Summit Stop: Sledding the High Country
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A chance to soak up the astounding natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains is just one of the perks of a visit to Summit County. But on most ski terrain, the surrounding environment is kept at a distance, a backdrop for the downhill thrills. A snowmobile tour, however, combines thrills with the opportunity to venture a little deeper into the powder and the forest, rounding off a ski weekend by bringing the Rockies out of the ski resort background.
One in particular, a two-hour tour through the Arapahoe National Forest offered by Frisco-based Aspen Canyon Ranch, allows thrill-seekers to meet Mother Nature head on, around heart-stopping corners and atop peaks with unbelievable mountain views.
Aspen Canyon’s two-hour tour is a gem because it offers a little bit of everything, from wide, winding avenues through the trees that afford riders an opportunity to enjoy their surroundings, to tight single-track runs punctuated by hair-pin turns to get the blood flowing. The tour is perfect for new riders because it becomes more challenging gradually, allowing beginners to learn and take on new terrain as they get used to the snowmobile and improve their skills.
Winding through the national forest, along the border of Summit and Grand counties, the two-hour tour somehow offers a more intimate experience with the forest than most downhill resort terrain manages. Riders cruise under larger-than-life rock formations, through the pines and, at times, along the gully of the snow-covered Keyser Creek.
“You get to enjoy being out in the actual forest,” Aspen Canyon co-owner Ryan Collins said.
The terrain is pretty smooth for most of the ride and the bumpier sections are usually fun, rather than annoying.
But riders should be warned, the tour might also be a rude awakening to the magnitude of the devastation caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, which never seems more appalling than the few times the trail runs right through the middle of it. The beetles have infested more than 3 million acres of forest, killing countless lodgepole pines in Colorado and Wyoming.
The trail head is located at the Horseshoe campground, a popular summer haunt. Beginners can get comfortable with the snowmobile during the first few miles of the ride as the trail stays wide and fairly smooth, with gentle curves. More experienced riders will enjoy the opportunity to take in the forest vistas. Guides say it’s not uncommon to spot a moose, Snowshoe hare or even a coyote near the trail, though flightier wildlife, such as elk and deer, generally keep a safe distance from the noisy snowmobiles.
For the first few miles the trail stays relatively flat, climbing only slightly on the way out to Churches Park, an open field bordering the trail where the guide sets riders loose to have some fun with their machines. A hard-packed circular path – reminiscent of a NASCAR track – runs out from the trail along the trees. The track allows for speed and some bumps in the road provide a particular thrill when hit at 40 or 50 miles per hour. Newer riders have an opportunity to practice throwing their weight into sharper turns, a skill that will come in handy down the road.
From there, the tour heads uphill to a scenic mountain overlook with spectacular views of the Gore Range. On a clear day riders will be able to see for miles and take photos that will never be able to do the scene justice.
Hard though it might be to leave the overlook, the pain is tempered by continuing views of the Gore Range as the tour winds further into the back country. The ride follows substation trail, a narrow single track where hard turns and small hills in the path make for a bumpier but more exciting ride. The decent begins as the tour turns off onto Cliffside trail. Through the last stretch of the tour riders will get one last chance to pick up some speed over long straight sections before slowing down for the sharper turns. There are also a few opportunities to plow through powder to the side of the groomed trail before returning to the trail head.
Unique to Aspen Canyon, and particularly appealing at the end of the 25-mile ride, is the rustic lodge, where riders can suit up before the tour and snack or warm up by the grand stone fireplace afterward. Vans take riders to the trail head from the lodge and back and will also provide transportation to the lodge from anywhere in Summit County. Aspen Canyon has helmets and snow gear on hand at the lodge as well as warm drinks and food for purchase.
The tour is definitely a family friendly activity and kids will love blasting through the powder in the mid-ride free time at Churches Park. Young riders need to be at least 15 years old with a valid driver’s permit to ride the snowmobile alone and 18 years old to drive a passenger on the seat behind them. But kids as young as 4 years old can ride behind adult drivers.
All tour guides have at least 8 years of experience and are CPR certified.
For reservations call Aspen Canyon’s Frisco office at (970) 668-0459. More information about Aspen Canyon’s snowmobiles and tours is available online at http://www.aspencanyon.com.
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