Not thirty minutes into my snowshoeing adventure with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), it struck me.
Alpine skiing is like being on an interstate.
Yes, I’m seeing the beautiful mountains, the intricate lacing of tree branches in relief against the stunning blue of the sky. I’m appreciating the beauty of being outdoors, but it’s all at a macro level.
Snowshoeing at Snowmass with ACES brought it down to a micro level. And I’ll never look at the forest in the same way, again.
ACES Snowshoe Tours
Two times each day, during the winter, naturalists and environmental scientists lead a two-hour snowshoe tour at Snowmass.
Starting adjacent to the bustling hive of activity at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola, the tour offers visitors a chance to hike into the nearby forest, to stop and look at animal tracks and to learn about the alpine environment just steps from some of Colorado’s most popular ski slopes.
The terrain is gentle and the pace tailored to the group. No previous experience is necessary. Just don’t wear ski boots.
A Walk in the Woods
“How many of you have snowshoed before?” Our ACES guide, Tawny, was gauging the skills of our group.
It was 1:00 p.m. on a gorgeous January afternoon. The sun was high and warm, and three of us were standing around nervously, trying to figure out how to put on snowshoes.
It was quickly clear that none of us had any substantive snowshoe experience.
In addition to me, a native Coloradan who has always eschewed snowshoes in favor of cross-country skis, there were Tanya and Tony, a couple from Mississippi attending a conference at Snowmass.
“It barely snows where we live,” Tanya explained, as Tawny helped us buckle into our snowshoes.
“No worries,” laughed Tawny. “We’re just going for a walk.”
Taking a Closer Look
And walk we did. Just steps away, Tawny led us onto a well-packed trail that skirted a small pond, bounded on one side by tall Aspen trees, and on the other by conifers.
“Does anyone know why there are no Aspen trees on that side of the pond?” Tawny asked.
Of course we didn’t, although we tried guessing.
It turns out that Aspen trees love sunlight, so they are happier on southern exposures. They also need more water than conifers and are less resilient.
That was lesson number one.
Over the next two hours, we wound in and out of the dark forest, spotting bear claw marks dug into tree bark, learning how to analyze foot prints in the snow (who knew that fox and coyotes are “perfect steppers” capable of retracing and planting their feet exactly in their previous marks?).
We learned about “old man’s beard,” a lichen that is a sign of clean, pure air.
We also took a look at the previous human environment, the remnants of an old ranching lifestyle that existed after the silver mining bust and before the ski era, during a time known as the “quiet years.”
And as we walked, we noticed the quiet.
Occasionally, we’d hear delighted laughter coming from the children’s learning center at Elk Camp Meadows, but mostly, we didn’t hear much.
Just steps into the forest, it was as if the human-built environment had disappeared.
As our hike with Tawny came to a close, she shared with us one of her favorite quotes.
“When man tugs at nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
It turns out this is a paraphrase of something John Muir said in 1911, but paraphrase or not, it’s meaning is clear.
A ski resort tugs at nature, yet the resort is also completely dependent upon the natural landscape and ecological systems.
This interdependency is both beautiful and essential.
And you can see it, if you just take the time to look.
More About ACES
The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies was founded in 1968 to inspire outdoor education and environmental responsibility.
To this end, ACES operates a variety of year-round naturalist-led hikes and programing, including lectures, interactive classes and outdoor adventures for kids and adults.
During winter, daily snowshoe hikes are offered at both Aspen and Snowmass in cooperation with Aspen Skiing Company. They also offer a Friday night hike, during Ullr Nights at Snowmass.
Lift passes are required, as is a snowshoe ticket, and they can be purchased at resort ticket offices. You don’t need reservations. And as I mentioned above, don’t show up in ski boots. They simply won’t work.
Children ages 7 and up are invited to participate and guides are adept at tailoring the experience to fit the interests of the group. A cookie and hot chocolate break is included.
ACES also operates the Wapiti Wildlife Center at the top of the Elk Camp lift at Snowmass. Skiing nature tours leave at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day from the center. At 11,325 feet, the center is a warm, cozy place to warm up on a cold day, with toasty warm restrooms, drinking water and interesting wildlife displays.
Many thanks to Travel Mindset, the Village of Snowmass and Aspen Snowmass for hosting me and my family. You can read and see more of our adventures at Travel Mindset.
More On Snowmass:
- What’s New At Snowmass? Gladed Skiing on Burnt Mountain, Ullr Nights and Two New Hotels, March 15, 2013.
- A Different Look at Snowmass, February 27, 2012.
- Why Our Family Loves to Ski at Snowmass, Colorado, February 23, 2012.
- Ski Trip Report: Perfect Timing at Buttermilk and Snowmass, Colorado, January 11, 2012.
- Spring Break at Snowmass, Colorado: A Top Ten List for Skiing Families, March 17, 2011.
- Snowmass, Colorado: Family Friendly at Any Age, September 22, 2010.
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