Riverside Golf Course, on Riverside Street in Portland, is probably the most popular free local Nordic skiing destination. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. 

The rhythmic glide of one ski and then the other on groomed snow is delectable. If you’re moving fast, maybe the sound of your earnest exhalations matches the pace. If you’re taking it easy, perhaps you’ll marvel at how the snow twinkles in the sun or meet eyes with a tireless squirrel who’s busy with lord knows what in the nearby trees. 

Cross-country skiing is a popular winter sport for many reasons: It’s a stupendous exercise, for starters, and an engaging way to explore the outdoors, whether on your own, with friends, or with the whole family. 

In greater Portland, we’re particularly lucky to have access to a host of maintained trails, too. Even cooler, many of them are free to use. 

Riverside Golf Course, on Riverside Street in Portland, is arguably the most popular of these free local Nordic skiing destinations. On any given day, you’ll find early-rising skiers on the trails not long after sunrise. More come and go throughout the day and the trails bustle with skate skiers, classic skiers, and snowshoers alike, nearly all of them giving a courteous nod and/or energetic “hello!” or “good morning!” as they pass (this winter: through masks). The activity continues after sunset, where headlamps lead the skiers’ way in the dark, their lights moving through the night like low-flying UFOs. 

With assistance from Portland Nordic, Portland’s Parks and Recreation Department ensures the trails at Riverside Municipal Golf Course are groomed for cross-country skiing. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

There are several kilometers of trails here that are groomed for cross-country. There are wide trails for skate skiing and tracks for classic, as well as separate multi-use trails for snowshoers, fat bikes, and skiers with dogs. 

The golf course is owned and managed by the city. The Parks and Recreation Department tends to the greens and sandtraps in the warmer months and, in the winter, ensures the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. They do a stand-out job, grooming frequently when snow accumulation and conditions allow. 

But credit also goes to Portland Nordic, a local nonprofit with a mission to get more people cross-country skiing. 

“We are firm believers: Nordic skiing makes you feel better, especially in the middle of winter while it’s cold in Maine,” said Michael Collin, Portland Nordic middle school coach and board member. 

Portland Nordic has been getting kids on cross-country skis for 20 years. The organization runs two programs in the winter: Bill Koch Youth League, open to kids in first grade through eighth grade, and the Portland Middle School Nordic Team for skiers in sixth through eighth grades. 

While the bulk of their programming has focused on learn-to-skate and racing programs for school-age kids, their larger goal is to grow Nordic skiing in the greater Portland area. Three years ago, with additional funding from the city, they raised $20,000 to purchase new snowmobiles and a new groomer. Portland Nordic assists with grooming, too.

Collins said the snowmobiles and groomer enable Portland Nordic to teach the young skiers in their programs on great terrain, but the benefit is also shared by the larger Nordic-skiing community. Better trails lead to more skiers, and that’s exactly what Portland Nordic wants to see. 

“I’ve never seen Riverside as busy as it is,” Collin said. “Nordic is seeing a resurgence now.”

Part of that is a response to the pandemic, since more people are seeking outdoor activities every season, but Collin believes it’s more than that. “It’s a lifelong sport people can do with their kids, with any ability,” he said.

People also ski to bird watch, to exercise, to learn something new, or to walk their dog. And when we’re lucky enough to have well-groomed trails practically in our backyards, it’s something we can do close to home. 

New this year, the city is also grooming a few miles of trail that loop through Deering Oaks Park, creating a cool place to ski that’s walkable from downtown.

For skiers of all levels who’d like to connect with other skiers, Portland Nordic hosts free Night Skis on Thursday evenings at Riverside, when conditions allow. They’re also a completely volunteer organization, so donations are always welcome and they’re always happy to have new skiers join their ranks of awesome volunteers. Go to portlandnordic.org to donate or learn more. 

And whether you participate in any Portland Nordic programs or just enjoy Portland’s cross-country trails with friends and family, you’re a valuable piece of this community.

