The Penstemon Trail is groomed on the upper half, and ungroomed on the way back. Dennis Kincaid of the High Desert Nordic Association shows me around on the trails.
I came to the Magic Mountain area at the top of Rock Creek Canyon on a sunny Saturday recently to explore the cross-country ski trails directly adjacent to the alpine ski area. With temperatures in the mid-20s, 10 miles of freshly groomed trails to explore, and no wind, it was a perfect day to enjoy the trails.
The High Desert Nordic Association (HDNA) maintains the extensive trail system with volunteers, and the HDNA also maintains a little-known backcountry hut called the Thompson Creek Hut, which is about 3.5 miles from the trailhead (one-way). Their ski trails are open to xc skiers, snowshoers and fat bikes.
My tour guide, Dennis Kincaid, took me up the groomed Penstemon Trail to a group of summer cabins. When we came to the Thompson Creek trailhead, we decided to zip over to the hut (1.3 miles from there), on a skier-packed trail. “It’ll take us about an hour to go to the hut and back,” he said.
“Let’s do it!” I said.
I wanted to see the hut! I’ve visited most of the backcountry huts in Idaho – in the Sawtooth Mountains, Smoky Mountains, Pioneer Mountains and Idaho City Park n’ Ski Areas – and they’re all a treasure. Staying in a heated yurt or wall tent with good friends sure beats sleeping in the snow, in my book! Plus the huts provide access to some fabulous backcountry skiing terrain nearby!
The HDNA xc ski and snowshoe trails are open to dogs, so I brought my pointer, Huck, who loves to run on groomed trails and sniff for squirrels and birds off-trail. It was funny to watch him run along on the skier-packed trail because his legs sunk about a foot into the snow. He likes to be in the lead, so he’d post-hole rapidly along the trail with his long skinny legs, while we followed close behind. He got a great workout!
The Thompson Creek trail is up-and-down but mostly holds elevation as it contours over to the hut. Compared to skiing into most huts in Idaho, it was easy! There are a couple of ungroomed trails for xc skiing or snowshoeing around the hut, the Rimview Loop, the Thompson Creek trail and a trail out to Grandview Peak (more than 2 miles away from the hut).
It took us maybe 20 minutes to reach the hut from the Penstemon Trail. The hut was surrounded by deep snow, because it’s been a robust winter in Southern Idaho. We shoveled out the snow from the doorway, and walked inside to find a very clean and organized hut. It sleeps up to 7, but I would imagine that it’s most comfortable for a group of 4 people. There’s a wood stove for warmth, plenty of firewood, and a propane stove for cooking. All of the pots and pans are stocked in the hut. There are soft pads for each wooden bunk.
Dennis heated up some snow for some hot tea. Other skiers have left a variety of tea and hot chocolate in the hut. This is an Idaho tradition to leave extras behind for the next guests. We didn’t have time or really the right equipment (we were on lightweight xc ski touring gear) to climb above the hut to check out the skiing terrain, but I will be back!
It costs $20 per person per night to stay at the hut if you’re not a member of HDNA, and $10 if you’re a member. That’s incredibly reasonable considering that some yurts in Idaho cost $175 per night!
We skied back to the Penstemon Trail and took the lower part of the loop back to Magic Mountain. This part of the trail was not groomed, but some snowshoers had been out there to pack it down. The trail went up and down and eventually dropped out by the Magic Mountain ski lodge. Here, members of the HDNA were hosting a free xc ski/snowshoe day and taking newbies out on the trail. That’s a great way to get new people exposed to the sport, with free equipment to see if they like xc skiing or snowshoeing.
Last winter, my partner Wendy and I did the Rock Creek Loop (3.3 miles), which starts next to the Magic Mountain chairlift and climbs up to a high plateau, affording big views of the mountains surrounding us. I would recommend that trail. The Elk Basin trail looks fun, too … you can take the lift to the top, and then follow Elk Basin Trail along the top of the mountain and then drop down on the 500/Rogerson Road to Penstemon, and follow the groomed trail all the way to the bottom.
There’s also a short snowshoe trail loop for beginners right around the Magic Mountain ski lodge. And there’s a more adventurous trail to do the Wahlstrom Hollow Loop, 4.2 miles, along the Rock Creek Road. This trail is not groomed and involves a fair bit of climbing, so I would recommend snowshoes for that trail, or climbing it with skis and skins.
The HDNA is very generous to provide 10 miles of groomed xc skiing in the area and 23 total miles of marked trails for the general public to enjoy. There is no trail fee. But you are welcome to contribute to HDNA to help cover their grooming costs by joining the organization or sending them a donation.
With the diversity of trails available to enjoy for xc skiing and snowshoeing, I recommend the HDNA trails for any and all abilities. Magic Mountain Ski Area has xc skis, snowshoes and snow bikes available for rent if you don’t have your own stuff. On Thursdays-Sundays, Magic Mountain Ski Area and lodge are open, so you can get a hot meal, hot drinks or a snack. Enjoy the trails!
How to get there: Take I-84 to the Kimberly/Hansen exit #182, take ID 50 south and then turn south on Rock Creek Road to Rock Creek Canyon. It takes about 35-45 minutes from the freeway to reach Magic Mountain ski area. Park in the main parking area and you’ll see signs for the HDNA trails on both sides of the road.
Maps: You’ll find a big-picture map of the xc ski/snowshoe trails on the HDNA web site.
Renting the hut: The HDNA web site provides information about renting the Thompson Creek hut as well, and a map of the trails to the hut. Valdon Hancock of the HDNA is the contact person for renting the Thompson Creek hut, 208-420-9042
For more information, go to the HDNA web site or call Dennis Kincaid, 208-420-7775.