by Lee Foster
If you like to imagine cross-country skiing (or alpine skiing) at different areas around the nation, sooner or later you’ll focus on Colorado.
The question arises: what is special about skiing in this particular state?
When I explored two major cross-country sites, Keystone and Beaver Creek, I began to assemble elements of the answer. Colorado skiing is special because of:
*The quality of the snow. Dry, crunchy “champagne powder” falls in such abundance in the mountains west of Denver. When California suffers a drought, Colorado seems to have plenty of snow. The weather is also cold enough for resorts to make snow with huge snow guns spewing out a fine mist of water.
*The mountain backdrop. Scenic Rockies settings include the Ten Mile Range at Keystone and the Gore Range at Beaver Creek. You ski in the presence of stunning vistas. The Colorado Rockies can be safely described as spectacular. There are 2,000 peaks in Colorado more than two miles high.
*The top of the mountain cross-country trail systems. You get a back-country feel, but with a groomed and cut track. Both Keystone and Beaver Creek feature elaborate back-country networks of trails, accessible by ski lift.
*The clarity of the blue winter sky. Colorado winter skies are photogenic by day and bewitching on full-moon nights.
The size of a typical cross-country operation in Colorado is still relatively small, compared to California. Cross-country tends to be tacked onto the major alpine skiing establishments.
Colorado presents special altitude and climate conditions that the skier should heed. Layering of clothes is advisable because of rapid temperature changes when the bright sun goes behind the mountain. Most of the Colorado resorts are also extremely high, 8,000 to 10,000 feet, so a prudent traveler, coming from sea level, will not overly exert oneself on the first days. A sea-level visitor will lose about 30 percent of aerobic capacity at 9,000 feet. Sunblock and sunglasses are required because of the ultra-violet rays at this high altitude. Drink plenty of liquids because the dry air will evaporate about three quarts of water from your body in a typical day, compared to one quart at a moist sea-level environment. Go easy on the alcohol because your body will count one drink here as potent as two at sea level.
My first stop was Keystone’s nordic center.
Outfitted with skis and boots, I headed out alone the first day on their lower-trail system along the Snake River. The trails lead through scenic spruce and aspen forests and provide a good introductory outing while adjusting for the altitude change. Snow was falling heavily on that day, providing a soft texture, utter silence, and a delicious solitude. Keystone has 18 km of groomed cross-country ski trails in its lower area and another 47 km of back-country, groomed trails at the top of the mountain.
The next day I went up the Skyway Gondola to their lavish mountaintop cross-country area between Keystone Mountain and North Peak, where I was skiing at about 11,00 feet. The instructor called this outing her Mountain Top Trek. The terrain is fairly steep skiing, good for people with intermediate to advanced skills. Panoramic vistas of the Ten Mile Range of mountains were breathtaking. The rusticity of this back-country experience draws many skiers.
Gradually, this mountaintop area has been expanded to include a gourmet restaurant at a remote location. The special feel of this trail system is that you have a back-country experience, but with groomed trails. Meditation on the beauty of nature in its rugged mountain aspect can occupy a skier, far from the noise and activity of the alpine ski area.
On future return visits, I hope to ski more of Keystone’s back-country, especially its Montezuma mining region.
Keystone is well positioned to deliver all the major resort amenities to the skier. The resort corporation controls about 850 condos for rent. My lodging in the Argentine condos put me within close view of the large skating-rink lake that is a central feature of the Keystone locale.
There’s also plenty of fine dining possible here between ski outings. For lunch, try Ski Tip Lodge, a restored stage stop from the 1860s, directly adjacent to the cross-country center.
Indulge in a fondue dinner atop Keystone Mountain at Summit House or try an elaborate six-course dinner of Colorado specialties, such as buffalo, elk, and trout, at Keystone Ranch, a ranch house from the 1930s.
So many miners arrived from Pennsylvania, the Keystone state, that the town of Keystone took its name from this influx. The mountains yielded both gold and silver, which was shipped out at the Keystone railhead.
Max and Edna Dercum, a young forestry professor and his bride, moved from Pennsylvania to the Keystone area in the early 1940s. They bought the log structure, the former stage stop, that became Ski Tip Lodge. Both taught skiing at Arapahoe Basin, which opened in 1945. Max Dercum arranged the investment that has made Keystone such a major player in the ski world.
Keystone is the closest major resort to Denver, 75 miles away. Alpine dwarfs the cross-country here, with 1,150,000 skier days per year.
There’s plenty of non-ski activity: ice skating, indoor tennis, swimming, Jacuzzi, and the scenic mountain gondola ride to the summit of Keystone Mountain.
Part of the cross-country pleasure of the area is that there are several additional places to ski near Keystone. The area is called Summit County and the entity promoting it as a whole is called Ski the Summit. From the Denver airport you can take a convenient Resort Express bus to the region and then take advantage of a free shuttle bus operation, the Summit Stage, between the three major resort areas, each of which has cross-country. The two resorts besides Keystone are Copper Mountain and Breckenridge.
