By Jeffrey V. Smith
Outdoor enthusiasts celebrate winter in Colorado because with the falling snow comes a new selection of activities to be enjoyed on the state’s diverse trails, especially cross-country skiing. Along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and many backcountry access points in Clear Creek County, a pair of Nordic skis can unveil a hidden world of winter beauty and sensational settings. Whether taking advantage of a Nordic center’s groomed trail network or discovering a scenic backcountry track, Nordic skiing combines physical exercise with the beauty of nature.
Cross-country skiing is a low-impact sport that delivers outstanding cardiovascular benefits, works the major muscle groups, keeps joints healthy, promotes balance, and can produce endorphins, a natural chemical that gives the skier an intense feeling of exhilaration and clear sense of well-being. It’s also the perfect cure for cabin fever.
For residents and visitors of the Front Range, there is no shortage of places to get out and put a pair of free-heeled skis, and your body, to work. Winter is a spectacular time to visit the area’s national forests, wilderness areas, state parks and Rocky Mountain National Park. With a little bit of preparation, many exciting days in the backcountry await. It’s also the best time to visit a Nordic center for great trails and plenty of other activities and amenities close at hand.
As amazing as it can be, hazards exist when in the backcountry. Skiers must be prepared for avalanches, quick changes in weather and exhaustion. Snow can hide dangers like cliffs, rock fall, tree wells and deadfall. Skills and gear to handle the risks are essential. Always dress in layers with insulating, waterproof clothing, protect your eyes and skin fro the sun with sunglasses and sunscreen and carry water.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the former Hidden Valley ski area offers 1,200 unofficial, skiable acres. The terrain varies, with the lower, treed portion good for beginner and intermediate backcountry skiers. Expert and experienced athletes head above treeline for advanced runs. The peaks around Bear Lake also beckon skiers seeking backcountry fun. Much of the terrain in this area requires a serious “skin” or hike up. Popular runs radiate from the top of Flattop Mountain, including what users call Corral Couloir, The Drift, North Bowl and Ptarmigan Glacier.
On heavy snow days, skiers can head for Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway at 12,183 feet, which is closed to traffic in the winter. Check out the non-profit Rocky Mountain Conservancy and other Estes Park-based outfitters for guided backcountry treks in the park.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness and Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, which runs from the National Park south to Clear Creek County provide several backcountry skiing options including the popular Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which is among the most popular destinations for non-motorized winter recreation along the Front Range. The Brainard Gateway Trailhead is located at the seasonal closure gate on Brainard Lake Road. From there, the Waldrop Trail, Sourdough Trail, South Saint Vrain Trail and Left Hand Park Reservoir Road are accessible to Nordic skiing. The CMC and Little Raven trails are skiers only. Many places known for good summer hiking are also perfect spots to visit on skies. Peaceful Valley/Camp Dick, Caribou Ranch Open Space, the Sourdough Trail, Rainbow Lakes Road and East Portal near Rollinsville all provide spectacular conditions and scenery.
Several huts, yurts and cabins located in the area are also accessible in the winter. The Colorado Mountain Club operates many while others are privately rented. There is also more than 12,000 acres of forest, rocky peaks and aspen-rimmed meadows with miles of trails for winter sports enthusiasts at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Gilpin County.
Clear Creek County offers several outstanding backcountry options including Old Squaw Pass Road, South Chicago Creek Trail, Echo Lake, Herman Gulch & Watrous Gulch Trail. The Bakerville-Loveland Trail provides for outings with minimal climbing on a forested trail along Clear Creek. An underpass also connects the trail with the popular Herman Gulch & Watrous Gulch Trail. The scenic Argentine Railroad Grade Trail starts a half a mile from the railroad yard in Silver Plume and connects with the Waldorf Road through beautiful aspen groves. The Jones Pass Road Trail takes skiers to the crest of the Continental Divide and above tree line. Even the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, a gently sloping road that leads to the summit, can be skied without entry fees.
Many more options for prime, backcountry skiing exist in the thousands of acres of public land between Estes Park and Georgetown. The area, as well as nearby neighboring counties to the west, also offers several Nordic resorts, centers and private ranches. Nothing is better than a day of backcountry beauty on maintained trails than adding the many other luxury and fun amenities found at these Nordic ski areas.
