Skiing Cross-Country in the Sierra near Tahoe California
Skiing Cross-Country in the Sierra near Tahoe California
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by Lee Foster

Soft, thick flakes of snow, falling at the rate of three inches an hour, greeted me as I skied cross-country along the Aspen Forest Trail at Bear Valley in California’s Sierra. The aspen and pine trees of the forest assumed a magical appearance, aspen branches stark against the white and pine branches bent almost vertical with the heavy snow. The grey sky of this major storm proved inviting, warm, and perfectly quiet, rather than ominous. Only the crunch of my skis, gripping the snow in the touring track, broke the complete stillness of the forest. In the good company of my two children, Karin and Paul, I savored the moment. For moments such as this, I knew, I had made cross-country skiing my winter sport of choice.

I was not alone in choosing this sport. Cross-country or “Nordic” resorts flourish in the current winter sports travel picture across America, while downhill or “alpine” ski growth is flat. Industry observers estimate that there are about 10.7 million downhill skiers, 3.5 million cross-country skiers. After skiing at all the major cross-country resorts in California, added to my cross-country skiing in three other western states, I finally asked myself: what is the mystique of this sport that makes it so attractive?

A pleasing mix of solitude and sociability characterizes the experience. While skiing along, I’ve had wonderful talks with my children and other companions. One afternoon, Glenn Jobe, who then ran the Tahoe-Donner cross-country resort, regaled me with his cross-country exploits in the 1980 Olympics, while we skied. Yet the sport also promises solitude. You can ski alone or withdraw for a time into yourself while skiing with others. Encounters are purposeful, rather than the accidental meeting while waiting in line for a ski lift in downhill skiing. The people you meet when cross-country skiing, in lessons or on the trails, tend to be a friendly lot.

A fitness element also appeals to me in cross-country. As a jogger who enjoys a couple miles of moderate running each evening, the prospect of skiing through the snow and forest environment is enticing. With cross-country I continue my fitness trajectory in a new mode. The dance-like elegance of a skilled cross-country expert is a pleasure to watch as the skier glides along set trails with relative ease, moving up hills with only a fraction of the effort required in walking. The fitness boom, such a part of modern American culture, will surely carry cross-country forward. As in other fitness activities, I proceed self-propelled, with all the ensuing joy of control that such an act entails.?

SPORT FOR ALL

Cross-country delights me as a lifetime sport, safe for all ages. Though hardly geriatric, I’ve realized in recent years that I fell into the older group among the downhill set. If you’ve ever been hit from behind by an out-of-control hot dogger in downhill, as I have, then cross-country suddenly looks more appealing. I want to ski forever, without injury, in a stress-free environment. Cross-country delivers on such a wish. You can ski with comrades across the generations in this sport. If you can walk, you can ski cross-country, though lessons on correct technique for efficient gliding movement are highly recommended.

This is a gentle sport, allowing you to set the pace. There’s plenty of excitement and speed, if you want it, in the version of cross-country called skating, using shorter skis. Moreover, each cross-country touring region has its “black,” meaning steep, downhills, so thrills are possible. But for the touring skier, who enjoys an outing without the need for extensive vertiginous descents, flat “green” trails and intermediate “blue” trails suffice. Cross-country offers a relaxed milieu, while downhill can sometimes become a carnival.

I also enjoy the dramatic winter environments that cross-country puts me in. For example, I have skied out to Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome at Yosemite and stayed overnight in a small bunkhouse. Anyone in the public can do this, but only if you cross-country ski 10.7 miles to the Point. The winter vistas in Yosemite, from Sentinel Dome, are panoramic and spectacular. Many other inviting areas of the California Sierra became accessible through cross-country. Potential places to explore are not limited by the sharp slopes required for downhill skiing. The wilderness region around Bear Valley, the back-of-the-mountain skiing at Royal Gorge, and the lovely National Forest land in the Hope Valley are among my favorite memories. Moreover, I long to ski many new areas around the country. On my future list is urban cross-country skiing around the lakes in Minneapolis. You don’t need mountains for cross-country. All areas of the country that enjoy good snow can be cross-country environs. When will I have a chance to ski from B&B to B&B in the White Mountains of New Hampshire?

Cross-country in delicate, wild environments also pleases because it is such a minimum-impact sport. You ski along efficiently on the top of the snow, causing no environmental damage. All trace of your tracks, in fact, will disappear with the spring melt.

