“Wave and smile” and look for signs: advice by Snowmass XC community
Cross-country skiing trails now open with variety of terrain, multiple access points
It may be that you’re looking for some extra social distancing in a COVID-19 year. Or the snow is falling, and your ski pass is blacked out. Perhaps you’re looking for a new aerobic activity, a chance for some cross-training and a change of scenery. Or maybe — just maybe — you’ve always wondered what those spandex-clad skiers were doing as you drove along Owl Creek Road.
Whatever the reason you reach for the skinny skis, there’s plenty of space to use them on the Snowmass Nordic ski trails, most of which are now open and skiable. Multi-use trails connect Town Park to the Snowmass Center and beyond; a skier-specific loop on the golf course offers rolling, intermediate terrain and panoramic views; the Owl Creek trail weaves through wooded areas and wide spaces from Snowmass to Aspen and back.
“The groomers have really been working their buns off,” said Chris Petersen, the city of Aspen’s Nordic coordinator. With a limited snow pack and early season conditions, groomers have had to use smaller machines to prepare the trails; the process takes longer when they can’t use snowcats, so patience is key in the early season and after a fresh snowfall.
“This year has been unique because the snowfall has been so low,” Petersen said. “We’ve been very limited on what we can do on the Snowmass Golf Course. … Sometimes your best option is not to groom.”
The Aspen Nordic website (aspennordic.com) includes grooming reports on the home page. But the most likely bet for early corduroy will be at the Snowmass Golf Course, Petersen said. It’s one of a few “pods” in the trail system that gets groomed first.
To keep that grooming intact — especially in low snowpack years — Snowmass mayor and Nordic Council member Bill Madsen said it’s important to follow the use guidelines for individual trails. Routes like Labrador Lane, the Brush Creek multi-use trail and a multi-use trail along Owl Creek Road are open to dogs, walkers and skiers alike, but the Owl Creek Nordic Trail and Snowmass Golf Course Loop 60 are exclusive to Nordic skiers and snowshoers.
“When we don’t have a lot of snow, it’s a pretty tender resource that we need to manage as best we can,” Madsen said. “We’re trying to keep the Nordic trails pristine for that particular sport.”
With multiple access points, ski area crossings and easements on private property, it’s a lot of ground to cover. For first-time skiers and those new to the area — or folks for whom it’s been awhile — the local Nordic skiing community has tips and tricks for navigating the system and getting off to a smooth start on the snow in Snowmass.
First and foremost: “Always be prepared ahead of time,” Petersen said.
The Snowmass Nordic Center isn’t operating this year due to low staffing and the coronavirus pandemic, so there are limited resources available. Plan to bring water and snacks from home (there is still public access to restrooms on the west side of the Black Saddle building); ski rentals and lessons are only available at the Aspen Nordic Center.
Other trail access points, including the Tom Blake Trailhead and West Buttermilk Road on the Owl Creek trail, only offer parking; restrooms are available at Tiehack on the east end of Owl Creek, as well as at the paid Two Creeks lot in Snowmass Village.
Here’s where the area’s public transportation system is especially handy, said John Wilkinson, a Snowmass local and president of the Nordic Council.
He said he occasionally begins a ski on the Owl Creek trail from the golf course in Snowmass Village and finishes near the roundabout in Aspen before jumping on a bus back to Snowmass; those who wish to rent skis and explore the Snowmass trails also could use the transit system to pick up equipment at the Aspen Nordic Center and take the bus to the village to jump on the golf course or Owl Creek Trail.
“It’s kind of fun to have a point-to-point ski,” Wilkinson said. “I think a lot of people just don’t realize how easy it is to do it.”
It’s also a good idea to print out or download a trail map from aspennordic.com for navigational guidance; while there are map signs located at some major intersections on the Snowmass trails, having a map on hand will help with navigation and orientation on the trails.
Another word of navigational advice, Petersen said, is to “look for the round signs.” The Aspen Snowmass trail system uses round disks and red stakes with orange reflective tape to identify its trails and distinguish them from other trails at ski area crossings and intersections with town-managed paths.
There are, however, a few crossings on the Owl Creek Trail where the discs and stakes aren’t always visible from one end to the other; at Buttermilk ski area, trees and other mountain features may obstruct a clear-cut view.
If coming from the east side of the hill (parking is available at the base of the Tiehack lift), head upward toward the small terrain park — trail access is on the other side of the park features.
If coming from the west (parking is available on West Buttermilk Road, the Tom Blake Trailhead, Two Creeks and the Black Saddle), aim for a slightly downward trajectory and look for a green “Owl Creek Trail” disc; the trail also is called the “Oregon Trail” catwalk on Buttermilk maps.
This year’s Aspen Skiing Co. uphilling policies (including blackout dates and designated routes during operating hours) don’t affect the Owl Creek route where trail enters ski area boundaries at Buttermilk and Two Creeks in Snowmass, according to an email from Katie Ertl, Skico’s senior vice president of mountain operations.
“That said, the earlier the better,” Ertl wrote. “If a patroller does come across an uphiller on the hill, they will likely have a chat and might turn around.”
Crossing downhill traffic also warrants a bit of extra caution; with narrow trails and social distancing efforts, that applies to the Nordic-only routes, too.
“As with any situation, you always need to be aware of your surroundings,” Petersen said. “Give them the space to navigate safely” — and don’t forget to “wave and smile” along the way.
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American riders invited to compete in X Games from Jan. 29-31, who have continuously tested negative while in mandatory quarantine in Austria, are expected to compete at the event later this month in Aspen.