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Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for winter fun

Cross-country ski out on Lake Maloya in Sugarite State Park, NM, to watch the ice fishing.
Cross-country ski out on Lake Maloya in Sugarite State Park, NM, to watch the ice fishing.
All photos by Janda Raker

Looking for some winter activities? Want to get into the great outdoors, but don’t want to spend the money for a traditional ski trip? Have you tried cross-country skiing and/or snowshoeing?

A beautiful day snowshoeing in the forest near Flagstaff, AZ
Photo: Janda Raker

These two pastimes are much less expensive and more accessible than downhill skiing, apparently contribute more to fitness and provide the soothing quiet rarely found on downhill slopes. You can cross-country ski or snowshoe on flat land as well as at the traditional ski areas of the nearby Rockies, so you won’t need to pay for lift tickets, stay in upscale hotels or lodges or eat in gourmet restaurants.

If you have your own equipment, you may be able to do both near your home after a local snowstorm. Cost to buy a full package of cross-country ski equipment averages between $300 and $450. For snowshoeing, assuming you already own hiking boots, the cost is between $140 and $450, less if you already own trekking poles. Compare that to equipment for downhill skiing, usually between $600 and $2,500. (None of these prices include clothing. Your usual hiking gear will work fine, with a pair of gaiters for deep powder and possibly the choice of Gore-Tex outerwear to shed moisture. If you're looking for Nordic skis or snowshoes, check REI.com, Campmor.com and SierraTradingPost.com.)

You can ski or snowshoe in nearby city parks, school grounds, even down your street after a blizzard if your schedule is flexible or the timing is right. If you live in Amarillo, John Stiff Park, Medical Center Park and Thompson Park are among the more spacious areas where you can easily avoid traffic. If you’d prefer to get out of town, wildlife refuges like Buffalo Lake and national recreation areas like Lake Meredith provide space to enjoy the brisk temperatures and a view of familiar landscape enhanced by snow.

If you don’t mind driving a few hours for your adventure, the higher altitudes of the Rockies of New Mexico and Colorado provide several areas that are quite enjoyable for skiing and snowshoeing. With the right weather conditions, you can ski or snowshoe almost anywhere you could normally hike. Hiking trails, service roads, through meadows, and along frozen stream beds are all excellent routes for off-trail back-country skiing. Take a day pack with water and snacks, an extra jacket, your camera and perhaps binoculars and a bird book if you’re a birdwatcher. The winter birds, like ravens and Steller’s jays and mountain chickadees, are often quite visible and easy to hear in the quiet. Also watch for tracks that show animal activity and perhaps even remains after animals have fed.

Overnight stays in inexpensive motels or your RV will limit your costs. Check websites and maps for phone numbers and call ahead for reservations for accommodations and current conditions. (Click here, then “hover" over “resorts and snow reports” and click “NM Nordic reports” for current conditions for Angel Fire, Chama, Enchanted Forest, and Valles Grande ski areas.)

Some favorite areas include the northwest corner of Bandelier National Monument west of Santa Fe, the huge open expanse of Valle Grande in Valles Caldera National Preserve northwest of Bandelier, the Chama Valley at the Colorado border, and Sugarite State Park northeast of Raton, where you can ski or even hike out on frozen Lake Maloya and watch the ice fishing even when there’s not much snow. (Click here for these and other locations. This site even provides info on where skiers and snowshoers can stay in cozy yurts, the circular domed tents designed in central Asia, after their days’ outings.) Many public recreation areas, such as state parks and national forests with trails appropriate for winter sports, are available for little or no charge.

Several designated ski areas provide groomed trails, and a few have ski or snowshoe rental, saving the initial outlay of funds. Those generally have a use fee. One of the best is Enchanted Forest, a commercial venture set in Carson National Forest just east of Red River, NM. (For info, click here.) There are more than 20 miles of groomed trails, a day lodge, snack bar, rental of skis and snowshoes and even 3 miles of trails where dogs are welcome. Other privately owned Nordic ski areas are located around New Mexico and Colorado. (Click here for info about skiing and snowshoeing and availability of yurts near Taos ski valley and near Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado.)

There are cross-country ski clubs in several cities in New Mexico (click here for contact info). Albuquerque hosts a very active one which includes meetings and trips by bus or private vehicle to ski areas in the vicinity. (Click here for more info.) Besides the ski areas that offer equipment rental, some outdoor stores rent cross-country ski equipment or snowshoes. Call ahead for that information. (Albuquerque’s REI store rents these, but their Santa Fe store does not.)

With all this information, you’re set for a wonderful adventure in the brisk fresh air with the clean smells and quiet swish of skis. And if the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico and Colorado don’t offer enough choices for you, consider farther afield, like Arizona, Wyoming . . . or Norway!