Each February, some 7,000 fit, Lycra-clad folks descend upon the Wisconsin northwoods to participate in the American Birkebeiner, a cross-country ski race that weaves 31.7 miles (51 kilometers) along a hilly, heavily wooded trail from the Telemark Resort near Cable to the finish line on Main Street in downtown Hayward. Since its inception in 1973, when only 34 people participated, the race has grown into the largest cross-country ski marathon in the nation.
For some, it’s serious business. The Birkebeiner is part of the Worldloppet, a circuit of 14 Nordic ski races held on four continents. Named after a historic Norwegian ski event, the Birkebeiner is the only Worldloppet event held in North America, and attracts a top cadre of professional racers from more than a dozen countries. While pros may complete the course in about two hours, legions of weekend warriors soldier on for double or triple that time. Amateurs can compete in the full race—after all, sturdy Scandinavian stock runs thick in the upper Midwest—or can sign up for 23- or 12-kilometer options.
You don’t even have to click into skis to join in on the party. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 spectators line many portions of the route, and it seems all of Hayward is there cheering at the finish line. Equipment demos, citizen sprints, family fun races, and other events round out the weekend. Telemark Resort is the center of the festivities; book extremely early if you want to stay here during the Birkie, it’s worth it for the exuberant atmosphere.
The rest of the winter, most of the Birkie Trail is open to the public, groomed for both classical and skate skiing. Five kilometers of lighted loop trails near the County Highway 00 trailhead are especially lovely for nighttime skiing.