Your pass to cross country skiing

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The Steamboat Springs Nordic Council is intent on making the Yampa Valley a destination for cross-country skiing.

That means vacationers who want to take a day off from the Alpine slopes have more flexibility than ever.

The valley is home to five diverse Nordic touring areas. That doesn't even include the marked trails on Rabbit Ears Pass. Now, it's possible for visitors and residents alike to purchase one pass and visit all five touring areas in five days. Or, if they prefer, they can visit three trail systems in three days.

Nordic centers participating in the program include Catamount Ranch, Howelsen Hill, the Steamboat Ski Touring Center, Steamboat Lake State Park and Vista Verde Ranch.

Anyone who can walk can enjoy cross-country skiing at the rudimentary level, but the advent of new equipment like Fischer's "Nordic Cruiser" skis is helping many people accelerate the learning process, said Birgitta Lindgren of the Steamboat Ski Touring Center. The shorter skis are available for both the traditional diagonal stride style of skiing as well as the flashier skating technique.

The Nordic Council brought the managers of the five Nordic ski areas together to offer a full season "valley pass" for area residents in 2003 and the effort spilled over to visitors.

For this winter, vacationers, or for that matter anybody, may purchase a three-day pass for $35 or a five-day pass for $50. The tickets are available only at the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association visitors' center on U.S. Highway 40. It's on the west side of the highway at the stoplight on Anglers Drive, just across from McDonalds and Wendy's.

"When you purchase a visitors pass, you will receive vouchers for the number of days you purchased. The vouchers can be exchanged at any of the ski areas," Nordic council organizer Dan Smilkstein said. "The vouchers are fully transferable and do not have to all be used by one person."

With the exception of Steamboat Lake State Park, the vouchers are valid throughout the 2003-04 ski season.

Each of the different ski touring areas has different strengths. Howelsen Hill is a city park in downtown Steamboat Springs and there is no fee for cross-country skiing. The trails are excellent and capable of hosting international competitions, but except for the easiest trails in the softball diamonds, they are hilly and beyond the ability of novices. The addition of the new Buffs Loop at Howelsen two years ago provides rolling terrain for intermediates.

The Steamboat Ski Touring Center is also within the city limits of Steamboat Springs, at the Sheraton Steamboat Golf Course on Clubhouse Drive. The Steamboat Touring Center has abundant intermediate terrain that winds through the woods and over Fish Creek. The staff at the Touring Center hosts the most regularly scheduled lessons and instructional clinics in the valley. It also has the biggest rental inventory among the touring centers.

Catamount Ranch is part of a private club about 10 miles south of Steamboat, but opens its well-groomed trails to the public. The Nordic Center at Catamount hosts instructional clinics by a team of instructors from a business called "Nordic Link" and the terrain is fantastic on a sunny winter day. Most skiers won't be able to cover all of the trails in a day and there's something exhilarating about its wide-open spaces. However, Catamount is not at its best on snowy days -- the absence of trees makes visibility and depth perception a challenge on stormy days.

For the ambience of an internationally known guest ranch, Vista Verde cannot be beaten. The exclusive guest ranch in northern Routt County on Seedhouse Road welcomes the public and even offers a separate warming hut complete with a fireplace. Vista Verde is the place to go to ski past horse corrals and cozy log cabins, then end the day with a hot bowl of soup.

All of the cross-country areas have tracks for both classic and skating style, but Vista Verde is the only touring center we're aware of in the valley that has a handful of trails where only classic tracks have been set down.

For scenery, Steamboat Lake State Park is king, offering dramatic views of both Hahn's Peak and Sand Mountain across the frozen lake.

If the five touring centers don't offer adequate adventure, well-equipped and experienced skiers will find nine different cross-country and snowshoe trails on Rabbit Ears Pass in the Routt National Forest ranging from 1.6 to 7 miles. The trails are marked by blue diamond emblems that are nailed to posts and trees along the routes. Informal maps can be picked up at the Hahn's Peak Ranger District in the large building on east U.S. Highway 40, roughly across from the Holiday Inn.

Skiers on Rabbit Ears Pass should carry backpacks with topographic maps and a compass, emergency supplies and extra clothing. Visitors from lower elevation may have to make adjustments in their itineraries to account for elevations above 9,000 feet on Rabbit Ears. n

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