the West Side map, and use your imagination - this could develop into a very good ski trail, similar to our favorite 'Gravel Road' on the East Side. We'll see how this develops as the winter progresses.

5 - East Side logging    

Take a look at the map (below) that shows a Timber Sale that impacts the East Side of the trail system. On our East Side map, the active logging is south of Rut Road between 20-21-22, and on either side of Hemlock Canyon from 21-A4. We were expecting this timber sale to be logged during the winter, thus disrupting our East Side core loop - but good news! I hiked in that area a few days ago, and quite a bit of that sale has been logged. Most of the logging is a 'select cut' which leaves a beautiful hardwood forest standing. Kudos to the County Foresters for preserving a buffer for the ski trail, and for preserving the beauty of the forest. A few pictures (below) were taken on the lower portion of Rut Road to show you why you should avoid this fairly muddy area when hiking this fall. And prepare for a different vista - as you ski toward the warming house down the long gradual downhill that is Rut Road, at the spot where you bank off Rut Road, there now is a clearcut in the distance - as shown in the photo. And compare the 2013 photo of the skier with the last photo that shows essentially the same corner as you bank off Rut Road. We'll try to put up some signage in that area to make sure folks stay oriented. (Note: Loggers are expected to ditch and smooth the trails once they're done.)

6 - November 2nd Fundraising Banquet

Our guest speaker at this year's fundraising banquet is Birkie Founder and Legend... Ernie St. Germaine! If you've already registered, help spread the word. You can find a banquet link on our home page on your computer or smartphone.

Picture(s) with this message were taken late September.

volunteers cleaning pine needles from Blue Hills Trail warming house
September 28, 2019 - Annual Work Day
volunteers at annual work day for the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
September 28, 2019
volunteers cleaning pine needles from Blue Hills Trail warming house
September 28, 2019
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This is it! This is what we work for during summer trail maintenance, and wait for as we watch the weather forecasts in November and December. The weather changed in late November, colder temps finally arrived and the very wet trails began freezing as we began grooming in early December. We started skiing December 10th after grooming some of the trails closest to the warming house. By mid December, cold weather allowed more grooming and we've enjoyed surprisingly good skiing for this early in the season.The weekend of December 23-26 (and the following week) became a groomer's challenge. We were all set to groom late the evening of December 23rd. That evening the Hills received 2" of very sticky snow, and the forecast called for lots of rain on December 25th. By group consensus, we decided to avoid grooming the December 23rd snowfall, let it sit and hope it would absorb the forecast rain. Mild temps all that weekend culminated in 0.7" rain the evening of Christmas Day, followed by falling temps and A MAJOR WINDSTORM on December 26th. We're glad we allowed the December 23rd snowfall to rest without grooming. It magically absorbed the December 25th rainfall. After the December 26th windstorm, temps fell the week of December 26th, and our groomers spent loads of hours clearing tree-falls and branches. And skiers helped by flicking and flicking and flicking the sticks. As the New Years weekend approached the trails were in good shape, and skiers from near and far marveled at the quality of the skiing in the Hills.

early December 2016 grooming challenges at the Blue Hills Trail
Early December 2016 grooming of the Blue Hills Trail
kids skiing at the Blue Hills Trail in Wisconsin
Nice conditions near the warming house in late December 2016
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A cold month of February is forgotten, pushed aside by an early March warm-up. However the great cross country skiing conditions the past couple months are well etched in skiers' memories. The Blue Hills microclimate was fortunate to receive adequate snowfall while nearby areas were snow starved. Temps skyrocketed beginning March 8, we looked at the weather forecast and then groomed one last time on March 11. Grooming equipment went to summer storage on March 13, and our skis did likewise. Here’s a bit of a recap:

  • Fundraising in April 2014 allowed the purchase of a John Deere Gator with Camoplast tracks for use pulling our mowing and grooming implements. This past winter, groomers thoroughly enjoyed the Gator's ability to navigate the various challenges offered by the trail terrain and weather. And no one complained about operating in a heated cab.
  • With an early heavy snowstorm followed by a cold month of November, we started grooming earlier than ever on November 11th, & skied in the Hills fairly regularly since then (120 consecutive days with groomed trails available). The summer and autumn of 2014 were very wet, many of the trails couldn't be groomed in November and December due to underlying unfrozen ground and/or eroded sections - but we did have 14 km of nicely groomed trails for mid-winter skiing in mid-November!
  • We groomed a total of 58 times (probably a record for us).
  • We survived a prolonged spell of warm, damp weather in mid December that melted much of the accumulated base. When wintry weather suddenly returned in late December, our groomers eagerly put our new John Deere Gator through its tracks and we were skiing on very good conditions by the New Year Holiday.
  • After January 1, we received only 14 additional inches of snow prior to the season ending warm-up that began March 8. The snowfalls came in small amounts, just often enough to freshen the trails and help level the base. Despite a fairly dry winter, we had just enough base to maintain great conditions while pleasing the many visitors from snow starved areas to the northwest, west and south.
  • The limited snowfall actually worked to the advantage of skate skiers. The skate lane was solid and fast most of the winter.
  • February was persistently cold and both classic and skate skiing were consistently good.
  • This year's "Blue Hills Trail Fun Day" was perfectly timed: a potluck moonlight ski event on Friday March 6 was very well attended. The previous day saw temps of -25 degrees F that morning; the evening of the moonlight ski we enjoyed temps in the 20s, a roaring campfire, great food, camaraderie, and perfect skiing conditions under the stars and a full moon.
  • Despite the frequent grooming, we stayed well within budget, and had fun sharing the Blue Hills Trail with a record number of visitors.  Thanks to everybody that helps spread the word regarding the beauty of this trail system.

