Aspen nordic trails a kick ‘n’ glide delight
November 27, 2007
ASPEN ” With four ski mountains, Aspen/Snowmass may get overlooked as a cross-country skiing Mecca. It shouldn’t.
With 70-plus kilometers of groomed and, for the most part, linked trails, it’s often cited as the largest, free, groomed nordic system in the country. (We haven’t researched the claim, but for all we know, it’s actually true.) For a daily report on what has been groomed and trail conditions, dial the nordic hotline at (970) 429-2039.
The Aspen/Snowmass nordic system links Aspen and Snowmass Village via the Owl Creek Trail, which meanders through meadows and wooded areas for a scenic, 9-mile ski between the Aspen Cross Country Center and the Snowmass Cross County Center. Or, cover 18 miles to start and end at the same place.
Both centers are situated on the towns’ respective golf courses ” the Snowmass center is in the Snowmass Club pro shop and the Aspen center is inside the inviting log building that serves as headquarters for the golf course during the summer months. Groomed loops offer ski outings of varying lengths on both courses.
Both cross country centers sell and rent equipment for skate and classic-style skiing, and provide nordic-ski wax and tuning services, as well. The centers also offer a regular schedule of cross-county skiing lessons, as well as private instruction.
For a quick workout, explore the loops at either golf courses or try the trial on the Maroon Creek Club Trail, adjacent to the Aspen public course. One’s options don’t end there, though.
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The area nordic system features trails east of Aspen on the North Star Nature Preserve, located alongside the Roaring Fork River; at the Aspen schools campus; and on the Marolt and Moore open space parcels ” all but the North Star loop are accessible via links from the Aspen golf course. In addition, segments of the Rio Grande Trail between Aspen and Carbondale are groomed as snow conditions allow.
All of the trails are groomed for both classic and skate-style skiing. Crews try to have the entire system groomed within 48 hours of any snowfall exceeding 2 inches, but if you want groomed tracks first thing in the morning after it snows, head for either golf course, or the loops at the Aspen schools campus and on the Marolt and Moore open spaces. The Owl Creek Trail is also a priority. Trail maps are available from both cross-country ski centers.
Snowshoers are also welcome on the nordic trails (please, don’t walk on the classic tracks), but walkers and runners are not permitted.
Dogs are prohibited on the trails with a couple of exceptions: Pooches are welcome on Bernie’s Boulevard, which circles the perimeter of the Aspen golf course, and on the Marolt Trail loop. The latter is located between the golf course and the high school tracks. It is 1.5 miles in length. Dogs must be in control on both loops. Finally, dogs are also permitted on the Rio Grande Trail, but should be leashed.
Located east of Aspen off Highway 82, this loop isn’t connected to the rest of the system, but it’s an easy, 1.5-mile ski along the Roaring Fork River and a popular spot to get in some quick laps. The groomed trail is visible from the road as you approach the preserve, about 1.5 miles outside of town. For a quiet, late-afternoon ski where the streaks of sunset may reflect off the quiet water of the Roaring Fork, North Star is the spot. Look for pull-off parking on the right.
When there’s not time to tackle to the ups and downs of the Owl Creek Trail, this system of loops is the next best thing. The terrain is varied and challenging, and in warmer weather, it often boasts the best snow conditions. Ski a 1.8-mile loop that omits the trickiest hills, or go for the hilly 3.1-mile loop, or a combination of the two. It’s rated intermediate/advanced. Offers links to loops on the nearby Moore and Marolt open space properties, as well as the Aspen Golf Course, the Maroon Creek Club Trail and, via a trail across the base of Buttermilk, the Owl Creek Trail.
The nordic crew began setting tracks on this trail a few seasons back, whenever snow conditions permitted. Popular with bicyclists in the summer, the Rio Grande starts behind the Aspen Post Office and runs downvalley to Carbondale. When six inches or more of new snow hits the ground, expect the trail crew to tackle the rest of the system and then do the Rio Grande Trail ” probably the following day. The section between Rock Bottom Ranch (downvalley from Basalt) and the Catherine Bridge (above Carbondale) is closed to all use during the winter months to accommodate wildlife. But nordic skiers can be found jumping on segments of the rest of this trail for quick out-and-back workouts or lengthier outings. This trail will host its first organized cross-country ski event ever on Jan. 19, when the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers hold a nordic race from Aspen to Basalt.
Outside the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic System, Ashcroft Ski Touring offers some of the most breathtaking cross-country skiing around. Located about 30 minutes south of Aspen in the Castle Creek Valley, Ashcroft boasts 60-plus kilometers of groomed trails.
Headquarters for the ski touring operation is the old King Cabin, open daily throughout the season (925-1971). Rental equipment if available there, and lessons can be arranged. Unlike the free Aspen-Snowmass system, however, Ashcroft Ski Touring charges full- and half-day rates to use its nordic trails and separate snowshoe routes.
It’s free, however, to ski (or walk) up snow-covered Castle Creek Road from the King Cabin to the Pine Creek Cookhouse, a distance of a little more than a mile. The cookhouse serves lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended (925-1044) and required for dinner.
To reach the King Cabin, drive 11 miles south on Castle Creek Road from the roundabout on the outskirts of Aspen.
Outside of Carbondale is a midvalley gem ” Spring Gulch. Its 20 kilometers or so of trails are groomed for classic and skate skiing, though not with the Johnny-on-the-spot tenacity that is the hallmark of the Aspen-Snowmass cross-country system.
Spring Gulch’s sprawling, interconnected system of trails, beneath the flank of Mount Sopris, offers everything from easy flats to intermediate, rolling terrain and some decent climbs/decents. The highlight is a meandering climb up the ridge ” seek out Finlandia ” for sweeping views of the valley and commanding Mount Sopris. To challenge your downhill chops, try Highball.
To find Spring Gulch, head for Carbondale and turn right at the 7-Eleven. The parking area is about 7 miles up Thompson Creek Road. The skiing is free, but envelopes are available at the trailhead (as are trail maps) for those who’d like to become a member and make a donation to the area’s upkeep.