Navigating ‘Aspen’s fifth mountain’ on Nordic skis
Expansive cross-country trail network has something for everyone
This story was originally published in the “Winter in Aspen & Snowmass 2022” magazine, which is free and on newsstands now around the Roaring Fork Valley as well as online at aspentimes.com/magazines.
Some call the Roaring Fork Valley’s expansive cross-country skiing trail system “Aspen’s fifth mountain,” an alternative to lift-served, high-octane skiing at Ajax, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.
In some cases, it’s also part of the other four, since the iconic Owl Creek Trail traverses runs at Snowmass and Buttermilk, and Raoul’s Revenge near Aspen High School runs right under the chairlift for Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athletes to access Aspen Highlands.
But there is also plenty of solitude to be found on the 60-mile-plus network maintained by the nonprofit Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council (aspennordic.com), the 13-mile system at Spring Gulch outside of Carbondale (springgulch.org) and the 22-mile hub at Ashcroft Ski Touring in the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen (pinecreekcookhouse.com).
The Aspen Cross Country Center and Ashcroft Ski Touring both offer rentals, lessons and tours; Spring Gulch doesn’t have facilities on site, so pop into Basalt Bike & Ski for rentals on the way there.
Just take note that this season, the Snowmass Cross Country Center won’t operate. It was closed last season due to staffing challenges, low profitability and the ongoing pandemic. Supply-chain shortages in rental equipment impacted the possibility of it reopening this year.
No matter where you head, be sure to pack snacks, water, sunscreen and layers — bonus points if you break out some fluorescent colors. Expect to sweat even on the coldest days.
Keep in mind that dogs are allowed only on select trails: Bernese Boulevard and the Marolt Open Space Loop in Aspen, Labrador Lane in Snowmass, the Rio Grande path and the road to the Maroon Bells. All other routes allow only skiers and snowshoers.
And if someone calls you a “Nordork,” don’t take offense — it can be a term of endearment among cross-country crowds, especially those decked out in flashy leggings and fluorescent jackets.
Trails off the beaten path
Most of the trails in the local Nordic network are so central to Aspen and Snowmass that they require only a bus ride or a short stroll to access them. But there are outposts just as worthy of a venture off the beaten path.
For the leisure-lover: Savor laps of smooth, gentle meadow skiing at the North Star Nature Preserve, located a few miles east of Aspen.
For the early-bird skater: Drive up Maroon Creek Road just after sunrise and park at T-Lazy-7 Ranch for 7 a.m. corduroy on a 12-mile out-and-back ski to the Maroon Bells. The early departure ensures pristine conditions before snowmobile tours track out the trail.
For the ghost-hunter: Venture up to Ashcroft Ski Touring, located about 12 miles up Castle Creek Road from Aspen, and scope out the ghost town and its full-service restaurant, the Pine Creek Cookhouse, on skis. A day ticket or season pass is required.
For the Mt. Sopris stan: Soak up scenic panoramas of the 12,995-foot Mt. Sopris from the trails of Spring Gulch, located a bit more than 7 miles outside of Carbondale. Thrill-seekers will especially appreciate the tight turns of Big Dipper, but there are trails for every level.
No skis, no problem
Skiing not your thing? Aspen and Snowmass have a wide network of trails for winter hiking, though traction devices like Yaktrax or Stabilicers can come in handy.
Check out aspentrailfinder.com/winter-trails for a full list of prime hiking trails, but don’t walk on the trails that are groomed exclusively for cross-country skiing. Snowshoers are welcome on the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic network, but those tromping around in regular shoes or snow boots must stick to the pet-friendly trails. Rentals are available at the Aspen Nordic Center and Ashcroft Ski Touring. Fat-tire bikers can enjoy a bike-specific loop that starts at the Aspen Nordic Center, or head to the Rio Grande.
Aspen Cross Country Center 39551 CO-82, Aspen
Ski and snowshoe rentals, retail and equipment maintenance run by the Ute Mountaineer, plus lessons and guided tours.
Basalt Bike & Ski 731 E. Valley Road, Basalt
Ski rentals at its Basalt location only.
Ashcroft Ski Touring 12500 Castle Creek Road, Aspen
Ski and snowshoe rentals, lessons and tours, plus day ticket and season pass sales for the Ashcroft trail network.
Replay Sports 465 N. Mill St. #11, Aspen
Equipment sales on consignment; supply varies throughout the season.
Aspen Misc. for Oct. 2, 2022: Aspen Times in Croatia, a family of moose