Free the Heel

Free the Heel and the Rest Will Follow

Cult of the Skinny Skis Wins Converts
By Mary Duffy & D. Dion
Winter/Spring 2009-2010

I think some of my friends may have a problem. It’s as if they are addicted to exercise. These are people who think it’s fun to run the 17 mountainous miles between Ouray and Telluride or ride their bikes from here to Moab or Durango. In the winter, there are perfectly good chairlifts and fabulous downhill skiing, some involving a short hike. But nope—not good enough. All that gravity-fed stuff is just a warm-up. For a real workout, they hit the track for a thigh-burning Nordic ski session.

Unlike ski touring, a slow uphill slog into avalanche terrain with a heavy pack, the local Nordic scene is all about traveling light and fast. Nordic skiing in this region consists of classic and skate skiing, and their common denominator is a groomed track. The small cult of devoted Nordic skiers has ballooned into an all-out fad, especially since the opening of the Valley Floor; and thanks to the tithing members of the Nordic Association, which handles the regional grooming, track skiing in Telluride now drives its own snowcat over the miles and miles of land dedicated to these skinny-ski sports.

Classic and skate tracks require different types of grooming. Traditional classic/cross-country tracks are two grooves, set about hips’ width apart to accommodate the diagonal kick and glide of classic skiing. The modern skate track (skate skiing took hold after American cross-country ski legend Bill Koch used the method in World Cup competitions in the 1980s) is a wide, groomed swath of perfect corduroy, so that the athlete can “skate” across the snow. Unlike different religious sects, the two coexist peacefully: The classic track is usually set to one side of the skate track, thus the same machine can set both tracks with one pass.

Downhill devotees might wonder what the fun is in skiing the flats. According to Midnite Scholtes, who runs the Telluride Nordic Center, it’s a great way to get out and enjoy winter, anyone can do it, it can be a kick-ass workout…and it’s free. “Even if you’ve never been on skis before, you can go out and move around on classic skis, have a good time and get some exercise.” After that, the sport has no bounds. Skate skiing is all about the push and glide (just like ice skating, hence the name) and is a vigorous endeavor that gets your whole body involved. The speed of skate skiing is seductive, but the learning curve is longer than that of classic skiing. It takes practice to pick up the skate motion and find your stride. Classic skiing may be easier initially, but at the highest level it is the hardest ski technique to perform well, harder than alpine skiing or snowboarding, says Scholtes: It’s “like a running ballet.”

Nordic skiing may be a grueling workout for my ascetic, exercise- addicted friends, but it isn’t all about pain and punishment. The tracks are maintained in serene and beautiful places, and the majestic outdoor settings are one of the main reasons so many Telluriders are now hooked.


Telluride Town Park

Home of the Telluride Nordic Center, this is where the fun begins. You can rent equipment, get your skis waxed, arrange a lesson or grab a quick aerobic session. Within the park are 3 kilometers of circuitous groomed track. Former ski patroller Jane Watenpaugh likes the park because the snow there stays cold: “It’s much easier to ski; it doesn’t melt and get icy or heat up and get slushy. It’s consistent.” The track may be short, “but there’s just one little hill, and it’s always well-groomed.” Town Park is also the place to come with the kids, because they can ice skate or sled while you get a quick workout, and, says Watenpaugh, “It’s the prettiest town park anywhere.” From the park you can access Idarado Legacy Trail (1.75 miles one way to the mill) or the River Trail that runs along the south side of Telluride. Open to foot traffic, both can still be fun classic routes for those who want to venture out of the park. Via the River Trail, it is possible to connect to the ski track on the Valley Floor.

Telluride Valley Floor

This is arguably the preeminent Nordic skiing in the region. It is virtually the only flat ground between Montrose and Cortez, and cross-country ski instructor Cindy Farny-Mallette appreciates the Valley Floor for its easy access, beginner-friendly terrain and sheer beauty: “In the morning, it’s so quiet, skiing alongside the river; there are snow crystals on the willows. You feel like you are in paradise.”

The Valley Floor has more than 15 kilometers of groomed loops and straight stretches. “Anybody can go out there,” she says. “You see all levels of skiers, not just beginners or experts; you see mothers hauling their babies in sleds.” Access points can be found from Mahoney Drive in Telluride, at the Shell Station one mile west of town (park on the east side of the building), or across from Society Drive and Lawson Hill. “You can just cruise to Lawson Hill and back in less than an hour,” effuses Farny-Mallette. “You can make your time on the Valley Floor as long or as short as you want.”

The Valley Floor, according to Farny-Mallette, is a good place to hone your skate-skiing technique. “It’s the only place that is flat and straight for long stretches, so you can get a rhythm going or practice sprints on the old railroad grade.” She also encourages everyone to take advantage of full moon dinners, fun events where the ski loop travels from hot drinks to hearty soups and finishes at the dessert line.

