Friday, January 2, 2015

Opening section of famous north Wisconsin ski route makes for great summer hike

Birkebeiner Trail system (Note: Map is missing the recently
added Birkie Ridge Trail and trailhead north of Norrthern
Lights Road.).

Birkebeiner Trail system runs for 66 miles between Cable and Hayward

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 between Cable and Hayward. One segment that’s easy to locate and hike is the Birkie’s opening section, a 2.6-mile round trip when treated as an out-and-back trail.

Classic Northern hardwoods
To reach the trailhead, in Cable from County Road M go south onto Randysek Road. After crossing the Namekagon River, turn left/east onto McNaught Road. Drive about 1.7 miles then park to the side of one of the mowed paths on the road’s left/north side.

After walking through the treeline, the Cable Union Airport comes into the view. The trail heads west from the airport.

Built for bicycling and cross-country skiing races, Birkie Ridge is wide and void of roots and stones.

The entire opening segment of the trail runs through a classic Northern hardwoods forest of sugar maple, basswood, beech, white ash, and yellow birch, making for a colorful autumn walk. Hemlock and fir also appear in the mix.

The opening segment also sits inside the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The Namekagon River, protected by the National Park Service unit, flows north of the trail on its way to Hayward.

Forty-plus years in the making
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.

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 a year later started the Birkie race.

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.

Upon reaching the power line, the trail veers southeast and crosses McNaught Road. The power line marks a good point to turn back.

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

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