Cross-country skiing in downhill country Day trip: On the other side of Aspen Mountain, you can enjoy a different Colorado experience.

November 29, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

ASHCROFT, Colo. - The big noise here is the wind in Castle Creek Valley, nothing more. The chief activity consists of occasional gusts of snow, skimming along the creek edge like running ground fog. Look way down the valley and chances are you won't see another soul. Stop if you like and take in the jagged mountaintops in the distance playing peek-a-boo with winter sun and clouds. Or shuffle on at your own pace. This, too, is skiing.

True, it's not the sort of thing pictured on the Aspen travel posters, trending as they do toward images of skiers hurtling down slopes at acute angles, powder exploding, poles flying like javelins in a moment of exhilarating speed. Aspen turns its collective gaze to the mountains, celebrates steep inclines, relishes flirtations with bodily injury. The air is thin, the performance pressure thick.

That's the other side of Aspen Mountain, a short drive away. A universe of enhanced velocity, socially and otherwise. But it's big country out here. Room for all kinds. Maybe you don't even own a pair of those skin-tight ski pants, winter's version of a Speedo. Maybe your idea of a tough run is the sort of dizzying slope seen on a rolling golf green.

So be it. Notwithstanding its strictly Alpine image, the Aspen area can accommodate folks who like their skiing in a more pastoral, languid style. No questions asked, no funny looks. No need to look around and whisper: uh ... where's the cross-country ski trail?

There's more than one, as it turns out. Three trail systems in the Aspen-Snowmass area suit a range of preferences in terrain and surroundings. Groomed trails can be found in a town-and-country system spanning the 12 miles between Aspen and Snowmass and in the valley at Ashcroft. An expansive network of ungroomed mountain trails and overnight huts - maintained by an organization descended from the U.S. Army troops who once trained nearby - offers a rugged backwoods experience.

Ashcroft beckoned as the result of a recommendation from a fellow I ran into in town. You'll love it, he said - the skiing, the scenery, the food.

The food is served at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, a restaurant on the Ashcroft trail reachable only by cross-country skis or horse-drawn sleigh.

Most of the 25 miles of groomed trails at Ashcroft wind through open fields alongside Castle Creek and Pine Creek, with some of the more difficult trails cutting through the woods. Distant conifers stand in dark silhouette against the white and tan mountain slopes. Miles to the south, the triangles of Star and Cooper peaks poke more than 13,000 feet into the air.

If the great silence and the wisps of snow gusting along the ground aren't quite eerie enough for you, there's the Ashcroft ghost town, a cluster of nine abandoned log cabins just down the hill from where the trail system begins. This is all that's left of a 19th-century silver-mining town.

From the wind whistling through the ghost town to the warmth of the cookhouse measures 1.5 miles. For a skier of modest experience it takes about 35 minutes, more if it's your first day or two in town and you have not quite adjusted to the altitude, 9,725 feet at Ashcroft.

Figure on taking many breaks to rest.

If you time it right, you might be around to spot folks arriving by sleigh, pulling up to the side of the rough-timbered cookhouse. Currier & Ives painted pictures like this. The day of my visit the sleigh was drawn by two Belgian draft horses, Jake and Junior, 2,200 and 2,400 pounds respectively. "Gentle giants," the sleigh driver called them, both with tan coats, hoofs like paint buckets and sweet faces.

The cookhouse is a rustic dream in log walls, pine tables and giant windows facing south toward Taylor Ridge. During lunch, the sky clouded over and a snow shower swept through the valley and hurried on, leaving behind impossibly blue skies and a high-definition view of the distant snow peaks. The powerful temptation is to cancel the rest of the day's skiing, order a bottle of wine and continue enjoying the view as lunch stretches into dinner into night and on into spring.

The lunch menu features sandwiches and a few regional specialties such as Rocky Mountain rainbow trout, wild game goulash, grilled semi-boneless quail. The fixed price dinner menu - steep as the slopes at $65 for skiers, $80 for sleigh riders - includes sauteed elk tenderloin, New Zealand rack of lamb, thyme-scented Rocky Mountain free-range chicken.

hTC Ah, well. I had the vegetarian burger with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and sprouts. Very good, especially considering that the highlight of the expedition was not meant to be food but aerobic exercise. Right.

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