EQUIPMENT

Advances in the equipment for cross-country have lured me and others into the sport. The late 1970s invention of waxless skis, with the skis gripping the snow through scale-like ridges on the bottoms, has made the sport hassle-free. This advance is particularly relevant to California skiing, where snow conditions can change frequently, requiring a change of waxes. An expert will still enjoy the slightly-higher performance of waxed skis, but the beginning and intermediate skier doesn’t need to be troubled with this nuance. Boot bindings have also improved, allowing easier snap in and out, with more boot control over the slim skis. At the resort-operator level, machines that groom the trails have improved, cutting tracks that allow cross-country skiers to glide through the forest.

Cross-country ski resorts have also resolved a troublesome issue that ravaged the sport in the mid 1980s. The traditional touring skier was confronted with a new style of skating skier, fighting for the same narrow trail. Skating skiers use shorter skis and proceed with the motion of a speed-skater in ice skating. The solution has been to groom a 14-foot-wide trail with a skating lane of compacted snow and a double set of touring tracks.

Finally, cross-country offers major economies both in equipment and in trail fees. My equipment package at a sporting goods store, REI, cost $158 for skis, bindings, poles, and boots. Downhill would have cost substantially more, especially for the boots. Trail fees for downhill skiing now soar astronomically. A day at Squaw Valley downhill costs beyond $45, but a day at the most expensive and elaborate cross-country resort, Royal Gorge, costs about $15. Inherent economies in the cross-country concept will keep the price of the sport relatively low. Cross-country does not require a steep slope or any mechanized towing device to get participants up hills. Some publicly owned lands, such as Yosemite, have elaborate track systems and no trail fee charge.

Though I enjoy the track skiing of a resort (or Yosemite), the cross-country skier who prefers economies and a style of no-track skiing can use National Forest roads and trails. California has organized a Snow Park permit system that allows parking in choice National Forest areas of the Sierra.

I have no wish to become apostolic about cross-country skiing. But someday, perhaps you will cross-country through the forest, as I have, and watch a quiet drama as a mound of snow cascades off a pine tree branch, near the top of the tree, and then proceeds, like an avalanche, down the tree, cleaning off the snow from the entire tree. Or perhaps you will observe, as I have, the antics of a coyote hunting voles in the deep snow. Or maybe you will encounter the winter splendor of Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan from the elevated position of Sentinel Dome, accessible only to the cross-country skier. The sport offers many quiet and revealing moments, which tell a skier about the environment and about himself. After a few such moments you will understand why many outdoor enthusiasts enjoy this sport of self-propelled movement in a winter environment.

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CALIFORNIA’S MAJOR CROSS-COUNTRY SKI RESORTS

by Lee Foster

After skiing at the major cross-country resorts in California, I personally recommend each of them. Each is different in subtle ways, just as good bottles of Chardonnay will show nuances of taste.

All these resorts offer groomed trails with separate space for touring skiers, who like set tracks, and skating skiers, who need a compacted, flat ski surface.

All the resorts offer lessons, which are strongly recommended. Cross-country skiing is neither hard nor a cinch. Beginning skiers will find that a good lesson prevents the cultivation of bad skiing habits. Good cross-country skiing technique means more efficient skier movement, increasing the pleasure of the sport. Even at intermediate and advanced levels, different instructors offer diverse tips and perspectives.

The season is roughly December 1-April 15, though the actual times depend on snowfall and the relative altitude of the resort area.

Here are the major cross-country resorts in California:

ROYAL GORGE

Royal Gorge amounts to the largest and most elaborate cross-country ski resort in existence. The trends of the future in cross-country are being tested today at Royal Gorge. About 120,000 skiers will glide through the trails at Royal Gorge this year.

The numbers at Royal Gorge are impressive. The resort presents 88 trails, about 328 groomed kilometers in total, allowing you to ski for days without repeating a trail. Ten warming huts are scattered around the property. The resort boasts a 22-kilometer gradually-descending run to its Rainbow Lodge as one amenity among many on its 9,172-acre site.

Entrepreneur John Slouber has developed at Royal Gorge the most elaborate resort lodging in a cross-country environment. Slouber’s Wilderness Lodge, in the heart of Royal Gorge, requires a sleigh ride or a ski in to get there. Once situated, you enjoy gourmet food, the relaxation of a hot tub, and expert guides taking you out on the trails.

The day skier at Royal Gorge benefits from a highly professional staff and a large north-facing mountain slope, located off Highway 80 at Soda Springs, four hours east of San Francisco.

