Winter Wonderland on the Tech Trails
By Andrea Larson
Editor’s Note: Search for the antonym of “slacker” and you’ll find “Andrea Larson.” In addition to her achievements as a three-sport walk-on collegiate competitor, ultra-marathon race course record-holder, with wins in triathlon, Nordic skiing, and a 24-hour solo mountain bike race, and member of the Rib Mountain championship adventure racing team, she was also captain of Michigan Tech’s varsity Nordic ski team, 2007-2008. Even more, she went from chemical engineering to director of IRONBULL, improving Silent Sports throughout the Wausau area, while also enjoying life as a wife and mother.
With over 20 feet of annual snowfall, Houghton, Michigan, rules as a winter destination. Known as the “Tech Trails,” Michigan Technological University’s on-campus trail system proves itself top-notch. The grooming lives up to a standard tough to beat. No wonder the Tech Trails had been slated to host the next U.S. Cross Country Championships for the sixth time since 2007. [Note: The 2021 event has been COVID-cancelled; the Tech Trails have first right of refusal for 2022.] The trails are well-marked, with onsite ski and snowshoe rentals (120 pairs!), and two heated chalets for those needing to take a break from exploring the 50 miles of trails.
Expect to feel like you’ve been transported to a snow globe, as lake-effect fluffy snowflakes fall more often than not, frosting trees so that Silent Sporters find themselves moving through the definition of “winter wonderland.” While Lake Superior may blanket the landscape, it also moderates temperatures, often by several degrees over trails 150 miles south. With its lake effect snow, the Tech Trails’ winter recreation season often lasts from Thanksgiving through April.
Ski & Ski & Ski!
Only a couple of minutes’ walk from the dorms, the Tech Trails give recreational enthusiasts a sense of distance from campus within 515 acres of forest refuge. A variety of terrain is accessible right from the main trailhead. The “Core Loop” has a series of fingers with the flatter loops on the east side (Upper Trails) and hillier loops on the west side (Lower Trails). The Lower Trails offer skiers technical descents and lung-bursting climbs. In fact, the climbs have proven too long for FIS race-design standards. Since 2002, many trails were widened to 6 meters to host races, and the Nordic Training Center received an upgrade. This allowed the Tech Trails to host the Junior Olympics in 2006 and, for the first time in 2007, the US Cross Country Championships. And, in 2008, expansion work included adding the Nara Chalet and Trails
After the Nara Trail expansion, intermediate trails with rolling hills offered another dimension to the trail system, along with a second trailhead and chalet with showers. Added lighting, both early morning and at night, of 7.5K of the 33K trail system, means that skiers have access beyond winter’s limited daylight hours. With trails typically open into April, skiers enjoy spring skiing in T-shirts and shorts.
Perhaps flying down 6-meter-wide, piston-bully-groomed trails seems less appealing to you than an intimate path through nature. The narrow-trail intimacy (two meters wide and open for classic-only skiing) of the Tolkien Trails provides the alternative experience. But be careful not to follow a “friend” who takes enjoyment out of knocking snow off branches as you ski under them. The Tolkien Trails and several others are also open to you and your dog.
Kristen Monahan-Smith, a former Tech All-Region skier, was lured back to Houghton after training, racing, and coaching all over the US and Europe. “The Michigan Tech ski trails,” she said, “are still on the top of my list as one of the best Nordic ski trail systems in the entire country. I love that the Tech Trails can cater to both the best in the world all the way to beginners.”
If skiing isn’t your winter sport of choice, the Tech Trails encompass nearly 50 miles, including groomed and ungroomed snowshoe trails. With snow depth at least knee deep, you’ll actually need snowshoes to navigate the forest.
But winter recreation on the Tech Trails doesn’t end there. Kids can enjoy the sledding hill from the Nara Trailhead. Fat tire bikers are also welcome, the newest winter user group invited to the Tech Trails.
The snowshoe trails double as single-track bike trails, so hit the trails in the summer months to enjoy a new dimension to the trails on your bike, including flow trails and a pump track, or in running shoes.
“The trails are first class and the snow phenomenal,” Mike Abbott said. “But what really makes the place special is all the care and work that goes on behind the scenes.” Abbott, a former Tech Trail architect and active trail volunteer, understands the human factor required, from trail maintenance and grooming crew, to youth program coaches, volunteers, and the local skiing community.
Monahan-Smith agrees. “In this town, cross country skiing is a way of life,” she said. “It’s a ski mountain town in the Midwest.”
The biggest problem with the Tech Trails? You’ll now have a high standard that’s tough to match. For more information on the Tech Trails, including current trail conditions, go to http://www.michigantechrecreation.com/trails/index.