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Nordic skiers can Gorge at area XC resort

Guest Column, John Eaton
Courtesy of Royal GorgeTwo Nordic skiers take a break near Devil's Peak.
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Royal Gorge, established in 1971, is the largest cross country ski resort in North America.

More than 9,000 acres contain 330 kilometers of trails, 10 warming huts and four trailside cafes. The resort rents ski and snowshoeing equipment and sleds and provides group and private lessons that cover all Nordic techniques and all levels of proficiency. It also provides “pee wee” lessons for children 5-12 on weekends and holidays.

Lodging is available at Rainbow Lodge, where a shuttle to and from the ski area is available. The Wilderness Lodge, located far from any plowed roads, was a very popular place to stay and immerse oneself in cross country skiing (not to mention huge quantities of great food), until it burned down at the beginning of this ski season. Plans are under way to rebuild the lodge this summer for occupancy next winter.

Its location on Donner Summit provides an average of 600 inches of snowfall that comes early and stays late, so that Royal Gorge can open before, and stay open later, than most other cross country ski resorts. It prides itself on its snow grooming, as well as its general attention to detail for the safety of guests.

The terrain at Van Norden Meadows is as flat as you will find in the Sierra, but more challenging ridges are nearby. Typical terrain is gentle to moderate rolling hills, and there are plenty of steep hills and screaming descents for those that enjoy such things (Anna’s Chute and Thor are two examples).

Twenty-eight trails are designed for novices, 46 for intermediate and 16 for advanced skiers. Some of the trails go through meadows, most go through fragrant mixed pine forest and some go up to the tops of ridges and peaks. My favorite viewpoints are Mirkwood Lookout and Razorback, which are both on black (expert) trails. Lyle’s lookout, on an easy intermediate trial, is almost as scenic.

A pleasant run for beginning skiers is to take Palisade Trail to a trailside cafe where the Wilderness Lodge used to be, and then to take Yuba back to the summit. If you are feeling energetic, you could extend the trip by taking Stagecoach off of Palisades Drive and then Deer Lake back to the cafe (10-14K). There are many shorter loops close to summit Station.

More challenging trips would take you to Point Mariah – another great view of the Royal Gorge, after which the resort is named, or to Devil’s Peak where you can have a unique view to the south and west, then some exciting downhill on the way back. The former is about 22K or longer, depending on how you get there, and the latter loop is about 24K starting from Summit Station. There are also trails connecting Summit Station with Sugar Bowl and with Rainbow Lodge (the latter is a great run following the historic Emigrant Trail, but it is open only when there is a lot of snow).

Royal Gorge is operated more like an alpine resort than most Nordic areas, with 15 kilometers of snowmaking and four surface lifts that run on weekends and holidays.

It also has an active ski patrol that provides help as needed during the day and sweeps the trails at the end of the day. In addition, if any cars are left in the parking lot at the end of the day, the staff does not go home until the owner is found. The staff’s motto is that anybody can feel safe, even skiing alone, as long as they stay on the trails. There are signs and trailside maps to help you find your way, but Royal Gorge highly recommends bringing a map.

There are special events almost every weekend (except for holiday weekends, which are already plenty busy). One of the most popular is the Gold Rush, a group of three freestyle races of up to 50K, a favorite of elite racers nationwide. Ski de Femme, which features outstanding female teachers, is consistently sold out.

Other popular events are ski orienteering and ski de hut, in which participants are given a chance to draw for a prize for each of the 10 huts they reach. Previously, many of the Royal Gorge events were competitive, but the resort has concluded that the typical visitor, a person 30 to 40 years old from the Bay Area, prefers more recreational and educational events.

Royal Gorge can be reached by taking the Soda Springs exit from I-80. Go East on Donner Pass road, then follow the large red signs.

John Eaton is a PSIA level I instructor at the Royal Gorge ski school. For more information, log onto http://www.royalgorge.com, or call 1-800-500-3871 or 426-3871.


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