STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Driving north into the self-titled Ski Town USA in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the first ski area one passes isn't the famed downhill resort, but a new center for cross-country skiing.
The 5 miles of groomed beginner trails are operated by the same corporation that runs the Alpine resort — and there in a microcosm is the latest evolution of skiing.
Trying to hold onto skier dollars as visitors seek more options, ski resorts have branched into snowshoeing, sleigh rides, and increasingly, cross-country skiing.
Jeff Knight, a 49-year-old novice snowboarder from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has visited Steamboat a number of times over the past four years, but had never considered cross-country skiing, also called Nordic skiing, until he spotted the trails while driving.
"We noticed it from the street and then called," said Knight, an electrical contractor. "We love snowshoeing and when we found out that Haymaker converted the golf course into a Nordic track, we thought it would be a great thing to add to the repertoire."
More than 40 percent of the people who cross-country skied in the 2013-2014 season were also Alpine downhill skiers, according to the SnowSports Industries America (SIA) trade association.
"More Alpine resorts are offering cross country skiing as alternative activity to those who want a break from Alpine," said Reese Brown, the SIA's Nordic director.
"For years, Nordic had the stereotype of that grizzly frozen guy in the woods or the perfect athlete collapsing at the finish line," he said. "Now we're starting to see people in between."
Part of the reason for the crossover is an aging population looking for something fun to do while their children or friends ski downhill, according to Ryan Green, the Nordic division manager for Rossignol.
In Knight's case, his 47-year-old wife, Pam, is only an occasional skier, and on this trip was recovering from shoulder surgery and didn't want to risk taking a spill on the downhill slopes.
Cross-country skiing "is a way to allow her to enjoy the snow as well," he explained.
Green also speculated that the efficiency of today's gondolas and chair lifts allows people to ski more runs per day, meaning they may exhaust their interest in exploring the mountain, or just plain exhaust themselves. By the end of a weeklong vacation, they might want a different activity.
Though the city of Steamboat was already home to at least three cross-country facilities, the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. — like dozens of other ski resorts nationwide — decided to enter the Nordic market last season in a partnership to run the winter facility at Haymaker, only a five minute drive from the slopes.
It may seem counterintuitive to have guests forgo a $125 downhill lift ticket for a $20 Nordic one, but it still keeps the business in-house. Steamboat even tried running a shuttle service from the base of the ski hill last year, but found that guests preferred to come and go at their own pace.
Birgitta Lindgren, who runs the Nordic operation at Haymaker, said the typical guest spends a full day, with a lesson in the morning, lunch at the clubhouse, then skiing on the trails in the afternoon.
For those interested in giving cross-country skiing a try, here are some things to consider:
—Dress in layers and don't wear cotton. It will absorb the sweat and you'll get chilled.
—Decide if you want to ski classic or skate ski. Classic, or traditional, is the better option for those who aren't especially athletic or fearless. The skis have some friction so the skier has a sense of control. Skate skiing is an exciting choice for those who like speed and want a real workout. The motion is similar to ice skating on slippery skis.
—Take a lesson, as it will shorten the learning curve.
The Knights took an hour-long lesson, and loved it. With a week to go in their 11-day vacation, Knight said they were already planning to go cross-country skiing at least three more times.
"I expected it to be more work than fun," said Knight. "But it was not as much work as I expected and a lot more fun."