Magazine article Sunset

Low-Key Nordic Ski: Glide Away from the Throng at These Blissfully Uncrowded Colorado Resorts. (Travel & Recreation)

Magazine article Sunset

Low-Key Nordic Ski: Glide Away from the Throng at These Blissfully Uncrowded Colorado Resorts. (Travel & Recreation)

Article excerpt

If you're like me, you have a love-hate relationship with Colorado skiing. Come winter, many of us Front Range residents, cringing at sprawl and appalling traffic, find ourselves longing for the antidote of tranquil mountain scenery, clean and crisp air, and uncrowded expanses in which to exercise. But when we try to head for the slopes, we find the roads to ski areas are increasingly gridlocked. And then, once we actually get to most close-to-Denver downhill-ski areas, congested parking lots and lines for everything from lift tickets to food service add to the frustration.

Here's a happy alternative. Colorado's cross-country ski centers are wonderful places to unwind--whether you ski or not. Mostly small and always low-key, these are places where you can get away for a weekend and glide through the peaceful woods on skinny skis, or take a leisurely winter hike on a snowshoe trail.

Some cross-country centers, such as the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, are year-round resorts with basic facilities. Snow Mountain Ranch is by far the largest, with 6,000 acres, more than 60 miles of groomed trails, and accommodations for up to 1,900 guests, but its winter trail network is so wide-ranging that you still can explore the trails without encountering other ranch visitors. At the other extreme is tiny Ute Meadows Inn & Nordic Center. This seven-room bed and breakfast in a remote high-elevation valley sleeps 24 and grooms only 11 miles of trails.

Into the snowy woods

One of Colorado's most charming nordic ski areas is Devil's Thumb Ranch. Its rustic log lodge and cabins--all recently renovated or newly built--accommodate a few dozen guests, and there's a tremendous trail system just steps from the doors. An excellent restaurant, a laid-back lounge, and a day lodge for rentals and lessons complete the amenities. And the complex is just a couple of hours from metro Denver.

Named after a prominent rock formation in the nearby Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Devil's Thumb Ranch has been a nordic ski center for 27 years. The 3,700-acre spread is laced with more than 60 miles of ski trails--groomed daily--as well as 13 miles of snowshoe-only trails. Picnic tables, warming huts, and rest rooms are sprinkled throughout. Pack sandwiches and stay out all day, or return to base camp for lunch.

Even on its busiest days, Devil's Thumb feels uncrowded--the ranch only sells about 300 trail passes to day-users, and people quickly spread out across the thousands of acres. Easy loops cross the flat Ranch Creek Valley, perfect for nordic novices or children just developing their ski legs. The more challenging trails fan out into the rolling countryside beyond the valley.

My favorite part of the trail network is the northeastern corner. I love to glide my skis along the easy and moderate paths, crossing snowcovered meadows and scrublands. When I'm on snowshoes, I like to follow Moose Stomp trail through the frosty marsh (I've never seen a moose there, but I am told sightings are not uncommon). The terrain steepens, climbing through a forest of conifers and aspens to Marker Hill. Snowshoers can hike to the summit for a splendid panorama of the Continental Divide, while skiers circumnavigate Marker Hill on the eponymous trail, one of Devil's Thumb's most challenging. Whether on skis or snowshoes, Marker Hill offers quite a workout.

As daylight wanes, skiers and snowshoers filter back toward the lodge. After gathering over wine and cheese in the main building, guests move into a dining room, the core of the original homestead. Knotty-pine wails, white tablecloths, and a sprinkling of artwork and Western memorabilia create a pleasingly rustic yet romantic ambience. Windows in the dining room overlook the outer room, whose big windows, in turn, overlook moonlit ski trails beneath the towering rocks of Devil's Thumb.

Planning your trip

The above ski centers and others listed in "Make Tracks to These Resorts" on page 26 offer day-use trail passes, but the best way to beat the traffic and savor the experience is to spend a night or two. …

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