Category Archives: Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing

Leeland Creek to Mt. Nystrom Trailhead Cross-Country Ski

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The view from the Mt. Nystrom trailhead.

The view from the Mt. Nystrom trailhead.

Ski Information:

Mileage:  Approximately 14.6 miles roundtrip

Elevation Gain: About 2,000 feet

Altitude: 11,367 feet at the top

How to Get There: Coming from Winter Park, turn left off of Highway 40 onto the Fraser Valley Parkway. Stay right at the fork in the road. At the stop sign, turn left onto St. Louis Creek Road/ County Road 73, and follow this toward the Fraser Experimental Forest. Leeland Creek trailhead is a large pullout on the left side of the road.


Starting at 8:30am, we are the first car at the Leeland Creek trailhead. We begin climbing steadily almost immediately on Leeland Creek Road. About a half mile into the ski, we turn right onto Fool Creek Road and follow this 0.9 miles to the gate marking the start of the Mt. Nystrom trail. In the summertime, you can park here and bike the first 5.8 miles toward Mt. Nystrom. Today, we are planning to ski this portion of the trail, hoping to get above tree line and be rewarded with views of our Fraser Valley.

This trail gains elevation steady over the course of the 5.8 miles. As we climb, we cross 11 switchbacks that get shorter and steeper as we near our destination. The trail is wide and lined with a healthy pine forest; because of the devastating beetle kill in Grand County some forests here are no longer healthy, with dead and downed trees dominating certain areas. It’s a hot sunny day, and we appreciate the shade of these tall trees. As we gain elevation, we can see glimpses of the Fraser Valley to the east of us. The corner of one switchback gives us a view of Byer’s Peak, looking fairly close and large from where we are.

The portion of the Mt. Nystrom trail that we are on is a service road, and we come to a point where the service road appears to end. It’s a little bit hard to tell in winter, but the wide, clear trail we were on seems to peter out. From here, we are on our own to find the best spot for lunch with a view. We headed right, up a wide path between trees. As we climbed, we could see that the knoll we were on was gradually sloping down in our direction, so we continued to head up and to the left.

We marveled for a moment in the trees when we came across the wing prints of a bird that had clearly swooped to pick up some prey from the snow. We looked around at the trees dotting the knoll, and wished we had our hammock to hang out. Finally, as we climbed up the side of the knoll, we began to notice the 360 degree view: the Fraser Valley and Continental Divide to the south and east, the reaching mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park to the northeast, the continuation of ridge trail to Mt. Nystrom to the southwest, and, most dramatically of all, jagged Byer’s and Bill’s, and St. Louis Peaks, and the St. Louis Lake basin staring right at us from the northwest.

Although we look at Byer’s, Bill’s, and St. Louis Peaks from our deck each day, we had never seen them from that exact angle. Alex spied the fence marking the end of the bike trail, and we chose to perch there- with views of these awesome peaks- for lunch.

Lingering in the sun for a while, we had to mention at least once what a pretty place we live in before enjoying the steady cruise back to the car.

Enjoying the sunshine and views at Mt. Nystrom trailhead!

Enjoying the sunshine and views at Mt. Nystrom trailhead!

My 3 Favorite Cross-Country Ski Spots in Grand County

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More and more recently I find myself wanting to escape the hoards of people that flock to Winter Park Resort- my ‘home resort, at just 10 minutes from my home- and enjoy the quiet, snowy woods that encompass the Fraser Valley.

‘I didn’t move to the mountains to be around a whole bunch of people,’ I find myself thinking.

…Wow….that sounds a little bit curmudgeon-y….

But really.

It’s kind of true.

I love the peace and quiet and solitude that can be found way back in the woods, in winter or summer.

There are tons of places to cross-country ski and snowshoe in Grand County. At the more popular nordic centers, you will encounter problems similar to that at Winter Park Resort: crowds, people, and high prices.

Here are my three favorite places to leave the crowds behind in Grand County during winter:

Monarch Lake: This is a popular area in summer, but the lack of winter maintenance keeps people away for 6-7 months a year. With the backdrop of dramatic Indian Peaks Wilderness, this spot is scenic and serene. The trailhead is located off of highway 40, between Granby and Grand Lake, at the Arapahoe Bay National Forest turnoff. Parking in the winter is about one mile from Monarch lake. Once you reach the lake, you will complete a loop around it that is about 3 miles, and then take the same road back down to the car. Overall, this is a 5-6 mile ski.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Meadow Creek Reservoir: A ski to this reservoir affords you a different set of incredible views of Indian Peaks Wilderness. When you reach the reservoir, you will stare across the wide-open expanse of white at the jagged peaks on the far side. Like Monarch, this is a popular spot for fishing, hiking, and picnics in the summer, but is left deserted in the winter months when the road closes miles from the reservoir. To get to Meadow Creek, take County Road 8 out of Fraser until you read the ‘End of Winter Maintenance’ sign. You will park here, and trek up the long road to the reservoir. Unlike Monarch, Meadow Creek does not offer a loop option; the destination is the reservoir. This ski is approximately 9 miles.

The Fraser Experimental Forest: This is probably the most popular cross-country ski area of the three in this post, but there

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

are so many miles of trail in this area that it is very likely to see nobody else while you are out here. The routes are seemingly endless here: you can trek as far up the Byer’s Peak road as you want; spend about an hour completing the DeadHorse loop; make up your own loop on St. Louis Creek and King’s Creek roads; head toward St. Louis Lake; climb to the saddle between Bottle and Byer’s Peak (we call it Bottle Pass); head toward Mt. Nystrom. The options are almost endless! We’ve done nearly all of these listed. We are nearly always alone in our journeys, and, in this area, are awarded great views of Byer’s Peak, the Continental Divide, the ski resort, Indian Peaks, and the distant mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park. For more information about the great trail system in this area, contact the local National Forest Service Office and acquire a map, as it’s possible to get mixed up on some of the county roads that serve as winter trails.

