But skiers with the wisdom, and the right gear, didn’t miss a day of gliding on snow, thanks to the many groomed cross-country tracks in the region.
From the Skyway trails atop Grand Mesa to Ridgway’s Top of the Pines, from the Ironton loops on Red Mountain Pass to the kilometers of beautiful track in the Telluride/Lizard Head Pass region, that feeling of flying on a crisp winter’s day, lungs full and legs devouring distance, never had to be sacrificed.
All it takes is a few inches of snow beneath your long, skinny, fiberglass feet.
You’re under your own power, of course, whether skate skiing or striding along in the classic grooves. You can poke along if you wish, soaking in the scenery. Or you can rev the engines and go for the best total-body workout known to winter man. For the fit, and the would-be fit, these ribbon miles on snow are never short of exhilarating.
Track skiing gear is available from ski shops in Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray and Grand Junction. And the Telluride Nordic Center, the most venerable of local cross-country organizations, offers equipment rentals, lessons and clinics – for everyone from never-evers to Lycra-clad Masters racers.
It needn’t be a low-snow winter, of course, to get into this oldest, and most modern, sliding sport. Almost any amount of snow will do. That’s the beauty.
The Skyway trail system on top of Grand Mesa is a conundrum. You’re at 11,000 feet astride the largest flattop mountain on the planet. (You can look it up.) You’re 6,000 feet above the surrounding river valleys, Grand Junction and the Colorado River to the north, Delta and the Gunnison River to the south. You’re scraping the sky.
And yet it feels as if you’re skiing in Finland: the landscape is flat to rolling; the Engelmann spruce forests are lush and dark and tall; chains of lakes dot the terrain like jewels on a necklace; the snow is so deep it smoothes every bump and log.
The Grand Mesa Nordic Council has cut, signed and maintained these trails for decades. They are some of the best anywhere. Access is free. Council memberships largely support the costs, and contribution boxes at the trailheads give day-trippers a chance to pay their fair share.
It’s a tremendous bargain. A few years ago the council purchased a sophisticated Pisten Bulley grooming cat, as well as a couple of snowmobiles for lighter treading and early-season surface building. Volunteer drivers put in hundreds of hours grooming each winter.
There are three trail systems, three primary trailheads: Skyway, County Line and Ward. Ward is the most primitive, with about 7k of groomed trails, most of them the narrower classic trails, and another 10k of ungroomed backcountry trails, all weaving around a half-dozen lakes on the Cedaredge side of the mesa.
County Line has about 15k of prepared track, all of it groomed wide for skate skiing with classic grooves snaking along one edge. County Line and Ward are open to skiers and snowshoers with dogs. The parking lot at County Line often wriggles with canine energy (dog owners, please pick up!).
Dogs are not welcome on Skyway’s 30k of manicured loops. This is the crown jewel for skiers, the site of the annual race series, the place to go to log serious kilometers of flowing, pristine track. (Snowmobiles are not allowed, either; a working détente was reached with the gas bros years ago. They have huge swaths of terrain to themselves on the other side of Hwy 65. Snowshoers are tolerated, though they are encouraged to plod County Line or Ward.)
Winslow and Lion’s Loop are close-in 3-5k loops with great variety, wide-open meadows to tight sneaks through dark trees. Sunset’s 3k offers some of the best twisty, up-and-down woods skiing anywhere, with a rare overlook to the north, out over the Grand Valley. (The other scenic overlook is a good 9k away, on the south-facing edge of the mesa where the Elk Range and San Juan Mountains appear as if from an airplane view.)
Vista, Kannah Crossing, and Scales Lake loop take off on longer journeys across lake and alpine plateau.
Get There: Via Colo. Highway 65 north from Delta and Cedaredge or south from I-70, Exit 49, a few miles east of Palisade, up Plateau Creek.
Parking: Plenty of parking, plus restrooms, at the three main trailheads.
Skate Lanes: Yes, at Skyway and County Line (upwards of 50k total); none at Ward.
Dogs: Yes, at Ward and County Line; no, at Skyway.
Snowshoes: Encouraged at Ward and County Line, tolerated at Skyway.
Lessons and Rentals: Gliders Junior Program, transportation scholarships (from Grand Junction), adult lessons (call Callie West at 970/527-3004) – visit Grand Mesa Nordic Council website: gmnc.org.
