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Weekender: Snowshoe Habit

Inside: Where to Snowshoe

Driving north on Highway 75 out of Ketchum, Idaho—the cowboy town once dominated by the legend of Hemingway and now by the everyday drama of celebs like Demi Moore and Tom Hanks—you quickly slip away into a wilderness ruled by moose and wolves. Central Idaho, where the Rockies are still wild, is the single biggest piece of roadless country in the Lower 48—there's only Highway 75, which winds right through its heart. But we've come for more than a drive; the same pristine winter mountains that are a haven for wildlife can also restore world-weary urbanites. The rugged Sawtooth Range, a subset of the Rockies, has grown even more savage since Hemingway's day, and the best way to experience its majesty is on a good pair of snowshoes. Over three days, my companions and I will march about 20 powdery miles, climb a couple of thousand feet up an 8,700-foot-high mountain saddle, and sleep in a Mongolian-style hut, or yurt, in an attempt to reacquaint ourselves with nature.

Snowshoeing, advocates say, is for people who don't ski. A set of boards is faster and more elegant, certainly, but to many, the tangle of skis and poles—or the prospect of speeding into a tree—is far from glamorous. I have skied and snowshoed a few mountain ranges, and the real advantage of being on lightweight aluminum snowshoes is a matter of access: wearing their slip-proof crampons, you don't need a trail or any particular kind of terrain. You don't even need to be skillful or fit. Basically, if you can walk, you can snowshoe—which is why snowshoeing is one of the fastest-growing winter sports in the country, with participation increasing by almost 50 percent since 1998.

Parking at the entrance to the snow-shut road to Redfish Lake, just a few miles south of the log-cabin village of Stanley, population 69, my five companions and I load up packs and a sled and fasten the simple straps on our snowshoes. The trees snap audibly in the below-freezing air, despite the bright sun.

"Any hints or instructions?" a member of my snowshoeing group asks Francie, one of our guides from Sun Valley Trekking, an outfitter based in Ketchum.

"Yeah. Put one foot in front of the other," Francie chuckles, turning toward the trail. Another guide, Bob, straps on Nordic skis and attaches to his belt the long leashes of his dogs—our porters, Buck and Dalwhinney. He lets out a "Gee-up!" and the two bound happily along the trail, pulling Bob and the sled behind them in what's called skijoring. Taking that as our cue, we begin punching through the sugary crust and heading into waist-deep drifts. Our first two miles involve a gradual climb up a glacial moraine overlooking the lake. We're sweating after a few minutes, panting within a few more. You're never more starkly conscious of nature's expanse than when you can no longer talk between breaths.

We're urged forward, though, by the sight of widening views under a seamless cobalt sky. To the southwest, the brownish rake of 10,000-foot Mount Heyburn scrapes the heavens; behind it rises the Grand Mogul with its ridge called the Elephant's Perch. Francie mentions that she likes to imagine herself trekking through the wintry Rockies like Robert Redford in the movie Jeremiah Johnson, with vengeful Indian warriors popping up out of the snow to chuck tomahawks at her. "I think he had a horse," I retort between gasps.

We wind into Fishhook Trail, which turns out to be easier than the first two miles. Meandering between lodgepole pines hung with witches' hair and mistletoe, the path is marked only by the occasional trace of a beaver, hoofprints of an elk, or dot-and-dash track of an ermine, which leaves its whole body print in the snow. Although the route is relatively flat, after five hours we've traveled only 41/2 miles. Twilight passes into night, and our packs begin to feel heavier, but then we hear the dogs barking their welcome (skijoring is obviously faster than snowshoeing) and the yurt comes into view. With its rounded shoulders hugging the valley floor, the Mongolian-style hut gives us a sense of security and comfort, although it's almost entirely buried in snow. Through the clear Plexiglas dome that caps the canvas walls, Coleman lanterns and a stout woodburning stove, which releases its smoke through a metal chimney, radiate light. I can see Bob's shadow as he mills about the 500-square-foot tent. The chin-deep hot tub outside is already full of ice-cold creek water, and in another hour it will be heated to a near-scorching 110 degrees, thanks to a wood-fired convection oven.

"Relax," Bob says as I shed my pack, snap off my iced-over crampons, and step into the yurt. "You're home now." He then uncorks a bottle of Syrah and continues preparing our dinner: chicken curry over rice, with a green salad and lemon-lime pound cake. I strip down to my long johns and plant myself in front of the stove.

Designed for cold Sawtooth winters, the yurt is joined by a walkway of stacked cordwood leading to an expedition tent where the guides sleep when they're escorting larger groups. The yurt's plank floors, like its log supports and all the furniture, are what Joe calls "chain saw architecture," cut in a rough-hewn style from lodgepole pine. It amazes me how warm and comfortable this dwelling is, especially since it has to be rebuilt every fall—the U.S. Forest Service permits yurts only as seasonal structures; each spring Sun Valley Trekking must disassemble their huts and store them for the following year.