Royal Gorge attracts three times more skiers than its closest competition in California. The California resorts also dwarf cross-country skiing in any other region, including New England. Royal Gorge, open since 1971, claims to be the first cross-country resort in California.

So large is Royal Gorge that you can ski lodge to lodge within the area’s boundaries. Besides Wilderness Lodge, they have another facility, Rainbow Lodge, a ski trip away. One scenic trail up to Snow Mountain Hut allows you to gaze out over the Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American River.

As expected, there are plenty of trails for each of the three designated levels of expertise–beginner, intermediate, and expert.

Taking its cue from the downhill operators, Royal Gorge has added snow-making to 15 kilometers of its trails. The resort is also the only cross-country area with four ski lifts to its steeper, elevated touring runs, allowing skiers to practice their downhill, or telemarking, skills on cross-country skis.

For more information, contact Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort, P.O. Box 1100, Soda Springs, CA 95728; 530/426-3871, 800/500-3871.



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TAHOE DONNER

Tahoe Donner is a medium-size, high-quality resort off Highway 80, just west of Lake Tahoe at Truckee.

The guiding figure at Tahoe Donner was Glenn Jobe, who built up Tahoe-Donner with partner Kenny Stannard before moving on, putting Stannard now in full charge. Earlier, Jobe also started the Kirkwood Cross-Country resort. Glenn Jobe was 14th in the world at one time in the Olympic biathelete competition, an event requiring that you cross-country around a track, shoot a rifle, then repeat the process.

Skiing Cross-Country in the Sierra near Tahoe California
Skiing Cross-Country in the Sierra near Tahoe California

Tahoe Donner happens to offer night skiing Wednesdays and Saturdays on 2.5 kilometers of lit tracks, a special experience.

Tahoe Donner reflects some of Jobe’s philosophic positions about the sport of cross-country. Jobe felt that cross-country should be a totally stress-free environment. Consequently, he and Stannard arranged the tracks so that most have skiers traveling in one direction only. You never need to watch for oncoming skiers.

Tahoe Donner now has 85 kilometers of tracks with that goal in mind. Moreover, the tracks are laid out with the social element of the sport in mind. You ski directly alongside a companion to carry on a conversation, rather than on either side of a skating lane, used by fast skiers with their short skis.

Tahoe Donner extends out to a scenic region known as the Euer Valley, where the resort has a day lodge. Here you can enjoy gourmet food at the Cook House cafe, as you can at the trailhead shop cafe, called the Donner Party Cafe. Euer Valley is a rustic cattle ranching area in summer, complete with old barns.

As with Royal Gorge, Tahoe Donner is a cross-country site only, though there is downhill nearby.

Tahoe Donner is four miles from Truckee on Alder Road. For more information, contact Tahoe Donner Cross-Country, 11509 Northwoods Blvd., Truckee, CA 96161; 530/587-9400.

NORTHSTAR

Northstar is a full-service resort, where you can cross-country ski right to your condo. The cross-country trails are an adjunct to the large downhill program at this resort on the northwest side of Lake Tahoe, south of Truckee.

About 65 kilometers of groomed trails in all categories–beginner, intermediate, and expert–greet the skier at a mid-mountain location on the peak called Mt. Pluto.

At mid-mountain, if you turn right, there is the cross-country center and 45 kilometers of trail, with views overlooking the Martis Valley. The operation offers both lessons and equipment. If you turn left, there are 20 kilometers of steeper, wooded trails, with a caboose warming hut and views of Lake Tahoe.

For more information, contact Northstar-at-Tahoe Cross-Country Center, P.O. Box 129, Truckee, CA 96160; 530/562-2265.

KIRKWOOD

All of the cross-country areas flourish even with relatively little snow. Fortunately, cross-country requires only a fraction of the snow base needed for downhill skiing. Moreover, the grooming techniques in cross-country have improved in recent years, so the chippers resetting the track need only to carve up the top quarter inch of snow to make new track. Conserving snow can be a virtue in the California Sierra, especially in the cycle of drought experienced in the final years of the 1980s, though broken, fortunately, in the 1990s.

Even when skiing conditions are poor in other areas, Kirkwood enjoys good skiing, partly because the elevation is so high. Kirkwood’s snow is also particularly dry and powdery.

