Many of us visiting, or living in, the Vail Valley—known worldwide for its consistently enviable snow conditions and incredible mountain terrain—have felt it: the pull of the vast landscape beyond the masses. We wonder what it would be like to enjoy this winter wonderland in relative peace and solitude, away from the lifts, the lines, and the hustle and bustle.
The first step in freeing yourself from the accoutrements of gravity-driven, lift-served alpine skiing and snowboarding is to free your heels by stepping toe-first into the remarkable world of Nordic sports—cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skate skiing, and Telemark skiing. From strenuous, multiday treks into the backcountry to self-guided tours of the local environs to beginner lessons, more than half a dozen Nordic centers and outfitters in the Vail Valley stand ready to help you explore world-class terrain at a whole different pace: yours.
CLASSIC CROSS COUNTRY
Most well known and popular among the Nordic sports, perhaps, is cross-country, or “classic,” skiing, in which participants propel themselves across snow-covered terrain using a kick-and-glide technique. Within the boundaries of the Vail Valley’s various Nordic centers, the classic style is used on pistes prepared with pairs of parallel tracks that are cut into the snow by special machines. In the backcountry, by contrast, expect conditions ranging from hard-packed snow and ice to deep powder.
THE HOT SPOTS
- The Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center, at the base of the Strawberry Park Express Lift at Beaver Creek Resort, offers a veritable winter playground—lift-served cross-county skiing on nearly 20 miles of groomed and rustic trails at between 9,800 and 10,200 feet above sea level in McCoy Park. Day passes for the chairlift cost $29 for kids, $42 for adults; a full selection of rental gear is available, as are lessons for skiers of all skill levels. And you can’t beat the views.
- In the upper Vail Valley, try the Vail Nordic Center, based out of the Vail Golf Club, with more than 10 miles of groomed trails, rentals, lessons, even soups and snacks. Downvalley, members and the general public are welcome at the Cordillera Nordic Center, perched up high at The Club at Cordillera, which offers three miles of classic ski trails on scenic, rolling terrain, as well as private and group lessons.
- If you’re not an expert—but still want serious adventure in true backcountry, completely away from the resorts—you’ll want to go with a trained and experienced mountain guide. Paragon Guides, TrailWise Guides, and the Vail Nordic Sports Center offer a variety of excursions, from half-day and full-day tours of the local mountains to multiday treks up and over high passes throughout the surrounding White River National Forest, with overnight stays in the cabins that constitute the 10th Mountain Division Hut System.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- As with any winter sport, equipment selection and fit are important factors in comfort, effectiveness, and enjoyment of cross-country skiing. Cross-country skis typically are much longer, narrower, and lighter than those meant exclusively for downhill applications; cross-country poles are longer; and boots typically are much lighter, resembling a running shoe more than a typical alpine ski boot. These boots mount to a binding at the toe that allows the heel to float freely.
- If you don’t have your own equipment already, TrailWise Guides and the Vail Nordic Sports Center provide their guests with the necessary equipment. Paragon Guides and the various Nordic centers offer rental packages.
Not into learning a new skiing technique, but still want to explore the mountainous winter playground—and get a great workout? Perhaps winter’s version of hiking is for you. Developed thousands of years ago by indigenous people—then carried on by fur traders, trappers, and hunters who had to survive in areas with frequent, deep snowfall—snowshoeing is now becoming more and more popular with a hiking and running crowd looking for nontechnical exercise options in winter.
To quote the old adage: “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” Instead of kicking and gliding, snowshoeing involves “floating,” or literally walking on top of the snow with hiking boot–mounted equipment that distributes snowshoers’ weight over a relatively large area.
THE HOT SPOTS
- Nordic centers such as McCoy Park (serviced by the Strawberry Park Express Lift in Beaver Creek), the Vail Nordic Center (based out of the Vail Golf Club), the Vail Nordic Sports Center (located at Vail’s Golden Peak), and the Cordillera Nordic Center (at The Club at Cordillera) offer rental jumping-off points where users can remain as close as they like to restrooms, snack bars, and other conveniences. But one of the great features of snowshoeing is that it can be done most anywhere you can hike—so head for the woods!
- If you prefer adventuring with trained, expert guides, Paragon Guides offers three-hour snowshoeing tours, complete with a snack; four- to five-hour tours with a picnic lunch; twilight wine and cheese tours; and full-day backcountry options. TrailWise Guides leads pedestrian nature tours, as well as adventure tours for fit, ambitious ’shoers looking to venture up high.