Yurt life encompasses all the best parts of mountain wilderness living: Coffee made with boiled snow. Dreamy, pine-scented heat pushing back the winter cold. Long sessions in a steaming outdoor hot tub, my hair crusting with icicles. Rustic comforts where there shouldn't be any. Resting in sleeping bags is a reward earned by the day's long march through sometimes thigh-searing ascents. Even venturing to the open-air pit toilets (also deconstructed at the end of the season) is a triumph. It's not quite life on the knife's edge, but it's near enough to give you an idea of your limits—and the sense of mastery that comes from knowing you walked here, on your own two feet, single-digit temperatures and 6,200-foot altitude be damned.

In the morning, energized from a blissful eight-hour slumber, we pore over maps while the dogs lounge at our feet. Joe and Francie point out never-tracked backcountry slopes and couloirs that they plan to ski when the snowpack stabilizes in April, as well as the isolated valleys they hike in summer. We trade stories about the allure of the wilderness and why people look for answers out here, deep in the gaping silence.

After breakfast—a mountaineer's smorgasbord of granola and yogurt, eggs and pancakes—we wrap up a lunch of meat loaf sandwiches, brownies, and fruit. We've decided on a day trip rather than the long hike to the next yurt in the line, which is an exhausting six miles and 1,500 feet farther up. So we leave our packs behind and follow the twists of Fishhook Creek through dazzling snow-covered meadows and groves of aspen. We spend the day learning how to identify various trees, chatting easily as we crunch along. Finally, we turn our shoes up one wall of the valley and begin climbing, following the Nordic skier's trail up the 10,000-foot Thompson and Williams peaks. Conversation ends; the only sound is the whoosh and crunch of one foot in front of another.

An hour after leaving the valley floor, we're sharing our lunch and drinking in views of a never-climbed east face of the Monolith. The valley on which its towering shadow falls is so remote, Joe points out, that many of the tallest surrounding peaks have no names. A nameless place, I think to myself, there's no epithet to allow a preconceived notion to formulate. But the feeling I get from this isn't awe or humility, as one might expect. Perhaps my having walked here has lent the experience an ordinariness, at once fun and disarming. As Joe said last night, it's a sense of being home.

Heading back to camp, we scour the valley for signs of elk and moose, the main prey of wolves. I ask Joe and Francie if they've ever seen the Stanley Wolf Pack, one of 14 groups of wolves reintroduced into Idaho in 1995.

"We know they're around, but we think they may have moved into the next river valley," says Joe.

"But last time we were up here, we did see wolverine tracks around one of the yurts," Francie says, looking up at the ridge. "Wolverines are like oversized badgers, and they're very rare. Maybe this time we'll spot one."

Though the main Stanley Pack has most likely left, we decide to try to attract any remaining lone wolves with a howl. We throw our heads back and do our best imitations; the echoes ring off the mountains as we listen for a reply. None comes, but the whispering silence that rushes in to fill the valley is far from empty. We feel as if we're being watched.

Late at night, after another indulgent dinner, some good wine, and an intense conversation about the area's battle between ranchers and wolves, and the environmentalists who advocate for the latter, I snap awake from a dead sleep and a dream I can't remember. The only sound I hear is the breathing of my companions. Through the canvas walls of the yurt, I see a shadow slowly move. It's only a cloud, I think. But as I turn my head to the ceiling dome, so I can count the stars to get back to sleep, I find my eyes trapped in the gaze of Dalwhinney. The dog's ears are spiked straight up. Did we both hear something?

Sun Valley Trekking, 208/788-1966; www.svtrek.com; guided hut-to-hut tours from $145 per person per day, including transportation from Ketchum, yurt stays, snowshoe rentals, and all meals.


Happy Trails

Snowshoeing is easy to do and easy on the environment—and it provides access to some of North America's most scenic untracked snow country. The best areas are those dedicated entirely to snowshoeing and Nordic skiing, where epic views unfold at every bend in the trail and amenities like sumptuous lodges and rustic-luxe yurts await you at the end. Whether you're seeking a day trip, a moonlight hike, or a backcountry camping expedition, you can find the trip that's right for you at these 10 snowshoeing destinations.

Grouse Mountain, Vancouver
Only 15 minutes from downtown Vancouver, the Observatory restaurant (604/984-0661; www.grousemountain.com; dinner for two $70, including admission to the mountain) at the top of Grouse Mountain is popular with snow enthusiasts preparing for a hike—or just watching the sunset after a long day of snowshoeing or skiing. You can join the mountain's snowrunners' club, whose members cross the snowshoe park at lightning speed once a week. If that's too intense, the lifts take you over the mountain to Munday Alpine Snowshoe Park, which features miles of intermediate snowshoe trails, rentals, and guides. Head back into town for a nightcap at the über-chic Pacific Palisades (1277 Robson St.; 800/663-1815 or 604/688-0461; www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com; doubles from $105), renowned for its celebrity sightings.

Methow Valley, Washington State
This is the sleeper hit among classic lodge snowshoeing areas. Some 150 miles of trails connect the Mazama, Sun Mountain, and Rendezvous ski areas. Methow Community Trail (509/996-3287) crosses the 275-foot-long Foster-Talks Bridge over the Methow River. Calm your nerves after crossing it with a glass of wine from the 5,000-bottle cellar at Sun Mountain Lodge (604 Patterson Lake Rd.; 800/572-0493 or 509/996-2211; www.sunmountainlodge.com; doubles from $130), or have a soothing massage at the hotel's spa.

