Siegfried and Roy have nothing on the magic of snowshoeing. After all, what can compare to the spellbinding powers of powder? Like down wafting from a torn sleeping bag, snow settles gently on the land and transforms the topography. The ugliest clear-cut becomes an undulating meadow. The impassable tangle of devil's club is buried, becoming instead a smooth slope with firm footing. A familiar mountain view is disguised in a cloak of white, inviting hours of contemplation.
Snow also makes the crowds disappear. Forests that usually overflow offer abundant solitude in all directions. Scenic campsites host silence and stark beauty rather than noisy gangs of cooler-toting locals.
I love to stride through a meadow that looks as if it's dotted with tiny trees, knowing that the 3-foot-tall evergreens are actually the tips of
30-foot firs. I revel in the freedom to wander where I please, aware that the deep snow protects the fragile alpine ecosystem from my footfalls and tent. And like a kid exploring his neighborhood park, I eagerly follow the perfectly preserved tracks of woodland creatures, hoping to spot a marten or bobcat or lumbering moose.
If you want a taste of winter magic, too, grab a pair of snowshoes or skis and follow one of the scenic routes profiled here.
Washington:Tumac Mountain Ramble
Montana:Gallatin Petrified Forest and Black Butte
Utah:Under The Rim Trail
California:Redwood Meadow/ Mineral King
Michigan:Manistee River Loop
Minnesota:St. Croix River Ramble
Tumac Mountain Ramble
William O. Douglas Wilderness
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is perfect for snowshoers who like to get high and stay high. This multiday loop tours classic Cascades high country, following the PCT north from White Pass (US 12) through a wonderland of alpine meadows, long ridges, and frozen lakes. The trail dips into thick stands of old forest, but more often looks out over high peaks and rolling dunes of drifted snow. Veer off the PCT to drop into the Twin Sisters Lakes basin, then swing back south to cross Tumac Mountain, with its perfectly symmetrical cinder cone and views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. An endless array of side trips lets you extend the route from 20 miles to 35 or more; choose from sprawling lake basins, more baby volcanoes, and broad meadows perfect for pitching a tent.
Guides: Snowshoe Routes: Washington, by Dan A. Nelson ($16.95). White Pass #303, Bumping Lake #271, Old Scab Mountain #272, and Rimrock #304 maps (Green Trails, 206-546-6277; www.greentrails.com; $3.99 each).
Contact: Naches Ranger District, Wenatchee National Forest, (509) 653-2205; www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee.
Gallatin Petrified Forest and Black Butte
Yellowstone National Park
A network of hiking trails pierce the rock-hard spires of Gallatin Petrified Forest in Yellowstone's northwestern corner, letting snowshoers create loops of 15 to 30 miles through these stark, ancient forests on the flank of Black Butte. But fossilized trees aren't the only draw: Stands of gnarled ghost trees left by the fires of the late 1980s mix with live, vibrant forests, creating an otherworldly pastiche
of green, black, and silver. While trekking up Specimen Creek valley past towering Meldrum Mountain, snowshoers may encounter elk, moose, buffalo, and wolves. The valley routes are gentle, but closing a loop requires careful treading along the rugged ridgetop that marks the park's northern border. Avalanche safety skills are vital here, but the attention is well rewarded: The ridgetop route from Specimen Ridge west to Bighorn Peak provides unmatched views of the jagged Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana.
Guides: Winter Trails Montana: The Best Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Trails, by Jean Arthur ($14.95). Trails Illustrated's Yellowstone National Park #201 map (800-962-1643; backpacker.com/mapstore; $9.95).
Contact: Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell.
Under The Rim Trail
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bring extra film for this magnificent tour, which runs 23 rough miles one-way through the knobby sandstone spires (hoodoos) that rise beneath the rim of Bryce Canyon. With elevations of 7,000 to 9,000 feet, this high-desert forest sees subzero temperatures and plenty of soft snow in winter, so bring a warm sleeping bag and wide snowshoes. Expect plenty of solitude, since this summertime favorite gets quiet in the winter, leaving its red-rock formations and stately ponderosa-pine forests to deer, mountain lions, raptors, and a handful of hikers. Shorten or extend your trip by following side trails up narrow slots to the canyon rim. Or spend a full week on the 46-mile round-trip so you can appreciate the various painterly moods produced by the ever-changing colors of snow and sun on sandstone.
Guides: Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, by Erik Molvar and Tamara Martin ($14.95). Trails Illustrated's Bryce Canyon National Park #219 map (800-962-1643; backpacker.com/mapstore; $9.95).
Contact: Bryce Canyon National Park, (435) 834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca.
