RELYING ON SKIS to traverse snowy expanses dates back millennia. “To prehistoric northern man, the ski was an instrument of northern survival,” wrote Roland Huntford in his 2008 book on the sport’s history, “Two Planks and a Passion.” Mr. Huntford documents evidence of cross-country skis’ earliest roots, from cave drawings in northwest China to a wooden relic from 6,000 B.C. unearthed in northern Russia. Over multitudes of winters, the once-grueling utilitarian chore evolved into a winter diversion for those who prefer the mercifully level to the rush and ruckus of downhill descents. While most major ski resorts still treat cross-country as an afterthought, dedicating just a few miles to suitable trails, a growing number of vacation-goers are seeking out more committed recreation areas. What’s drawing them: vigorous exercise, relative ease of mastery, no chairlift queuing, no chairlifts period and the chance to cruise around vast, pristine spaces in solitude—just like those earlier skiers did, but far more enjoyably. Here, a few superlative spots where cross-country skiing is gaining ground.
Fraser Valley, Colo.
Just far enough from Colorado’s famed, and infamously busy, major alpine ski centers, the Fraser Valley is quiet without being too remote. You’ll find plenty of groomed cross-country—also referred to as Nordic—trails. And since the valley is close to Rocky Mountain National Park and other protected federal wilderness areas, more experienced skiers can venture on to miles of ungroomed ski trails too. The Devil’s Thumb Ranch offers a solid base-camp, with a high-end Nordic ski center and ranch buildings turned solar-powered lodge. The 6,000-acre property has 75 miles of groomed trails, lessons from beginner to advanced technique clinics, and skijoring trails (where you can ski with your dog). The lodge’s popular bar is open to public and guests. Room rates from $269 a night, devilsthumbranch.com
The limestone cliffs and long, deep valleys of Northern Italy’s Dolomite mountains form the backdrop for one of Europe’s largest and most scenic ski destinations. Here, sci di fondo, or cross-country, is a big deal, with 800 miles of linked trails. Take a lesson from one of the numerous ski schools or purchase a single pass through the Dolomiti Nordic ski organization (dolomitinordicski.com) that lets you access miles of different trail networks. If you glide too far on the village-to-village trails, simply hop on one of the buses to get back to your hotel. Among the region’s most covetable accommodations is the Adler Lodge, situated within a protected nature reserve. Trails, accessible directly from Adler Lodge, are etched all over the plateau, and the property itself offers 30 rooms and chalets and suites and, most welcome of all, a full-service spa. From about $900 per person for three nights, adler-lodge.com
As in neighboring Sweden and Norway, skiing is such an integral pastime in Finland that even the capital cities have ski trails built into the urban layout. But for some relentlessly scenic vistas—and skiing nearly eight months a year—you’ll want to keep heading north until you reach Lapland’s Urho Kekkonen Park, which features rolling mountains, frozen lakes and arctic forests. If Lapland feels a little too far afield just to slide around the snow for a few days, consider the area’s other attractions: exposure to the increasingly rare cultural and artistic traditions of the indigenous Sami people, reindeer aplenty and frequent sightings of the Northern Lights. The Star Arctic Hotel offers glass-roofed cabins—an impressively easy way for weary skiers to catch the light show after daily exertions. Room rates from about $400 a night, stararctichotel.com
Stowe is that rare ski destination in the U.S. where cross-country holds its own against the alpine discipline. Large public trail networks allow Nordic skiers to explore the pine forests on groomed tracks and across huge swaths of backcountry forests and hills. You can shuffle along loops in the state forest at Stowe Mountain Resort, or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, along sections of the Catamount Trail, which runs through Stowe and the length of the state (check stowenordic.org for trail info). If you prefer to stay close to home—and close to a host of après-ski options —stick to the trails around the historic village of Stowe. Edson Hill, a luxurious country inn set on 38 acres, maintains its own groomed trail network and an on-site Nordic center. From $220 a night, edsonhill.com
Banff National Park, Canada
Most visitors to Banff tend to ogle the mountain views on foot or through the car window, but unsurprisingly it’s more impressive from a skier’s vantage. Wide valleys mean you can weave around the bases of the high mountains; maps and cross-country guides make it even more accessible. If you’re really gung ho, you can book a stay at the remote Skoki Lodge, which you can only reach by gliding along a rolling, scenic 7-mile ski trail and over two mountain passes. (Guests need to bring extra gear for their stay in a backpack.) Built in 1931 to support skiing and mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies, the lodge lacks running water or electricity, but comes with other luxuries, like great, hearty meals served by candlelight and crackling fires. Room rates about $170 per person a night, skoki.com.