Seeing how the other half skis

Published Dec. 14, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

Can a lifelong downhill skier find happiness on cross country trails?

I aimed to find out at Northern California's huge Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort in Soda Springs. Sprawled across 9,000 acres of woodland slopes and valleys near Lake Tahoe, it claims the largest machine-groomed track system _ more than 200 miles of trails _ in North America.

On a three-day trip in March, I set out to cover as many as I could.

As one of their brochures boasts:

Ninety trails. Spacious day lodge. The Wilderness Lodge, an overnight retreat where guests arrive by sleigh. Four rope tows (the only tows I've ever seen at a cross country complex). Ten warming huts. Four trailside cafes. All of it wrapped in spectacular Sierra Nevada scenery.

If this downhiller could be wooed to cross country, this would be the place.

Of course, I allowed myself an out: Should a day on Nordic trails prove more than sufficient, I had plenty of downhill options. Lake Tahoe is said to be the site of the largest concentration of downhill resorts in America: 15, including the two biggies, Squaw Valley USA and Heavenly Valley.

I began skiing downhill years ago in the Colorado Rockies. Over time, I honed my skill on three continents. But alpine slopes have become increasingly crowded, and I miss the days when I could tackle a trail from top to bottom in solitude.

So maybe I could find wilderness quiet on ski-touring paths. But would I miss the thrill of speed? The challenge of moguls?

Would I be bored?

Jack, a skiing buddy from California, picked me up at the San Francisco airport, and we headed east on Interstate 80 for the three-hour drive to the Lake Tahoe area.

Our motel, the 65-room Holiday Inn Express in Truckee, 9 miles east of Royal Gorge, was disguised as a stone and wood mountain lodge. An ice-streaked stream burbled outside our window, although it was somewhat muffled by I-80 traffic in the distance.

Ringed by craggy peaks, Royal Gorge is tucked into a rumpled woodland just west of infamous Donner Pass. Here the Donner Party, a wagon train of 89 pioneers, became snowbound in the late fall of 1846 as the group attempted to cross the Sierras. The Donner Memorial State Park visitor center tells the story.

Approaching Royal Gorge our first morning, we got a look at what the Donner Party faced. Walls of snow 6 feet high lined the road. Annual snowfall here exceeds 50 feet, which means lots of very snowy days. But not a flake fell from cloudless blue skies during our four-day stay.

At the day lodge named Summit Station (altitude 7,000 feet), we purchased trail passes and rented skis, boots and poles. Score a big point here for cross country: The adult trail pass, just $21.50 weekdays, cost only about one-third the price of an all-day lift ticket at acclaimed Vail, Colo.

"Skating or striding?" asked the attendant; the skis for each skiing style differ slightly.

As a novice, I'm a strider, happy to shuffle along steadily and prosaically. Skaters race along the trail with long, ice-skating-like kicks. Too fast for me.

Jack and I are practiced at managing long slats attached to our feet. Full of confidence, we made a big mistake, deciding to forgo a cross country lesson. Alpine and Nordic techniques, we soon discovered, are not as interchangeable as we thought. My few previous tries at Nordic obviously had not tested me.

Outside the lodge, we stepped into our skis, and then we pushed off and skied. This is another Nordic advantage. No wait in a lift line, no tedious ride to the top of the mountain.

The Royal Gorge trail map outlines miles of "easiest" trails. "Let's take a warm-up run of one of these," I suggested as we glided through the ticket gate, "and then switch to the steeper stuff."

Of the resort's 90 trails, 28 are designated novice, or easiest; 46 are intermediate; and 16 rate as advanced, the most difficult. Scenic loops range up to 10 miles or more. Lola's Lookout Loop climbs to a summit yielding spectacular views of the resort's namesake, a 4,417-foot-deep chasm.

Seeking no one's advice, we picked the most difficult of the "easiest" trails and soon were floundering. Named Yuba, it begins on a gentle slope through tall pinewoods, and then suddenly it spills steeply down a long slope in tight narrow curves.

On alpine skis, the descent would have been a breeze. But their skinny cousins lack steel edges and turning maneuverability. Here was plenty of challenge: Charging ahead, downhill style, I tumbled, and tumbled again. No harm: Long ago I learned to land on my rump. Finally I snowplowed, pointing the tips of the skis toward each other, another survival skill.

I felt awkward and humbled. Jack did no better. We were anything but bored.

