Steamboat gaining stature as cross-country skiing destination

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The valley is home to five diverse Nordic touring areas. That doesn't even include the marked trails on Rabbit Ears Pass. Nordic centers in the valley stretch from Catamount Ranch in the south to Vista Verde Guest Ranch and Steamboat Lake State Park in the north. Of course, there's excellent skiing right in town, including the Steamboat Ski Touring Center, with expertly groomed trails and daily lessons at the Sheraton Steamboat Golf Course on Clubhouse Drive. The trails criss-cross Fish Creek, where snow-pillows dot the streambed.

There are good beginner options on the trails at Howelsen Hill, where figure eights are groomed into the outfields of the softball diamonds. But experts will also be challenged by the hilly routes that have hosted international competitions. Resident aerobic warriors pound the trails on Emerald Mountain behind Howelsen.

The Touring Center hosts daily lessons and frequent clinics. Another option for learning the sport is Nordic Link, which hosts in-depth clinics at Vista Verde and Catamount.

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.

Each of the different ski touring areas has different strengths. Howelsen Hill is a city park in downtown Steamboat Springs and 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 Bluffs Loop at Howelsen two years ago provides rolling terrain for intermediates.

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 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.

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 in the valley that has a handful of trails where only classic tracks have been set down.

This year, Vista Verde offers a $20 trail pass that includes a generous lunch that usually includes hot homemade soup, or a $40 pass that includes a gourmet luncheon in its lodge. The all-inclusive learn to ski pass includes the Nordic lunch, equipment rental and lesson for $60.

The Touring Center also offer hearty homemade soups and homemade breads and cookies, for skiers who want to make a day of it. Daily passes cost $14.

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.

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