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The Winter in Aspen & Snowmass Guide to the ‘Fifth Mountain’

Cross-country skiing is hot this winter on miles of free trails through the Roaring Fork Valley

Austin Colbert
For Winter in Aspen & Snowmass

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the four Aspen ski mountains in March 2020, it didn’t take long for people to rally toward the “fifth mountain” that is the area’s cross-country skiing trails.

“When Gov. (Jared) Polis gave the shutdown order for all the Alpine areas, the next day our trail use spiked dramatically,” said Chris Petersen, the city of Aspen’s Nordic coordinator. “We saw that all the way through the rest of the season. We kept grooming as long as snow would allow.”

One of the pillars of the skiing world — along with alpine and freestyle or freeskiing — Nordic skiing certainly has a strong following here in the Roaring Fork Valley. The area has produced some elite talent in the sport, most recently that of current U.S. Ski Team members Simi Hamilton (a three-time Olympian) and Hailey Swirbul (most likely a future Olympian), as well as 2018 retiree and two-time Olympian Noah Hoffman.



The fact the valley offers up an extensive cross-country trail system for free use will only make it easier to produce even more Olympians down the line, along with the rest of us more casual recreational users.

“It really does cover a huge geographical area, but does also bridge or connect our communities,” said August Teague, Nordic program director for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. “To have such an extensive trail network and to have it free is absolutely phenomenal.”



Petersen oversees about 55 miles of free cross-country ski trails that span from Aspen to Snowmass and all the way to Basalt. This doesn’t even include popular areas such as Spring Gulch near Carbondale, which offers more than 21 kilometers of free trails.

“The athletes I coach benefit from it,” Teague said, “but also locals and tourists alike benefit from it because there is a huge resource in terms of recreational opportunity that other than equipment doesn’t cost anything.”

So how does one go about getting started in the sport?

Both Teague and Petersen recommend beginning at the Aspen Cross Country Center, which is located on the Aspen Golf Course during the winter and operated by the Ute Mountaineer. Not only does the center offer free, beginner-friendly trails, but also offers a full retail shop to buy and rent equipment, as well as guides and instructors to get you going (aspennordic.com; 970-925-2145).

Normally, the Snowmass Cross Country Center would offer the same services, but it won’t be open for the 2020-21 winter season because of the pandemic. However, Petersen said they would still maintain the Snowmass trails for use even if they won’t offer any retail options in Snowmass. It will be “business as usual” this winter at the Aspen Cross Country Center.

Depending on available snow, most trails open on Thanksgiving each year, which also is the traditional opening day for Aspen Mountain and the Snowmass ski area.

“We try to provide an alternative for residents and visitors to get out there,” Petersen said of cross-country skiing. “People want to get outside. They still want to do stuff. So the fact that we’ve got 90 kilometers of free trails available in Pitkin County, that’s pretty attractive.”

FIND YOUR TRAIL


Kathy Sobolewski cross country skis on one of the trails apart of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System near Town Park in Snowmass on Friday, January 3, 2020. Sobolewski was visiting from South Carolina, but her and her husband are hoping to purchase a house and call the Roaring Fork Valley home in the near future. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

There are trail options for all skill levels in Aspen, Snowmass and downvalley.

Beginner: The Aspen Cross Country Center and Spring Gulch in Carbondale offer a bit of everything, including many easy trails for those just getting into the sport.

Intermediate: For more of a challenge, hit the trails in Snowmass, the Moore Open Space on the edge of Aspen, or venture down the Rio Grande Trail toward Basalt.

Advanced: Spring Gulch and Snowmass have advanced offerings, as do the trails located near Aspen High School. But the area’s bucket list cross-country ski is the Owl Creek Trail, which connects Snowmass and Aspen. While more of an intermediate trail in terms of skill needed, its length and remoteness does require advanced knowledge and endurance.


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