So what? The sun beamed, snow-tipped peaks soared around us, and on this midweek morning we seemed to have the forest to ourselves. Soon we got the hang of things, managing to have fun. Mile after mile we glided through sun-dappled woods of pine and fir and across open meadows following well-marked trails. They ranged from wide, flat and easy, to steep, twisting and just a little scary. Yuba featured all of the above.

Yuba, after that first corkscrewing hill, eases into a series of long rolling bumps that we negotiated with more aplomb. Jack favored the machine-set twin tracks; he placed his skis inside, pushed off and whizzed over the bumps as if he were riding a roller coaster.

Tracks are supposed to make it easier to move faster because you're not breaking, or creating, the trail. In the icy conditions prevalent our first morning, the tracks sent us racing downhill like Olympic champs. Nordic definitely provided the thrill of speed.

Preferring more control, I stayed outside the tracks, practicing my stride. Step, glide; step, glide _ a rhythmic pace as soothing mentally as swimming laps.

After negotiating Yuba, we stuck to mostly level trails near the Wilderness Lodge. Overlooking a small, frozen lake, the one-time hunting lodge is an intimate wood and stone hideaway with a bubbling hot tub and a roaring fire. A great place to bring our wives next time, we concluded.

In midafternoon, shadows began to fall. Time to head back up Yuba. Uphill on Nordic skis proved hard work; they want to slide backward. Actually, I liked being on my feet all day instead of spending much of it on a chair lift. Tackling the hills on my own power seemed more honest. I figured this workout was as rigorous as any alpine day.

Later we soaked in the motel's outdoor hot tub and then hit downtown Truckee for dinner. A once rowdy railroad stop north of Lake Tahoe, it has mellowed. The main attraction now is a two-block strip of 19th century structures on Donner Pass Road (the main street) that retain the look of the Old West. A couple of these buildings house oldtime saloons, but more have been turned into galleries featuring western-themed artworks.

Three decades ago, a ski racing accident in France prompted John Slouber, Royal Gorge's founder, to return to his Sierra home and start a ski touring business. In 1974, he began acquiring land at Donner Summit for his resort. His goal was to provide the same kind of services, including an inviting "base" lodge, that alpine skiers enjoy.

Now an industry legend, he heads a staff of more than 150 in peak season. The resort draws 100,000 skiers annually.

On our second morning, we warmed up on three parallel trails near the Summit Station that proved much easier than Yuba. This is where we should have started, or perhaps at the Van Norden Track System, a series of long "easiest" trails around the perimeter of Lake Van Norden.

Back at Wilderness Lodge, we ventured out on Stagecoach, which proved to be my favorite "easiest" trail. Though steep in places, it emerges from the trees into a large open meadow. I stopped often just to revel in the view of rugged peaks and ridges. A side trail took us to the top of a cascading waterfall.

On Saturday, our final day, the crowds appeared, but not in disturbing numbers. Often enough, it seemed we still had the trails to ourselves _ though now and again, a group of young skaters would yelp us out of their way.

So, while I may not give up downhill skiing entirely, I am eager for more Nordic trips first.

James T. Yenckel is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer.

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Royal Gorge is about a three-hour drive east of San Francisco via Interstate 80, or about 45 miles west of Reno, also via I-80. Take the Soda Springs/Norden exit and follow the signs about a mile to Summit Station.

COSTS: An adult trail pass is $26 (weekend), $21.50 (weekday). An adult rental (skis, boots, poles) is $18.50. A 90-minute group ski lesson is $20.

STAYING THERE: Royal Gorge operates two lodges, both offering rooms (and some cabins) with private or shared bath.

The 34-unit Wilderness Lodge is reached by sleigh. The per-person rate ranges from $149 to $249 a night, including meals, trail passes and lessons. The 32-room Rainbow Lodge, a 1920s mountain lodge built of local granite and hand-hewn timber, sits alongside the Yuba River 7 miles from Summit Station. Shuttle bus service is provided. Per-person rates range from $99 (sink in the room, shared bathroom) to $165 (private bath) a night, including a full breakfast.

For more information, call (530) 426-3871 or toll-free 1-800-500-3871, or go to

The Holiday Inn Express in Truckee offers 65 rooms with lodgelike decor. A room for two ranges from $155 (weekdays) to $210 (weekends), including a continental breakfast. Information: (530) 582-9999 or toll-free 1-877-878-2533;

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce, (530) 587-2757;

Part of the lure of Royal Gorge is its setting, in the Sierra Nevadas. But skiers also can count on annual snowfall of more than 50 feet.

Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort, encompassing 9,000 acres near Lake Tahoe, claims the nation's largest machine-groomed track system _ more than 200 miles over 90 trails.