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Meadow Creek Reservoir Cross-Country Ski

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Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Ski Information:

Mileage: Approximately 6.5 miles

Elevation gain: Approximately 900 feet along the road

Altitude: Approximately 10,100 feet

To get there: Take US Hwy 40 to the turnoff for CR 83, which is between mile markers 224 and 225 between Fraser and Tabernash. Turn onto CR 83 and follow it for about .4 miles to a fork. Take the left fork for CR 84, which then turns into FSR 129. Follow FSR 129 until the end of winter maintenance and park there.

National Forest land has quickly become one of our favorite places to spend time in the winter. Sure we live 10 minutes from a ski resort, which is great. But, on the other hand, one of the reasons we love living in the mountains is because we are out of the way of the “city” crowds in our day to day life. It sure doesn’t feel that way on a Saturday at Winter Park Ski Resort. We still love snowboarding, but where we really get our fill of mountain quietude is on cross-country skis in the National Forest that surrounds us. Grand County has an extensive trail system in the National Forest, and it’s made bigger in the winter when maintenance stops on many dirt roads.

Meadow Creek Reservoir is a place we’ve visited a few times in the summer months and the views from its shores are stunning; The craggy mountains of Indian Peaks Wilderness back the reservoir, and it’s surrounded by thick pine forest, which isn’t always the case in Grand County with the Pine Beetle outbreak. In the summer, you can drive right up to the reservoir, picnic on the shore, fish, and camp nearby. It’s beautiful. It’s accessible. So….it’s crowded in the summer. But not so much in the winter.

It was on my winter ski list this list, and it didn’t disappoint for a Valentine’s Day outing. We drove up FSR 129 and parked about a quarter mile below the road sign indicating where the end of winter maintenance was. From there, we followed what is a in the summer all the way to the reservoir, chuckling a little at all the nearly-buried road signs along the way.

“Heavy truck traffic,” one said. Ha. Not in February. National Forest love

As with many of our cross-country skis in the area, we came across only one other person, who passed us early on on a snowmobile and took a different route than us. Snowmobiling is allowed on most of the backroads in winter, but it’s not very often that we come across them. It was quiet here, silent but for the occasional gust of wind and the swish of our skis through sand-like snow. Usually, bird chirps are one of my favorite things about a forest ski, but they didn’t seem to be out today. In the dead of winter, it’s refreshing to be reminded that some things are still alive and singing.

The road up to the reservoir climbs gradually, with no large bumps or hills P1130122to surmount. This is great for me, because I can go a good distance on skis but haven’t quite mastered the skills of going up or down steep stuff smoothly. I’ll admit it, I look like a drunk duck on skis when I try to go up a steep hill. Some of the areas of the road are exposed and windswept. We encountered some strong gusts, but it was never long before we were back in the shelter of the thick pine forest. When we got to the reservoir we skied toward the summer picnic area, finding ourselves slightly disoriented and off-balance in the low light and incredibly vast whiteness of a winter lake shore. We wiped the snow off the top of a fence and sat for a short picnic in the trees, out of the way of the wind. When we were almost too cold to keep sitting, we got up and skied down to the lake shore. From here, white stretched out before me, clean and bright and utterly undisturbed. Pine forest cover the hills that horseshoe the reservoir, and the gray clouds that hid Indian Peaks today made the sky itself feel like a looming presence.

Immediately, I had one of those ‘I live here?!’ moments. It’s ridiculously void of human noise. It’s simply beautiful. And it’s big. Way bigger than me. The same thing happens every time I realize the vastness of the mountains: I realize my tiny-ness. My problems, the mountains make me think, are so small in the scheme of things. Temporary. Minute. And, when I think about it that way, pretty much nonexistent. Mountains are way bigger. Mountains have been around way longer. Mountains are way more permanent. Life is good. Life is simple. And the reverie rolls on.

Hiking information from Hiking Grand County, Colorado, Third Edition by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.

Echo Lake area

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Echo Lake

Echo Lake, off of the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway

Hiking Details:

  • Distance: Echo Lake: On the road.  To Chicago Lakes : 8 miles roundtrip
  •  Elevation Gain: To Chicago Lakes: 1,400 feet
  • To get there: Take I-70 west to Idaho Springs exit 240. From there, take the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway 14 miles to Echo Lake.

It’s a lazy day, unassuming of any kind of goal or objective other than the most basic: to get out. Our check engine light goes on as soon as we exit the highway, 17 miles from the Echo Lake trailhead. We check the engine. We shrug. And we drive on. It doesn’t look like we’re going to explode or breakdown. There’s no reason to head home rather than out. Echo Lake is, to my surpise, right off the road. As we drive past it I turn to the map in my Colorado Snowshoeing book. I turn it this way and that. I kind of see how it’s off road, but not really. The lake sits at what is the Mt.  Evans entrance station in the summer. It’s less crowded than we anticipated, which is always  a nice surprise in the mountains. After a bathroom break (on a, literally, frosted toilet) we head up the road. As usual this winter, Alex is on his skis and I am on my snowshoes.  It’s quiet; we only come across a couple other pairs of hikers. At the first switchback in the road I stop.

“Look at our beautiful state,” I say to Alex.

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