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Snowshoers find their path at Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort

No lessons are needed to go snowshoeing. Just strap on a pair and navigate around the skiers.

March 15, 2009|Hugo Martin

SODA SPRINGS, CALIF. — Wind-blown snow fell so heavily that the frosted pine and fir trees in the distance looked like hazy ghosts. Near the main entrance for the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, I watched as a family of six prepared to venture into the blizzard that shrouded North America's largest cross-country ski resort.

"Boy, they start them off young here," I thought as the parents struggled to fasten rented snowshoes to a couple of toddlers, just out of diapers. As for me, I wore a pair of top-of-the-line snowshoes with lightweight aluminum frames, polymer gel stirrups and stainless-steel crampons. Snowshoes have come a long way since early settlers, wood slabs strapped to their feet, crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago.

Today, the sport of snowshoeing is enjoying a surge of popularity, marked by a 30% spike in snowshoe sales between 2005 and 2008, according to SnowSports Industries America, a nonprofit trade group representing snow sport businesses.

So, in the middle of a late-winter storm, I traveled to this 9,000-acre winter resort near Soda Springs to see why almost 6 million Americans take part in what seems like the most leisurely of snow sports.

More than 200 miles of trails run like veins over the resort's valleys and peaks. Both cross-country skiers and snowshoers are welcome on the wide, groomed trails. But it's not an entirely egalitarian system (more on that later).

I had worn snowshoes only a few times, so I couldn't call myself an expert. But that's the beauty of the sport: You don't need much experience to do it.

Step 1: Strap them on.

Step 2: Walk.

True snowshoe adventurists venture into the wild backcountry to cut new trails. But I wanted to trek along Royal Gorge's network of well-marked paths. (I'm deathly afraid of getting lost in the snow and ending up a human Popsicle, like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining.") I was also anxious to check out the resort's eight warming huts, advertised as comfy rest stops along Royal Gorge's trails.

I started with a three-hour route that began at the Royal Gorge Summit Station (featuring a cafe, rental shop and cocktail bar) and descended to the Western Warming Hut. Pine trees, heavy with freshly fallen snow, swayed with the gusts of wind. A snow cat had groomed the trails, carving parallel tracks for cross-country skiers. Mounds of snow 3 feet high bordered the routes.

After trekking for about 45 minutes through a beautiful but bitterly cold winter wonderland, I staggered into the warming hut, a log cabin no bigger than a motor home. Inside, cross-country skiers and snowshoers huddled around a steaming teapot, heated by a propane-powered stove on a long folding table.

I had envisioned these huts having a roaring fireplace, comfy couches and employees serving bubbling hot chocolate. Still, the tea was hot and the company warm. While sipping tea, I met Annsofi Sabahi and Carol Copeland, two registered nurses who had been skiing and snowshoeing at Royal Gorge for years. The nurses attributed the popularity of snowshoeing to a worsening economy and shifting demographics.

"I think it's getting more popular because of the rising cost of skiing," Copeland said. She had a good point. Daily ski passes at nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Resort cost $66, plus $45 to rent skis and boots. At Royal Gorge, daily passes are $25, plus $21 to rent snowshoes.

As a nurse, Copeland knows that snowshoeing is easy on the joints, especially for those aging baby boomers who tremble at the thought of flying down black-diamond routes. She also said that climbing steep trails in snowshoes can be a great aerobic workout.

As we talked, Sabahi spread the resort trail map on the table to show me her favorite routes.

"The great thing about snowshoeing is that you can get out your trail map and just go where you want," she said. "You don't need lessons."

But snowshoeing is not that simple. There are rules to sharing groomed trails with cross-country skiers, as I learned later that day while climbing a route called the Big Ben trail. A cross-country skier greeted me as I approached her, saying angrily: "You are walking on my trail."

A veteran snowshoer later explained that snowshoers are relegated to the outside edge -- the shoulders -- of the groomed trails. The parallel tracks and the center of the trails are the realm of skiers. To me, this sounded as if I was being forced to the back of the bus.

I returned the following day to find the dark clouds replaced by a bright blue sky and warm sunshine sparkling off the freshly fallen snow.

Alpine skiers drool over this kind of powder but snowshoers are content with that crunchy, iced-over stuff they call Sierra Cement. My legs were feeling heavy when I decided to make a final trek to a 7,300-foot peak with a view of the historic Emigrant Trail below and 7,700-foot Devil's Peak in the distance.

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