THERE COMES A time in everyone’s life when serenity trumps the party scene. When following the crowd is no longer cool. When, as Huey Lewis put it, it’s hip to be square.
As a skier, I figured this out a few years back at Sugar Bowl. Carving my way down a popular run, a whistle stopped me dead in my tracks. Two hotshot patrollers were marking an obstacle. We’re the fashion police, one of them yelled. You’re under arrest! I blushed as it dawned on me that my hot pink ski pants might no longer be in vogue.
As I took time for lunch later that day, I saw women in their faux fur jackets with their Burning Love skis and matching pink boots. I saw teenagers with their designer grunge pants and Burton boards that cost more than my first car. I saw me in the mirror with gear from (gasp) the last millennium.
It was then that I had an epiphany. To continue my love affair with winter, I would have to tweak the experience, forgo the downhill speeds and the uphill lifts in favor of a sport that, until now, seemed too tame for a seasoned skier like me. I would have to go Nordic.
The Bay Area is blessed with some great Nordic skiing less than three hours away. One of my favorites is Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski area in North America. Off Interstate 80 at the Norden exit, Royal Gorge has a big network of trails on more than 9,000 acres. Some days you can ski on groomed tracks for hours without seeing another two-legged being.Nordic skis are much thinner and lighter than downhill skis, and you’ll need a lesson if you’ve never tried them. Of course, rentals and lessons are available at most cross-country ski areas. You’ll notice, almost immediately, the laid-back feel of these resorts. No long lines for rentals. No tangle of poles and boots as you try to try desperately to get outfitted by lunchtime. A Nordic boot fits like a slipper. They’re so snug and comfy, some folks wear them all day, even on the drive home.
One of the most charming aspects of Nordic skiing is the European-style hut system. There are 10 warming huts at Royal Gorge where skiers can brew a hot cup of tea or get a cold cup of water. Those who want to stay overnight can do so, at one of two lodges on the property, the Wilderness Lodge or the Rainbow Lodge. Both have inn-like accommodations and full-service restaurants.
Dining is another mark in the plus category for Nordic resorts. At Royal Gorge, you walk right up to the fresh salad bar, complemented by a bowl of steaming hot vegetarian chili. Share a carafe of wine with your ski mate and notice the quiet conversation around you. No clunking ski boots. No screaming teens. This sport attracts couples and families who want to commune with nature, as corny as it sounds.
Many Alpine resorts offer cross-country skiing, and it’s a good way to introduce yourself to the sport while other members of your family are skiing or boarding. Northstar at Tahoe, Tahoe Donner and Badger Pass all offer cross-country skiing.
Bear Valley is renowned for its Nordic trail system, one of the largest in the United States. Badger Pass offers cross-country trips to Glacier Point, a quiet and spectacular outlook offering views of the Yosemite Valley.
So the next time you’re skiing in heavy traffic at a popular downhill resort, think Nordic. It’s the opposite of the crowded Alpine experience and you won’t have to worry about the fashion police.