Eldora Mountain Resort Nordic Center, currently open daily, is adjacent to the downhill ski area near Nederland and offers 40K of groomed classic and skate trails through alpine meadow and pine forest. It provides cross-country and telemark ski lessons while the Nordic lodge offers food and Nordic rentals.
Summit County is home to several Nordic Centers. The Breckenridge Nordic Ski Center offers 30K of groomed cross-country ski trails in wooded spruce forest with destination warming huts, ski instruction and guided adventures.
The Town of Breckenridge’s Gold Run Nordic Center, which opens Dec. 5, is located at the Breckenridge Golf Course and offers over 25K of groomed classic and skate skiing trails. There is an Open House at the center, Dec. 5-6, featuring free clinics, refreshments and more. The nearby Frisco Nordic Center has 43K of groomed trails along the shores of Lake Dillon in the White River National Forest
Keystone Nordic Center offers 16km of local trails and access to 27 more in the nearby White River National Forest. It’s known for its “Bottomless Bowl” lunches of three different homemade soups and breads. There is a retail shop and full equipment sales, demos and rentals at each location.
Many more options exist nearby in Grand County. Grand Lake Nordic Center, already open for the season, has scenic views of Rocky Mountain National Park and a cozy Nordic lodge. The grooming is completed daily by the Grand Lake Metropolitan Recreation District. Free cross-country lessons are offered at the Nordic Center, Dec. 20. A Full Moon Ski, Dec. 26, features complimentary hot chocolate and marshmallows all evening by the campfire plus red chili in the lodge from 5-9 p.m.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch Nordic Center has skate and classic cross country skiing on groomed trails in the pristine and private Ranch Creek valley at the base of the Continental Divide. The luxurious, rustic ranch has more than 60 miles of groomed cross-country trails. The annual Tommelfest and Holiday Gift Market takes place, Dec. 12. The season kick-off celebration includes free lessons, team sprints, live music, keg toss, BBQ, retail specials, and prizes.
The YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch Nordic Center has Nordic trails at the doorstep of its ski-in, ski-out lodging while its full-service Nordic Center is the start to more than 100K of trails groomed daily for classic tracks and skate skiing. They also have dog-friendly and lit night skiing trails. The Ranch hosts a mass start biathlon event, Dec. 20. A free snowshoe or Nordic ski guided tour is offered Dec. 26 and the Snow Mountain Classic Race takes place, Jan. 2
Granby Ranch, which opens Dec. 17, has miles of cross-country skiing trails including two Nordic trail networks located on East Mountain with lift-access during Ski Granby Ranch hours and at Golf Granby Ranch. The Base Lodge and Granby Ranch Grill offer aprés ski specials, late-night menu, s’mores by the fire pit, dinner and live music.
There are many outfitters in the region that lead trips into the backcountry and still more that rent and sell equipment. Most all of these business offer knowledgeable advice on local trails for any specific ability along with conditions near their location.
REGIONAL NORDIC SKIING
Arapaho & Roosevelt
303-541-2500 • http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/arp
Breckenridge Nordic Ski Center
970-453-6855 • http://www.breckenridgenordic.com
1200 Ski Hill Road, Breckenridge
Devil’s Thumb Ranch Nordic Center
970-726-8231 • http://www.devilsthumbranch.com
3530 County Road 83, Tabernash
Eldora Resort Nordic Center
303-440-8700 ext. 267 • http://www.eldora.com
2861 Eldora Ski Rd #140, Nederland
Frisco Nordic Center
970-668-0866 • http://www.frisconordic.com
616 Recreation Way, Frisco
Gold Run Nordic Center
970-547-7889 • http://www.goldrunnordic.com
200 Clubhouse Drive, Breckenridge
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
303-582-3707 • cpw.state.co.us
92 Crawford Gulch Road, Golden
888-850-4615 • http://www.granbyranch.com
1415 County Road 48, Grand Lake
Grand Lake Nordic Center
970-627-8008 • http://www.grandlakeski.com
1415 County Road 48, Grand Lake
Keystone Nordic Center
970-496-4275 • http://www.keystoneresort.com
100 Dercum Square, Keystone
Rocky Mountain National Park
970-586-1206 • http://www.nps.gov/room
1000 Highway 36, Estes Park
YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch Nordic Center
877-683-3082 • http://www.ymcarockies.org
1101 County Road 53, Granby
Originally published in the December 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly
Photo by Matt Inden/Miles