Paul Andersen: Free skiing on Aspen’s ‘Fifth Mountain’ |

Paul Andersen: Free skiing on Aspen’s ‘Fifth Mountain’

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The mountain lion tracks in the snow were fist-size. The cat had plodded around the rustic wooden bench beneath a magnificent spruce tree where Graeme and I stopped for a break on a winter ski tour.

This wasn’t some remote backcountry wilderness; it was the outskirts of Snowmass Village on the “Terminator” trail, one of many public trails within the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic system.

We were touring on our antiquated wood skis, pine-tarred and waxed for the perfect kick-and-glide in the classic Nordic tradition. There was no lift ticket required to explore extensive trails that were nicknamed Aspen’s Fifth Mountain when the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic system was created in 1984.

Every time I ski the Owl Creek Trail, I thank Craig Ward, a former U.S. Nordic Ski Team member who returned from racing in Europe to his childhood home of Aspen and decided that Aspen should have what many European resorts enjoy in wide-ranging trail systems that link towns.

The connection between Aspen and Snowmass was natural, so Ward and fellow Nordic enthusiasts mapped out a route by securing easements and road crossings through Owl Creek. Today, their vision provides a world-class trail network enjoyed each year by thousands of skiers of all ages and ranks clearly as one of the valley’s top public amenities.

Last weekend, the Owl Creek Chase took ski racers from Snowmass to Aspen on the hilly 21-kilometer route in a celebration of mountain living. A friend from Crested Butte who took third place in the skating division said Owl Creek is the hilliest, most demanding Nordic race he’s done.

With more than 1,000 feet of climbing and descending, the trail is an opportunity to test fitness and technique. For non-racers, Owl Creek is an enjoyable tour through woods and meadows, hills and valleys. With the right conditions on my wood skis, I kick-and-glide the distance on perfect tracks, shuttling conveniently with a RFTA bus.

There are dozens of trails in this system, which has grown so vast over the years that even the strongest skier would be hard-pressed to cover it all in a day. Aspen’s Fifth Mountain grooms over 60 miles of trails, and it’s all free and easily accessible.

Trails include the North Star loops east of Aspen, the meandering ribbons of the Aspen golf course, and tracks linking the Marolt and Moore open space parcels with the ups and down of the Aspen High School and the gentle contours of the Maroon Creek Club. There are even dog-friendly trails like “Bernese Boulevard,” which circumnavigates the Aspen golf course.

“Terminator,” above Two Creeks, is so-called because of steep plunges that test skiers on uphills and downhills. “Raoul’s Revenge,” a challenging trail at the Aspen High School, is named for the late Raoul Wille, a former Aspen Nordic coach who loved to torture his trainees on a steep, relentless climb.

When visitors think of skiing Aspen-Snowmass, they don’t often consider the Nordic option. Yet here is the perfect complement to the lift-served experience. Nordic skiing is peaceful, tests balance like nothing in alpine skiing, challenges endurance and offers opportunities to ski tour through beautiful vistas — all for free.

The Fifth Mountain is operated by the city of Aspen and overseen by a board of Nordic enthusiasts who make up the nonprofit Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council. This diehard group of Nordic skiers keeps alive a European tradition for Aspen and Snowmass.

A beautiful addition in recent years has been grooming the 18 miles of the Rio Grande trail between Aspen and Basalt. This superb valleywide trail follows the Roaring Fork River on a long and peaceful sojourn from town to town.

For a great cause, Ski for the Pass, which was held Sunday, is now established as a community event supporting the Independence Pass Foundation with a Nordic ski race to Lincoln Gulch.

Once you acquire the easily affordable gear — even old wooden skis like mine — there are no other expenses. The trails are open and they are all yours to go where you wish on snowy avenues leading to fitness, adventure and a skiing tradition as old as the sport itself.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at