Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Newest segment of Birkie heads through classic northern woods

Birkie Ridge Trail makes
for colorful autumn day hike

Though known primarily for the annual ski race held on it, Wisconsin’s massive Birkebeiner Trail system also makes a great hiking route in summer.

With more than 66 miles of trails, all maintained by the nonprofit American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, “The Birkie Trail,” as its fans affectionately call it, offers multiple trailheads, loops and variations. One segment that’s easy to locate and hike is the 2.9-mile round trip Birkie Ridge Trail.

A new trail in the system, Birkie Ridge opened in August 2013. The Birkie system runs between Hayward and Cable with this segment in Sawyer County just south of the Bayfield County line.

To reach a trailhead in Sawyer County, from Hayward take U.S Hwy. 63 north. After passing the Northern Lights Road junction, the trailhead with parking lot is on the left/east.

Trail system decades in the making
The trail heads south from the lot then quickly turns east. Built for cross-country skiing and bicycling races, Birkie Ridge is wide and boasts erosion mats beneath its surface.

All of Birkie Ridge sits in a classic Northern hardwoods forest of sugar maple, basswood, beech, white ash, and yellow birch, making for a colorful autumn walk. During the first 0.3 miles of the hike, hemlock and fir is more common in the tree mix.

About 1.2 miles in, the trail reaches a loop. Go right/southeast on a route that meanders through the woods.

The entire Birkie trail system is a 40-plus year project in the making. The first cross-country ski race was held on it in 1973; today, it’s the largest race of its kind in North America, attracting about 10,000 participants and 15,000 spectators.

At 1.9 miles, the loop reaches a stem trail that connects to the Birkie Trail, which leads to other routes in the system. Upon reaching the stem’s end, turn back. The stem trail runs 0.15 miles.

How the trail got its name
Northwoods promoter Tony Wise is largely credited with starting the race and helping to popularize modern-day cross-country skiing. In 1972, he built cross-country trails at his Telemark Ski Area near Cable then started the Birkie race a year later.

Upon reaching the loop’s eastern terminus, go right/northwest to add a little variety to the hike.

The Birkie trail system gets its name from Norway’s Birkebeinerrennet cross-country event, which commemorates when skiers in 1206 AD smuggled the king’s illegitimate son to safety during a civil war. The skiers were soldiers in the Birkebiener Party.

About two-thirds of a mile later, the loop reaches its western terminus. Go straight/west and retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Be aware that the Birkie also is used by mountain bikers and joggers. There’s plenty of space for both, but on race days the trail system will be closed to hikers; check www.birkie.com/trail to see when events are planned.

Read more about day hiking Sawyer County, Wisconsin, in my Day Hiking Trails of Sawyer County guidebook.