Article and Photos by URGGuide Field Editor Ryan Michelle Scavo
Cross-country skiing is a great way to stay active during the snowy winter months, but it can also be an opportunity to explore new places. The San Luis Valley and surrounding San Juan Mountains features XC-ski-only trails as well as multi-use forest roads and trails that are open to skiers, snowmobilers and other forms of transportation.
If you are interested in enjoying a ski day on the Rio Grande National Forest, consider a trip to Big Meadows. Located approximately 11 miles west of South Fork, Big Meadows is a great choice for skiers that are comfortable on a multi-use trail (snowmobiles, skiers, snowshoers) looking for a wider, groomed trail to explore.
To kick off the morning, consider starting your day at one of the nearby coffee shops or bakeries like The Perks in Del Norte or Tiny Timbers in South Fork, then travel west on Highway 160 to the Big Meadows winter trailhead. When you arrive, expect a groomed trail from the plowed parking area to the Big Meadows Reservoir. Additionally, skiers can follow forest roads #410 and #430 beyond the reservoir for an extended trip. The Rio Grande National Forest website provides details about trail status and closures.
The main trail is a groomed forest road and follows the often snow-covered waters originating from the Big Meadows Reservoir. Anticipate a gradual incline on the ski in and a fun ride on the ski-out. Also, keep a lookout for wildlife and winter song birds, as many species are common in the pines and evergreens on either side of the trail.
While sunny, bluebird days are extraordinary skiing days at Big Meadows, even a snowy day brings proves fun since the trail is relatively protected from wind for the first stretch (~1.5 miles). As the path begins to open up, blustery days can bring strong headwinds as you near the reservoir. Skiers can choose an out-and-back by turning around at the “Y” in the road just below the reservoir, or make it a “lollipop” and follow the left fork to ski across the bridge above the reservoir’s dam and back down the opposite side to connect back to the trail’s main stem.
In the winter months, restrooms and other facilities are not available, so bring along water, snacks and any other essentials to ensure you are prepared to be out in the elements for a few hours.