Alex Miller leads a group of Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic athletes around a corner Friday afternoon on Buddy's Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. The trail, which offers two loops and about 5 kilometers of groomed track, is one of few options currently available in Colorado and has been attracting large crowds early this winter.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Alex Miller leads a group of Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic athletes around a corner Friday afternoon on Buddy's Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. The trail, which offers two loops and about 5 kilometers of groomed track, is one of few options currently available in Colorado and has been attracting large crowds early this winter.

Bruce's Trail atop Rabbit Ears Pass offers early season Nordic skiing

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Bruce's Trail

- How to get there

Take U.S. Highway 40 south out of Steamboat Springs up Rabbit Ears Pass. Drive three-quarters of a mile past the west summit. The trailhead is on the left, or north side, of the road and is accompanied by a wide but shallow parking lot.

- The trail

The trail consists of two loops and five kilometers of groomed skiing. The trail usually is groomed after fresh snow and before weekends. It is closed at 5 p.m. when being groomed. Regular grooming will cease when lower elevation courses have enough snow to open.

- Learning the ropes

The Nordic Link and Ski Haus will offer expert training at the sixth annual Steamboat Nordic Ski Camp on Dec. 13 and 14. The cost is $150 for two days or $100 for one. Top area coaches will tutor camp participants in skate skiing and classic technique. Campers will be divided into small groups based on ability level. The registration fee includes video analysis, lunches and a Saturday happy hour celebration.

- For more information

Visit www.steamboatxcsk...>

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Ron and Louise McLeod, of Steamboat Springs, suit up for a day of skiing Friday morning at Bruce's Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. The pair was joined by Chris and Suzi Nyby. It was the first time out this season for the group.

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A skier puts on his skis Friday morning at Bruce's Trail. The trail has been regularly groomed for more than a week. It will continue to be cared for until enough snow accumulates for lower-elevation Nordic trails to open later this winter.

— Expansive dirt-colored scars overlooked Steamboat Springs early Friday morning high on the slopes of Mount Werner. They - along with a week's worth of not-quite-cold-enough temperatures - were signs that fall had yet to fully loosen its grasp on Ski Town USA.

The sloppy white roads and snow-heavy pine branches demonstrated equally decisively that winter was in full force on Rabbit Ears Pass.

Another sure sign: the packed parking lot at the head of Bruce's Trail on the west side of the pass.

A nice walk might have been appropriate along the Yampa River Core Trail, but it was all Nordic skiing on Bruce's.

"It's really nice out here," Bart Sheldrake said, strapping on his skis at the trailhead. "This is the spot to ski early every year, that's for sure."

Skiers of both the skate ski and traditional disciplines were able to take to the snow in recent days thanks to the efforts of the Steamboat Nordic Council, Dave Miller and the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service.

Bruce's was first designed to offer local skiers an early season outlet. The loop swings within just a few hundred yards of the busy U.S. Highway 40, but the location helps maximize the chances for fall snow, and massive, snow-cloaked pines help protect the snow that has fallen from the still-too-warm sun.

"Rabbit Ears is right in the snow belt, the trail is in a cold spot and it's well protected," said Dr. Dan Smilkstein, vice president of the Nordic Council and already a veteran of the trail this season. "It brings people from the Front Range, and it's great for the locals who are chomping at the bit."

All those advantages allow the snow to be groomed even before a lot has fallen. They also help make it one of the first in Colorado to open every season.

While conditions in and around Steamboat left Nordic trails a muddy mess, Bruce's was covered by deep snow and groomed for the first time late last week. Ever since, it's been under heavy assault from anxious skiers traveling from near and far.

"This is one of the only trails that is getting groomed," said Sheldrake, who traveled Friday from Golden to ski the trail for the second time already this season. "There are other places you might be able to ski now, but this is really the spot."

What was already a skier's delight was improved even more this summer.

Miller has led the efforts to keep the trail groomed and was a big part of work this summer that regraded some sections and improved several other important turns.

Volunteers this summer removed about 20 trees killed by the mountain pine beetle, and many others are near death. Miller estimated all those currently covering the trail would be dead by 2013.

"We did about a week's worth of work," Miller said. "There were about three of us - my son Carter, D.J. Winter and Dan Smilkstein - that did the majority of the work, then in the fall we had a volunteer group of about 20 help with reseeding the areas we regraded."

The trail didn't become really accessible until the first grooming. Bruce's may have a built-in advantage over nearly any other venue in the state, but it still wasn't able to avoid a late start to the season.

Some of those who skied the trail Friday recalled hitting the trails as early as September in years past, but it took until the middle of October for an acceptable amount of snow to accumulate this year.

The snow is there now, however, and it has proven to be the answer to many problems.

It's helped cure mean cases of snow fever afflicting Nordic enthusiasts near and far.

It's given competitive teams a much-needed chance to start practicing.

It's even helped provide a temporary solution to the pine beetle epidemic, healthy and sick trees appearing nearly identical beneath the thick coat of fresh snow atop Rabbit Ears Pass.

"It's spectacular," Smilkstein said. "There isn't any other place in the state open, so it's definitely spectacular up there."

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