Come February, about 11,000 skiers will head to the Cable-Hayward, Wis., area for the nation's largest Nordic ski race, the American Birkebeiner. The Birkie Trail is just one of many systems in the region that cater to cross-country skiers of all skill levels, making it one of the best spots in the Midwest to enjoy winter.
Back in 1973, a small group of passionate people got together to race around the region in what became known as the Birkebeiner. Today, people from around the world gather to ski some of the nation's best cross-country trails.
The Birkie Trail system (www.birkie.com; 1-715-634-5025; $10 per day), which runs primarily through Bayfield County, is well used throughout the ski season. But you'll also want to check out other regional favorites if you make your way to Bayfield County. In total, the county offers about 130 miles of groomed trails with a variety of loops and levels from easy to advanced, tourism director Mary Motiff says. Many trails are maintained by volunteers, showcasing a sense of community pride.
Near Cable, North End Ski Trails (www.startribune.com/a852; $10 per day) is a series of loops that connect to the official Birkie Trail. (A $10 trail pass covers both the North End Ski Trails and the Birkie Trail system.) North End's cross-county skiing and snowshoeing trails range in length from 1.1 to 6 miles and can be quite hilly, making for a great workout. The scenery can't be beat -- oftentimes resembling a North Woods postcard. At the trailhead, a traditional wooden warming house, complete with a wood stove, features some Nordic skiing memorabilia. An old-fashioned outhouse sits nearby. The trailhead is located 2 miles down Randysek Road just east of Cable.
In northern Bayfield County, Mount Ashwabay (www.mtashwabay.org; 32525 Ski Hill Road, Bayfield; 1-715-779-3227; $10 a day for cross-country) stands out for its scenic views of Lake Superior and the surrounding Apostle Islands. Inland and high above Lake Superior, some of the tougher trails offer vistas more reminiscent of skiing out West than in Wisconsin. Beginners will love the flatter terrain trails that cut through the North Woods where plenty of deer and other wildlife roam. For those who want a little variety, Mount Ashwabay also offers several downhill trails for Alpine skiing and snow tubing. Rentals are available.
The trail fee for what's known as the Mount Ashwabay-Jolly Trail System is also valid for access at the Jerry Jolly trailhead, on Star Route Road. The entire system includes 40 kilometers of criss-crossing trails. The Jerry Jolly access was created after local outdoor enthusiast Jerry Jay Jolly donated land to the county in 2005. It includes a picturesque bridge cutting over Pike's Creek, rolling hills and plenty of trees for shelter from the wind.
To the east, a smaller trail system in Drummond (www.startribune.com/a851; Forest Road 213, near Drummond; 1-715-373-2667, press 1 for trail conditions; $5 parking fee) features shorter trails for beginning skiers, along with a more advanced trail system. The system, which showcases some of the North Woods' older forests with plenty of evergreens, has loops ranging from 0.9 kilometers to 9 kilometers. This system is a great leg stretcher if you're touring the area and want some quick exercise in a picturesque part of the county.
WHERE TO STAY
In the Cable area, a number of resorts surround the beautiful Lake Namakagon area, including the Garmisch Resort, which was built in the 1920s as a private retreat. Accommodations range from quaint cabins to suites (www.garmischresort.com; 23040 Garmisch Road, Cable; 1-715-794-2204). Lakewoods Resort also sits on Lake Namakagon (www.lakewoodsresort.com; 21540 County Road M, Cable; 1-715-794-2561). Couples looking for a romantic setting won't want to pass up the Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield (www.rittenhouseinn.com; 301 Rittenhouse Av.; 1-715-779-5111). Larger groups or folks looking for a lively evening might want to stay at the region's newest casino, Legendary Waters, near Bayfield (www.legendary waters.com; 37600 Onigaming Drive, Red Cliff; 1-800-226-8478). Rooms feature views of Lake Superior.
WHERE TO EAT
For breakfast, you'll find some of the best pastries in the area at the Brick House Café in Cable (www.thebrick housecafe.net; 13458 Reynolds St., Cable; 1-715-798-5432). Another hot spot is the 1940s-style Delta Diner (www.deltadiner.com; 14385 County Hwy. H, Delta; 1-715-372-6666). Breakfast is most popular, but the Delta also draws a crowd for its Friday night fish fries and burger Mondays. In the north, Maggie's (www.maggies-bayfield.com; 257 Maypenny Av., Bayfield; 1-715-779-5641) -- with a pink flamingo theme -- emphasizes fresh fish, and plenty of spice in items such as the Cajun lake trout. Nearby, Big Water Cafe and Coffee Roasters (www.bigwatercoffee.com; 117 Rittenhouse Av., Bayfield; 1-715-779-9619) features freshly roasted coffee, hearty sandwiches and breakfast items.