As I registered for a snowshoe tour at the Vail Mountain Nordic School, Joe Schmitt was on the phone helping a woman plan an outing as a surprise for her daughter's 11th birthday.|
Family celebrations are a specialty at Vail Mountain, whether you are downhill skiing, snowshoeing or shopping Bridge Street.
Schmitt, the Nordic program manager, said cross-country (xc) skiing and snowshoeing provide outdoor alternatives to a day away from the ski trails.
Joe handed me a pair of boots to fit my size 8 foot, guesstimated my weight (did well) as weight determines size in a snowshoe, something about the webbing and flotation. Arctic has an inventory of footgear from children's feet through a man's size 14 shoe.
Then, he handed me a pair of poles, a bottle of water and a crunchy granola bar.
Tours do not start at the lodge, he said as we walked toward the parking lot to a van that would take us to Spraddle Creek, one of 30 trailheads in the White River National Forest that Arctic uses.
The size of a tour ranges from an individual to 35 people. Drive time is built in, so a 2.5-hour tour may include 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. "It depends on where or how far the group wants to go into the White River National Forest," he said.
The White River National Forest has 2.3 million acres, including the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, which is reportedly the birthplace of the U.S. Wilderness Area system. It's also the habitat for many North American species including black bear, elk, deer, Canadian lynx, bobcat and smaller creatures like rabbit and hopping mice.
There are raptors too, but they mostly overwinter near the river.
Joe says that the xc/snowshoe guides are trained much like the ski patrol. Joe's group takes tours to many different places in the forest and none are dangerous. That's where Joe's motto about outdoor recreation comes in: safety, fun and learn.
"It is always safety first," he said. In the last two years, tours have taken an adventure focus. Guides carry telemark gear, a shovel, beacon and probe on pack. Everyone in the tour is issued a bottle of water and energy bar.
Strapping on our snowshoes, I peeked at the incline that leads to our tour's transition point, the spot where you still can see the parking area before you curve deeper into the forest and experience the meaning of quiet.
On our way up the incline, I could look back to see Vail mountain. Skiers appear as little dots on the expansive ribbons of snow that make up the runs. Snow machines disperse fountain-like bursts that resemble fireworks.
Walking in snowshoes is much easier than I thought. And revelation followed revelation. You really do float on top of the snow. This trail had about six inches of snow, maybe deeper in parts.
To my surprise, snowshoe flotation works; the cuffs of my pants remained dry. Unlike snowshoes, poles do sink into the snow.
Strands of Quaking Aspens lined the top of the ridge and many grew close to the trail.
Joe talked about Aspens sharing a root system, which allows them to sprout at will and grow in great rows and scenic clusters. My takeaway equated them to groundcover in the Midwest that would spread from one root system. When it comes to aspens, some Coloradans might say "invasively."
Like most native trees, there is folklore and tales of medicinal uses with the aspen. The white chalk that is rubbed easily from the birch tree-like bark reportedly acts as a sunscreen. I gave it a try on the bridge of my nose and cheeks. And, another revelation.It worked.
"New skills are good for body and brain," Joe said as he turned into the forest followed by a fledging snowshoe enthusiast already mentally marking a time to return to experience more of the wonders of Vail.
IF YOU GO
Visit Vail: For information about the outdoor vacation wonders in Vail, Colorado, visit vail.com.
Vail Mountain (Golden Peak ) Nordic School: vail.com, click through to Ski & Snowboard School, then drag to Nordic (XC) & Snowshoe.
Getting there: From Chicago O'Hare International Airport, American Airlines serves Vail Eagle Airport, which is 45 minutes from Vail Mountain or through Denver. Colorado Mountain Express provides van pick up at both airports to lodging of your choice in Vail. aa.com and coloradomountainexpress.com..
Staying where: Any of these properties are perfect for couples, families, and cross-generational travel. Find privacy and places to gather with a residence rental. Start at rockresorts.com and click through to The Lodge at Vail, the property that opened with the mountain 50 years ago, the old world designed Arrabelle at Vail Square, The Osprey at Beaver Creek that boasts the shortest distance to a chair lift in the county, and The Pines Lodge, also at Beaver Creek and a leading (and idyllic) location for destination weddings.
Dining: When John Elway opened a steakhouse outside of Denver, he chose Vail. Located in The Lodge at Vail, Elway's Vail Restaurant features an open kitchen that serves up USDA aged prime, hand-cut beef with seasonal, regional sides. elways.com/vail.
More dining: Sweet Basil is a landmark in Vail Village. Open kitchen, captivating history and a flavor-rich, innovative menu. Think pear and pecorino tortellini with Meyer lemon marmalade, tuscan kale and shaved walnut with sunchoke and brown butter plus a splash of sherry vinegar or seared ahi tuna in a smoked quinoa crust with a warm quinoa vegetable salad and black garlic puree. Sweet Basil is all about the food. Lucky for diners, that passion extends to service too. sweetbasilvail.com.
How's the air up there?
Vail, in Eagle County, Colo., is the largest single mountain winter resort in the U.S. and has a top elevation of 11,570 feet and a base elevation of 8,120. Meaning?
Willis Tower in Chicago, is 1,729 feet, which makes the base elevation at Vail about 4.5 times higher than the famous Chicago skyscraper.
The Quad-Cities is 694 feet above sea level, which means visitors walking around the lobby at The Lodge at Vail are nearly 12 times higher in elevation than they are walking from the parking lot into the Figge Art Museum.