You don't need to compete in the Iditarod to embrace dog sledding. Harnessing the power of anywhere from 8 to 16 dogs, mushers strap the animals to the front of a sled. During the winter months, a variety of outfitters offer 1 or multi-day dog-sledding experiences for all to enjoy.
Dog Sled Adventures
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Montana's Flathead Valley, Dog Sled Adventures owner Jeff Ulsamer takes the reins as teams of Alaskan malamutes lead groups on 2-hour day trips into the vast, scenic Stillwater State Forest. Amid the snow-covered foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the most popular trail is a 12-mile jaunt dubbed the Eskimo Roller Coaster. The dogs drag sleds at speeds of up to 30 mph past brambles, conifers and other obstacles. At some points along the way, the sled quite literally gets hang time as it soars over ruts.
During most trips, Ulsamer crams 2 or 3 visitors into each sled. If you're traveling with family members, this shouldn't be an issue. If you're traveling alone, however, be prepared to get up close and personal in a confined space with a total stranger.
After the tour, head back into Whitefish for a night on the town. For dinner, try the Cajun-inspired Tupelo Grille; for a nightcap, head to the Great Northern Brewing Company, a classic dive bar. Spend the night at Whitefish Mountain Resort, where you can wake up the next day and hit the slopes.
Alaska Dog Sledding School
Nobody knows dog sledding better than Alaskans, so naturally, this 3-day excursion in the wilderness 200 miles northwest of Anchorage is serious business. Visitors fly by floatplane to the rustic Winterlake Lodge. From there, the trip follows parts of the Iditarod Trail.
Under the tutelage of mushers from the outfitter's Alaska Dog Mushing School, guests receive practical hands-on instruction regarding the care and feeding of sled dogs, lessons in theories of dog team building, a tutorial in voice commands ("Ha" to go right; "Gee" to go left), and, of course, plenty of time in the sled.
Guests sleep and eat gourmet meals at Winterlake Lodge. The cabins sit on the shore of Winter Lake, a finger-shaped lake with spectacular views of Trimble Glacier and Rainy Pass. Behind the lodge, Wolverine Mountain is a great spot for wildlife watching.
Back in Anchorage, don't miss Jens' Restaurant, 1 of the city's hottest new eateries. Chef and owner Jens Haagen Hansen uses fresh fish, farm-raised game and local organic produce.
Winterdance Dogsled Tours
Husband-and-wife team Hank DeBruin and Tanya McCready-DeBruin run this Canadian outfitter, which operates out of the Haliburton Highlands alongside Algonquin Provincial Park, about 3 hours north of Toronto. In all, the couple owns more than 100 Siberian huskies to shuttle guests through the snowy landscape by sled.
The tours are run mainly on a 5,000-acre slice of private property north of Haliburton Lake. These trails are near the end of a road system heading north, and once groups leave the road, guests see nothing but untouched wilderness and pristine undeveloped lake chains. This scenery goes by quickly, as the dogs can run up to 35 mph. On some of the trails' tight curves, visitors may feel like their furry drivers are going a little too fast.
Winterdance offers a number of tours, from 2-hour trips to full-day excursions. The DeBruins also are known to customize multi-day trips, for which they house guests in a 3-bedroom cottage retreat on the property, down the road from the dog kennel.
Haliburton itself is a great place to spend a winter. The town (population 12,500) is known for its ice fishing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, and the local arts community is vibrant as well. For overnight accommodations, try the Downhome Bed & Breakfast Inn.
Sun Valley Sled Dog Adventures
Variety is a selling point for the small and relatively bare-bones Sun Valley Sled Dog Adventures, through which owner Brian Camilli offers a number of trips to suit guests with varying levels of patience and interest in learning to mush.
The 1 1/2-hour trip is geared toward kids, and a team of Alaskan Huskies takes visitors out in a big loop for a brief taste of the action. On the 4-hour half-day trip, the dogs take guests over Muldoon Summit to a rustic warming hut, where guides serve hot drinks and home-baked goodies. The full-day trip goes even further, to a Pioneer homestead at Cold Springs Creek. It also includes lunch.
For the true adventurers, Camilli also offers an overnight trip that heads out to a remote cabin where guides follow dinner with stories around a wood-burning stove. The next morning, after a brisk snowshoe, the group returns to Hailey.
Even though Hailey is 10 miles from the resort town of Sun Valley, the city has plenty of its own appeal. Check out Zou 75, a new eatery that serves sushi and French-Asian fusion food in a modern setting. When you're ready to call it a night, the Wood River Inn is both clean and newly renovated.
Colorado's Vail Valley is known best for its powder and epic skiing, but the guides at Mountain Musher are working hard to put dog sledding on the local map. The company runs 2, 2-hour tours daily, both of which provide breathtaking views of the valley, Glenwood Canyon and miles upon miles of aspens.
Alaskan malamutes and huskies lead sleds on a 10-mile private trail that starts in Cordillera and goes onto the private 10,000-acre Diamond Star Ranch. On still days, visitors can hear the dogs' tiny feet crunching through the snow.
Because Cordillera is a resort town with a number of golf courses, lodging there isn't exactly affordable. The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera is a luxury property with 56 rooms. Cheaper lodging alternatives, as well as a steak-and-potatoes joint called the Grand Avenue Grill, can be found in Eagle, about 10 miles away.