At Altitude

Kick and Glide

Human-powered skiing at Aspen’s “fifth resort” draws all ages.

By Tess Weaver December 6, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2022-23 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Kick and glide at the Aspen Cross Country Center

Image: Jordan Curet

Aspen may be famous for its four ski areas, but its lesser-known “fifth resort” comprises more than 60 miles of free Nordic skiing trails connecting Aspen, Snowmass, and Basalt (with terrain for everyone from beginners to experts). Funded by Pitkin County Open Space and Trail; operated and groomed by the City of Aspen and its brand-new, world-class Piston Bully 100; and overseen by the Aspen Nordic Council, a nonprofit founded in the 1980s by former US Ski teamer Craig Ward, the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System is the largest free Nordic trail system in North America, says coordinator Chris Petersen. That’s in addition to 22 miles of groomed trails at Ashcroft Ski Touring in the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen and 13 miles of twisting trails at Spring Gulch near Carbondale. The sport has long been popular with an older demographic—Nordic skiing causes fewer injuries than alpine skiing—but the unexpected surge in interest among local kids growing up in the adrenalin-fueled X Games era might raise Aspen’s cross-country skiing scene to new levels.  

In three years, AVSC’s Bill Koch Youth Ski League, the local learn-to-ski Nordic programs for children ages 5-11, has grown by 100 skiers—almost 300 joined last winter. Demand was even higher, but there wasn’t enough rental equipment available. AVSC’s elite Comp Team, which has produced Olympians and US Ski Team members including Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman, Hailey Swirbul and multiple World Cup winner Sophie Caldwell has grown from 2 to 12 athletes in a handful of years.

AVSC Nordic program director August Teague partly credits the country’s recent success in a sport that long went ignored by domestic media. Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the US’s first cross-country skiing gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and at the 2022 Winter Games, Diggins earned two medals after winning the overall World Cup the season prior—only the second American to claim the title.  

“When you have international success and exposure on network TV, that spurs interest,” says Teague.  

According to a survey by the Cross-Country Ski Areas Association and Snow Sports Insights, retail and lesson sales were up 43 percent among cross-country ski areas and clubs across the US and Canada last season, and demand for rental equipment more than doubled. Locally, trail counters showed double usage through the end of 2020, following ski area closures due to COVID, but those numbers haven’t dipped.

The proof is in the parking lots, says Teague. “If you go to the Aspen golf course, Spring Gulch, or even the hidden parking lot on West Buttermilk on a weekend, they’re full.” 

Pro Tip

from Sophie Caldwell

“Practice balance drills! We’re all terrified of falling, but falling on Nordic skis is pretty low consequence. So, practice balancing on one leg and take a ski off and do some scooter drills. Taking a couple of falls early on and realizing that falling isn’t that scary will help you be more comfortable in the long run.

Shift your weight. It’s easy to get stuck in the middle when you’re starting on skis, but weight shift is one of the most important keys to good technique. Try exaggerating your glide on each ski and doing some no-pole skiing. Soon, you’ll be shifting your weight from side to side.”

the gear

Bjorn Daehlie | Conscious Jacket | $250 at

A favorite of AVSC coaches, the warm, breathable, and versatile softshell Conscious Jacket by Daehlie ventilates while it wicks moisture, regulating your temperature. Its elastic panels enable freedom of movement.

Salomon RS7 | $250 at

The Salomon RS7 gives beginner skate skiers a solid skate-ski foundation with a side cut that favors stability over speed, helping skiers develop a strong stride.  

The Aspen Cross Country Center offers rentals, guides, and instructors.

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