“If you ski at Riverside,” Collin said, “you’re part of Portland Nordic.”

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

Headlamps allow skiing well past sunset at Riverside Municipal Golf Course in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Ski nights, lessons

• Portland Nordic Ski Nights meets Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. at the Riverside North Course, weather and conditions permitting. All levels of classic and skate skiing welcome. Free to participate. Bring a headlamp. For more info: portlandnordic.org or follow Portland Nordic on Facebook.

• Private small-group lessons are available from Boulder Nordic, Olympia Street, Portland, for any level of classic or skate skiing. Email Roger Knight: roger@bouldernordic.com.

— Shannon Bryan

Cross-country ski trails at Sunset Ridge Golf Course in Westbrook are groomed by the Westbrook Trail Blazes snowmobile club. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Free groomed trails in greater Portland

While the public can access these trails for free, be sure to donate where and when you can to the organizations that work hard to create and maintain these great places. And thank the towns and cities, too.

Riverside Golf Course, Portland

South Course loop (2.3k) or North Course loop (4.6k); connect them both for 6.3k.
Parking is available in two lots on Riverside Street to access the south course or north course. The north course is also close to the clubhouse, two ice rinks, and sledding hills.
For grooming and condition updates follow Portland Maine Parks, Recreation & Facilities Department on Facebook or Instagram

Deering Oaks Park, Portland

A small network of groomed trails throughout the park (approx 2-3k). Ice skating on Deering Oaks Pond, too. Parking is along Tennis Court Road, Deering Avenue, in The Castle parking lot, or on State Street Extension.

Wainwright Sports Complex, South Portland

Approximately two miles of network trails, including a one-mile loop around the fields, groomed by the city of South Portland. There’s an ice rink for skating, too. Also, the Greenbelt Walkway in South Portland is groomed between the Wainwright complex and Docks Seafood (at the intersection of Broadway and Evans Street). Park in the large lot at Wainwright Sports Complex or behind Docks Seafood on Broadway. For grooming and condition updates follow South Portland Parks and Recreation on Facebook and sign up for email updates at southportlandme.myrec.com.

South Portland Municipal Golf Course

About a one-mile loop around the golf course, groomed by the city. Park in the lot at 155 Wescott Road. For grooming and condition updates follow South Portland Parks and Recreation on Facebook and sign up for email updates at southportlandme.myrec.com.

Gull Grest, Cape Elizabeth

Several miles of network trails. Grooming managed by Cape Nordic, another area nonprofit supporting youth and community Nordic ski programs, in partnership with the town of Cape Elizabeth and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. Park in lots near the Public Works Department, off Spurwink Avenue. Access the Town Center Trail from behind Cape Elizabeth High School on Ocean House Road. For grooming and condition updates follow Cape Nordic on Facebook

Sunset Ridge & City Forest, Westbrook

While not officially groomed for skiing, the local snowmobile club, Westbrook Trail Blazes, does a great job of setting trails all over Westbrook, from the Mountain Division Trail to City Forest and Sunset Ridge Golf Course. Cross-country skiers are welcome to ski on the trails, too. Park at Sunset Ridge Golf Course on Cumberland Street, or at the Community Center on Bridge Street.

Libby Hill Forest Trails, Gray

Approximately nine miles of trails here, some for skiing only, while others welcome snowshoers and walkers. Donations appreciated at donation post. Parking on Libby Hill Road. For grooming and condition updates go to Libby Hill Forest on the web and Libby Hill Forest Trails on Facebook

Twin Brook Recreation Facility, Cumberland

Trails for walking, snowshoeing, and fat biking. Approximately 10k of trails, grooming varies. Parking lot on Tuttle Road. For grooming and condition updates follow Twin Brook Recreation Area on Facebook. Some updates posted also on cumberlandmaine.com.

— Shannon Bryan