The cross-country program is highly professional, offering competent lessons. Conservation and environmental awareness are distinctive parts of the program. Posted signs show the wildlife often seen during winter in the meadows and at the lava cliffs above. Coyotes, golden eagles, weasels, martens, and chickadees are sometimes spotted by skiers. The Caples Creek trail takes you past beaver ponds. Scenic views show the western downslope of the Sierra Nevada, plus the Desolation Wilderness.

A large meadow at the cross-country trailhead allows beginning skiers to build their skills. Elaborate intermediate and expert trails can be found in the adjacent hills along the Schneider and Caples Lake trail systems.

Kirkwood offers condominiums you can ski to and the Cornice restaurant for gourmet dining. A new lodge at the base of the downhill ski mountain opened recently.

The resort grooms over 80 kilometers of trails along 2,300 acres of hills.

Kirkwood is 35 miles south of Tahoe on Highway 88 near Carson Pass. For more information, contact Kirkwood Cross-Country, P.O. Box 1, Kirkwood, CA 95646; 209/258-7248.

HOPE VALLEY

John and Patty Brissenden’s Sorensen’s Resort in Hope Valley presents yet another approach to cross-country. Sorensen’s consists of 30 rustic cabins, gourmet dining (try the tomato tarragon soup), and plenty of cross-country trails leading right from the cabins. Indian Head Trail proceeds from the cabins into virgin terrain.

Hope Valley lies miles south of Lake Tahoe. For the skier looking for a personalized alternative to the large resort, plus ample cross-country trails that are marked, but not groomed, Sorensen’s is the place. Sorensen’s does not charge for use of its trail system.

For more information, contact Sorensen’s, 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley, CA 96120; 916/530-2203, 800/423-9949. At Sorensens’ Resort you’ll find the Hope Valley Cross-Country Ski Center.

BEAR VALLEY

Bear Valley offers a ski milieu as close as you will come to wilderness at a cross-country resort with groomed trails. The resort lies on Highway 4, east of the Gold Country Highway 49. The site is located south of the Mokelumne Wilderness, a wonderful backpacking region that I have enjoyed on summer trips.

When the weather is stormy in the mountains, Bear Valley offers assured access because, though the resort area is high, at 7,000 feet, you don’t have to drive over higher passes to get there. However, always carry chains when going to any of these cross-country resorts.

Bear Valley is a small-scale resort where you can park your car and get all desired services, such as lodging, dining, and skiing, within walking distance. However, the kilometers of cross-country trail here is not small scale. Some 35 miles of groomed trails await the skier.

For further information, contact Bear Valley Cross-Country, P.O. Box 5038, Bear Valley, CA 95223; 209/753-2834; www.bearvalley.com.



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YOSEMITE

Yosemite offers cross-country at several sites within the park, but the superlative experience possible here is an overnight ski trip to Glacier Point. You ski out with a guide in one day the 17 kilometers from Badger Pass to Glacier Point, stay overnight for one or two nights at the rustic lodge, and then ski back. Near Glacier Point, the highlight of the trip is a ski outing to Sentinel Dome, where a 360-degree panorama of the park opens up. From an elevated perspective you see El Capitan, Half Dome, the Clark Range, and many other features of the park.

Yosemite’s most capable mountain guides manage the outings. You may find yourself led by Tim Messick, author of the volume CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING IN YOSEMITE. The guide cooks your food and assumes basic safety responsibility for the group, which must number three or more. Intermediate skiing skills and good physical conditioning are advisable for this 7,000-8,000-foot altitude.

If you have the skiing skills and physical stamina to go out to Glacier Point and back on your own in one day, you don’t need a guide. Moreover, if you possess snow-camping skills, you can stay out at Glacier Point on your own. However, most skiers will prefer the warm bunks, hot food, and even a few glasses of wine possible in the rustic lodge at Glacier Point.

Another special Yosemite experience is a flight to the east side of the park at Lee Vining, followed by a trans-Sierra ski trip of five days across the high country and down to Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite has 40 kilometers of set track skiing in the park, but there are also 350 miles of ski-able roads, closed to cars by winter snow.

For more information, contact Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School, Yosemite Concession Services, Yosemite, CA 95389; 209/372-8444; www.yosemite.com. The park officials can be contacted at Superintendent, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; 209/372-0200.

Though cross-country is a national sport, practiced in every snowy region of the country, California boasts the largest cross-country ski operations in the contiguous states. Only Anchorage, Alaska, with its Kincaid Park, competes in scale with California cross-country resorts.

California, including winter sports, is celebrated in my book/ebook  Northern California Travel: The Best Options. California also figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends.

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