Avoiding Snowmobiles in the Midwest

Nothing can be more annoying than finally hitting the trails only to have to dive out of the way of a screeching snowmobile. In the upper Midwest the snowmobiles rush out of every garage the second there is any measurable snow. A friend of mine recently said she’d love to take up snowshoeing, but she didn’t want to compete with the snowmobiles.

Around Chicago and other bigger cities, snowmobiles are allowed on forest preserve trails. In rural areas in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan snowmobiles can be a main form of transportation going to and from bars, restaurants, and towns. If you are new to the sport but are afraid of the competition, it is time to think outside of the box. Peace and quiet can be found if you know where to look.

Your best bet is to find large tracts of land that do not allow snowmobiles. One of the most popular in Wisconsin is the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. This 8,000-acre area does not allow snowmobiles on the trails. In addition, there are miles and miles of narrow horse and hiking trails open to snowshoeing. Off trail or on trail, you can go anywhere in this park and rarely see another person. Located between Chicago and Minneapolis, this area attracts people from four different states.

Another beautiful area in Wisconsin is the Brule River State Forest. Located east of Duluth, this area boasts the ancient portage from the St. Lawrence seaway. After portaging nearly a mile of land, the explorers could travel from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico. The terrain is a mix of cedar swamp and sand barrens. Hiking off trail can be more difficult, but there are many options from groomed winter trails, to old logging roads through clear-cut land.

Great trails in Minnesota include the Pincushion Mountain and Gunflint trails.

The Pincushion Mountain Trail is the first cross-country ski and snowshoe trail system you’ll pass on the Gunflint Trail. It is two miles from Grand Marais. The extensive trails offer skiers and snowshoers opportunities to enjoy gentle scenic terrain, rolling hills or even steep hills. From the summit of Pincushion Mountain there are beautiful views of Lake Superior. Look for the designated snowshoe trails (snowshoers are not allowed on cross country ski trails). As you continue north, the central Gunflint trail has 70 km of trails and an additional 100 km in the upper Gunflint trail.

Even further north is the million plus acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This is too far away from Minneapolis for a quick day trip but there are plenty of restaurants and lodges to make your stay enjoyable. This area has intermediate trails, old logging roads, pine, aspen, spruce, birch forest, and level terrain with rivers and lakes. It is the ultimate placed to get away from it all. Look for the Jasper Hills X-C Ski Trail located 15 miles NE of Ely. It has 36 km of loops to snowshoe and is a good place to start. At the desk of your lodge ask for maps and more information about the area. There is so much land to explore, it would take many winters to do it all. If you are new to this area, be sure to pack plenty of common sense along with water, a snack, a compass and a map, a cell phone, and any other gadgets you usually pack for wilderness trips.

The upper peninsula of Michigan is best known for its downhill skiing resorts. But it has its own unique features to attract snowshoers. My favorite is a short (5.4 km) snowshoe only trail through a virgin pine forest. This area known as Estivant Pines has trees 500-1,000 years old. Protected from logging many years ago, today it is protected from motorized vehicles. This is truly a wonderful wilderness experience. This trail is part of the Copper Harbor Pathway, which includes 20 miles of trails for skiers and snowshoers.

If you can’t make it to the trails of the upper Midwest, grab a good map and find the public land in your area. Find the phone number of the group that owns the land, such as the state or national forest. Call the headquarters and ask for trail information. They should be able to tell you when and where snowmobiles are allowed. Ask them for hiking only trails and request a map. From here you should be able to plan a safe hike that is close to home.

Your last resort if you can’t leave the city is to think outside of the box. The first and most obvious approach is to remember that snowshoes can take you anywhere – literally. Go off trail. In most forest preserves, you are allowed to snowshoe off trail and should. This gives you the freedom to explore wooded areas free from machines and other people.

These excursions often give me the most pleasure because I see the wildlife that has been forced into the far corners of the forest preserves. These areas are also easier to walk through than you might first expect. With the leaves down you will have good visibility and only the occasional fallen tree to traverse. But, the greatest advantage is the opportunity to experience the winter without the noise of mankind.

About the author


Judy Nugent

Judy Nugent is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast from Chicago. In addition to snowshoeing, Judy enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking, and exploring the Wisconsin wilderness. Her articles and photography can be found in several regional publications.