With the change of seasons comes a change of recreational venue in the San Juan National Forest of southwestern Colorado. After the first heavy snowstorm, the challenging Alpine Loop Jeep trails in the San Juan Mountains are closed due to avalanche danger. When the snow piles up, the 4×4 ATV trails become snowmobile trails. The summertime mountain biking and hiking trails all turn into a haven for snowshoe hikers and cross country skiers. Most of the National Forest summer season camping areas are closed, while a few remain open as winter season recreation areas.
The basecamp towns in the San Juan Mountains also shift gears when winter arrives. Most of the local tourism businesses stock up on winter sports gear and the service businesses go from renting Jeeps to renting snowmobiles and ski equipment. The signage changes too as the lower elevation businesses go to great lengths to display Christmas decorations in an effort to let people know that winter has officially arrived a little bit further uphill.
The only drawback associated with the arrival of the winter season is that one can expect big crowds of people at the major ski resorts and dramatically higher seasonal prices for lodging. For those who prefer to not get caught up in the pricey winter sports rat race, there are plenty of options in the wilderness areas of the San Juan Mountains. Along the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to just south of Silverton, there is an extensive network of cross country ski trails, snowmobile trails and snowshoe hiking trails. There are even a few ice skating rinks, ice climbing parks and recreation areas that allow winter season camping. There are also some good mineral hot springs resorts in the mountains, which offer a relaxing way to thaw out after a long day in the cold weather. Since most of the National Forest winter activities are basically free admission, the winter vacation costs can be reduced by focusing on these places.
For cross country skiers that are interested in what the San Juan Mountains have to offer, the Ironton Park Nordic Trails is a great place to start! Ironton Park is located about 16 miles north of Silverton on the Million Dollar Highway and the signage is easy to spot. Ironton Park has a large parking area, yet this destination is rarely overcrowded, except for on days when a big winter sports event is taking place. For those who wish to escape from the chaotic ski resort scene to enjoy the peaceful beauty of the San Juan Mountains during the winter season, the lesser known destinations like Ironton Park will have great appeal.
Ironton Park definitely is unique, because the Nordic Trails offer much more than just a few panoramic mountain views. These Nordic Trails actually run through old historic Ironton, which is a mining camp ghost town. There are abandoned mines, flumes and old tramways along the trails too. Winter season photos of an old mining camp ghost town are highly desirable, so be sure to pack a good camera when taking on the Ironton Park Nordic Trails!
I photographed the Ironton Park Nordic Trails access point while recently traveling back from a destination in the neighboring Rio Grande National Forest. Personally, I cannot ski or skate because of severe knee injuries, so photographing the cross-country ski trail attractions will have to wait till summertime when I can set out on foot.
The Ironton Park visit happened just a few days after the National Forest dirt roads were closed. In fact, when driving up one of the narrow dirt roads in Ironton Park I had to put it in reverse to back up my Jeep a few hundred yards, just so a big bulldozer snow plow could pass through. Apparently the bulldozer was working on Corkscrew Gulch Road, which is part of the world famous Alpine Loop 4×4 vehicle trail system. Corkscrew Gulch Road is closed during the winter season, but during the summer season it is well known as one of the worlds most challenging Jeep trails, so 4×4 enthusiasts should make note of the Ironton Park access point.
The best time to head for Ironton Park is after the first few heavy snowstorms of winter pass through and the snow pack becomes dense. Once the snow falls in this high elevation, it will not melt till late spring, so the season is a long one. Ironton Park is located at about 10,000 feet above sea level and the daytime high temperatures are in cold enough to keep the snow on the ground. On the downside, the high elevation does pose altitude sickness risks, so it is best to take preventative measures.
Ironton Park offers a chance to enjoy the peace and quiet of Mother Nature while trekking through the snow draped alpine forests and skiing through the ghost town definitely is as surreal as it gets.There are a few Ironton Park ski organization websites on the internet that offer information and detailed maps are available too, so getting the preliminary research done will be easy to accomplish. By summer, Ironton Park may be a hiker's destination, but after the white stuff piles up, Ironton Park is a cross country skier’s dream come true. This is reason enough to check out the Ironton Park Nordic Trails this winter season!
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