Before skiing became a downhill sport, it was transportation. Scooting across miles and miles of snow, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are time-honored ways to get exercise and cover some ground. In Norway, there are miles and miles of trails between villages, with little huts along the way that offer spiced wine and lunch, sometimes reindeer. In the U.S., the two activities are more specialized. As such, they require specific trails.
Many golf courses in Eagle County allow both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Some of them, such as Vail, even cater to them. But inside the county lines there is no better place to fall into the groove than McCoy Park at Beaver Creek.
“Most ski resorts have their Nordic courses down in the valley,” explains Nate Goldberg, Beaver Creek’s director of hiking. “But McCoy Park is at the top of Beaver Creek. With a five-and-a-half-minute chair ride you’re there, and it’s so quiet and beautiful. You’ve got three mountain ranges to look at.”
Other than during the occasional snowshoe race, McCoy Park doesn’t see a lot of action. Located at the top of Strawberry Park Express, you can’t see or hear the interstate that runs through the valley, and there’s not much in the way of human company. It is, for the most part, a solitary activity along the crystalline paths that spiral out from the course’s center. A yurt along the way allows for shelter from inclement weather – or simply a rest stop to reapply sunscreen, stretch the hamstrings and relax. The trees are more sporadic up at the top of the world, and the occasional porcupine can be seen propped in those trees every once in a while. Bark eaters, porcupines are oddly comfortable in the snow, and have called Beaver Creek home for longer than the resort has been around. Foxes, weasels and snowshoe hares can also be seen at McCoy, though they often like to stay out of sight.
For those who have both the time and inclination, a morning, afternoon or full day at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is unforgettable. Located at the base of Ski Cooper – the only ski resort in Colorado that is publicly owned, this by the town of Leadville – Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is a secluded network of cross country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.
It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch Range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about “expanding” the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand’s yurt.
The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse has long been a local favorite for birthdays, anniversaries, and run-of-the-mill hoopla among friends. It’s the epitome of living large in Colorado: gorgeous views, alpine activity, good food and excellent friends. There’s even the possibility of a little live acoustic music later at the Nordic center.
“Part of it is our location – the view is exceptional,” Roxanne says. “But it’s also the yurt. It wouldn’t be the same if it were a cabin. It’s so quaint, plus we feel really far away.”
The Cookhouse serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner only has one seating. Both have cult followings.
“It’s scratch cooking,” says John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.
Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxie (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt – Cooper Loop – is about a mile. There’s a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry’s Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.
The feta-stuffed buffalo burger is a lunch highlight that will tempt even those who prefer to skip the red meat. At dinner, wild sockeye salmon is grilled on a plank, giving it a lightly smoked flavor. Colorado rack of lamb is roasted to tender succulence, while the elk tenderloin is seared and served with blueberries and sage. Roasted chicken and curried tofu are also on the menu.
All the food and water used at the yurt is schlepped in by snowmobile. That means the “facilities” are two outhouses, riding high above the snowpack. Sometimes it can be an adventure, dashing out into a snowstorm to use them. But coming back into the yurt afterwards is rather friendly. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. If meteors obliterate the world or global warming washes away the continent, that solid stove will remain intact. It keeps the yurt downright balmy even on the coldest of nights. Those in the know usually bring house slippers or booties to wear during mealtime, as heavy winter boots aren’t necessary – or particularly comfortable – inside.
The trick is not to eat too much for the trek back to the car. Primarily downhill, it’s easy to make it to the base lodge as long as you stay awake and upright. Otherwise, all bets are off. And those who decide to nap in the forest will certainly awaken to a different type of adventure entirely. But hey, at least it’s an adventure. And that’s the stuff memories are made of.