Colorado: the name conjures up images of deep powder, clear blue skies and great skiing. What many people donít realize is that these qualities arenít limited to downhill resorts. Cross-country skiing in Colorado has the snow, the sun and the trails for some incredible gliding. Nowhere is this more evident than in Grand County. Located northwest of Denver over the Continental Divide, and east of Steamboat Springs, the region boasts some 350 kilometers of groomed trails, as well as virtually endless backcountry terrain. Home to five nordic centers, Grand County is a cross-country Shangrila you wonít want to miss.
As you drive over the Continental Divide on Berthoud Pass, youíll get a spectacular view of the Fraser Valley. After you pass Winter Park Ski Resort, itís only twenty-minutes to your first stop on this magical nordic tour. Located near the town of Tabernash, Devilís Thumb Ranch is home to over 100 kilometers of skiing and snowshoeing. Olympian and former U.S. Ski Team coach Dick Taylor designed the trail system over twenty-five years ago. The national team even trained at ďthe ThumbĒ in the 1970ís and 80ís. The Nordic Center sits in a valley below the Continental Divide, at just over 8,000 feet. From the back porch of the ski shop you can see Devilís Thumb, a 300-foot rock spire which juts out of the mountains to the east and gives the ranch its name.
Skiing at the Thumb ranges from gently rolling meadows for the novice skier to hilly climbs through the surrounding pine forests. Perhaps the best known trail is ďBlack 10Ē, a difficult loop which includes climbs with names like Crime and Punishment, and Devilís Falls Hill, which resembles the 90 meter jump at Park City. Have no fear, though; it has an easy run out at the bottom. Sawmill Meadow provides a spectacular view of Byers Peak and the surrounding mountains to the west. The trail system also includes a number of classic only trails, which wind through the woods on perfect tracks. This is the land of Blue Extra, and klister never gets a chance to prove itself. The grooming at Devilís Thumb is excellent, and this year theyíve added a brand new Piston Bully to help make it better. Over the summer of 2002 the trail system was revised and there are even a few new areas to ski.
If you want a break from all the skiing, thereís an outdoor ice skating rink, sleigh and trail rides, and snowshoeing. You can even stay on the trails, with cabins and a lodge, which offer skiing out your door. While youíre there, try the Ranch House Restaurant, which is open every night for dinner, and lunch on the weekends and holidays. If you like fresh fish, want to try elk, or youíre just looking for a great meal with a view of the mountains, this is the place to dine. One visitor said their favorite thing about Devilís Thumb Ranch was that it was ďvery naturalĒ.
Back onto the main road, itís a fifteen minute drive to your next stop, Snow Mountain Ranch Ė YMCA of the Rockies. Youíll need a few days to ski their trail system, which includes another 100 kilometers, with snowshoeing as well. From the Nordic Center, you can ski the flats along Pole Creek, or climb up to the top of Blue Ridge, which offers a 360 degree view of the surrounding area, including Longís Peak, a 14,000+ footer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Blue Ridge tops out at nearly 10,700 feet, a two thousand-foot gain from the nordic center.
If youíre looking to do a little night skiing, but you donít want to wear a lamp, Snow Mountain has a 2 km lighted loop. You can also visit a 19th century homestead, or bring your rifle for some target practice on the biathlon range. If youíre staying overnight, you can choose from cabins, lodge rooms or dormitory style accommodations. The Nordic Center hosts numerous events every year, including the Subaru Snow Mountain Stampede the first Saturday in March.
Once youíve skied at Devilís Thumb and Snow Mountain, with over 200 kms of groomed trails, you may not have anything left for the ďsmallerĒ nordic centers. After you take a day off, soak in the local hot springs and have a massage, its north to SolVista Golf and Ski Ranch, near the town of Granby. Here youíll find another 40 kms of trails, which interconnect with the downhill ski area. Take the chairlift to the top, which offers yet another spectacular vista, and ski the xc trails back down the mountain. Or, for the daring few, try skiing down to the adventure park and sailing off the jumps. Make sure to stick your landing at the bottom. SolVista offers lodging in the form of condominiums, and the Inn at Silver Creek has spacious rooms and great dining at the foot of the hill.
Three down, two to go. From Granby, we travel east on Highway 34 to the town of Grand Lake. Two miles outside of town is the Grand Lake Touring Center, located on the municipal golf course. This is much more than typical golf course skiing, however. Once you leave the rolling fairways and head into the woods, the adventure begins. The centerís 30 kms include plenty of hills, twists and turns along the river, surrounded by evergreens and silence. The trails are groomed exclusively with the use of snowmobiles, but you would never know it as you sail across perfect corduroy and glide down the tracks. Grand Lake is a hidden secret in the winter, and youíre likely to have the trails to yourself, especially on a weekday. How about the view? This time itís of the Never Summer Mountains to the north, a name that makes nordic skiers drool with the idea of skiing year around.
Our final destination is west of Grand Lake, on the way to Steamboat Springs. Latigo Ranch, high above the town of Kremmling, near Rabbit Ears Pass, is a rustic resort with cabins for 24 guests. The trail system accesses the Routt National Forest, and includes 60 kmís of wide-open meadows and winding, wooded pathways. Latigo Ranch is the most remote of the five Grand County nordic centers. It may be best known as the home of the Big Shooter Bonk, an 80-km ultra-marathon held above 9,000 feet each spring.
Once youíve tested the trails at all five nordic centers, youíll be ready to head out on the endless backcountry terrain the area has to offer. Rocky Mountain National Park, on the northern end of the county, is a great place to start. The Kawuneeche Visitor Center has free maps and advice for winter in the park. If youíre looking for a place to stay in the high country, the Grand Huts Association is the place to go. Their overnight huts on Berthoud Pass are open to the public, but reservations are required. The mountains in Grand County are covered with snow from November until June, so thereís plenty of time to explore.
If youíre looking to rent or buy equipment in Grand County, from classic and skating to backcountry and telemark, stop by Ice Box Mountain Sports in Fraser. Theyíre on the main street in town (US Highway 40), and also offer snowshoes, clothing, wax and helpful information. They can also help you with your French homework.
If you decide driving to Grand County isnít for you, you can always enter the county the way Karl Howelsen did back in 1911. The former Holmenkollen champion from Norway took the train from Denver to the top of Rollins Pass on the Continental Divide, where he grabbed his skis and disembarked. He then skied down into the Fraser Valley and across the county to the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, where he built the first ski jump west of the Mississippi River. Howelsen also showed the locals how to cross-country ski race, and helped organize a winter carnival in February of 1912, officially making Grand County the birthplace of nordic ski racing in the American West. Howelsen moved to Steamboat Springs, and eventually home to Oslo, but his spirit lives on in Grand County. You might even catch a glimpse of him on the trails when you come to visit.
For more information, contact the Grand Nordic Ski Club (firstname.lastname@example.org), or the ski centers:
Devilís Thumb Ranch (970) 726-8231 www.devilsthumbranch.com
Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA 970-887-2152, ext. 4192 www.ymcarockies.org
SolVista Golf & Ski Ranch 888-280-7458 www.solvista.com
Grand Lake Touring Center 970-627-8008 www.grandlakecolorado.com/touringcenter
Latigo Ranch 800-227-9655 www.latigotrails.com
Grand Huts Association Box 145 Fraser, CO 80442
Cross country skiing at Devil's Thumb.