Snow is falling in the high country, and a predicted El Niño season may bring a bonanza to Colorado's resorts. But if thoughts of shuffling through lift lines or plodding the same old trails give you the shivers, perhaps it's time to try out some new outdoor activities this winter.
Strap into a parachute-style kite, click into your skis, and let the wind tow you across flat snow or lake ice—and even uphill—at downhill-racing speeds.
- Why you'll love it Fans of wakeboarding, windsurfing, and other thrill-oriented water sports can play with the wind and perfect aerial tricks when Colorado's H2O is frozen solid. Advanced kiters will speed over snow at speeds up to 60 mph or sail through the air from mountain ridges. Plus, there's no downtime on the chairlift. "Kiting is one of the warmest winter sports," says Anton Rainold, owner of the six-year-old Colorado Kite Force school in Summit County. "When you're out and going, you're constantly working."
- Getting started Colorado Kite Force offers lessons on groomed snow by the southwest shore of Lake Dillon. Beginners start with kites as small as one square meter—the size of a small throw rug—that can't yank you into the air. Your instructor will explain how to maneuver the kite in and out of the most powerful "wind window" and how to set your skis' edges to tack upwind. $75 per hour for advanced-level private lessons; $249 for a full four-hour introduction.
- Beginners' tip Although you can kite on skis or a snowboard, Rainold strongly recommends starting with skis because it's easier to hold your edges and the dual platform is better for balance.
- Season December through mid-April
- Hotspots Lake Dillon, Loveland Pass, Vail Pass, Montezuma
- Watch the experts See the best kiters race and perform tricks—or try the sport for yourself—at Colorado Kite Force's seventh annual Dillon Snowkite Open on Lake Dillon, March 5-7, 2010.
- Info www.coloradokiteforce.com
Nordic Skating Combine the long blades of speed skates with cross-country ski boots and bindings, and you have an effortless way to travel fast and far on ice.
- Why you'll love it Nordic skates are warmer and more stable than hockey or figure skates, and they have twice the glide. Plus, unlike speed skates, the blades' toes are turned up like skis so they glide over bumps and snow-covered ice—you can range across frozen, fir-lined lakes at speeds of 10 to 15 mph. "It's the kind of skating for people who thought they'd never put on another pair of skates," says Jamie Hess, owner of Nordic Skater in Vermont, a hub of the sport.
- Getting started If you can skate or skate ski, you'll quickly adapt to Nordic skating, though you may be on your own in Colorado, where the sport has yet to catch on in a big way. Nordic skates are mounted with NNN or SNS cross-country ski bindings, so you can skate with the same boots you use for skiing. Basic blades cost $75 to $150 with mounted bindings. Nordic Skater (1-866-244-2570; www.nordicskater.com) offers a full line for sale, as well as season-long rentals with the cost applied toward purchase. The Tuneup shop in Gunnison (970-641-0285) can help you track down local speed skaters like Gregg Morin, who plies the ice on Blue Mesa Reservoir each winter. Morin says Blue Mesa offers 20-mile loops perfect for Nordic or speed skating.
- Beginners' tips Never skate alone, and always carry safety gear in case the ice breaks. Morin and fellow skaters in Gunnison wear white-water life jackets and carry lifelines and special ice picks (or screwdrivers) for dragging themselves out of icy water after a rare plunge. Skaters also may use ski poles (or special skating poles) for increased stability and probing thin ice.
- Season Thanksgiving through January, before too much snow builds up; http://wildlife.state.co.us/Fishing/ResourcesTips/IceFishing/ and other fishing sites provide ice reports.
- Hotspots Blue Mesa Reservoir, Georgetown Reservoir, Antero Reservoir, Evergreen Lake
- The next level Combine ski touring and Nordic skating on mountain lakes. Example: Starting at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, ski about two miles up the winter trail to Mills Lake at 9,940 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, where frequent winds sweep the ice free of snow. Click out of your skis and into your skates to cruise a half-mile loop around the lake, with views from Chiefs Head to Longs Peak.
- Info www.nordicskating.org
Skip the tourist dogsled rides, and learn to drive your own team of huskies.
- Why you'll love it Steering a harnessed team of eight dogs at 10 to 20 mph is a thrill-a-minute way to tour snow-covered trails. You'll bond with hyper-excited Alaskan and Siberian huskies, and experience a centuries-old form of winter travel. "A dogsled is like a time machine," says Gretchen Dubit, who has been giving lessons with her husband, Gregg, for 17 years at Durango Dog Ranch. "You get to feel what it was like in gold-mining days in Alaska or the Yukon."
- Getting started Durango Dog Ranch offers half- and full-day mushing sessions on National Forest trails near Mancos, Purgatory, and Silverton; $300 per sled (two guests and guide) for a half-day; $595 for a full-day "Mush on the Brain" lesson. At the trailhead, you'll get a brief introduction to steering the sled, safety, and caring for canines. You'll help harness the dogs and then step onto one of the runners extending behind each sled. With a guide beside you, you'll shout "gee" and "haw" to steer the sled along a 10- to 15-mile tour. "It's very hands-on," Dubit says. "If you come to us with manicured fingernails, you may leave without them."
- Bonus Durango Dog Ranch lets kids as young as five years old steer the sled, with a guide standing alongside to help out.
- Beginners' tip "Don't lean in the curves—that's the L word," Dubit says. "If you lean, you can flip the sled. You have to go with the flow, like you're in a white-water raft."
- Season Thanksgiving to late March
- Hotspots Mancos, Granby, Leadville, Redstone
- Watch the experts Durango Dog Ranch hosts a four-day, 125-mile stage race from January 20 to 24 (www.sanjuanstagerace.com). Shorter races are held in many mountain towns; www.rmsdc.com/events.html.
- Info www.durangodogranch.com
Dougald MacDonald is a contributing editor for 5280. He lives and writes in Louisville. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.