Cross-country skiing, Aspen to Snowmass
February 3, 2004
Don’t think it’s coincidental that you can cross-country ski or snowshoe between Aspen and Snowmass Village. Those trails didn’t all line up by accident. In fact, the entire Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System has been carefully crafted to not only link Aspen and Snowmass, but to be served by mass transit and run past the local athletic clubs.Davos, Switzerland, where villages are linked by Nordic trails, was the pattern for the Aspen/Snowmass trails system. Today, it’s one of the best things about living here, with fun events all winterlong that lure out locals.Visitors who come to Aspen or Snowmass to downhill ski find the free groomed Nordic trails a nice “other” way to get outdoors, get some exercise and see the mountains. Ashcroft Ski Touring Center is still another lure: It’s a private cross-country ski resort up the pristine Castle Creek Valley.Here’s a look at some trails and places worth exploring. Be sure to pick up the most recent copy of the Nordic Council map for the Aspen/Snowmass area. The map includes topographical information, rates the trails, and indicates parking and mass transit stops.Benedict Trail: A popular trail for guests staying at The Gant and other downtown Aspen lodges, it travels through beautiful aspens behind The Aspen Club and past the Ute Trail. It connects the slope of The Little Nell (Ajax Mountain) to the North Star Nature Preserve. It’s rated a more difficult trail for its ups and downs and is recommended for classic skiing (its too narrow for skating). Trail access is between The Aspen Club and the foot of the mountains. This is a winter-only trail and gets you into some awesome scenery. Especially scenic is the old gravel pit, now a wetlands area. But beware of avalanche dangers and respect closed signs.North Star Loop: This picturesque 175-acre nature preserve in east Aspen, bisected by the Roaring Fork River, is a haven for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. The 4-kilometer loop is fairly flat, which makes it a beacon for beginners. Trail access is along Highway 82; look for pull-off parking spots. North Star was purchased by Pitkin County from the Nature Conservancy in 1978, and there is current concern about overuse by recreationalists. This may lead to more regulation in the future to protect the land and its wildlife inhabitants, namely the elk herd that uses the preserve. Dogs are strictly prohibited.Difficult Campground: Another unpacked trail, this area in east Aspen gives you all the beauty of the outback without going very far. The Forest Service campground, located about three miles outside Aspen up Highway 82 toward Independence Pass, is located on the Roaring Fork River and on the historic wagon trail up the pass. The campground roads are about 2 kilometers long. They’re flat, which makes this a nice beginner’s area. More advanced skiers may want to head up Difficult Trail, which is accessed from the campground. This 3-kilometer trek takes you through some pretty ponderosa and oak forests, and across an old river terrace. Once you cross Difficult Creek, the trail climbs steeply through a pine and fir forest on some narrow paths. As you near the foot of the slope, beware of serious avalanche danger.Rio Grande Trail: Another well-loved trail and one of the few that allows dogs. This is an ungroomed experience, intended to provide a more rustic, adventurous experience to trail users. Some say the dogs take their toll on the trail but doggies need their exercise too. This easy, linear, flat trail follows the old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right-of-way and parallels the Roaring Fork River. It begins near the Aspen Post Office and goes all the way to Woody Creek (about 9 kilometers). Given the sunny nature of the trail, the snow can deteriorate quickly after a few bright, warm days so plan on venturing here after a big dump. Most of the trail is suitable for beginners, but there are some hilly spots. The scenery runs the gamut, from views of the ski areas to small canyons and small waterfalls. If you get all the way to Woody Creek, don’t worry you don’t have to ski back. Buses to Aspen stop near the trailhead at the Upper Woody Creek Bridge.Aspen Golf Course: Located about one mile west of downtown Aspen on Highway 82 (at the public golf course), the Aspen Cross Country Center is the eastern hub of the Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council trail system and a great connector to other area trails. Its sunny, 4.5-kilometer trails are essentially flat, making them good beginner terrain, and its trails are typically the first to be set after big