Aspen’s fifth mountain: Free nordic network marks 25 years
Aspen Times Weekly
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Thousands of skiers ply groomed trails every winter in Aspen-Snowmass. They don’t ride a lift, they don’t pay a fee and no one pays any particular attention to their coming and going.
Fans of Aspen’s so-called “fifth mountain” may not realize they’re enjoying one of the largest free cross-country skiing systems in the country, or that the system quietly marked its 25th anniversary this winter.
Parts of the trail network predate 1985 by a good measure, but it was early that year that local nordic visionaries celebrated the linking of Aspen to Snowmass Village with the Owl Creek Trail. Today, the system encompasses more than 90 kilometers of groomed trails, most of it linked so that skiers can move seamlessly from one loop to the next, and one town to the next.
“I was the guy that had the idea we should connect Aspen and Snowmass together – and under one umbrella,” said Aspenite Craig Ward, a former U.S. Nordic Ski Team captain and these days a local coach of youths in the nordic, nordic-combined and ski jumping disciplines.
“That’s what I had seen all over Europe – towns connected to cities. Everybody just jumps on the trails and goes,” he said.
In those days, various local residents had already taken up the nordic cause, using snowmobiles to voluntarily drag grooming equipment around loops near the Aspen Club, the high school and golf courses in Aspen and Snowmass Village.
The Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council, formed in 1984 with Ward as its inaugural executive director, began the push to bring the disparate elements into one cohesive system.
Skeptics had their doubts, Ward recalled.
“They said, ‘Oh you’re crazy.’ This will never work,” he said.
But with involvement from local governments – Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, plus the Aspen Skiing Co. (the town-to-town link had to cross Buttermilk Ski Area), the council secured the rights from 21 landowners to cross private property and link up the various pieces of the system.
Some two decades later, it would extend down the valley, bringing Basalt into the fold via the Rio Grande Trail.
Early on, the operation raised $350,000 in three years from local governments, plus individual contributions from nordic enthusiasts who seemed to spring from the closet once they had a cause to support, according to Ward. A 1987 ballot measure proposing formation of a recreation district to fund the system failed, though, and the three upper valley governments took on shared responsibility for funding the system until 2006. That’s when Pitkin County voters folded the nordic system into the county’s tax-supported Open Space and Trails Program, reauthorizing the open space tax at the same time.
This year, the system will operate with a $214,952 budget that includes operation of three grooming machines, including one acquired last winter for the midvalley, where demand for nordic opportunities has led to the grooming of a new loop behind Basalt High School and extending the Rio Grande Trail grooming downvalley to Emma.
Because the system is free and largely urban, skiers can jump onto a trail from a multitude of access points. That makes any effort to estimate the system’s usage largely guesswork, but after extrapolating data from trail counters placed at some points in the system, Aspen trails coordinator Austin Weiss guesses the nordic network (excluding the Rio Grande Trail) sees some 23,000 skiers and snowshoers per winter.
“When I first started tabulating it, the numbers really opened my eyes,” Weiss said. “These trails are important to a lot of people.”
The Ute Mountaineer, an Aspen outdoor gear shop, has run the Aspen Cross Country Center at the city golf course since 1984 and just signed on to run it for another five years, said store owner Bob Wade. The Ute took over operation of the Snowmass Cross Country Center, as well, about five years ago.
Though only a percentage of the skiers who ply the trails may come into one of the centers, Wade said the Aspen facility has experienced steady growth since the Ute took it on, but for a dip last year that he credits to the recession.
Wade considers the overall growth a sign that more and more people are using the system.
“On any given day, if you’re out on the golf course, you’ll see a hundred people a day out there,” said Wade’s wife, Ruth, an Aspen native and former competitive skier with the U.S. team. “It’s such a great group of people and such a good lifetime sport.”
A recent weekend found Lauren and Mark Munger of El Jebel hitting the Aspen golf course loop.
“I love it. It’s pretty much all I do now,” said Lauren, who rarely downhill skis anymore. “I love this more.”
Tony Rogers and Lisa Osborn, Australians who spent a week hitting the slopes of Aspen-Snowmass, spent the final two days of their stay exploring the nordic system, which they said rivals systems they’ve sampled in other parts of the world.
“I downhill ski, but I almost prefer cross country,” said Basalt resident Steve Chase, a regular on the Rio Grande Trail. “It’s quiet, it’s just a different character.
“It’s a gift in the valley,” he said. “For me to drive from my home and be on a nicely groomed trail in a matter of minutes is marvelous.”