Races: Yes, GMNC hosts a popular three- or four-race series every winter at Skyway, for both skaters and striders, culminating with the Mesa Meltdown in March.
TOP OF THE PINES
Ridgway’s Top of the Pines (TOP) used to be the coolest Girl Scout Camp. My daughters slept out under the stars there, beneath the big, sweet-smelling ponderosa pines, in the 1980s. After the Scouts moved on, the county took over the property, and for the last few years, the nonprofit TOP, Inc., has run the 175 acres at 8,580 feet on Miller Mesa as an “open-space preserve/living-classroom retreat.” One of the outfit’s missions is Nordic trail skiing, and when the snow is good, the track skiing is superb. It’s an underutilized gem with huge views of the Sneffels Range. In fact, I can’t think of a place where the austere, high alpine spaces are right in your face like this, and yet you are gliding through the relatively protected, relatively warm ponderosa zone.
Local climber, skier, dad and engineer, Chris Haaland, does double duty as a TOP board member and the volunteer groomer. On his trusty Polaris, Haaland grooms the property’s four loops, comprising about 6k total, for both wide-track skating and twin-groove striding. He does it out of civic pride. And because he loves nothing better than getting first tracks on fresh corduroy.
Access to the trail system is free, though donations are accepted at the trailhead; there’s a money slot in an old toolbox nailed to the fence. You can also get a season’s pass for $50. Go to topofthepines.org.
From the parking area off Highland Drive, you won’t see much of the swooping terrain to come; you skate down along an oak-brush ridge to a fast schuss out across seasonal West Lake and the beginning of trail loops. There’s the West Lake loop, nearly flat and perfect for beginners or a quick warm-up. The Meadows loop skirts the southern and eastern edges of the big opening, with views of the fourteener called Wetterhorn. The Pavilion loop takes you up to into the tall pines and around the remodeled warming hut. Just past the hut, the North Forty loop dives off into the most challenging, and most interesting, rim-and-gully rollercoaster trails through the big, red-bark trees.
As the lowest-elevation trail system of the four (just lower than Telluride proper), and the sunniest, TOP sometimes wants, in places, for snow. But when it’s good, it’s as good as track skiing gets.
Get There: From S. Amelia Street in Ridgway, which turns into CR 5. Follow it 4.4 miles to Highland Drive. Turn right, and .3 miles in, you’ll come to the trailhead.
Parking: is limited (and sometimes muddy) under the giant ponderosa, which has a map attached. But I’ve never seen all the spaces filled.
Skate Lane: Yes. The Lake and Meadow loops are groomed generously wide; the North Forty track is narrower, but wide enough to skate. Classic grooves are set alongside.
Dogs: are banned in theory but not in practice; pick up after them, and you’ll be fine.
Lessons/Rentals: Rentals are available at Ridgway Outdoor Experience (970/626-3608) and at Ouray Mountain Sports (970/325-4284).
Races: Keep an ear to the ground for impromptu fun races.
The mining-era ghost town of Ironton, slowly decaying on the north side of Red Mountain Pass, is interesting in summer; in the winter, on skis, it becomes a wonderland of ghostly history, everything buried beneath pillows of white crystals.
The Ouray County Nordic Council formed in 1986 to improve the trail skiing around the townsite, its big tailings pond, and some of the interesting terrain (and mine remnants) beyond. Today, there are about 7k of groomed trails and an equal distance of well-marked “backcountry” trail suitable for beginners and intermediate skiers in mostly-flat Ironton Park.
Until recently, the trails were too narrow, and the grooming equipment too limited to smooth a track wide enough for skating. But with the purchase last year of an Arctic Cat Bearcat Groomer, OCNC is saying let the skating commence. The group plans to pack a loop in the open terrain south of the parking area up to the Ironton townsite and back again, a full 12 feet wide for skating fans.
Striders will still have about 7k of set grooves to explore the Townsite Loop and the valley-bottom trip through iron-rich bogs (iron is the reason Red Mountain is red) to the site of the Saratoga Smelter. Well-signed, and skied-in, tracks lead to the Silver Belle Mine, the Colorado Boy headframe, and a graceful old trestle on the Pipeline Trail. Traveling back in time has never been so smooth.