snowstorms. It’s also the No. 1 spot for Aspenites taking a skate-ski lunch break/workout. The center offers ski rentals, snowshoe rentals, locker rooms and a public waxing room. You can enjoy hot drinks and food here, or lounge around and watch cross-country videos. The retail shop offers hard-to-find cross country skis, boots and clothes. There’s also ski tuning, repair and lessons. (544-9246).Maroon Creek Trails: Fairly new Nordic trails, these groomed, 5-kilometer tracks are set on the new Maroon Creek Golf Course near Buttermilk Ski Area and were part of the golf-course approval process. The trail runs from flat to hilly and is good for novices and intermediates. One large loop connects Panda Peak, Tiehack at Buttermilk Ski Area to the Aspen Golf Course trails and Owl Creek Trail. For no apparent reason, not many people ski here despite the nice, open-valley terrain. Skiers are asked to watch for (and obey) trail signs and stay on the tracks. To get there from the Aspen Cross Country Center, head to the west end of the golf course and follow a steep downhill trail that goes under the Maroon Creek Bridge; a pedestrian bridge crosses the creek. After a couple hundred yards along the west side of Maroon Creek in the trees, the trail switchbacks sharply up the bank. Another good access point is to park at the Tiehack lot.Moore Trail: Used mostly as a connector to the Aspen High School trails, this 2.5-kilometer trail is suitable for beginners but has a few hills, especially on the 1.5-kilometer loop. Locals know the loop to be part of the sagebrush-covered Moore Open Space. To get to the Moore trail, the safest access is from the Aspen Golf Course through the pedestrian underpass located at the roundabout. At the trail’s start, you’ll have amazing views of 14,018-foot Pyramid Peak. The hilly loop begins about 200 yards up the trail. If you continue straight, you’ll pass behind the Aspen Recreation Center, ball fields and across Maroon Creek Road. On the other side, the trail climbs some small hills before it crosses the High School Road and hooks up with those trails.High School Trail: There’s a mix of terrain ranging from beginner to intermediate among the 5.5 kilometers of track at the schools campus. If you want to find some solitude and get some hills into your workout, this is the place to go. It’s more popular at lunch time. It’s mostly used by students and folks who live or stay or work up the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys. The campus’ elevation and limited sun exposure usually translate into better snow up here than on the valley floor. There are two loops: the 4.5-kilometer one which includes the hills and some trees, or the 3-kilometer one. To get here by car, take Highway 82 west out of Aspen to the Maroon Creek Road roundabout (look for the Aspen Chapel on your left). Follow signs for Maroon Creek Road and take it up to the High School Road. Park in the campus lot and look for trailhead signs. A pedestrian bridge across Maroon Creek Road links Iselin Park (site of the Aspen Recreation Center) to the Tiehack side of the Buttermilk Ski Area. It also links the Nordic trail system near the schools campus with the Government Trail on the opposite end of the creek.Marolt Loop: People using these 2.5-kilometer trails are either passing through or just practicing technique. The terrain is mostly flat and is easily accessible to downtown Aspen. It’s one of only two groomed trails to allow dogs on leashes. To get there, take Hopkins out of town to Seventh Street and go left. This takes you over the Marolt Bridge a pedestrian crossing over Castle Creek. The tracks heading straight up the hill after the bridge lead to the Marolt property.Owl Creek Trail: Often thought of as the Nordic system’s crown jewel, the 15-kilometer Owl Creek Trail (from the Aspen Cross Country Center to the Snowmass Nordic Touring Center) runs through some breath-taking scenery. It offers mixed terrain and travels through aspens and meadows, crossing the Buttermilk Ski Area and the Owl Creek Valley. It’s recommended for intermediates to advanced skiers, but beginners can handle parts of the trail. Given its length, there are a number of ways to access it: from Snowmass Village Nordic Touring Center, from West Buttermilk Road, from Buttermilk Ski Area and the Aspen Cross Country Center at the golf course (ask for more specific directions from either cross-country center.)Snowmass Golf Course: The hub of Nordic skiing in Snowmass Village is the Snowmass Nordic Touring Center, based at the golf course with views of 13,000-foot Mt. Daly and the Snowmass Ski Area. Along the golf course are 8 kilometers of set track that are classified for beginners