If the lyrics to “Silent Night” are to be believed, winter is a time when “all is calm.” But try telling that to someone at one of Colorado’s ski resorts.
“Obviously with a ski area, you’re out there with a thousand of your, you know, closest friends,” says Roger Drake, chairman of the Boulder Group of the Colorado Mountain Club.
“You’re usually putting up with a crowd. Expense. And typically a much longer commute,” says Alan Apt, author of Snowshoe Routes, Colorado’s Front Range, who lives in Nederland. “I mean, Eldora’s the closest to Boulder for skiing. And then after that, you’re on I-70.”
Crowds on the ski slopes and traffic on the way aren’t news. And this year — when, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says, Colorado should return to average snowfall — crowds will be everywhere. If the crush starts to overwhelm you, winter at a slower pace might be the antidote.
“Going out snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the winter is a very peaceful experience. … There’s a lot of natural beauty with the snow and the green trees.”
Drake calls downhill skiing and snowshoeing, both sports he says he enjoys, “complementary experiences.”
“You think what your frame of mind is, whether you want something that’s peaceful or something with maybe a little more adrenaline, perhaps, but not as quiet,” he says.
As popular as skiing and snowboarding are among Coloradans and visitors alike, Apt, Drake and others say there’s a lot more about winter to explore around our mountains.
“You get out on the trail and you just get to enjoy the solitude and the peace and quiet and the beauty. You certainly can enjoy that when you’re downhill skiing but … I think if you want a more quiet, peaceful experience, snowshoeing is a nice alternative.”
If you haven’t dropped a couple Benjamins on a season pass to a ski area, expense could be another reason to take a weekend walk.
“What I like about snowshoeing is, it’s a lot less expensive,” Apt says. “There’s no lift ticket involved."
“You will spend much less time waiting in line at the trail pass counter at the cross-country shop than at the big ski resort,” Karen Brown, a board member at Boulder Nordic Club, says in an email. “Plus, trail passes, rental gear, etc., are much less expensive in general. … [And] it can be a very peaceful experience wherever you choose to venture.”
Brown also says cross-country skiing is “the ultimate workout.”
“If you have limited time and want to get a superior workout, look no further than cross-country skiing,” she says.
And while Drake was most likely using “closest friends” as a bit of hyperbole, Brown says the quieter outdoor sports can engender actual friendships.
“The Colorado cross-country ski community is very tight and well connected,” she says. “You are surrounded by ski buds.”
You’re also a lot safer, Apt says, noting that he’s been run into by other skiers on the slopes.
“The odds of somebody running into you on snowshoes? Zero. The odds of sliding into a tree on snowshoes? Zero. The odds of sliding into a tree on skis? Good,” he says.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are safer, yes, but there are still dangers. Snow can make even the most basic skills difficult at times — like following a trail.
“In the summer it’s very easy to follow a trail because you see a beaten-down area on the ground,” Drake says. “In the winter, when you put snow over that, gaps in the trees look the same whether it’s the trail or natural gaps in the trees. So for beginners or in any kind of marginal conditions, that kind of marking is really important.”
Apt says first-timers should make sure they understand the bindings on their snowshoes or skis so they can put them back on without struggling in the cold. He also recommends packing layers of clothing, as shady paths can stay frigid throughout the day.
“You don’t want to be miserable,” he says.
“The thing is,” Drake adds, “twisting your ankle in the summer is an awful lot different than twisting your ankle in the winter when it’s 20 degrees out and all of a sudden weather comes in.”
He also says a map and compass — and an understanding of how to use them — are necessary, because conditions can change rapidly.
“You can end up in a white-out before you know it,” he says. “If you don’t know fundamentally what direction you’re going in and what direction you’re going to get out in, you can get yourself in a fix.”
And as tranquil and peaceful as these two activities are, avalanches are still a possibility on many trails, Apt says.
“The key thing is terrain selection,” he says. “Choosing where to go will keep you safe.”
Avalanches can happen on steeper trails and especially above treeline, Apt says.
That’s one reason why he and Drake — and trails.com — love the Brainard Lake trail area. Just west of Ward, the lake and surrounding trail are much-loved for their relative flatness and beauty.
“I think Brainard Lake would probably top the list because the trails are exceedingly well-marked,” Drake says. “They literally have separate markings for the snowshoe and the ski trails, so the trails are very easy to follow and therefore very safe. … It keeps you on the trail and you don’t get lost.”
The CMC operates a cabin at the lake — open since 1928 — that offers snowshoers and skiers a chance to warm up and is available to rent over weekends for $20 a night.
Apt says Brainard Lake’s elevation makes it an ideal snowshoeing spot.
“You really need to be above 9,000 feet most of the time to have good snow until March, February, something like that,” he says. “Brainard Lake is 10,000 feet.”
He also recommends Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park for beginners, as park rangers provide guided snowshoe trips throughout the winter.
Apt will offer a presentation on snowshoe routes at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the REI in Boulder.