Priest Lake

This is the gem of the Telluride Nordic scene. A relatively small park, its 10 kilometers of trail feature a variety of interconnected loops over rolling terrain and a straight gentle climb up the abandoned railroad grade. The tracks wind in and out of evergreen and aspen forests, by frozen lakes, over snow-covered creeks, past historic cabins, and the scenery is downright distracting. Having grown up in Norway, Nordic Association board member Ivar Eidsmo knows a thing or two about Nordic skiing. A lifelong skier and avid competitor, the 65-year-old Eidsmo prefers the challenging terrain at Priest Lake. “It’s about a 6 percent railroad grade, probably more intermediate or advanced skiing,” he says. “And the snow is always good because the area is in the evergreen and aspen groves. The setting is very Colorado-like, very spectacular.”

Priest Lake is located 12.5 miles south of Telluride on the east side of Highway 145, just past the Matterhorn Campground. Park at the USFS Ranger Station on the left-hand side of the road. Dogs are permitted. This is the site for many of the local Nordic ski races.

Trout Lake Railroad Grade

The old railroad grade on the east side of scenic Trout Lake is groomed for approximately 5 km (one way) to the top of Lizard Head Pass, providing excellent intermediate terrain. Carol and Bob Korn ski the railroad grade regularly; Carol says she’s been skiing there since the ’70s, over the rickety old trestle bridge, even before there was a groomed track next to it. “I think about it now… we must have been crazy.”

The Trout Lake Railroad Grade receives significantly more snow than any other Nordic trail in the region; it is always the first and last skiable trail for the season. Korn says the snow is as important as the scenery. “The thing that makes Trout Lake special is the early snow and the way it holds snow later in the season.”

Korn says she also likes the gradual uphill of the grade, which makes for a nice, easy downhill back to the car. She has been classic and skate skiing for close to four decades, and her husband finally caught the fever. “Bob was a downhill skier and he used to harass me because I was a Nordic skier. Finally, he decided to try cross-country skiing, and now he’s a convert. He lives for it; he’s really addicted to it.”

Skiers are encouraged to access the trail from the top of Lizard Head Pass to reduce traffic impacts on Trout Lake Road, a residential area. Parking and restrooms are available at the USFS station at the top of the pass. This is a favorite haunt of people who enjoy skiing with their pooches, and skiers should remember to clean up after their pets and keep them within voice command.

Village Nordic Trails/Telluride Golf Course

The Mountain Village Nordic Trail System offers 12 kilometers of groomed trails; it’s scenic, dog friendly and well-maintained. Mountain Village’s Nordic trails accommodate skiers, hikers and snowshoers. Foot traffic stays to the sides of the trails, off the classic grooves.

There are multiple points from which to access these Nordic and snowshoe trails. If you’re driving, there’s a free parking lot on Adams Ranch Road, 100 yards north of the intersection at Mountain Village Boulevard. If you’re in the Village Center, access is available from The Peaks Resort and its ski run at the top of the Chondola. Convenience is key for Lois Major, a busy mom and attorney who enjoys sneaking away for some exercise. “I love the Village. It’s beautiful, and it’s such a good workout…you can just do laps. The terrain is really hilly—an interval workout.”

Major has been an upper-level recreational skier for about 18 years and says it’s her main activity in the winter. She says she loves skiing the track when it’s in perfect condition, which is a matter of timing. “They do such a good job grooming, so when you hit it just right, it’s fabulous.”


This trail system is a place where you can challenge yourself on the terrain, but it’s also a place to slow down and explore evergreen forests and alpine meadows with epic views. Topaten, so named because it sits at the top of the ski area’s Lift 10, has almost 10 kilometers of Nordic trails that are groomed three times a week. There’s a warming teepee, picnic tables and restrooms, and this is where the resort’s snowshoe tours are hosted.

If you’re looking for a great technical workout, Topaten offers plenty of ups and downs where you can hone your technique and feel the burn. For a skate skier, this is the region’s toughest track. A classic skier wanting for a longer venture can ski from the Topaten area through Magic Meadows and beyond the ski area boundary, along an old mining road (snowmobiles have access to this route also) that will take you all the way to Alta Lakes.

Environmental educator Deanna Drew has spent a lot of time at Topaten. She finds the area remote and peaceful. Preferring to classic or cross-country ski, Drew encourages skiers to be creative: “It’s an adventure—you can explore different routes, go off trail, follow animal tracks. The serenity of Magic Meadows and the views are what make this area so special.” This is the locale, she says, to bring wine and cheese and a few friends for a leisurely adventure.

A Nordic day pass to ride Lift 10 up and back is $20 a day at the Mountain Village Activity Center. Advanced skiers in search of a good climb can access the area for free by skiing uphill on the Galloping Goose ski run.