even though they are hillier than the Aspen Golf Course’s tracks. There are two loops here, a 1.5-kilometer “lesson” loop that is flat and the 6-kilometer Sundance loop, which spans the length of the golf course meandering through hills and past frozen ponds. Sundance is really two 3-kilometer loops the lower loop is fairly flat and the upper loop has a few more hills. Both are double track for classic and skate skiing. At the center, there’s an extensive retail shop, snacks, drinks (including beer and wine) and a lounge. Also at the center, you can order lessons, rentals, ski and snowshoe tours. If you’re taking a day off from downhill skiing, you can use your lift ticket to get a group lesson and rentals here (or for a visit to the athletic club or tennis courts). Fairly new to the center is a sledding area, a padded, fenced hillside that’s free to use; you can rent sleds or classic wooden toboggans. (Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; 923-3148.)Terminator Loop: Formerly known as T2, this new loop around the Two Creeks development in Snowmass Village is for advanced skiers; it’s full of challenging downhills and lots of climbing. It’s real fun if you’re a good skier. It links back to the Owl Creek Trail.Village Way: A cross-country ski thoroughfare that takes you from Snowmass Village down to the Snowmass Club Cross Country Center. Many visitors who stay up in the village use it as a thoroughfare to the golf course trails. It’s rated more difficult for its hilly nature. (Obviously, downhill is less difficult than heading up to the village). Village Way, which parallels Owl Creek Road, passes by the fire house, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and the Little Red Schoolhouse. Before Owl Creek Road meets up with High Line Road (at the Fox Run subdivision), the Village Way trail can link with the upper trails of the Snowmass Cross Country Center.Government Trail: This is a popular backcountry touring destination for hearty winter outdoor enthusiasts. You won’t find it crowded in the winter; it’s not groomed. The 9-kilometer trail, marked with orange diamonds, travels between West Buttermilk and Snowmass Village and passes through some beautiful forests. You can access it from the West Buttermilk Road out of the Main Buttermilk parking lot. Take it 2.8 miles from Highway 82 and park in the area for West Buttermilk. Ski across the West Buttermilk slope to the right. The trail goes off into the woods about 200 yards up the slope. Look for the gate that marks the trail’s beginning. Beyond the ski area, the trail slowly ascends through rolling terrain, passing through aspen, lodgepole pine and meadows. From Snowmass, you can access the trail from the top of Wood Road at the cul-de-sac. Pass through the gate at the end of the road and look for parking. The trail will cross under the Two Creeks lift as it heads toward Buttermilk. Remember, it’s not a loop so you’ll need a car shuttle, especially if you start at West Buttermilk. And finally: be aware of backcountry conditions.Ashcroft Ski Touring Center: Castle Creek locals covet their valley, and Ashcroft is sort of ground zero for community sentiment. And once you visit, you’ll know why. Bracketed by 13,000-foot mountains, the valley once was a thriving mining camp and remnants of that town still exist in the Ashcroft ghost town. In the winter, people mostly go to Ashcroft to cross-country ski and snowshoe, visit the Toklat gallery and Pine Creek Cookhouse. The Ashcroft Ski Touring Center offers 35 kilometers of machine-groomed trails. Unlike the free trails at the Aspen and Snowmass cross country centers, there is a charge to ski at Ashcroft, which was rediscovered in 1971 as a natural cross-country skiing resort. It’s located 12 miles south of Aspen. The first place to head to is the King Cabin, located at the end of the plowed portion of Castle Creek Road. Here, you check in, buy a ticket, get trail maps, rentals, lessons, tours and information. Three different routes leave from the King Cabin. Flynn, at 2.5 kilometers, is the beginner trail (mostly flat), which takes you to the historic Pine Creek Cookhouse. Gourmet food is always on the menu and lunch is served on the deck, weather permitting. (Dinner at Pine Creek is another story: take a guided cross-country ski tour by miner’s light to the restaurant or take a sleigh ride. Reservations are needed for lunch, dinner and sleigh rides.) The second route from the start is called River Run and follows Castle Creek to the scenic upper valley and the Kellogg Cabin, a warming hut and cabin that can be rented overnight. Other expert trails lead out of the base. 925-1044 (restaurant) and 925-1971 (skiing).