Copper Mountain has 25 km of gentle-hill terrain and a lift to take you up to the top of the groomed trail area, allowing you to cross-country down through the trail system. At Copper Mountain the groomed trails are narrow and intimate, a treat if you are skiing with someone you want to have a conversation with. The trails pass through wooded valleys.
Breckenridge has two interesting cross-country areas. Their Frisco Nordic contains 30 km of trails with good views of the prominent lake in the region, Lake Dillon. Their Breckenridge Nordic Center boasts 22 km of relatively level terrain with views of the historic mining town of Breckenridge, a Victorian gem replete with shops, restaurants, and B&Bs to attract a traveler.
The three resorts offer contrasting styles. Keystone is trendy and elegant, with plenty of condos and one company controlling skiing, lodging, and food. Copper Mountain is laid-back and western, with western-theme restaurants and a Club Med. Breckenridge is the enchanting, restored Victorian town, a large mining community, with the skiing, restaurants, and lodgings all independent of one another.
Altogether, the Keystone region offers about 120 km of groomed trails and 380,000 acres of back-country, much of it accessible to the skier who uses trails or forest service roads. However, back-country skiing, if you’re not a local, requires a guide and should be considered only after you’ve sampled the resorts.
Beaver Creek, adjacent to Vail, offers another imposing mountain-top cross-country area in its McCoy Park. The cross-country program here dates from 1968.
The Beaver Creek Nordic Center has the 13,000-foot peaks of the Gore Range and the New York Range as a backdrop.
I took the Strawberry Park chair lift #12 up to the McCoy Park area and skied with knowledgeable guides Nate Goldberg and Kelley McGafferty.
As with Keystone, Beaver Creek offers a back-country experience at a high elevation on groomed trails. On one of my ski days several inches of snow had fallen and we were the first in the morning to enjoy the freshly-groomed and cut trails.
The overall terrain is pleasantly hilly but not as steep as Keystone’s setup. About 30 km of groomed trails are maintained.
We skied out to Discovery Lookout, passing through aspen and Engelmann spruce forests, and then spread a lunch out while admiring the New York Range of mountains.
We enjoyed a special wildlife sighting when a black-tailed ferret crossed the trail immediately in front of us. The ferret made energetic leaps through the deep snow.
At the end of each skiing session we glided down the six-km run called Home Comfort from the top of the mountain to the Nordic Center and my accommodations.
There are many appealing lodging choices in the Beaver Creek area. I stayed directly adjacent to the nordic center at the Inn at Beaver Creek, which was a cross between a small inn and a B&B. Guests gather for breakfast in the cozy lobby.
While in the area, be sure to stop in to see the Colorado Ski Museum at Vail. The museum, said to be the largest collection of ski memorabilia in North America, gives you a good orientation to the skiing history that encouraged development of the area. Locals stress how they came for the winter, but decided to stay because of the beauty of the summer. At the museum, ask to see the 10th Mountain Division memorabilia, which describes how this military unit trained in the region. In recent years a hut system called the 10th Mountain Huts has been re-created and can be considered for a cross-country adventure if you have several days and the energy to ski with a pack on your back, sleeping in the huts along the way.
For an elaborate evening dinner try Cucina Rustica Italiana restaurant in the Lodge at Vail. Another special dining experience is Beano’s Cabin at Beaver Creek. Both places are tops in the culinary stratosphere. You ride out to Beano’s cabin in a snowcat-drawn sleigh. The ride takes about 20 minutes and provides an enchanting look at the night sky. Buffalo, elk, deer, and trout are native Colorado menu specialties to consider.
The tone of Beaver Creek/Vail is upscale. On the brochures they’ve trademarked the names of their ski runs, for example. Vail and Beaver Creek are confident. They like to call themselves the #1 ski resort in America. Brochures are printed in five languages, including Japanese. Promotional write-ups reach easily for the term world-class.
This lovely Gore Creek Valley, where Beaver Creek/Vail is sited, was once the summer hunting grounds for the Ute Indians. Settlers found the area could be used for sheep ranching. In 1962, visionary developers Peter Seibert and Earl Eaton started the ski resort.
Colorado rewards the cross-country skier (and alpine-skiing comrades) with three special amenities–quality snow, Rockies scenery, and a ravishing blue sky. Cross-country enthusiasts also savor the back-country, mountain-top systems of groomed trails. Keystone and Beaver Creek are superb places at which to begin exploring Colorado skiing.
COLORADO SKIING: IF YOU GO
The information source for Colorado skiing is Colorado Ski Country USA, 1560 Broadway, Suite 2000, Denver, CO 80202; 303/837-0793; www.skicolorado.org.
The tourism information source for Denver is the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1555 California St., Suite 300, Denver, CO 80202-4264; 800/393-8559 or 303/892-1112; www.denver.org.
For an all-year Colorado tourism book, call 800/265-6723.
Contacts for the specific areas are:
Keystone Resort, P.O. Box 38, Keystone, CO 80435; 970/496-2316; www.keystoneresort.com.
For Vail and Beaver Creek, the overall contact is Vail Associates, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658; 970/476-5601; www.beavercreek.com.