Free daily guided treks from ACES explore Nature Trail in Snowmass Village |

Free daily guided treks from ACES explore Nature Trail in Snowmass Village

ACES hikes focus on “quality of attention,” connecting with the outdoors

You’d never know it from a quick glance at Lot 7 near the Snowmass Mall, but tucked behind a dirty snowplow berm at the end of the parking lot hides a scenic, quiet trail with tales to tell.

“What we are looking at is a snapshot of a larger story,” said Nicole Goodman, an Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) naturalist leading a free guided trek on the Nature Trail in Snowmass Village. After a closer look at some animal print patterns in the snow, “It’s also kind of poetic,” she noted.

The treks are a new offering this year from ACES and Snowmass Tourism; unlike some other winter experiences led by the center on the mountain, the twice-daily hikes that depart from the Snowmass Mall don’t require a chairlift or gondola ride to access. Anyone can walk up for the 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. tour, both of which meet near the ticket pavilion on the mall.

The free trek was designed to be able to operate regardless of possible COVID-19 restrictions that could limit the on-mountain experiences at Aspen and Snowmass that require a gondola or chairlift ride to access, according to Snowmass Tourism officials.

But so far, it’s been business as usual on the mountains, allowing ACES ski and snowshoe tours to continue all season. As for the new trek, participation is averaging just three attendees per day, according to an email from Jeb Hines, a mentor naturalist at the center.

Participation is down somewhat from previous seasons for other ACES tours at Snowmass, too, Hines wrote.

Attendance for the paid snowshoe tour that departs near the top of the Elk Camp gondola is down to half what it normally is, averaging two-and-a-half participants per day across two tours (compared with five in previous years); the ski tour that departs from the Wapiti Wildlife Center at the top of the Elk Camp chairlift is averaging four participants per day compared with six per day pre-pandemic.

That leaves plenty of room for social distancing, and plenty of time to ask questions and connect with the naturalists that lead each tour. Staff rotate through shifts leading different ACES tours in the area; no two tours are alike as different naturalists share their expertise, according to Goodman.

Even among two tours with the same naturalist on the same route, the variety of the surroundings, terrain, wildlife and weather makes for a new perspective each time.

“Every time I go out here, it’s different. … I have no idea what I’m going to find,” Goodman said. “That, to me, is the most rewarding part of the job.”

Those surprises are part of the spirit of these guided tours, which take a mellow pace and encourage looking, listening, feeling and smelling the surroundings to engage with the outdoors and learn something along the way, Goodman said.

And because the free treks are easily accessible and don’t require registration in advance (unlike on-mountain ACES experiences), participants often arrive with an open mind.

“They don’t know what to expect,” Goodman said. “That’s a kind of curiosity and joy that just doesn’t happen as much with other tours.”

This is Goodman’s first winter as a naturalist leading ACES treks and tours, but she’s no stranger to environmental studies and sharing her love of the outdoors with others. (“I’ve been quizzing myself on Rocky Mountain plant species since I was maybe 8 years old,” she said.)

Cycles of change are a recurring theme, as are contemplation and “quality of attention.” Goodman encourages participants to pause and take a deep breath and practice engaging with the hidden life of the outdoors.

“The listening, the teaching, that’s some of the magic of the job,” she said.

Free guided treks led by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies naturalists depart daily from the ticket pavilion on the Snowmass Mall at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

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