Southern California
The Adventure Training Consultants (310/315-9663; www.adventuretrain.com; four-peaks package, $500 per person or $150 per ascent, all-inclusive) dares you to climb the four tallest peaks in the Los Angeles vicinity—in February and March, the middle of the high desert winter. The hikes are grouped according to difficulty, and each gives you the training you need to enroll at the next level. When the day is done and the apexes met, warm up beside your own personal fireplace at Los Angeles's Hotel Bel-Air (701 Stone Canyon Rd.; 800/648-4097 or 310/472-1211; www.hotelbelair.com; doubles from $400); call in advance and it will be blazing on your arrival.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming
As if the sight of the Grand Tetons weren't enough to make you stop and think, the Hole Hiking Experience (866/733-4453 or 307/690-4453; www.holehike.com; full-day hike, including lunch and gear, $85 per person) adds some proper education to the equation. Field biologists will explain the intricacies of the Greater Yellowstone eco-system and its predator-prey relationships as you trek to the hideouts of wintering bison and mountain lions. Each night you come back to the comfort of Jackson Hole and its many lodges. For the height of luxury, stay at Amangani (1535 N.E. Butte Rd., Jackson, Wyo.; 877/734-7333 or 307/734-7333; www.amanresorts.com; doubles from $675) and relax in a soaking tub positioned beside a window that looks out to nowhere.

10th Mountain Division Hut System Association, Colorado
Built to memorialize the famous division, which fought in World War II (and which is now posted in Uzbekistan), this classic European hut-to-hut system includes 24 shelters that stretch across 300 miles of the central Rockies (1280 Ute Ave., Ste. 21, Aspen; 970/925-5775; www.huts.org; $25 per person, including overnight stay). Each hut sleeps up to 20, and all have kitchens. Before and after the hard-core climb to the shelters , which all sit above 9,700 feet, book a series of massages at Vail's Sonnenalp Resort (20 Vail Rd.; 800/654-8312 or 970/476-5656; www.sonnenalp.com; doubles from $480).

McCoy Park at Beaver Creek, Colorado
Take the Strawberry Park Express Lift (#12) at Beaver Creek (888/830-7669; www.beavercreek.snow.com; lift tickets $18) to find boundless woods dedicated to the quiet needs of snowshoers. More than 20 miles of green (easy) trails introduce you to the rarefied atmosphere at 9,800 feet. Rentals, maps, guides, and hot toddies are available at the Beaver Creek Lodge (800/525-7280 or 970/845-9800; www.beavercreeklodge.net; doubles from $400) at the base of the chair lift.

Aspen, Colorado
In the late eighties the Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council built the largest system of cross-country trails in the Lower 48, winding between Aspen, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. Sun Dog Athletics (970/925-1069; www.sundogathletics.com; day trips from $50 per hour, including equipment) can customize programs as rough (the Health Platter) or elegant (the Gourmet Adventure) as you like. Should you opt for the latter, you'll make a stop at the famous Krabloonik Restaurant, where chefs serve up game dishes from around the world. Afterward, have your Sun Dog guides drop you off at the luxurious Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St.; 800/331-7213 or 970/920-1000; www.hoteljerome.com; doubles from $550).

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, and Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario
You'll find few cars or buildings in the 100 miles of secluded wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border. In fact, you're so far from civilization that you're likely to see the glow of the aurora borealis on a nighttime hike. The folks at Gunflint Lodge (143 S. Gunflint Lake, Grand Marais, Minn.; 800/328-3325 or 218/388-2294; www.canoecountry.com/gunflint; doubles from $169; three-night snowshoeing packages from $435 per person; rentals $9 per day) can lead you to the best viewing spots. Or they can take you ice fishing or dogsledding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Adirondack Mountains, New York
After the summer camps close, the Adirondacks come alive with snowshoers. Scale 5,345-foot-high Mount Marcy or simply hone your technique on the Adirondack Park Trail System (518/582-2000; www.northnet.org/adirondackvic; free snowshoe rentals). Holiday at the Point (Saranac Lake; 800/255-3530 or 518/891-5674; www.thepointresort.com; doubles from $1,000, three-night minimum), where you'll be given your exclusive trekking rights on the private trails that crisscross its 65 acres of land.

Mont-Tremblant, Quebec
Satisfy all your outdoor desires at this winter resort town just over an hour's drive from Montreal. Strap on your crampons and hit Mont-Tremblant's cross-country trails to see roaming deer up close. Lodgings of every type await your return—from tiny chalets to the très deluxe Fairmont Tremblant (3045 Chemin Principal; 819/681-7000; www.fairmont.com; doubles from $239) at the foot of the slopes. Just over the mountain lies Quebec's largest public preserve, Mont-Tremblant Provincial Park (819/688-2281; www.sepaq.com; snowshoe rental $4 per day). There you can take lengthier snowshoe excursions that include overnight stays in the park's many huts.

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