Fresh tracks. For some snow-sports aficionados, carving through fresh powder is akin to tapping a vein of precious metal: it promises the thrill of discovering hidden riches amid a mountain landscape.
And it doesn’t have to be an elusive experience. The treasure-seekers who pushed deep into Summit County’s backcountry more than a century ago left a legacy that serves today’s thrill-seekers well: miles upon miles of old mining roads and paths. Combined with the area’s relatively dry snow and long winters, this network of trails constitutes a virtually limitless playground for cross-country skiers.
A peaceful, accessible way of enjoying the mountains in winter, cross-country skiing provides an abundance of scenic solitude and a workout that can be as hard or as easy as you wish. Whatever your fitness or experience level, we’ve gathered some tips and resources that will get you outfitted, guide you to Summit County’s excellent Nordic centers, and give you a taste of the area’s trails. Consider it your ticket to glide.
Hit the Slopes
Sally Barber Mine Road, a short drive up French Gulch Road east of Breckenridge, has long been a favorite among local skiers of all ability levels. One of the earliest roads around to hold snow, it’s where most of us go for our first ski tour of the winter. The road isn’t that steep, but it’s steep enough for a great short workout. The road tops out at the Sally Barber Mine with fine views of Mineral Hill, the dredge piles of French Gulch below, and Keystone Mountain in the distance. Even better, the road is designated as nonmotorized, which makes it ideal for the learning skier to practice that snowplow on a controllable descent.
Easy • 1 - 2 hours • moderate use • 1.4 miles one way • Start: 10,927ft, end: 10,960ft
First-time skiers would do well to rent some skis (preferably with a metal edge) from one of the area’s Nordic centers or mountaineering stores; take a lesson if you’re so inclined. Then, give Boreas Pass Road in Breckenridge a try. In 1882, this was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railway route and the first train route over the Continental Divide. Today, it’s a six-mile-long, railroad-grade (i.e., relatively flat) pitch—great for anyone just getting comfortable on Nordic gear—with incredible vistas of the southern end of the Tenmile Range.
Moderate • 5 - 6 hours • heavy use • 6.6 miles one way • Start: 10,346ft, end: 11,488ft
Another classic beginners’ ski route is Peru Creek Road in Montezuma, yet another old mining road that eventually dead-ends in the gorgeous high-alpine locale of Horseshoe Basin. Turn around at Pennsylvania Mine to avoid avalanche terrain ahead. Numerous historical structures from the mining era dot the hillsides of Peru Creek; more adventurous skiers can check out side tracks in Chihuahua Gulch or Warden Gulch.
Moderate • 4 - 5 hours • heavy use • 4 miles one way • Start: 10,023ft, end: 10,980ft
For the expert skier, nothing is more satisfying than a good push up the Spruce Creek Trail south of Breckenridge. When you get to the end, turn around and prepare yourself for a gripping descent. The trail is narrow, twisty, and steep, so only descend at speed if the snow is good and you’re feeling sporty. Metal edges on your skis will help.
Difficult • 4 - 5 hours • heavy use • 3.4 miles one way • Start: 10,164ft, end: 12,104ft
Mayflower Gulch Road, a few miles south on Highway 91 from Copper Mountain, is another intermediate to advanced ski route on an old mining road. The bonus at the end is one of the most spectacular mountain cirques in Colorado, with a few cabins left from the 1912 Boston Mine camp. In the spring, look for downhill ski tracks coming down some of these gnarly couloirs.
Moderate • 2 - 3 hours • moderate use • 2.8 miles one way • Start: 10,927ft, end: 10,960ft
Getting out into the fields and forests of Summit County to enjoy invigorating Nordic sports doesn’t take much more than desire. Armed with cross-country boots, skis, and poles, you’ll have the county’s ample expanses of public land at your fingertips.
But if you aren’t already outfitted or haven’t ever given cross-country a try, you may need a boost to get started. Thankfully, four excellent Nordic centers are spread across Summit County. They offer everything you’ll need to get gliding, from equipment and lessons to maps and extensive systems of groomed trails—ideal for beginners or those not inclined to blaze fresh tracks. Basic rental packages and trail passes both run less than $20 each at all of these locations (and they all offer snowshoes as well for an even easier transition to trekking), so free your heels and get kicking on a white and wild adventure.
The Breckenridge Nordic Center, situated between the Tenmile Range and the Continental Divide, features 20 miles of cross-country ski trails through spruce forest and open meadows and 10 miles of snowshoeing on scenic nature trails. Breckenridge has a new skier bridge and two Nordic skier tunnels for a continuous looped trail system with no road crossings and a newly expanded trail system on Peak 7. Located one mile from downtown Breckenridge at 1200 Ski Hill Road (the road to Peak 8). 970-453-6855
The Frisco Nordic Center has the best variety of terrain in the county. Located on the shores of Lake Dillon, its groomed cross-country ski trails in the White River National Forest feature 28 miles of beginning to expert terrain (groomed daily), and its 8 miles of snowshoe trails traverse the peninsula of Lake Dillon. Located off of Highway 9 at the Peninsula Recreation Area, one-quarter mile outside of Frisco. 970-668-0866
Gold Run Nordic Center, based at the Breckenridge Golf Course Clubhouse (renamed the Nordic Center Lodge in winter), offers more than 15 miles of groomed skate-skiing and classic cross-country trails and more than 6 miles of snowshoe trails. The trail system winds across and up the historic Delaware Flats and Gold Run Valley areas, at the mouth of the Swan River north of Breckenridge. Located at Breckenridge Golf Course, 0200 Clubhouse Drive. 970-547-7889
The Keystone Nordic Center offers more than 10 miles of groomed trails and provides access to more than 35 miles of nearby trails through the White River National Forest (requiring a three- to five-mile drive to the trailheads). Special guided programs run by the center include Mountain Top Treks, Eco Hikes, and Full Moon Tours. Located off of Highway 6 at the River Course. 970-496-4275
Most of the Nordic centers and shops around the county (see “Finder” at left) sell clothes specifically for cross-country. Treat yourself to a pair of cross-country gloves, since they are much lighter than what you might own for downhill skiing. Likewise, leave that heavy ski jacket in the car and try to find a light wind shell or a medium-weight synthetic or wool sweater.
You probably will overdress on your first day out, so make a mental note of what to leave behind the next time you go. Buy yourself some spiffy spandex Nordic pants or wear really lightweight long-underwear bottoms under your downhill ski shells—or just go with a good old-fashioned wool sweater and wool pants.
Goggles will fog up unless it’s a bitterly cold day, so leave them in your pack. If it’s actively snowing, try one of the fashionable new wool hats that have visors—or just strap that summer visor around your wool hat—to keep the snow off of your sunglasses. Skip the leg gaiters that you may have seen in photos; just make sure your pants cover your ankles (no capris, please). Finally, I usually carry a small backpack with a thermos of hot tea, an extra top layer, a light scarf or neck gaiter, and, if it’s a bitterly cold snowy day, goggles and a down jacket for the downhill return trip.