Near Ouray, in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, there are several areas to cross country ski, including Ironton Park on Red Mountain Pass along the Million Dollar Highway. Ironton makes for a fantastic day of skiing as demonstrated by Maria Ziemba (pictured with daughter Sylvia), one of the employees at the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs. Read her thoughts of her most recent ski day below.
Before we started, we reviewed the areas available for skiing on the Ouray County Nordic Council website and then we double checked weather forecasts to be sure weren't travelling into an area that was expecting nasty weather (that can lower the fun factor). We took my level of expertise into account and we chose Ironton for the first outing of the year.
Ironton Park is maintained all winter by the Nordic Council, and it has beautifully groomed ski trails of varied difficulty. A map at the trailhead identified several trail options. We chose the Townsite Loop. This trail is about two miles long, travelling past serene meadows, slight hills and finally, the few remaining buildings of the town itself before a straight shot back to the entrance to the park.
We rented some skis from Ouray Mountain Sports on Main Street. The weather report indicated a beautiful day was in store, so we decided to head out early. The snow is safer in the morning before it has had time to soften up too much, not to mention how unpleasant it is when softened snow builds up in the kick zone on your skis. (I fall more than enough without adding any more handicaps to my day.) Properly geared up, with a safe itinerary in mind, we began our little adventure. We jumped in the truck and headed south up Red Mountain Pass (Highway 550). The highway was dry and the skies were clear. The scenery in the San Juans Mountains with their snow covered peaks amazed us.
About nine miles past Ouray, by the summertime turn off for Corkscrew Pass, is the pull off for Ironton Park. It is marked by a blue sign, with the trail map I mentioned earlier at the trail head. Fantastic! The snow was perfect for skiing and the trail had just been groomed; we enjoyed the awesome beauty surrounding us.
Most of the Townsite Loop is flat, with just a few little dips, the majority is just skating along, pretty easy. (Just fit your skis into the existing track, and do a kind of walk and slide. Once you get the hang of it, you don’t even feel like you are working any more, just skimming along the top of the snow without a care in the world.) Of course, I do have a tendency to get so caught up in the scenery that I forget to watch where I’m going, and inevitably wind up off the track with one or both skis dipping into unpacked snow, catching me off guard, and giving me the opportunity to practice the proper way to fall. There are many ways to land in the snow without getting hurt, the key is to try not to mess up the tracks on a groomed trail and create a mess for everyone else wanting to enjoy the park.
About a quarter mile into the trail, we reached a hill. As long as you’re confident, you can continue skating all the way to the top, then it is kind of fun to just crouch down and let your skis take you down the other side, and back up to where the track flattens out again. Right. To control your speed, you bend your knees, and place your poles between your legs into the snow. To control my speed, I bent my knees, flailed my poles, and sat down. Repeatedly. I believe the first couple of times, my friend was amused. By the time I get up the other side of the hill, she was a trifle annoyed. Back on level ground, we skated the rest of the way to the town of Ironton.
Actually, the trail took us into a little ghost town. It is hard to believe that up until the 1940’s, these homes were occupied. There are about three houses fully intact; you can ski right up to the front door. It probably is not a good idea to go into any, regardless of how cold or windy it may be outside. These buildings have been abandoned for a long time, and the last thing we want to do is fall through the floor, or worse yet, some small woodland animal could be nesting in there. Cute fuzzy wild animals are much cuter when they aren't feeling trapped and I am not encumbered by a backpack and skis. It is always fascinating to wander around here a little. The last little bit of the loop is an easy jaunt back to the truck.
We saw some deer in the distance and saw cars travelling along the Million Dollar Highway to our left. Once at the truck, we stored our gear in the back, and made our way to town. I felt pretty good about myself, and since my friend was still talking to me, I decided I must have done pretty well. We went to O’Briens Pub for a much deserved hot chocolate for the two of us. Every year, I promise to go out and try something new in this beautiful area; I can’t wait to head out again!