Off The Beaten Winter Path In Colorado: Backcountry Dining At The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

“We’re going to ski in to this place where you get lunch served in a yurt.”

My Colorado friends know what it takes to get me excited about life; combine an outdoor pursuit with eating and I am almost always game. I didn’t even need to know the details of where we were going. The fact that I was going to a restaurant in a backcountry setting was good enough.

Near Leadville, Colorado, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is the kind of place for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and away from more common places like Aspen and Vail. From here you can snowshoe and Nordic ski on over 25 kilometers of set track trails (hike them in the summer of course) and if you want an experience with a little more speed, spend the day on the downhill slopes of Ski Cooper.

We arrived at the Nordic Center mid-morning, kicking things off with a thermos of coffee as we rented skis and boots.

“The trail is a little bare in spots, but you’ll be fine,” instructed one of the owners.

Apparently she assumed our nordic skiing skills were a little more fine tuned than we knew they were; nordic skiing on flat, green routes is one thing, slogging uphill on icy trails is quite another, even for those used to skiing downhill. But the sun was out, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere to be except for at a yurt at 1:30 for our lunch reservations.

In the winter, the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, which really is a full-scale restaurant in a yurt, is open for lunch and dinner, reservations required. As they put it, it’s “fine dining… backcountry style.” Is there anything better for the outdoor enthusiast?

The cookhouse is well equipped with a long list of wines and a few local beers. In the evenings, they serve up a four-course dinner for $80, and if you want to extend your backcountry experience, you can stay in one of the nearby sleeping yurts. Lunch is a little more low key, with entrees ranging from $10-17.

We skied the mile-long trail to the yurt, cresting over a hill and ending up with an overlook of the valley and the mountains behind. There are certainly worse places to eat lunch in the world.

“Who wants a beer?”

That seemed to be the appropriate choice, and with the help of a few extra layers that we had packed in, we took a seat on the yurt porch, outfitted with hefty picnic tables and torches made out of upcycled wine bottles. There are worse places to eat lunch.

A Cutthroat Porter (brewed by local Fort Collins Odell Brewing Company) was the perfect pairing for a cold day. And what goes best with a porter? A buffalo burger stuffed with feta cheese of course. I pulled out a dark chocolate bar for dessert (for outdoor adventures, it’s important to always have one on hand). After an hour of sitting outside, we warmed up by the stove inside the yurt, mentally prepping ourselves for what we knew would be an icy downhill for our return.

After looking at the map, we opted for Willa’s Way, which would take us on a loop trail, as opposed to skiing back on the trail we came in on. The main access trail to the cookhouse is frequented by staff driving back and forth on snowmobiles, meaning harder packed snow, and in the recent cold spell, very icy. We made a concerted effort to avoid Griz, marked in black as the most difficult course. Even those of us that like a challenge have our limits.

Willa’s Way meant a winding path downhill – challenging even for my expert downhill skier friends who are used to wider, more stable skis. But there is entertainment in challenge, and a few spills were merely cause for laughter. It’s hard not to feel good when you’re in the woods on a clear day. But that Willa … she’s a wily one.

Back at the Nordic Center, more coffee and one of Roxanne’s Cookies – a local favorite of the Tennessee Pass crew – for good measure. Lesson of the day: say yes to backcountry eating experiences, bring an extra layer, avoid Griz and always get the porter.

The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race Takes Place Today

The Leadville 100 mountain bike raceOne of the most demanding mountain bike races in North America takes place today in Leadville, Colorado, where some of the top riders in the world will compete in the legendary Leadville 100 MTB. The race features a course that offers plenty of difficult climbs made all the more challenging due to the altitude at which the event takes place.

The Leadville 100 MTB was first held back in 1994 and over the years grew in popularity amongst the hardcore mountain biking community. The event, which was the subject of a 2010 documentary film entitled “Race Across The Sky,” gained a much wider audience in 2008 when seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong decided to compete. Armstrong came in second behind six-time defending champ Dave Wiens, but returned in 2009 to avenge the loss, crushing the old course record in the process. His participation in the Leadville 100 led to other pro riders joining the race in 2010 and 2011 and what was once a great event for amateur riders has now grown into a much larger affair.

The starting line for the course is located in downtown Leadville, which sits at an altitude of 10,200 feet. From there, riders will begin a 50-mile out and back ride that features over 14,000 total feet of climbing, going as high as 12,424 feet. It is a grueling test of endurance and skill that requires as much mental strength as it does physical. Fast pro riders will finish the race in around six and a half hours, but most riders will come in much later than that.

If mountain biking isn’t your thing and you’d rather hit the trail on foot, next week Leadville plays host to the Leadville Trail 100 Run, a 100-mile long ultra-marathon that is even more grueling than the bike ride. Personally, I’ll stick with the bike.

[Photo courtesy Leadville 100 MTB]

Race Across The Sky 2010” from Citizen Pictures on Vimeo.

Leadville 100 mountain bike race takes place today

The Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race takes place today in Leadville, Colorado, with more than 1500 racers from 48 states and 21 different countries taking part in the annual event, which looks to have its deepest field ever, despite the loss of the biggest name in cycling – Lance Armstrong.

The race is actually 104 miles in length, and features an out-and-back format. The route starts and ends at 10,500 feet, but the riders will climb more than 11,600 feet, and reach a peak elevation of about 12,600 feet, while out on the course. The Leadville trail is not the most technical of rides, but the altitude will test the endurance and conditioning of the riders from the moment they start until the finish hours later.

A little over two years ago, the race was barely known outside of the hardcore mountain biking crowd. It had garnered quite a loyal following, but it was completely off the radar for most sports fans, let alone the mainstream population. But then, Lance Armstrong, who had been retired from competitive cycling for a couple of years, announced that he would be competing at Leadville, and the media descended on the event in a frenzy. Lance would go on to finish second behind six time Leadville champ Dave Wiens, who became an instant celebrity, earning the title of “the man who beat Lance.”

Soon after that race, Armstrong announced he was coming out of retirement, and in 2009 he returned to Leadville fresh off a third place finish in the Tour de France, and in much better riding condition. The cycling legend then proceeded to put the hammer down on the mostly amateur Leadville crowd. He ended up winning the race in record time, finishing in just six hours, 28 minutes, and 50 second, and roughly a half hour in front of the second place Wiens. Armstrong was so dominant, he ended up riding the final 65 miles completely alone.

Lance was scheduled to return to defend his title, but earlier this week he pulled out of the race, citing a lingering injury that he suffered in the Tour de France and wanting to spend time with his children before they returned to school. But that race still has an incredibly deep field, including Wiens, who is hungry to reclaim the win. He’ll be challenged by Matt Shriver, who finished third last year and Levi Leipheimer, a teammate of Armstrong’s on Team Radioshack. Additionally, professional mountain bike riders Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Todd Wells and Jeremiah Bishop are all in attendance for the first time and are hoping to win the race as well.

The race gets underway at 6:30 AM local time with riders trickling across the finish line all afternoon and into the evening.

For an idea of what the race is like, check out the trailer for the film Race Across the Sky a documentary about the Leadville 100.

[Photo credit: AP Photo/Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp, Larry Pierce)