Redwood Meadow/ Mineral King
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park
Snow muffles every sound in the great redwood forests of Sequoia/Kings Canyon. Awed whispers fade away, making these natural cathedrals seem even closer to the divine. To sample some of that magic, head north on narrow hiking trails from the end of the plowed Mineral King Road; pass through Little Sand Meadow into the Redwood Meadow Grove. Complete the 20-mile loop by dropping south of the grove on the Cliff Creek Trail to Timber Gap and then on to Mineral King Ranger Station and campground (closed in winter). Return along the road through Silver City. This relatively easy route offers moderate elevation changes and the chance to see a variety of wildlife, including weasels, marten, bobcats, cougars, snowshoe hares, and great horned owls.
Guides: Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada, Volume 3: Yosemite, Huntington and Shaver Lakes, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, by Marcus Libkind ($12.95). Trails Illustrated's Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks #205 map (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $9.95).
Contact: Wilderness Office, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, (559) 565-3708; www.nps.gov/seki.
Manistee River Loop
Huron-Manistee National Forests
Following the Manistee River through the hardwood forests of western Michigan, this gentle route passes through the lonely (in winter) backcountry of the state's lower peninsula. Birds chatter from leafless branches as bald eagles cruise the skies. An assortment of woodland creatures-from porcupines to black bears-thrive in the surrounding forest. The trail begins at the sedate waters of the Hodenpyl Dam Pond and follows the east bank of the Manistee south for more than 10 miles to the Red Bridge on the Coat Highway. Scurry across the bridge to a short connector trail leading to the North Country Trail, turn north on this National Scenic Trail, and return to Hodenpyl Dam Pond.
Guides: Winter Trails Michigan: The Best Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Trails, by William Semion ($14.95). USGS topo Manistee (888-ASK-USGS; backpacker.com/mapstore; $6.95).
Contact: Huron-Manistee National Forests, (800) 821-6263; www.fs.fed.us/r9/hmnf.
Backpackers have numerous long-distance trails to hike in the snow-free months, but we know of only one path in the Lower 48 that's designed for long-distance winter travel: The Catamount Trail, which stretches 300 miles from Massachusetts to Canada through the heart of Vermont. This path roughly parallels and sometimes overlaps the Long Trail, and it crosses a handful of roads, so fashioning shorter hikes is easy. But nearly half its length remains primitive backcountry trail, which means you'll need good route-finding skills if you're snowshoeing through ungroomed
sections. A winter-only route (once the snow melts, landowners close the 60 percent of the trail that's on private property), the Catamount offers an extended tour of New England's deep, pristine forests, rocky bluffs, and meandering rivers, all draped in a brilliant wardrobe of white. Check with the Catamount Trail Association about closures before heading out.
Guides: Catamount Trail Guidebook, by Catamount Trail Association ($16.95). Includes maps.
Contact: Catamount Trail Association, (802) 864-5794; www.catamounttrail.org.
Baxter State Park
Baxter marks the end of the road for northbound Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hikers, but by the time serious snow starts flying, most of them have gone home, leaving the park's trails and roads free for winter enthusiasts. This remote wilderness can be hard to access in the summer and even harder in winter. But it's an ice-rimmed haven for two large mammals: the moose and the woolly fleeced snowshoer. Both enjoy open views and easy walking across Baxter's plentiful frozen marshes. Snowshoers slide in from Millinocket, then trek north along the main road or jump over to the AT at the bridge over Abol Pond, just north of the Togue Pond Gate. The snow routes through the pond-studded forests can be tough and the temperatures treacherous, so park managers enforce strict winter regulations, including a minimum party size of four people.
Guides: Winter Trails Maine: The Best Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Trails, by Marty Basch ($14.95). USGS topo Abol Pond (888-ASK-USGS;
Contact: Baxter State Park, (207) 723-5140; www.katahdinoutdoors.com/bsp.
St. Croix River Ramble
Wild River State Park
Snow and Minnesota are nearly synonymous, and no place demonstrates the link better than this quiet park on the banks of the scenic St. Croix. The park boasts more than 35 miles of groomed ski trails, but snowshoers can avoid those tracks by stomping off into the woods. Venture out along the riverbanks to study the iced-over waterslides of resident river otters. Move quietly through the hardwood groves to catch fleeting glimpses of gray and red foxes, plus the occasional wily coyote. Waterfowl commute between the waterways and fields. Trumpeter swans and snow geese honk and holler overhead while raptors-including bald eagles-soar silently above in search
of a warm meal.
Guides: Minnesota's St. Croix River Valley and the Anoka Sandplain: A Guide to Native Habitats, by Daniel S. Wovcha, et al. ($19.95). USGS topos Sunrise and Cushing (888-ASK-USGS; backpacker.com/mapstore; $6.95 each).
Contact: Wild River State Park, (651) 583-2125; www.dnr.state.mn.us/