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February 7, 2013
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In search of powder

FLAT TOPS WILDERNESS, Colorado - Suffering from the low snowpack blues? Look no further than the Flat Tops just off of Buford Road for the cure.

Located about 17 miles from New Castle, there is a large parking lot that is the perfect jump off point for snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross country skiers alike.

However, there are also some fantastic backcountry skiing opportunities in the area as well.

The Buford Road (CR 245) can be accessed from downtown New Castle via Seventh Street/Midland Avenue. Follow the road north from Main Street and turn right just past the sign for West Elk at the junction of the Buford Road and Grass Valley Road. Follow the Buford Road until it ends at its winter stopping point, a large parking lot at more than 9,000 feet. The lot has maps and information about the area's trails as well as a bathroom.

Packed out cross country trails head out to one side of the lot, while groomed snowmobile paths extend out from the other. The two trails, unlike beer and deep-dish pizza, don't mix. Snowmobilers are required to stay in their designated area.

The cross country trails are also an excellent location for skijoring, and dogs can often be seen guiding their human companions along through the winter splendor. If you bring your dogs, remember to clean up after them, too.

The three loops in the system are named James's, Kay's and Eric's, and these trails are marked and maintained by the West Elk Multi-Use Club. The loops add up to approximately 12 miles of frozen trail.

And the snow here is deep.

Plunging a ski pole into the snow, only the tip of the handle remains visible.

The deep snow is also the perfect way to keep your four-legged friends focused on the trail. The dogs need to stay on the path or risk being swallowed up by the white depths below.

A few hundred yards up the trail from the parking lot a path cuts directly to the left and heads toward James's Loop. The natural beauty here is staggering. The thick Aspen groves are still frosted from the last big snowfall.

The trail bends to the right and comes out above an untouched powder field, the chest deep snow shimmers in the bright February sun.

For now, fence posts successfully fight to keep their heads just above the snow; a good thing as another storm may make them an unseen danger to backcountry enthusiasts.

The drainage is at a low angle, so avalanches are not a serious concern. However, you should always be prepared for the worst. Never ski the backcountry alone and always have a shovel, beacon and probe with you at all times. Check the snow and judge the conditions before committing to your run ... Mother Nature isn't forgiving.

On this day, the conditions are perfect and the skiing is amazing. Turn after turn the snow holds together and the views are breathtaking. After a few hundred yards of turns, the slope crosses the trail again, creating the perfect opportunity for running laps. Five minutes down and 15 minutes skinning back up. Stripping off climbing skins and packing them away gives you just enough time to catch your breath before your next lap.

Smile, laugh and be one with nature ... all the while getting a fantastic workout.

Enjoying the backcountry off the Buford Road in the Flat Tops is a wonderful way to spend a Colorado afternoon with friends, whether they have two legs or four.


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The Post Independent Updated Feb 7, 2013 01:38AM Published Feb 7, 2013 01:34AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.