When Gene Dayton started what would become the Breckenridge Nordic Center in January 1969, there were no grooming machines to create corduroy ski trails. As the only employee, he skied around towing a makeshift track setter from his waist, hoping it might help clients learn to kick and glide easier.
Dayton originally based his business—which began as the Breckenridge Ski Touring and Mountaineering School—in a small building at Tiger Run. Fifty years later, Dayton’s building, which became known as the Hallelujah Hut, is still part of the Breckenridge Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Adventure Center’s operation, only now it serves as a warming refuge on the Siberia Loop below Peak 6.
At a lean and compact 75 years old, Dayton relishes telling stories of his early days as he and his family—wife Therese, three children, and three grandchildren—celebrate the center’s 50th anniversary this winter. During that time, the Daytons have shepherded the sport from obscurity to widespread appeal among Summit County locals and visitors, while creating a community hub on Ski Hill Road.
One thing hasn’t changed. “It’s the first step out the door that is the toughest,” Dayton says. “But we call it a warm winter sport, because you’re never cold when you’re moving. People value the honesty of Nordic: If you can learn to ski on your own high-speed quads, you’re a better person for it.”
It took a few serendipitous events for him to find and embrace the sport. After growing up in Illinois, Dayton attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship. One of his professors was from Denver and had seen Nordic skiing in Europe, so after Dayton visited Breckenridge in 1961 and expressed an interest in the growing downhill discipline—his thesis was presciently titled “An economic study of user preference and demand for alpine skiing in Summit County, Colorado”—the professor urged him to consider Nordic instead.
Dayton, inspired by his father, who was chairman of the local Red Cross and a high school athletic director, also wanted to open an outdoor education center for people with special needs. He and a friend drove around the West in 1965 looking for a place where he could do that. He settled in Breckenridge and launched the mountaineering school four years later, catering it to able-
bodied skiers as well as those with disabilities.
In 1971, Dayton moved the business to the base of Peak 9 and became director of the telemark ski school for Breckenridge Ski Area. He continued running Nordic and backcountry tours from his mountaineering school (which included an igloo where guests often slept), teaching winter camping skills on extended sojourns around Breckenridge and beyond, like on Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat Springs. In 1976, he founded the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center on a plot of land uphill from his igloo that he leased for $1 a year.
The Nordic Center finally moved to its current home in 1981, where it grew to include a 1,300-acre Forest Service permit above the Peaks Trail called New Nordic World. The Daytons, who also operated the Frisco Nordic Center for 28 years and the Gold Run Nordic Center for three, offer nearly 30 kilometers of trails in Breck and groom them daily—though a day ticket now costs $25 instead of $3.
After bringing up their three children on skis, they watched son Matt, now 41, compete in the 2002 Olympics, and Josh, now 32 and the Nordic Center’s manager, earn All-American status at Western State. Their daughter, 44-year-old Ami, lettered in five sports at Summit High School.
Matt still runs clinics at the center, and Ami helps out with events. Five years ago, the Daytons built a 10,000-square-foot lodge to replace the rickety-but-beloved original Oh, Be Joyful Nordic Log Lodge. It hosts weddings and thrice-weekly happy hours with live music. “All three of our grandchildren work in the business,” Therese says, “whether they serve hot chocolate or appetizers or sell retail gear.”
And the patriarch remains as involved as ever, relishing his role in Breckenridge’s “golden bubble.” “Fifty years has gone by incredibly fast,” Dayton says. Still, when visitors ask him if he has lived all his life in Breckenridge, he replies, “Not yet.”
Although Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, which the Breck Nordic Center offers as well, require significant physical effort, you need not crush yourself to experience the trails. That’s because the Nordic Center started running heated snowcat tours two years ago, grooming fresh corduroy while Gene Dayton plays his accordion and shares stories with a dash of the area’s ecology and biology for 90 minutes. The cat, equipped with a Ferrari-designed glass bubble that makes it look like a spaceship, seats 10 guests plus the operator. Reservations are required; tours can run in daylight or at night, which adds a stargazing element. Light refreshments are included. ($75 per person or $500 for the whole cat; breckenridgenordic.com)