Access to the system is free. The OCNC encourages memberships (ouraytrails.org) and gets most of its operating budget from a blowout dinner party in Ouray every November.
Get There: Ironton Park is nine miles south of Ouray on Hwy 550, in a broad, flat park at the north end of the Red Mountain mining district.
Parking: Is limited to two sites just off the highway, one at the trailhead at the NW corner of the tailings pond, and a second across the road at the old Larson Brothers Mine.
Skate Lanes: Some of the Townsite Loop is skatable, when snow conditions allow. New this winter will be a skate-specific loop along the west edge of the tailings pond south to the Ironton townsite.
Dogs: are welcome.
Rentals: Nordic gear and snowshoes, $15/day from Ouray Mountain Sports on Main Street in Ouray (970/325-4284).
While alpine and backcountry skiing have put Telluride on the map, there are now four distinct track-skiing areas in eastern San Miguel County, maintained by the nonprofit Telluride Nordic Association. Nordic expands the season and adds to the sliding options.
The most intimate is in Town Park at the east end of Telluride. The track winds around snow-covered ball fields, into the camping area adjacent to Bear Creek and loops around the permanent stage familiar to summertime festivarians. It’s only about 3k, but the lanes are impeccably groomed and, thanks to shade from the big cottonwoods, often has great conditions from the very first snows.
This is also where the Telluride Nordic Center is located, in an old house behind the right-field foul line. Here is where to get all things Nordic: wax, maps, lessons, rentals – and directions to the other three trail systems.
On the other edge of town, the west side, you’ll find the Valley Floor trails, the new jewel in the crown. Once the Town of Telluride purchased the 700 acres with its four miles of river bottom, dreams of meandering skate lanes danced in winter heads. Now, the Nordic Association’s Pisten Bulley packs out 6-8k of immaculate, sunny, open-country skate lanes, with classic grooves on the side, from near the base of the Coonskin Lift all the way to Society Turn and back. The old railroad grade known as the River Trail bolts straight downstream from the RV lot on Mahoney Drive. Other loops come in from the Shell station mid-valley, and from an inconspicuous trailhead on Hwy 145 opposite the entrance to Lawson Hill at Society Drive.
Follow Colo. Hwy 145 south, past Ophir, and you will find the Priest Lake trail system, at 9,500 feet, with its trailhead and parking at the U.S. Forest Service Matterhorn Station. From there the skate and classic tracks take off through spruce and fir forest, curl around Priest Lake proper and return, 8k later, on the gentle downhill grade of the Rio Grande Southern railroad bed. The steel tracks are long gone, but the snow-white ones are a gravity lover’s delight.
The RGS roadbed is key to the Trout Lake/Lizard Head skiing zone as well. It’s an up-and-back trail on the old railroad grade from the historic trestle at Trout Creek up to the pass and back, 5k each way. There is a small loop in the windy, wide-open meadows at the top of the pass (10,200 feet), where the train stopped to rest and the old stock pens used to be.
You can access the grade from both Trout Lake and the pass; the pass has more parking, and restrooms.
Because it’s so high, and because the grade traverses a north-facing slope, the snow here is the best of the bunch: it gets deep early and stays cold and wintry late into spring.
The Nordic skiing is free to all, though the TNA needs help from memberships ($150, or $300 for families) and donations. Diesel fuel for the cat ain’t cheap.
Get There: The Town of Telluride is bracketed by the trails at Town Park and the Valley Floor. Priest Lake and Trout Lake are 12 and 14 miles south of town on Hwy 145.
Parking: is limited at all trailheads. Trout Lake skiers are encouraged to start at the top at Lizard Head Pass. There are a few secret parking spaces for Valley Floor skiing on the east side of the Shell station.
Skate Lanes: At all four systems, along with classic grooves.
Dogs: are welcome (with their responsible owners) everywhere but the Valley Floor. (They are allowed on Boomerang Road.) Keep them on a short leash. More than one skier has been clotheslined by a long leash.
Snowshoes: welcome, as long as they don’t crush the classic grooves.
Lessons and Rentals: are available from the Nordic Center in Town Park (970/728-1144) and from Paragon/Bootdoctors (970/728-8954) or Telluride Sports (970/728-4477).
Races: Yes, the Butch Cassidy Chase, in February, at Priest Lake.