SubscribeAvailable Now
Photo by David Clifford

Cross-Country Skiing in Colorado: 3 of Our Favorite Snowy Cross-Country Trail Systems

Bring your gear—and a sense of adventure—to these free trail networks.

|

Throughout the state you’ll find dozens of cross-country trail networks maintained by nonprofit organizations dedicated to enhancing Nordic skiing in Colorado. Unlike the pay-to-play experiences at Nordic centers, trail systems managed by Nordic councils typically don’t require a day pass (although it’s good form to slip $10 into the donation box). Be forewarned, though: These snowy labyrinths are often isolated and only sometimes come outfitted with an on-site rental shop.

Grand Mesa Nordic Council Nordic Trails

Rising more than two miles above sea level, Colorado’s 11,332-foot Grand Mesa is the world’s largest flattop mountain. It also has a highland climate that delivers astronomical amounts of snow (almost 500 inches fell this past winter). This pairing—a mostly horizontal landscape and a snow-prone weather pattern—is nirvana for Nordic skiers, so it’s no wonder the all-volunteer Grand Mesa Nordic Council employs three part-time groomers to pave 38 kilometers of path on the Skyway, County Line, and Ward trail systems atop the monolith. As you navigate your vehicle along the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, which will no doubt be lined by 10-foot-tall walls of snow, you can pull into any of the trailheads’ generous parking lots, clip in, and set off into the snow-globe-like terrain.

Advertisement

Best beginner trail: The Dog Loop in the County Line network is an easy three-kilometer trek that starts right from the parking lot yet still affords skiers views of both wide-open meadows and stands of frosted trees.

Best trail for scenery: The 3.2-kilometer (one way) Overlook Trail in the County Line network proffers unrivaled panoramas of the San Juan Mountains.

Rentals: The closest shops are the Board and Buckle in Grand Junction or Mesa Lakes Lodge on top of the Grand Mesa.

Access: Trailheads for the Skyway, County Line, and Ward networks are located off the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, which is plowed throughout the winter months.

Photo by David Clifford

Where To Stay: Atop the Grand Mesa and tucked up the road behind the Forest Service’s visitor center on Baron Lake Drive, Thunder Mountain Lodge’s 10 red cabins—bedecked with pine-log furniture and itty-bitty yet well-stocked kitchens—huddle into the deep snow adjacent to the marked (but mostly ungroomed) paths of the Ward trail system. After a few hours of kicking and gliding, we suggest you put on your coziest slippers, make a cup of hot chocolate, and watch the snow fly from these adorable abodes.

Advertisement

Rabbit Ears Pass

Winter comes early to Rabbit Ears Pass, where 10,000-foot elevations wring snow from passing storms and the gently rolling meadows and forests lend themselves to human-powered travel. As soon as the powder starts accumulating, volunteers from the Steamboat Nordic Council begin grooming Bruce’s Trail, a five-kilometer circuit consisting of an upper loop and a longer, hillier lower loop. The grooming ends once Steamboat’s cross-country trail centers open for the season, leaving Bruce’s Trail to become a backcountry skier’s delight. —Kelly Bastone

Best beginner trail: Bruce’s Upper Loop avoids sharp turns and extended hills, making this an ideal option for newbies, flatlanders, and families.

Best trail for scenery: On a clear day, skiers can see peaks located in the Flat Tops Wilderness—45 miles away as the crow flies—from portions of West Summit Loop 1A.

Rentals: In Steamboat Springs, Ski Haus rents classic and skate equipment. skihaussteamboat.com

Access: U.S. Forest Service trailheads are located along Rabbit Ears Pass’ west side. From Steamboat Springs, follow U.S. 40 east for 12 miles to the 1A trailhead; Bruce’s trailhead is two miles farther east.

Advertisement

Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System

Photo by Whitney James

People may call Crested Butte the Nordic Ski Capital of Colorado, but a little place called Aspen has one of the largest free groomed cross-country skiing systems in North America. With 90 kilometers of terrain maintained by the nonprofit Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council, skiers enjoy a full menu of kick-and-glide options. Trails swirl around and through—and in some cases, connect—the towns of Aspen, Snowmass, and Basalt. —Tracy Ross

Best beginner trails: Novices will find eight kilometers of rolling terrain surrounding the Aspen
Nordic Center and an easy two-kilometer circuit at the North Star Nature Preserve.

Best trail for booze: You can diagonal-stride your way along the Rio Grande Trail from Aspen to Woody Creek, where you should grab a margarita at Woody Creek Tavern. Burn off the tequila during the 9.5-kilometer ski home.

Rentals: The Ute Mountaineer operates both the Aspen Cross Country Center and the Snowmass Cross Country Center and offers classic and skate ski packages.

Access: Download the Aspen Snowmass Trail System Map from the council’s website to locate parking, bus stops, and trailheads.

Advertisement

Winter in Colorado

Newsletters

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone.

Sign Up