All that viewing of Olympians speeding down the steep slopes of Sochi last month may have had you thinking about a spring break ski trip, but you might consider a variation on the theme.
Personally, I like slipping into a pair of long, skinny cross-country skis and taking a slower road — meandering through a wooded mountain trail and communing with nature in a way that’s quite impossible when you’re hurtling down a mountainside at breakneck speed.
My destination of choice is Colorado.
More specifically, I recently traveled less than two hours from Denver to just north of Winter Park, where two large Nordic complexes — Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa and the YMCA-run Snow Mountain — are lodged between Granby and Fraser.
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They offer more than 50 miles of groomed trails for all skill levels, and even the trails on flat terrain offer postcard-perfect scenery. And there should be enough snow there to last through early April.
Cross-country skiing has been called one of the best forms of aerobic conditioning (far easier on the knees than Alpine and not as arduous as the popular myth purports). Plus, it’s cheap, fun and great exercise for all ages. You can make it as challenging or as leisurely as you’d like.
That said, I have only encountered people smiling. Often they stop and chat on the trails. And did I mention the sheer joy of whistling through stands of paper-birch and pine? It’s my personal relaxation therapy.
A friend of a colleague had recommended Devil’s Thumb, calling it the most beautiful Nordic ski area in North America. So I did a Google search and soon found Snow Mountain, a family-oriented resort operated by the YMCA of the Rockies just a few miles away.
Later I was told that local volunteers maintain a groomed trail connecting the towns of Granby and Fraser, 19 miles long, but because of an abundance of snow, it only stretches from near the Y to Tabernash this year.
There are free trails maintained by Granby Ranch, a commercial ski area that specializes in downhill skiing and snowboarding. It’s handy if folks in your party each have different ideas of what is a good time. Cross-country skiers can use the ski lift for $5 a pop.
Northwest of Granby is Grand Lake Touring Center, operated by the local recreational district where the day fee to explore 20 miles of groomed trails is $14 ($6 for kids under 16). http://grandlakerecreation.com.
Another great feature is the one-stop shopping at Devil’s Thumb and Snow Mountain. Like Grand Lake, both have packages that include a lesson, equipment rentals and trail fees ($50 for adults, $40 for children at Snow Mountain; $60 for adults, $45 for kids under 13 and seniors over 65 at Devil’s Thumb).
Day trail passes are $18 for adults, $10 for children at Snow Mountain (or free if you belong to a reciprocating Y); $20/$10 at Devil’s Thumb. Both are a fraction of the cost of downhill skiing in nearby Winter Park.
I’d recommend at least one group lesson, and possibly a follow up, if you haven’t tried cross-country skiing before. Don’t believe anyone who says it’s just “walking [or running] on skis.”
People who don’t get adequate training are easily spotted shuffling, making little headway, and exhausting themselves in 15 minutes. An instructor will teach you how to cover distances with a minimum of effort using the “kick and glide” stride. And waxless skis, with snow-gripping patterned bottoms under the boot, make picking this up relatively easy. They also make going uphill less of a challenge.
For years I’ve schemed to get my oldest son, Jeremy, on skis. A keen long-distance runner and cyclist, he was looking for a winter sport once he’d relocated to Denver. On our first day, he took a group lesson at the Y facility and quickly got the hang of it. He skied all of that day and for the next day and a half.
Snow Mountain has more than 60 miles of ski and snowshoe trails. The ski trails are groomed with parallel tracks for “classic” skiing, with a neighboring flat area for “skate” skiing. Classic relies on a kick-and-glide motion, first one leg then another, while skate skiing employs an ice skate-like side motion to propel oneself forward. (The Olympic Skiathlon event requires competitors to do part of the course classic style, then switch to shorter skis for the skate portion.)
One of the prettiest trails at Snow Mountain is called Gaskill, an intermediate run that took me on a winding trail along the side of a mountain and through woods and open areas, with a scenic vista at every turn for just shy of two miles.
If you have skis that require waxing, both Snow Mountain and Devil’s Thumb have self-service facilities. The Y staff was more than happy to help me apply the right kick wax for my new skis. And both complexes have all the needed accessories on sale at their respective Nordic shops, along with ski equipment and snowshoe rentals. I broke a pole my last day and replaced it fairly inexpensively.