A huge 'shout out' to our groomers. Once again, equipment break downs and mechanical problems were handled efficiently and never compromised the grooming.  Thank you to our primary grooming team of Steve Gest, Jesse Wimer, & Adam Brockman for giving us great memories this winter of 2014-15! A sincere thank you to our diverse group of members, volunteers and supporters - your help this past year has been extremely rewarding.

early January 2015 cross country ski trail at Blue Hills Trail
9 January 2015
early March 2015 great cross country skiing at Blue Hills Trail
4 March 2015
skier ran into a tree
6 March 2015
happy young skier at the Blue Hills Trail
7 March 2015
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It's cold outside, there's lots of snow on the ground, now's a good time to get psyched for skiing. Check out the following slide show video showing ten years of fun on the Blue Hills Trail. Get your skis waxed, come ski the Hills!

How to view the video: on the lower right corner of the video screen, choose one of two different resolutions - for those of you with a slower internet connection, select the 360p mode; for faster connections choose either 360p or 480p or 720p HD. Pause and play buttons are available, as well as volume control. When the control buttons disappear, hover your mouse over the video to find the controls. Just give the various control options a try - be sure to try the full screen view (the rectangle on the lower right). Enjoy the show!

Grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, adjust your volume control, then sit back and follow the fun. See anyone you know?

Read more >

A generous snowfall one week ago (February 22nd) initially created 'too soft' conditions despite abundant grooming. Several days later, sunshine and  freeze thaw cycles created an icy glaze, 'too hard'. With the immaculate grooming performed yesterday (Feb. 28), the trails were 'just right'. Goldilocks is pleased. Should be a great weekend in the Hills, give those skis another go-around!

Recent comments from the logbook in the warming house

  • 2/18: Loved it!  --Cadott, WI
  • 2/18: Enjoyed snowshoe trail. --Eau Claire, WI
  • 2/18: Me & my honey. --Rio de Janero, Brazil
  • 2/18: Nice day, good snow. --Hudson, FL
  • 2/18: Loved the snowshoe trail!  Beautiful 38 degree day!  Thank you for the warm welcome. --Hudson, WI
  • 2/20: Best conditions I've skied this winter.  Right up there with the Methow Valley in Washington State. --Sumner, WA
  • 2/21: Super grooming! --Madison, WI
  • 2/23: Avoiding Birkie crowd in Hayward.  It's just us & the groomer! --Minneapolis, MN
  • 2/23: Silence of the North - it's deafening! --Ladysmith, WI
  • 2/23: Ahhhh!  The Blue Hills Trail - where the grooming is swoon worthy.  Where every skier can imagine they've won the Birkie!  Thanks to the groomers. --Ladysmith, WI
  • 2/23: I'm so blessed!  Wonderful trails - This IS the Life :-)  3 hours of  solitude & beauty. --Chetek, WI
  • 2/23: We are so Lucky to have such Great trails!  Thanks to ALL involved! --Ladysmith, WI
  • 2/23: The trails are great!  Thanks so much for all your hard work! --Madison, WI
  • 2/25: Skate deck firming up nicely.  My last Midwest ski for year :-(  Back to the Cascade concrete.  Hope the snow here holds out thru March. --Sumner, WA
  • 2/26: "Spring skiing" is here!  Cool nights, mild days, soft breezes, & fresh corduroy in the Hills - thanks again groomers!!!--Ladysmith, WI
  • 2/26: Great skiing today!  It's good to get back here! --Barron, WI
  • 2/26: Excellent classic tracks!  The conditions don't get any better. --Exeland, WI
  • 2/26: The speed on the skate deck sped up nicely after the sun went down.  Nice post Birkie ski. --Bruce, WI
  • 2/28: Waiting all year for a ski like today's!  Totally under control when screaming fast coming around the curve at the bottom of Rut Road.  Yeeee Hawww! --Ladysmith, WI
great grooming on 'Gravel Road' at the Blue Hills Trail
1 March 2013 Great grooming on the East Side 'Gravel Road'
March 1, 2013 skiing on the Blue Hills Trail
early March 2013, what fun!
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Blue Hills Trail

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@bluehillstrailwisconsin
Every other year our volunteers replace all the intersection maps. That’s 60 maps, but who’s counting? Combined with excellent signage, it makes it easy to get your bearings on the Blue Hills Trail. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #trailvolunteers #xcskitrails #foresttherapy #findyourselfoutside
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Good hiking in early December. Frost is entering the ground, the ski trails are ready for snow. Photos show the biggest oak tree in the County Forest; hiking on the ‘Far East’ trail; and our Gator doing some trail work on the West Side trails. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #trailwork #hikingwisconsin #weneedsnow
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Big News! Wisconsin's Blue Hills Trail has revised its website, its maps, its blog - and added an Instagram account. Spread the word. VISIT THE BLOG for details – link in bio ⬆️ #bluehillstrailwisconsin #crosscountryskiing #skinnyski #ruskcountywi #ricelakewi #travelwisconsin #tomterrifik
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1.5” big fluffy parachute snowflakes today. Might actually be able to ski on some of our trails — even though the underlying ground isn’t yet frozen. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #winterinwisconsin #crosscountryskiing #xcskiing
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Tight corner. Placed orange driveway markers at the edge. Gotta keep our groomers on track. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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After unseasonably warm weather in the first week of November, more wintry weather will start to freeze the trails. Hopefully x-country skiing is just around the corner. This photo was taken on the East Side trails - it shows one of our most important bridges. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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Bridge building in October successfully spanned a small creek that was always a challenge to summertime mowing & wintertime grooming of our ski trails. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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