The vision, which continues to evolve as the Nordic Council explores new opportunities where nordic skiing might be offered, was to make the cross-country system the wintertime equivalent of the area’s summer hiking and biking trails, according to council member Howie Mallory.
“The whole logic behind it was it would be a free trail system, much the way you have a summer trail system,” he said.
“It has taken 25 years to have it happen, but over time, we groom trails like we groom and manicure our summer parks,” Ward said.
The Aspen-Snowmass Nordic System offers more than 90 kilometers of groomed trails, most of it linked.
Outside the system are a couple of other gems – Ashcroft Ski Touring, a private operation south of Aspen in the Castle Creek Valley that charges a fee for use, and the free Spring Gulch Nordic System outside of Carbondale, operated by the Mount Sopris Nordic Council on ranchlands conserved with the help of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. A conservation easement solidifies the future of Spring Gulch, and the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council has Ashcroft on its radar, as the ski area and a restaurant there are up for sale.
The Aspen-Snowmass system links Aspen and Snowmass Village via the Owl Creek Trail, which meanders through meadows and wooded areas for a scenic, 9-mile ski between the Aspen Cross Country Center and the Snowmass Cross County Center. Or, a skier may cover 18 miles to start and end at the same place.
Both centers are situated on the towns’ respective golf courses – the Snowmass center is in the Snowmass Club pro shop and the Aspen center is inside the log building that serves as headquarters for the golf course during the summer months. Of the two golf courses, Snowmass has the more varied terrain and 5 miles of trails, versus a 2.5-mile loop at Aspen. From the Snowmass course, one can connect to the challenging 3-mile terminator loop.
The area nordic system also features trails east of Aspen on the North Star Nature Preserve, located alongside the Roaring Fork River; at the Aspen schools campus; and on the Marolt and Moore open space parcels. All but the North Star loop are accessible via links from the Aspen golf course. In addition, the Rio Grande Trail between Aspen and Emma is groomed as snow conditions allow.
Dogs are prohibited on the trails with a couple of exceptions: Pooches are welcome on designated outer loops at the Aspen and Snowmass golf courses, and on the Marolt loop. The latter is located between the golf course and the high school tracks. It is 1.5 miles in length. Finally, dogs are also permitted on the Rio Grande Trail, but should be leashed.
North Star Nature Preserve: Located east of Aspen off Highway 82, this loop isn’t connected to the rest of the system, but it’s an easy, 1.5-mile ski along the Roaring Fork River and a popular spot to get in some quick laps. The groomed trail is visible from the road as you approach the preserve, about 1.5 miles outside of town. For a quiet, late-afternoon ski where the streaks of sunset may reflect off the quiet water of the Roaring Fork, North Star is the spot. Look for pull-off parking on the right.
High School Trail: When there’s not time to tackle to the ups and downs of the Owl Creek Trail, this system of loops is the next best thing. The terrain is varied and challenging, and in warmer weather, it often boasts the best snow conditions. Ski a 1.8-mile loop that omits the trickiest hills, or go for the hilly 3.1-mile loop, or a combination of the two. It’s rated intermediate/advanced. Offers links to loops on the nearby Moore and Marolt open space properties, as well as the Aspen Golf Course, the Maroon Creek Club Trail and, via a trail across the base of Buttermilk, the Owl Creek Trail.
Rio Grande Trail: The nordic crew began setting tracks on this trail a few seasons back, whenever snow conditions permitted. One can ski roughly 20 miles from Aspen to Basalt and beyond on the trail, or jump on at various points to ski shorter sections of the trail.
Ashcroft: Outside the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic System, Ashcroft Ski Touring offers some of the most breathtaking cross-country skiing around. Located about 30 minutes south of Aspen in the Castle Creek Valley, Ashcroft boasts 60-plus kilometers of groomed trails. Full- and half-day rates are charged to use the nordic trails and separate snowshoe routes here.
Spring Gulch: This sprawling, 19-kilometer, interconnected system of trails, beneath the flank of Mount Sopris, offers everything from easy flats to intermediate, rolling terrain and some decent climbs/descents. The highlight is a meandering climb up the ridge – seek out Finlandia – for sweeping views of the valley and commanding Mount Sopris.
To find Spring Gulch, head for Carbondale and turn right at the 7-Eleven. The parking area is about 7 miles up Thompson Creek Road. The skiing is free, but envelopes are available at the trailhead (as are trail maps) for those who’d like to become a member and make a donation to the area’s upkeep.