This winter marks the 29th year skiers have been gliding down trails at Spring Gulch ski area, near Carbondale. The cross-country center is gaining popularity despite its isolated location. It’s tucked in gambel oak and aspen forests six miles west of town. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, the operators are working to keep up with demand.
Carbondale resident Amanda Leahy is using her ski pole to shake loose snow from her boot. She’s on her lunch break.
"I work at Colorado Rocky Mountain School just down the road, so it’s an easy commute up here and an amazing way to exercise."
Nearby Danielle Johnston and Michelle Boleware are learning to ski. They drove here from Rifle.
"We’re beginners so we’re just going to go on the Lazy Eight Loop and practice our form, and then maybe head into the hills a bit," says Boleware.
The skiers push off and head toward the snowy trails that crisscross rolling hills.
The ski area is on private land. In the summer, cattle graze here. But when the snow flies, the nonprofit that runs the ski area takes over with grooming machines. More than 21 kilometers are groomed, says Greg Fitzpatrick. He sits on the board for the Mount Sopris Nordic Council.
"So, depending on how you ski it, you can easily get a 50-K in," he says.
Skiers have spotted mule deer and mountain lions. One trail overlaps a railroad grade used when coal was mined here. A ghost town nearby from the same era has withering structures.
Long-time Valley resident Elliot Norquist remembers the landscape before it opened to skiers.
"This was very quiet. This was the end of the road. The mine had shut down."
He was here in the 1980s when friend, Chris Landry, suggested creating a cross-country center.
"He called me up and said, ‘What do you think about this idea of creating a little nordic area?’ And I told him I thought it was a great idea. So that was the beginning of the whole thing," Norquist says.
He now sits on the Nordic Council board and says the demand for skiing has risen significantly.
"During Christmas week, I think there was almost not a day in which there were less than 50 cars parked in this parking lot. That’s a lot of cars, and that’s about all it will take."
Recreational and competitive skiers use the area, which is free. Donations from businesses and individuals power the place. It’s training grounds for the Colorado Rocky Mountain School Nordic team.
"Usually we train up there four days a week," says Charley Abernathy, the Nordic coach at Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
She says she has difficulty recruiting. Many kids are drawn to terrain parks and freestyle skiing. But, she says the close proximity of Spring Gulch to the school is a draw.
"It’s a fabulous area. The kids can spend more time on the hill than they can in the bus. That can be a sell to students these days."
Back at Spring Gulch, avid skier Amanda Leahy clicks into her skis for her lunchtime loop. She says it’s her get-away.
"For some it’s a cathedral, you can get away from the crowds. The parking lot can seem full and you get out on the trail and you’re by yourself and you’re in the woods and it’s beautiful."
She shoves off and more cars pull into the lot. The Nordic Council welcomes the area’s growing popularity and hopes to meet the demand by adding more parking.
EXTRA: The annual Ski for SISU fundraiser for Spring Gulch is coming up. It's Sunday, February 1st from 10am to 3pm at Spring Gulch. The Nordic Council is looking for volunteers. To find out more, click here.