Get Outside: Extreme cross-country
Allegany State Park in winter
Photos by Brian Castner
It was in the depths of the polar vortex that I most relished my time outside last year. Am I slightly unhinged, to wish to freeze so? Of course not, because I wasn’t cold at all. In fact, I appreciated the arctic air, as it helped keep my soaring body temperature in check. I was working up such a sweat, I found myself stripping off layers, vortex or not.
Cross-country skiing doesn’t have to be a lung-burning workout. You can shuffle along and enjoy the scenery, make good time even. But if you are so motivated, you can also crank it up, seemingly use every muscle in your body simultaneously, and burn more calories than in any activity outside of those wind sprints your soccer coach made you run in high school.
There are several wonderful spots to cross-country ski in the greater Buffalo area. Delaware Park is popular for its proximity, Sprague Brook Park and the Byrncliff Resort (where you can rent skis and get a bite to eat, at a package rate) are more rural options just outside of town. But none of them have the elevation gain, the multi-mile climbs, the sheer size and heart-testing scope of the Art Roscoe Ski Area in Allegany State Park.
Just past Salamanca, inside the northern park boundary and at the top of the first hill, Art Roscoe deserves a more prominent reputation. In the heart of ski country, it gets a lot of lake effect snow, so much so that many seasons provide four full months of skiing, mid-December to mid-March. It is also just plain big, with over twenty miles of trails up and down the mountainsides. This scale provides legitimately grueling runs: the climb from the bottom of Snow Snake to the top of Ridge Run is more than 600 feet, an elevation swing greater than at the Van Hoevenburg Olympic cross-country ski center near Lake Placid.
Most importantly, though, the trails are groomed into perfect sharp channels by park staff and volunteers from Allegany Nordic, a non-profit that helps maintain and advocate for the system. In February, the group also hosts a Loppet, a race/party combo that features more toques than your normal Buffalo 5K run. Whether you are seeking solitude or community, you can find it at Art Roscoe.
If the only pair of cross-country skis in your house are antiques hanging over the fireplace, no problem: you can rent boots, poles, and skis from plenty of outfitters, including at the warming hut in the Summit Area in Allegany. But also consider Campus Wheelworks on Elmwood Avenue, a shop that makes up in helpfulness what it lacks in slope proximity. When I rented skis there, for a very reasonable price I got a set of nearly new Salomon’s that glided to perfection. They organize fun runs at Delaware Park if you need a refresher course to find your stride again, but if you are brand new to the sport, the Buffalo Nordic Ski Club provides free lessons as well.
On my final run of the season last year, the day was razor sharp: a tri-color world of white snow, dark tree trucks, and a cloudless blue sky so cold and crisp you could cut your finger on it. I started at the Summit and first swung over to the Christian Hollow Loop to take advantage of an overlook. My beef with Allegany State Park is not its lack of wilderness—it is a huge swath of land, most of it untouched and nearly inaccessible—but rather its lack of vistas. Every square inch of those rounded hills seem to be covered in dense canopy, and even when summiting Mount Seneca or checking out the Fire Tower, there is little revealed beyond the next ash tree. But winter fixes this problem, strips the twigs clean, and so from Christian Hollow, one can see the Allegheny River valley and rolling uplands beyond.
I slipped along the groomed paths, as straight and true as you’ll find at any better known national cross-country destination. A light dry dusting had fallen the night before, and so my skis tossed flakes that floated like dust motes in a sunbeam. Swish-swish I flicked down the path, the snow laying so gently upon the rounded banks around me that the lattices of each giant flake propped up upon one another like a poorly played game of Tetris; blow on a stack and they scattered completely.
Christian Hollow to Ridge Run to the lean-to for a quick snack to Patterson and the long slog back. When I ditched my outer coat at the lean-to, my back steamed like a beer commercial Clydesdale. I skied all morning, wearing myself out over ten miles of work. The Art Roscoe trails aren’t steep—they require little herringbone to climb—but they persist, and when the parking area is at the summit, the piper is always paid at the end. The last two miles was all up, and I collapsed at my car like I had just won an Olympic medal at Sochi.
Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk. Follow him on Twitter @brian_castner.