Cross-country skiing offers fitness and secluded, scenic views

By: Jeffrey Weidel/Special to Gold Country News Service
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There are spectacular views at ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe region. But do many people really take the time to look around and marvel at the beauty?

In the more hustling, crowded environment of Tahoe’s downhill resorts, which typically attract large crowds of skiers and snowboarders, the splendor of the Sierra mountain range can often become an afterthought.

That’s one reason why some people prefer their skiing in a more isolated cocoon. Although not as well known, the Tahoe area also has a great assortment of areas that cater to cross-country skiers.

They range from privately owned ski areas around the Tahoe basin with varying elevations and terrific panoramic views to locations that offer open meadows, scenic climbs and isolated valleys and forests to explore.

Royal Gorge in Soda Springs bills itself as North America’s largest cross-country ski resort. A busy weekend can find 500 or more people of all ages and abilities slipping into their long, narrow skis and heading into the winter wilderness. Depending on the day and weather, the weekday count is around 200 visitors.

Away from the base area, skiing into a secluded mountainous section often happens quickly at Royal Gorge, thanks to its 180-kilometer area that includes 65 trails that are groomed throughout much of the season. More adventurous skiers will find themselves climbing to look out over Castle Peak and Devil’s Peak.

“Once you get out on your own, it becomes pretty isolated,” said Lauren Birtwhistle, a spokesperson for Royal Gorge. “It’s fairly quiet with no real crowds once you get on the trails.”

Part of the Nordic skiing family that includes snowshoeing, cross-country skiing involves skis, boots and poles, just like the downhill crowd. But in Nordic skiing, the toe of the boot is attached to the ski with a binding, while the heel remains free because they are needed to push forward or uphill.

As one might guess from the boot/ski relationship, the effort in cross-country is considered more strenuous simply because the downhill terrain is much less frequent. For that reason, cross-country skiing attracts more fitness-oriented people.

Cyclists and runners often use it as winter cross training. Cross-country skiing is known as a great workout that will impact muscles that don’t get as much use in downhill mode.

There are a half-dozen or more appealing places to cross-country ski in the Tahoe region, including several at resorts like Northstar-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood.

Located in a more isolated region off Highway 88, Kirkwood provides the typical three levels of trails (beginner, intermediate, expert), flat areas, climbs and downhill sections that typify all cross-country areas. Yet the views, some of them at 9,000 feet, are probably what keep many people coming back.

“We have a lot of lava cliffs at Kirkwood, and when the sun is out on a clear day, it’s about as beautiful as it gets,” Kirkwood cross-country spokesperson Kasi Craddock said. “There are a lot of unobstructed views and no sign of mankind.”

One other aspect that sets Kirkwood apart is it allows dogs on three of its 24 trails. For a $4 pass, Fido gets to hang out with you.

“The dogs love it so much and are so excited to be in the snow,” Craddock said. “Some people love to do everything with their dogs, so you get to experience that at Kirkwood.”

The cost for an adult typically runs $18-$25 for a trail pass, and renting equipment (skis, boots, poles) ranges from $17-$23. For beginners, there are packages for just under $50 that includes a lesson, which is advisable.

“People think cross-country skiing is walking on skis, but it’s much more than that. A lesson will advance your skills where it takes a lot less effort,” Birtwhistle said. “The scariest part is going downhill, so it’s advisable to take a lesson. It will be less intimidating.”

Much like downhill skiing, there are rules to live by in the cross-country world. People are urged to dress in light layers that can be added or removed throughout the day, since weather can change quickly in the mountains.

Cross-country visitors are urged to use sunscreen, wear dark glasses or goggles, take a trail map, bring water and food, and keep off closed trails. All levels should ski under control and yield to downhill skiers. When passing, do it on the left side. And naturally, when stopping, don’t block the trail.

Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento-area freelance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience.

Cross-country locations in Lake Tahoe

Spectacular views of Lake Tahoe and Martis Valley can be seen from many of the 50 kilometers of groomed, scenic trails at this North Tahoe resort.

Situated in the Alpine Valley just south of Lake Tahoe with a base elevation of 7,800 feet, it features 24 trails and 70 kilometers of machine-groomed areas.

Royal Gorge
Located in Soda Springs, this large resort has 65 trails and 180 kilometers, four surface lifts, 10 warming huts and four trailside cafes.

Spooner Lake
The closest major cross-country area to South Lake Tahoe, 12 miles from the Stateline casinos, has 80 kilometers of groomed trails and features views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra.

Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area
Located in Tahoe City, the area has 19 trails on a 65-kilometer system that accesses the Ponderosa Pine and White Fir forests, open meadows, views of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding peaks.

Tahoe Donner
Located in Truckee, the 51 trails through 100 kilometers include climbs, rolling hills, pine and aspen forests.

Sugar Pine State Park
On Tahoe’s west shore in Tahoma, the area hosted the 1960 Winter Olympic Nordic skiing competitions. It features open meadows and stream paths on four trails and 20 kilometers.