By Dan Rabin
Dan Rabin is a Boulder-based freelance writer and author of the upcoming guidebook, Colorado Breweries, scheduled for release in May 2014.
For skiers and boarders seeking a variety of challenging terrain, Aspen Mountain serves up an enticing menu of bumps, glades and steeps. While the mountain is a haven for the fast and the fearless, those who slow down and look around will discover there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye. A fun way to learn about the mountain’s high alpine environment is on a snowshoe tour. Tours are offered twice daily throughout ski season. One afternoon during a recent Aspen visit, I swapped my ski boots for snow boots and joined a mountain adventure of a different nature.
Outside the Sundeck restaurant, near the top of the gondola, I located our guide, Sarah Onstad, who was waiting with a collection of snowshoes and a mountain of enthusiasm. A former biology major from Minnesota, she relocated to Colorado to pursue her passion for environmental education. She landed a position as an educator and naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. In addition to leading snowshoe tours at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, she teaches environmental studies to local elementary school children.
Along with me and Sarah, three other folks showed up for the 1pm tour. Bob is a retiree now living in Aspen. Anita and Natalie, visitors from Connecticut and Florida respectively, were looking for a different type of outdoor experience. The tours vary in size, our personable guide informed us, but generally average a half-dozen people. None of us on this particular tour had much experience on snowshoes.
Departing the Sundeck, we stayed above the ski trails and soon crossed the ski area boundary. A well-defined trail through the fresh powder had been left by previous snowshoers. Despite my lack of experience, it didn’t take long to feel comfortable trekking over the packed snow. Occasional forays into the powder beside the trail proved slightly more challenging. The mostly-flat mountaintop terrain was well-suited to novice snowshoers with a few gentle ups and downs along the way. Our pace was relaxed and we made frequent stops. Our route took us through stands of evergreens and over open areas affording awesome views of the surrounding mountain ranges.
At each stop, we learned about a different aspect of the environment at 11,000-plus feet above sea level. At one stop, we learned about the qualities that make the area’s abundant snowfall great for skiing, but not so great for building snowmen. On the edge of a stand of conifers, we examined the two dominant high alpine tree species, learned how to tell them apart, and discovered which one is wonderfully aromatic.
The presence of wildlife in the area may not be obvious to those with an untrained eye. But once you know what to look for, signs of mammal and bird activity are everywhere. Sarah pointed out animal tracks along our travel route and showed us how to identify the animal that made them. At one stop within a stand of trees, I learned more about the seasonal dietary habits of chickadees than I ever thought I’d know.
While the tour focused primarily on the natural history of Aspen Mountian, we also learned about the Ute Indians who visited the mountain seasonally, and the hearty silver miners who resided on the mountain year-round. Artifacts from Aspen’s silver mining history remain on the mountain, and we visited several of them during the tour. Snowshoeing on the mountaintop with new acquaintances is a social experience as well as a learning one. A mid-tour break for hot chocolate and cookies gave us a welcome chance to get acquainted with our guide and tour companions.
The Aspen Mountain Snow Tours are offered twice daily at 10am and 1pm. Tours meet at the top of the Silver Queen gondola. Snowmass also offers twice daily snowshoe tours. The Snowmass tours depart from the top of the Elk Camp Gondola at 10am and 1pm. A two-hour tour costs $63 and discounts are offered for kids up to 17, seniors, and anyone who has already purchased a lift ticket.