Since I’m a member of the Fort Worth Y, I avoided the trail fees, a savings of $18 each day. When I checked into Snow Mountain lodge later in my stay, there was a $15 discount on an already value rate (see below), which included a hot breakfast buffet, and use of the indoor pool, dry sauna, library and other facilities on the sprawling grounds. Free coffee and tea are everywhere.
The Y’s lodge buildings have a common room with a fireplace, and the rooms are comfortable but not fancy. Devil’s Mountain is more upscale, yet just as friendly.
A volunteer worker at Snow Mountain, a skiing retiree from Iowa, ran from the Nordic center one day and helped my brother click into his rented skis. Other staff gave excellent dining recommendations. Meanwhile, a Devil’s Thumb employee at the Nordic Center fixed a missing piece of my ski binding without charge.
At both complexes we ran across numerous downhill converts. A woman from Boulder whom we met on a Snow Mountain trail said she gave up Alpine skiing because she could no longer take the crowds or the fees at ski lifts, not to mention snowboarders speeding down slopes while texting.
Such friendly encounters were typical in this Nordic-centric corner of Colorado, which provides an accessible, different way to enjoy winter — on almost any family budget.
Pricewise, it’s hard to beat the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch. Rates vary, depending on holidays and heavy spring break weeks. Snow Mountain Ranch offers cabins, lodge rooms and yurts during the winter months. Lodge rooms can be as low as $79 per night for a room with a queen bed and four bunk beds, less if you are a Y member. And there are often third-night-free specials during the week.
Peak periods can cost up to $489 per night in a five-bedroom cabin that sleeps up to 12 people. Cabins feature fully equipped kitchens, and lodge room reservations include two free breakfasts per day. Guests get free trail passes. 888-613-9622; http://grandlakerecreation.com.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa offers upscale digs, ranging from well-appointed lodges to cabins, at about $300 a night. The main lodge features a non-video game room, theater, fitness center, coffee shop, library and business center. Features include ice skating, snow shoeing, a sauna, a geothermal-heated pool and dry and steam saunas.
Extreme budget travelers might check out Rocky Mountain Chalet at Fraser, where rates are about $28 for a dorm bed, or $89 to $99 for suites. Amenities include use of a gourmet kitchen. 970-726-8256; www.therockymountainchalet.com.
Even if you don’t stay at Devil’s Thumb, try Heck’s at the main lodge building. The dining room is a replica of the one at Timberline Lodge at Oregon’s Mount Hood. Lunch main courses are $12-$22, dinner main courses run $14-$26. There’s music on some nights. Reservations are recommended for weekend nights. 970-726-7013; www.devilsthumbranch.com.
A restaurant that came well recommended was the Tabernash Tavern, where chef Alberto Sapien prepares dishes that would please most any discriminating diner. Conveniently located between Snow Mountain and Devil’s Thumb, it’s moderately expensive but worth it. Reservations are recommended. . 970-726-4430; www.tabernashtavern.com.
A Snow Mountain Nordic Center employee turned us onto Pepe Osaka’s Fish Tacos in Winter Park, an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant. While you can’t get more inland than Winter Park, the vittles were a major highlight of our trip. And the more you order, the lower the price. Two shrimp tempura or spicy tuna tacos, for example, cost $13 or three for $16. 970-726-7159. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
For a well-crafted cafe latte, sandwich and a bowl of soup, with a bit of bizarre history thrown in, the family-owned Midtown Cafe in Granby is worth a try. In 2004, a disgruntled muffler shop owner named Marvin Heemeyer knocked down 13 buildings over a zoning dispute. Bullets from the sheriff’s department and a SWAT team couldn’t stop the bulldozer, on which he had affixed an armored cab.
Heemeyer was unaware that the hardware store across the street from the cafe had a basement; the floor collapsed, trapping the dozer, and Heemeyer took his own life. Locals still enjoy talking, and arguing, about the decade-old incident. Moderately priced. Very friendly. 970- 557-3123. Open for breakfast and lunch. Gluten-free items available.
The public Grand Park Community Recreation Center on Main Street in Fraser has an indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, fitness gym and climbing wall: $11 for adults, $9 seniors and youths ages 13-17, $8 children ages 3-12. The center also operates an ice skating rink nearby and the Pole Creek Golf Course, which offers 2.5 miles of groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails that are lighted during full moons, with hot chocolate served. No trail fee. 970-726-8968.