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Alpine alternative

Think of skiing in the Vail Valley, and a peaceful tour through a high alpine meadow is probably the last image that comes to mind. More likely, visions of Back Bowls and bump runs dance through your head.But the Vail area is home to a burgeoning Nordic scene that boasts miles of classic touring through pristine wilderness, as well as three unique and delightful cross-country facilities.From the groomed skate and classic trails of the Vail Nordic Center at the Vail Golf Course to the high-altitude, rolling terrain atop Beaver Creek at McCoy Park to the serene seclusion of the Cordillera Nordic Center near Edwards, the valley offers an alpine alternative for Nordic enthusiasts of all ages and ability levels.While the Vail area is not as renowned for its track skiing amenities as Grand County, with its Devil’s Thumb and Snow Mountain ranches, or even Aspen or Summit County, skinny skiers can find plenty to wax eloquent about in what is typically lauded as an alpine Mecca.”In terms of touring there are huge possibilities in the Vail area on trails that in summer we use for mountain biking and hiking. In the winter we go ski on them,” says Dawes Wilson, founder of the Vail Nordic Ski Club. “There’s some great touring and there are a couple of good Nordic centers with reliable conditions, so it’s definitely an alternative to alpine.”And that’s how the three Nordic centers bill themselves, as a complement to downhill skiing rather than a destination in and of themselves.”We’re a crossover for fitness and a great change from the alpine world,” says Kathryn Middleton of the Vail Nordic Center, which stretches along I-70 from the Vail Golf Course out into the open meadows of East Vail. “(Nordic) actually improves your alpine skiing because it increases your balance and fitness, so it’s a wonderful alternative to either cross-county ski or snowshoe.”The Vail Nordic Center, based out of the Vail Golf Course Clubhouse, features 17 kilometers of groomed trails with both a skate lane and a classic track and another 10 kilometers of ungroomed but packed snowshoe trails.Though motorists on the interstate can see the trails meandering through one of the most scenic golf courses in the nation, under the shadow of the majestic Gore Range, skiers will barely notice I-70. The loop system encompasses the scenic lowlands of the Gore Creek drainage and extends into designated open space at the foot of towering waterfalls where ice climbers dangle precipitously from routes like the Designator and the Fang.”It’s a nice change from (Vail) Mountain,” says Middleton. “It is so peaceful, and you can make it a difficult workout or an easy cruise. There are plenty of hills or flats for people of all ages and ability levels.”Perhaps the best feature of the Vail Nordic Center is the fact that it’s free. Operated independently of Vail Resorts, with daily grooming provided by the publicly-funded Vail Recreation District, the center does not charge trail fees. Show up with your own gear and you ski or snowshoe for free. However, the center does rent equipment, and lessons are offered through Vail Resorts.The ski company does operate its own Nordic facility the Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center at McCoy Park. While the ski shop itself is located at the base of Chair 12, accessing the trail system requires a lift ride to nearly 10,000 feet, where skinny skiers are rewarded with views rarely found at Nordic facilities.”Quiet and pristine with magnificent views” is how Beaver Creek Nordic Center supervisor Patricia Hammon describes the 32 kilometers of groomed track and 8 kilometers of snowshoe trails at McCoy Park. “It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the main ski resort, and we offer something for those family members who don’t want to or can’t downhill ski.”One of only three Nordic ski areas in the country that’s on top of a mountain, Hammon says McCoy Park is also a nice alternative to cross-country “skiing on the golf course next to the highway.”The Vail Nordic Club’s Wilson says Beaver Creek is probably a better classic than skate skiing option, particularly for tourists who aren’t acclimated to high altitude. “McCoy is high and it’s track skiing, but it’s track skiing way up the mountain,” Wilson says. “It can be challenging.”That may be one of the reasons snowshoeing now accounts for about 60 percent of the business at McCoy Park, according to Hammon.It may seem a bit odd to ride a lift to cross-country ski or snowshoe, but those who do are generally won over by the rolling, gladed terrain and panoramic views of valley, including the dramatic spires of the Gore and Sawatch mountain ranges and the distant Flattops Wilderness Area. The area renders accessible a unique, high alpine environment.”We really get a thrill out of getting a flatlander up here and getting them out on the trails,” says Hammon. “They really feel they’ve accomplished something. It’s a great aerobic workout, but it can also be done at a leisurely stroll.”Also up high, though not at the terminus of a chairlift, and about 15 minutes to west of Beaver Creek in the secluded Squaw Creek Valley, is the Cordillera Nordic Center.Within the gates of the exclusive golf community but open to the public, the Cordillera facility’s primary draw is its solitude. The area offers 11 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails (split about in half for classic and skating) and 18K of groomed snowshoe trails.”The wildlife is a big draw and the views are awesome,” says club outfitter and Nordic Center manager Larry Grossman, “The best thing about our course is that it’s not very crowded, you’re guaranteed to have a nice intimate experience and you don’t have to be intimidated by a bunch of racers out there.”Membership manager Alison Wadey says Cordillera also pushes the alpine-alternative concept with ads that read: “Get away from the crazy downhill crowds and get Nordic at Cordillera.”Wadey adds that the center’s main draw is its isolation on the resort’s 18-hole Mountain Course. “We are pretty secluded up here, so it does feel like you’re away from things,” Wadey says.


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