“Can you imagine anything freer and more exciting than when you, swiftly as a bird, zoom down the wood-clad hillsides while country air and spruce twigs whiz by your cheeks and eyes; brain and muscles tense, ready to avoid any unknown obstacle which any moment might be thrown in your path? You are one with your skis and nature. This is something that develops not only the body but the soul as well, and it has a deeper meaning for a people than most of us perceive.”
— Fridtjof Nansen – Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and advocate for cross-country skiing, 1890
The use of skis to cross winter terrain dates back millennia, with the oldest-known image of a person on skis carved about 5,000 years ago into the rock of a Norwegian island.
When winter graces the state with snow, State Parks are a great place to enjoy cross-country skiing, with many miles of ski trails for all abilities, from beginner to expert across 104 state parks and eight historic sites spanning the state.
Known in shorthand as XC (or also as Nordic) skiing, this family-friendly sport is a full-body, low-impact cardio workout as well as a wonderful way to get outdoors during winter to see how beautiful the season can be. Skiing is quiet as well, so skiers often have a chance to spot wildlife (and also get a close look at its tracks) that has not been scared off by their approach.
After a promising December start for XC skiing, this season has suffered from a dearth of snow. Perhaps a snowstorm or two is still to come before spring, or if not, this list can be held until the start of next season. Always call ahead to check on snow conditions.
This online map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also is a handy tool for getting a picture of snow cover across the state when planning a ski trip.
Either way, to help decide where to go in State Parks when conditions allow, here are some staff favorites. Check each park’s website for a map of their trails:
With 24 miles of trails, the Art Roscoe Cross Country Ski Area at Allegany State Park in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, offers some of best groomed skiing in western New York. Novices can try the 3.5-mile Christian Hollow Trail, a loop with gentle grades, or the multi-use, 3.5-mile Red House Bike Path.
Intermediate skiers can try the 3.3-mile Patterson Trail, which is a former rail bed. There are parking areas at both ends of the gently sloping trail, so a shuttle trip can be done by leaving cars at both ends.
Other more adventurous skiers can tackle the Ridge Trail for a 7.7- mile trek geared to intermediate to advanced skiers.
Ski equipment rentals are available at the park’s gift shop at the Red House Administration Building. Trail reports can be found online here.
Finger Lakes Region
The extensive trail network at Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area in Springwater, Livingston County, has grooming and is about an hour’s drive south of Rochester. Be prepared to share some of the trails with fat tire bikers on occasion.
A golf course can be a great place for novices to learn and practice, since such terrain is open, free of obstructions and tends not to be very steep. Going doing hill as a beginner? Remember to hold those skis in a “V” shape to control your downhill speed as you test out the friendly terrain at Soaring Eagles Golf Course at Mark Twain State Park in Horseheads, Chemung County.
There are 12 miles of trails at Selkirk Shores State Park in Pulaski, Oswego County. A staff favorite is a beginner/intermediate three-mile loop that incorporates the Front Pond Trail, Pine Grove Trail, a section of the 52C snowmobile trail, and Red Fox Trail, before returning to the Pine Grove Trail
Verona Beach State Park, in Verona Beach, Onedia County, offers miles of trails where they might encounter wildlife like white tailed deer, squirrels, foxes, and more. The two-mile Hog’s Back Trail loop follows a natural rise along Verona Beach’s massive swamp. Keep your eyes open at the overlooks for a potential glimpse of the nest of a mated pair of bald eagles.
There are about 15 miles of trails at Gilbert Lake State Park in Laurens, Otsego County. The mile-long trail around the namesake lake is periodically groomed, as is the two-mile Ice Pond Trail to the Twin Fawns Lake Trail.
In Wyoming County, head for Letchworth State Park in Castile, and its Humphrey Nature Center and the Winter Recreation Area at Trailside Lodge. Here, there are three beginner trails, each about 1.5 miles long.
The park contains seven different parking areas to access about 15 miles of (usually ungroomed) trails. Glide through old-growth forest on the Gravel Loop and the Bishop Woods Loop. For great views of the spectacular Great Bend Gorge, check out the Chestnut Lawn Loop.
Long Island Region
There are two ungroomed trails at the Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, Suffolk County _ the 1.5-mile beginner Green Trail that goes through woods, fields and wetlands, and the 1-mile Orange Trail that offers view of Willow Pond.
At the Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, Suffolk County, there are many miles of marked hiking trails that can be skied. There is no grooming, and trails range from one to eight miles in length. The preserve includes an historic former sportsmen’s club and a newly-restored 18th century gristmill.
About six miles of ungroomed trails, ranging from intermediate to advance, are found at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park, Suffolk County. Take the Field 4 Trail to ski through woods before reaching overlooks for Sunken Meadow Creek and Long Island Sound. No skiing is allowed on the golf course.
At Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, Erie County, explore the Outer Loop Trail that begins at the Red Barn Parking Lot. A 2.7-mile trail suitable for beginners, it meanders through open pastures and fields, with some short legs through forests and views of farmlands and valleys.
Explore trails at Evangola State Park in Irving, Chautauqua County, to capture views of Lake Erie. The trail network covers about five miles, with the Rim Trail running along the edge of the lake.
At Mine Kill State Park in North Blenheim, Schoharie County, start at the park office for the moderate, three-mile Long Path/Bluebird Trail Loop, which offers sweeping views of the Schoharie Valley and the Blenheim-Gilboa Reservoir. Snowshoes and a small assortment of XC skis are free to borrow from the Park Office with a small deposit.
The moderate/intermediate Shaver Pond Trail at Grafton Lakes State Park in Grafton, Rensselaer County is a two-mile loop around the pond, where you can often see signs of beaver activity. The trail has some roots and rocks, so be mindful of snow cover. The park office rents snowshoes, but not skis.
Skiers have been going to Thacher State Park in Voorheesville, Albany County, for years because of its extensive trail network. Try out the lesser-used North Zone of the park, and its Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail, a three-mile intermediate loop through fields and forests. Use the Carrick Road parking area.
Beginners can practice on groomed trails that run for a total of three miles through the camping loops and around the lake at Moreau Lake State Park in Moreau, Saratoga County. There is skiing on ungroomed trails through the rest of the park.
While there are no marked or groomed trails for skiing at James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, the park’s golf course and many small, undulating hills there are a great place for beginners to practice climbing, turning, slowing and (maybe a little) falling.
Skiers could spend days touring the 25 miles of carriage roads at Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville, Westchester County. Some favorites are the beginners’ 1.15-mile Brothers Path/Swan Lake Carriage Road, with views of the lake; the Thirteen Bridges/Gory Brook Carriage Roads, which along 2.5 miles of intermediate terrain offer view of the Pocantico River and waterfalls; and the intermediate Rockwood Hall Middle, Lower and Foundation Loop Carriage Roads, that go past the Hudson River.
There are 12 miles of trails at Fahnestock Winter Park in Carmel, Putnam County. Equipment rentals are available at the lodge, which also marks the start of the popular Lake Trail. Weather permitting, trails are also groomed on the lake. The trail will take you by a beaver lodge, over the dam built by the Civil Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and past many small islands.
Cross-country skiing at Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County can be as near as one’s own backyard, as most of the ungroomed 26-mile trail is bordered by homes. As the park is level, the area is great for those who are new to the sport.
The Aqueduct is crossed by many streets, and the best cross-country skiing is found in the sections with the fewest road crossings. Top on the list is the section from Gory Brook Road in Sleepy Hollow to Country Club Lane in Scarborough, about two and a half miles of level trail through the woods. This section connects to Rockefeller State Park Preserve. Those who like hills should enter Rockefeller Preserve just north of the Weir chamber and follow the Peggy’s Way trail south for some gentle hills before returning to the Aqueduct.
Another popular area is at the northernmost section by the Croton Dam. Here the trail clings to the sides of a steep gorge through which runs the Croton River. The Gorge is a park of its own, operated by the Department of Environmental Conservation and called the Croton Unique Area. Only two lightly-traveled roads cross the 2.5 miles of wooded Aqueduct trail as it heads south to Croton.
Curiously the most densely-populated area through which the trail runs also features a fine area for skiing. This section, likewise of about 2.5 miles, has two road crossings, but almost all of it runs through the woods, with unparalleled winter views of the Hudson River and Palisades.
There are stunning clifftop views from trails at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. Being free of rocks, roots and other obstructions, the 16-mile network of carriage trails are wide and “skiable” even with only a few inches of snow.
Thousand Island Region
At Robert Moses State Park in Massena, St. Lawrence County, there are more than five miles of trails through the woods and along the St. Lawrence River in NY. The Nicandri Nature Center offers ski and snowshoe loans for all ages as well as ski instruction.
In the western Adirondacks, Higley Flow State Park in Colton, St. Lawrence County, has the popular 1.3-mile Overlook Trail that passes through a pine and spruce forest. This trail connects with the Backcountry Trail (1.9 miles) and the Warm Brook trail (1.6 miles) for those wishing to challenge themselves further.
This is just a sampling of the ski trails at State Parks. So, when snow is on the ground, grab your skis, and get out there!
Cover Photo: Skiers at Saratoga Spa State Park. All photos by State Parks.
By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks
Read this history of cross-country skiing in the Adirondacks.