Our family loves to snowshoe because it’s a fantastic way to get outside and enjoy the Keweenaw’s winter trails. Unlike a lot of other winter activities, snowshoeing requires very little specialized equipment or skill level, and it’s a great opportunity for our family to enjoy nature and stay active during the colder months. Throw in the fact you don’t need much snow or prep time to enjoy the sport, it’s a perfect activity most of the winter.
In late-December, after a 12-14” round of fresh snowfall, we decided to try the Chassell Ski, Snowshoe & Fitness Trail System located about 8 miles south of Houghton. Unlike many of its Keweenaw neighboring communities which were founded thanks to mining interests, Chassell was primarily a timber town during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, the community is the home of the annual Copper Country Strawberry Festival and a destination for outdoor recreationists. The Chassell trail system is better known for its cross-country ski trails, but the site offers several snowshoeing options perfect for young families, beginners, or anyone looking for a little snow-action.
Chassell Snowshoe Trail System
The Chassell system features five distinct snowshoe trails totaling about 9 miles in all. The trails are color-coded (see map below) or use this link to see an interactive trail map. Maps make everything more fun!
Trees are marked with spray paint using colors corresponding with the map’s route colors. It’s important to note there aren’t many on-trail signs, so it’s a good idea to take a picture of the trail map with your phone in case you get turned around.
The system has multiple trailheads, and it’s a little challenging to find them from the main road (US 41). However, the main parking area is located next to the Chassell Heritage Center off 2nd Street. You’ll access the trailhead behind the Heritage Center to start the Yellow snowshoe trail (3.8 miles). Alternatively, you’ll find trailheads on Marinette Street (Green and Purple trails) and Archambeau Road (Red & Orange trails) which is a bit outside of town.
We opted to try the Yellow snowshoe trail for our first Chassell snowshoe experience. By the time we made it to the parking lot, it was already bustling with local cross-country skiers.
It’s Not Backcountry But…
Unlike the ski trails, the snowshoe trails aren’t groomed. So you really get a chance to put your snowshoes to the test and plow through some powder as you follow the marked trees to make your way along the trail. While we could generally make out the trail by sight, the previous night’s snowfall was undisturbed, and it really felt like we had the trail all to ourselves.
The rolling terrain offered plenty of brief climbs and descents which added variety to the scenery and experience. While trekking poles weren’t necessary, we found them helpful on a few of the ascents and steeper declines. The occasional log blocking our path made for a fun obstacle to climb over as we mimicked our favorite hero pose.
Wildlife Spotting (ALMOST)
After starting our trek, it became readily apparent we were not the only ones using the trails as we came across several sets of deer tracks less than a mile from the Heritage Center parking lot. We estimated at least 5-7 deer camped out the night before as we saw numerous spots of melted snow and bare ground (presumably from the deer’s body heat). While we didn’t see a deer, we had a fun time imagining a herd snowshoeing and skiing before the humans showed up.
PUMPING SOME IRON
A really unique (and fun) aspect of the Chassell trail system is that it serves as a “fitness trail” in addition to the more traditional silent sports activities like hiking, biking, skiing, and snowshoeing. So, along your journey, you’ll come across various body-weight exercise apparatuses like chin-up bars, balance beams, and bench presses to tone up those muscles and demonstrate incredible feats of strength!
While we didn’t see any skiers crushing pull-ups, it was still an interesting diversion watching Eleanor using the leg press (which may have contributed to some tired legs toward the end of the trek). Next time will focus more on upper-body strength.
Hemlocks & Hardwoods
One of our favorite parts of the trail was the abundance of hemlocks and mature hardwoods which created the perfect wintertime wilderness experience. The dense, snow-dusted hemlock branches hanging overhead nearly blocked out the daylight and created mini-shelters when rest-breaks were needed.
Local Insight: Hamar Creek Falls
If you take the Red Trail, which you can access by Archambeau Road, you can visit Hamar Creek Falls. We missed the falls on our visit, but our friend Keith at Remote Workforce Keweenaw pointed this out for our next visit.
If you’ve never snowshoed, here are a few tips to get you started before tackling the Chassell trails:
- Gear Up: As the activity’s name implies, you need a pair of snowshoes to keep you from sinking into the powder. Chassell’s snowshoe trails are ungroomed, so it’s important you get the appropriately sized snowshoe (based on weight). Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of your time (and energy) trudging through the white stuff. A good set of trekking poles also help, but they’re not essential. Don’t have your own gear? Check out Downwind Sports (Houghton) or Cross Country Sports (Calumet) for rentals and advice. And here’s a great guide to snowshoe selection by BackCountry.com.
- Dress Warm, but Not Too Warm: A common rule of thumb for any winter activity is to dress in layers. Snowshoeing is no different. You’ll want to be able to peel off a layer if you get too warm. Wear good gloves, socks, and hats to keep your toes, fingers, and ears warm.
- Hydrate and Snacks: No matter how long you expect to be out in the snow, it’s always a good idea to bring something to drink and a light snack. This advice is especially true if you’re bringing young children.
- Take Breaks: If you’re traveling with children, it’s important to take frequent breaks along your trek to keep little legs from tiring out.
- Leave Fido at Home: Dogs are not allowed on the Chassell trails.
- Get a Trail Pass: Help support the local non-profit volunteers who maintain the trails. You can purchase a day pass locally or seasonal passes online.
- Watch Out for Skiers: You won’t share the trails with cross country skiers, but you will likely cross over one (or more) of their trails. Try your best to not step in the set ski tracks (skiers get angry when you do that) and avoid your crossing when skiers are coming.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Barnett is the Executive Director of the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau.