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Striding the Sierra

Being Rediscovered by People of All Ages and Ability, Nordic Skiing is a Great Addition to Your Winter Workout

Even before COVID put the kabash on indoor activities, people were embracing the outdoors at new heights. Cycling to hiking saw a surge over summer, and the same is expected for winter sports. With its ample ski resorts and acres of diverse terrain, Tahoe is equipped for this season’s newfound enthusiasm for the great outdoors.

With more ski areas per capita than anywhere else in the country, the Tahoe region is widely known for alpine skiing. However, it’s also a major destination and training hub for Nordic skiers and biathletes. Cross-country skiing has seen an uptick from a broad demographic ranging from older downhill skiers who are switching gears to save their knees, to serious athletes in search of new training methods. Regardless of age or athletic ability, outdoor enthusiasts are stocking up on cross-country gear as a way to limit contact with others while enjoying the great outdoors on the cheap.

Tahoe Mountain Sports owner Dave Polivy compared unprecedented demand for Nordic ski gear to summer’s COVID bike shortage.

“Inventory normally doesn’t sell until January, but it could run out in fall this year,” he said, of 40-percent jumps in both first-time cross-country skiers and dabblers investing in their own equipment. “There’s so much uncertainty about ski areas being too crowded or shut down that people want the peace of mind that they can cross-country ski out their back door.”

Beyond freedom, Nordic skiing offers so many other advantages. Like swimming, it’s low impact with great cardio results. Unlike the lift-service resort experience, Nordic skiers have the benefit of exploring nature up close and at their own speed. Fresh air and social distancing are an inherent part of the sport, and trail passes come at a fraction of the cost of lift tickets, so you never have to feel guilty about not riding out the whole day. Some dog-friendly trails even allow Fido to tag along for the glide.

I have two cattle dogs that love to come when I ski,” said Dave Eastwood, general manager of Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, which designates 12 km of trails to skiers and their dogs. “It’s rare in the Tahoe Basin to have so many dog-friendly trails that are open daily. They’re very popular, and most of our season pass holders have dogs.”

Located atop Donner Summit next to Sugar Bowl resort, Royal Gorge is also recognized for its vastness—6,000 acres with 140 km of trails from luxuriously long loops to challenging treks such as the 50 km-roundtrip from Summit Station to Horseshoe Hut located way out by Devils Peak. But Eastwood said the buzz amongst regular skiers is a sliver of new track that connects the entire Van Norden Meadow and Lake Perimeter Trail, renamed the Bill Patterson Loop for its most famous user. “Skiing the full loop hasn’t been possible for three seasons, so it’s a big deal,” he said.

Sugar Bowl goes so far as to close their trailside community to cars in the winter. The streets are transformed into groomed cross-country paths that offer a direct connection to the trails at Royal Gorge. Homeowners arrive by gondola and are then transported to their property by heated snowcat to create an authentic mountain experience.

Courtesy Tahoe XC. Credit Daphne Hougard

Set just above Truckee, Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area is a popular spot for biathletes, competitive skiers and recreational cross-country skiers alike. Within minutes, skiers can be climbing upwards of 2,000 feet on blue and black diamond trails (xc-ski trail difficulty is rated green, blue and black like alpine). Meanwhile, novices can get their bearings on a flat meadow, where ski lessons are taught, and work their way up to circling a 10-km green loop.

“We had the chance to build the ideal cross-country ski center around five years ago. From a patio with fire pits and picnic tables, skiers ease into the trail system versus a climb right off the bat,” said manager Sally Jones.

Skiers also come for Tahoe Donner’s 100+ km of nightly groomed trails thanks to its quartet of snowcats. The trails’ generous width—18 feet—provides enough room to lay both classic cross-country ski tracks and a fast lane for skate skiing. Each discipline requires different equipment and demands a very different technique.

“Most of our regulars are skate ski fanatics because they can go farther in a short period of time,” she said, of season pass holders who pop by before and after work or during a quick lunch break. “We average 1,500 to 2,000 season passes a year.”

As a rare nonprofit in the Nordic ski world, Tahoe XC’s mission is to make the sport accessible. Children aged 18 and under as well as seniors aged 70 and over receive complimentary passes to its 50-km, 26-trail network including 10km for dogs. The majority are beginner and intermediate levels, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer training here, or Tahoe City native and US Ski Team member JC Schoonmaker coaching Tahoe XC’s junior development team.

“It’s super motivating for young kids to have someone like JC, who started in our Strider Glider program, come back to coach,” said Tahoe XC executive director Ben Grasseschi. “Our goal is to build the pipeline for the best kids in the region to train together.”

COVID note: Due to this season’s unusual circumstances, amenities such as cafés, ticket counters, warming huts and restrooms will
be closed or altered for safety precautions. Check local event calendars for updates about annual events including The Great Ski Race fundraiser for Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue Team, Royal Gorge’s Gold Rush Festival and Tahoe Donner’s Sierra Skogsloppet XC.

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