Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Trip to Nordic Centers Past: Colorado/Wyoming

I've been thinking about this for a while, listing out some former Nordic ski haunts from my past. It's almost hard to imagine that I've been here just under 8 years now, but this week in 2004 I had no clue that I'd be moving from Colorado. Let's start there.

1998 - 2004 (and 1981 - 1987; 1960s too but only did downhill then): We mostly lived in Fort Collins, my original home town. I had kind of retired from skiing from 1997 to through 2001, just getting out maybe a few times a year and racing about once every other year, but in early 2002 I started traveling to Alaska for work and that as much as anything re-ignited my interest in skiing again.

My last couple years there I had a season pass at Eldora Mountain Resort near Nederland (19 miles west of Boulder). It was kind of a hassle to get to, 1 hour to Boulder and another 35 to 45 minutes up Boulder Canyon (nanoo nanoo, remember Mork and Mindy?). Eldora was like a mini, albeit very high-elevation Birch Hill with the base elevation at about 9,400 feet.
I'd go up one weekend and one evening per week. And often that was about as much skiing I'd get. At that elevation hill climbing is a chore and you'll wear out, go into oxygen debt pretty quickly if that's all you do, so I'd ski a 3K figure 8 loop, Phoebe Snow and Meadows Loop over and over, with forays onto the other loops to break things up every 35 to 45 minutes. Windy as all get out, stepping out of the car into 30 to 50 mph gusts was not uncommon and not at all pleasant, but once into the trees (bristlecone pine and blue spruce) it was not a problem.

Trails and Snow-- Usually good snow conditions, but like Fairbanks at sub zero, slow. They claim 40K of trails, but the black loops are were touring/backcountry so it was more like 18 or 20. Fees were pricey ($15 or $20 a day, but you could get an earlybird season pass for about $200).

Races--Back in the day (early mid 1980s) they had a lot of races, a Wednesday night series (7 to 10K usually), and a few open citizen races. But upon our return, a few very very low key Wed Night races mostly on the downhill trails so not even on xc trail system, and I don't think they had a single weekend ski race in our six years there. :(

Happy Jack
The other standby was Happy Jack trails outside of Laramie, WY. You'd drive 70 miles from Fort Collins to Laramie and another 5 on Interestate 80 to Happy Jack--a lonely pull out/former rest stop, and hardly see a stitch of snow. Just sagebrush, bunchgrass, and a lot of wind. But a short hike into the cover of some pines and into a sort of valley and whoa, you had 20K of nicely groomed trails, and a lot of solitude. I loved it.

Trails and Snow--Snow conditions similar to Eldora, but maybe more sun and a little faster. These were at about 8,500 to 8,700 feet. Nothing technically taxing--similar to White Bear (without quite such a long climb) and Tower Loops at Birch Hill. And at that altitude you can breathe a little easier.

Racing--Opposite to Eldora, back in the 80s I don't recall any races there, but jumped into some very competitive races put on by the University of Wyoming ski team. Their team is not NCAA like UAF and UAA, but NSCA--club system. Nevertheless it's a quality team, they are about the best collegiate club team in the US.

Snow Mountain Ranch
Snow Mountain Ranch, part of YMCA of the Rockies is one of the premier nordic centers in the US (yes there are many better ones, but it's big and it's good). On the west side of the Continental Divide snow is reliable and the weather (usually a bit colder) more moderate than on the east.

The downside for us was the drive. 2.5 to 3 hours there, and returning was a nightmare on weekends as I-70 west of Denver would clog up from downhill skier traffic, so that could take 3.5 to 6 hours.

When the kids were small (like ages 4 to 7) they had a free nordic program for kids about every other week through the winter. So we'd get up early, drive and drop off the kids for 2 hr and get some skiing in. As far as I could tell, everyone had fun.

Trails and Snow--They claim 100 km of trails, but like Eldora I think they're double dipping or considering ungroomed touring routes into the equation. Mostly gently rolling but there are some demanding long hill climbs, which are killer at 8,500 to 9,600 feet. The race trails were relatively tough, but with breaks, about like White Bear at Birch Hill

Racing--They have races/events about every other week through the winter. The Nordic racing crowd in Colorado is small but select, with some very good cross over athletes from other sports showing up, whenever (Davis Phinney, Jacqueline Gareau, etc.).

Back in the older days we skied a lot at other sites like Frisco Nordic Center, Breckenridge Nordic Center, Devil's Thumb Ranch, and Steamboat Springs Nordic Center. While I finished my masters we stayed in Frisco for a winter. It was great to have some three centers (Frisco, Breck, and Keystone) within 15 minutes drive. It was the year I really went for it as a racer, and if I were to do it again I'd have gone to Steamboat, because Frisco at 9,200 feet was too high in elevation and I could never recover from training.

Steamboat is primo ski habitat for a lower 48 Nordic racer. They now have several choices for trail systems, and their center (at about 7,000 feet--that's low for Colorado!) near town offers races and all sorts of development programs from youth to masters. In terms of Nordic community west/Rockies Steamboat and probably Sun Valley are the most like Fairbanks, smallish towns with lots of enthusiastic support and tradition.

So the opportunities in Colorado/Wyoming were fairly wide open and accessible if you are willing to drive and you can tolerate high altitude.

Next up: Minnesota/ND/Manitoba


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