This post comes to Colorado Ski Country from Dan Rabin, a freelance writer from Boulder whose thirst for knowledge is exceeded only by his thirst for Colorado-brewed craft beer.
Whooshing down the slopes of Copper Mountain, it’s easy to forget that the resort is more than just a series of green, blue and black ski runs. However, after completing a “Ski With a Ranger” mountain tour, I will forever think of the popular Summit County resort as a complex and fascinating ecosystem that also happens to be a fine place to ski. In addition to their educational value, the tours are a lot of fun and a unique change of pace to a typical ski outing.
The free tours are offered every Friday throughout ski season. They last about 45 minutes and are sometimes extended if participants are interested. Meet your guides at the top of the Timberline Lift at 11 a.m. No reservations are required.
The guides are members of the Friends of Dillon Ranger District, a non-profit volunteer organization promoting stewardship of National Forest lands within Summit County through a variety of service and educational projects. They share their extensive knowledge of natural history along with ample helpings of enthusiasm on the leisurely and enlightening outings.
“Instead of shooting down the mountain and just looking 100 feet in front of you, we slow down, we stop, we enjoy the environment,” explained Daryl Roepke, who, along with Larry “Bear” Astor, conducted the Ranger Tour that I attended on a recent Friday. Roepke and Astor lead tours every other week, trading off with a second guide team that leads the tours on alternating weeks.
I arrived a bit early and got acquainted with other skiers who showed up to join the tour. By departure time, there were 17 of us from diverse locations including Phoenix, St. Louis, New York City and several Colorado communities.
Before heading downhill, we talked about the dramatic decrease in oxygen at our 11,500-foot departure point and the effects it can have on people. Then we followed our guides down the mountain, stopping from time to time as they pointed out something of interest along our route. Our classroom was a green slope, suitable for all but beginning skiers and snowboarders.
Much of the discussion involved trees. If you think trees are just trees, you’ll think otherwise by tour’s end. At one stop, we examined Englemann Spruce and Sub-alpine Fir trees, the two dominant species at this elevation. We learned how to tell them apart (examine the needles) and how they’ve adapted to the harsh mountain environment. “Bear” pointed out a grove of aspens growing across the valley and explained why these trees are scarce on Copper’s slopes.
At another stop, we looked at tree wells and talked about how these potentially hazardous snowless pits are formed at the base of trees. As a light snow began to fall, we discussed the two types of snowflakes and which type creates the best powder conditions.
As someone who has traveled throughout the Colorado high country, I was particularly interested in the discussion about mountain pine beetles. It was intriguing to learn why the tiny insects that have decimated vast expanses of Colorado forests have caused relatively little damage at Copper Mountain.
In one location, our guides pointed out a series of animal tracks leading into the timber, which sparked a discussion of the area’s abundant wildlife, including the snowshoe hare, fox and coyote that are nocturnal visitors to Copper’s forested slopes. I was very surprised to learn that the most dangerous animal common to the area is neither bear nor mountain lion. (Hint: it’s big and favors wetlands.)
Man’s activities have had a profound effect on the forest environment in the past few centuries. I was astounded to learn that Summit County has more visitors than Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Copper Mountain, our guides explained, is working with the Forest Service on a variety of programs to mitigate the impacts that six million annual visitors have on the county’s wildlands.
At the completion of the standard tour, I joined about half of the original group for an optional 30-minute extended tour that took us to more challenging terrain above timberline. At 12,500 feet, the flora changes dramatically over short distances once the snow melts, Roepke explained to me on the chairlift as we approached the windswept ridgeline. “In a distance of 30 feet, you’ll go from lush vegetation – flowers – to dry grassland,” he said. “There are not many places in the country where you get that.”
Before we went our separate ways, Roepke explained that the tours are suitable for all ages, and parents are encouraged to bring their children along. “The kids love it when we point out the animal tracks. We really try to make this a kid-friendly tour.” For those with a youngster’s curiosity, Copper Mountain’s Ranger Tours bring out the kid in all of us.