Head out and discover the magical world of snowshoeing by moonlight
By Katie Coakley Photograph by Brent Bingham
It was blissfully quiet as I gathered up my pack, strapped on my snowshoes and made my way to the trailhead. A group of five women were waiting; with minimal conversation we turned on our headlamps and tromped onto the trail. It wasn’t long before our headlamps were switched off: The full moon cast enough light to suffuse our surroundings with a blueish glow. Though the snow gathered in pillow-like humps in some areas, there was a faint crunching that set a cadence as we walked.
There was little conversation until we stopped for a break, to regroup and sip hot beverages from our packs. The silence wasn’t imposed; it was simply a response to the almost ethereal nature of our surroundings. But laughter floated over the snow as various threads of conversation wove through our little band. Before long, we stowed our snacks and set off again, working our way back to the trail’s beginning.
Snowshoeing is an excellent way to explore the snow: It’s easy to learn (if you can walk, you can snowshoe), inexpensive once you have the snowshoes (renting or borrowing is also an option) and the terrain you can access is pretty much unlimited — there are no lifts, runs or tracks required. It’s also a peaceful pastime as the ability to blaze your own trail means that you can have as much — or as little — company as you like.
And when the sun goes down? That’s when the magic really happens. Familiar locations are transformed into otherworldly playgrounds that are just begging to be explored. Here’s are a few that are worth discovering after dark.
“Places that I gravitate towards are places that are going to be more open,” says Nate Boyer-Rechlin, community outreach coordinator for Walking Mountains Science Center. “Meadow Mountain out by Minturn would be a really great local place. It’s just such an open landscape; it’s so beautiful.”
Meadow Mountain is a popular place for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during the day but it’s also stellar for nocturnal excursions. Its wide-open spaces allow for expansive views of the valley; hiking up to the top of the mountain will provide plenty of exertion with minimal avalanche risk. If the cold isn’t a bother, consider making the trek to Line Shack, a 4.5-mile one-way trip. There you can warm up and refuel before making your way back.
If you go: To access the Meadow Mountain trailhead take exit 171 on I70 for Minturn. Exit and turn right (south). Just past the interstate, there is a large parking lot on the right. The trail begins from the south end of the parking lot near the white house.
When the sun sets, skiers and riders are done for the day on Vail Mountain. However, snowshoers can extend their day by riding the Eagle Bahn gondola up to Eagle’s Nest. Here, the moonlight will light up Holy Cross and the Gore Range, says Nate Goldberg, manager of the Beaver Creek Nordic Sports Center. After your excursion, you could even stop in for refreshment at Bistro 14 before riding the gondola back down.
“That’s a nice option — it’s still an adventure but you get some of the luxuries,” Goldberg says.
Want to enjoy a snowshoe with some knowledge sprinkled in? Walking Mountains Science Center has a program for you. During the winter, evening snowshoe tours quickly turn into “dusk” or “dark” tours as the sun sets earlier and earlier. These hour-long tours are short — approximately a quarter- or halfmile loop, Boyer-Rechlin says — and focus on night wildlife, ecology and will even introduce terms like “subnivean zone,” which refers to the area between the surface of the ground and the snowpack.
“We talk about what types of wildlife are out here this time, how do your eyes adapt to the dark, that kind of thing,” Boyer-Rechlin says. “A lot of naturalists will talk about snow science and what’s living under there.”
If you go: These free programs take place Tuesday – Saturday from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. at the Nature Center located at the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola on Vail Mountain.
Vail Pass and Shrine Pass
You want open spaces for nocturnal snowshoe tours but you also want places without light pollution, says Karen Peck, company manager for Paragon Guides. After all, part of the fun of these nighttime excursions is the opportunity for stargazing. But there’s a trade-off: A full moon may make it easier to see where you’re going but harder to see the stars.
Vail Pass and Shrine Pass are options that provide open spaces and plenty of opportunities for seeing the stars, but there’s more drive time involved, Peck says. For groups of six to twelve people, Paragon Guides will conduct a slightly shorter snowshoe tour — usually around three hours.
“The temperatures are colder and the intrigue wears off fast,” Peck explained. “What we’ve found is that the number of people willing to embark on a trip — willing to go out and be cold (or perceived cold) — are much fewer. It takes a heartier soul to go out there.”
But heartier souls get a bonus by venturing here: The Gore Range and Tenmile Range create dramatic views with moonlight bouncing off the peaks.
If you go: For do-it-yourselfers, you must have a pass for the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area; the fees are $6.00 per person per day/ night and children 13 and under are free.
Snowshoeing by moonlight is a peaceful, unique experience that can transform even the most familiar landscape into something new and exciting. However, as with any adventure, precautions should be taken: Dress warmly and in layers to protect against the elements; practice backcountry safety techniques to avoid avalanches or other dangers; if going alone, let someone know where you are and when you expect to return. And, as Goldberg points out, “When you’re planning, you have to take into consideration that Mother Nature makes the last call.”
So strap on your snowshoes and check the calendar for the next clear night — a moonlight snowshoe is a magical winter experience.