- For a unique experience—one that includes twilight snowshoe adventure and spectacular views from the Continental Divide—try dining at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse. Seatings, which begin and end at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center at Ski Cooper Ski Resort, located between Minturn and Leadville on U.S. 24, include a one-mile trek to the cookhouse (an enormous yurt, actually); an elegant, four-course gourmet meal; and snowshoe rentals for $89 per person, excluding wine, taxes, and gratuity. Reservations are required.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
Snowshoes—from traditional models with wood frames and leather lattices to modern versions utilizing the latest ultralight synthetic materials—come in a wide variety and require some getting used to in different conditions, from packed snow to deep powder. If you don’t already have your own snowshoes and poles, rentals are available through any of the Nordic centers or outfitters in town.
If you consider yourself one of the free-and-easy, you might enjoy the wonderful world of Telemark skiing, where “easy” and “free” are matters of interpretation. A product of the Telemark region of Norway, this unique passion is gaining converts from alpine skiing in droves, perhaps in pursuit of that fleeting feeling of making a perfect Telemark turn.
Expert Telemark skiers heading downhill—leading with their heel flat on the outside ski while the inside ski is pulled beneath the skier’s body with a flexed knee and raised heel—in fact look like they’re doing a long series of lunges. The heel of the Telemark ski boot is detached from the ski, so a kick-and-glide technique similar to that of classic skiing is used for self-propelled travel on flat terrain; and, when fitted with skins, Telemark skis are excellent for climbing. It’s no wonder, then, that Telemark skis are popular in the backcountry—especially for skiers carrying a heavy pack.
THE HOT SPOTS
Arguably the most versatile of all skiing disciplines, Telemark skiing is enjoyed in the Vail Valley mostly by free-heeled enthusiasts en piste, on the lift-served ski slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek resorts using standard lift passes.
The free-heeling Telemark technique does take time to master, so consider group workshops and private lessons available through the resorts’ Nordic sports centers. Less experienced Telemark skiers looking to venture into the backcountry should go with trained and experienced mountain guides. Paragon Guides, TrailWise Guides, and the Vail Nordic Sports Center offer a wide variety of excursions, from half-day and full-day tours of the local mountains to multiday hut trips.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Most modern Telemark skis are virtually identical, actually, to today’s alpine skis. The boots are quite similar, too, though typically lighter and more flexible. It’s the bindings where the biggest difference lies, with a variety of setups that hinge at the toe and are either completely free at the heel or offer the option of locking down for downhill skiing à la randonée. Equipment sales and rentals tend to follow along the lines of alpine skiing and snowboarding, with a plethora of specialty shops at Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts and throughout the Vail Valley.
With skate skiing, it’s all about the glide. Done either on skis specifically designed for it—or on “combi” skis for when the terrain won’t allow it—“skating” typically is faster than classic cross-country skiing. Conventional ice and roller skaters typically find the skate-skiing technique—which involves a decisive weight transfer onto one ski, then the other—easier to learn than classic skiing. But it’s also quite a bit more physically demanding, so if you’re visiting from the relative lowlands, make sure to heed the altitude, which in the Vail Valley generally ranges from about 7,000 feet to more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Skate skis tend to be shorter and stiffer than classic skis. The poles, by contrast, are longer, so that skate skiers can push off with more leverage without getting their poles crossed up with their planks. If you don’t own your own skate-skiing equipment, rentals are available at the Vail Nordic Center, as well as the Nordic centers at Beaver Creek and Cordillera.
THE HOT SPOTS
Because the technique for skating is practicable only on specially prepared trails or on firm, smooth snow, it’s best to stick to the Nordic centers at Vail and Beaver Creek, with the latter offering the most terrain for skating—nearly 20 miles of groomed trails up in McCoy Park. The Vail Nordic Center offers more than 10 miles of groomed trails on the relatively flat grounds of the Vail Golf Course; another six miles of skating and snowshoeing trails on rolling terrain are on offer at The Club at Cordillera.
Gear Here: Get outfitted or make an excursion with the expert tips, recommendations, and packages provided by these Vail Valley businesses.
Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center
970-754-5313 | beavercreek.com
Vail Nordic Sports Center
(at Golden Peak)
970-754-3200 | vail.com
Vail Nordic Center
(at Vail Golf Club)
970-476-8366 | vailclubhouse.com
Cordillera Nordic Center
970-926-5100 | cordillera-vail.com
Tennessee Pass Cookhouse
719-486-8114 | tennesseepass.com