Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing’s Best

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Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing's Best Athletes

February 11, 2019

Keep an eye out for Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn today. Or maybe slalom wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin. And we don’t mean on television. Over the first two weeks of February, these Olympic gold medalists—two of whom, Lindsey and Mikaela, call the Vail Valley home—will be among the 700 athletes from 70 countries racing at Vail/Beaver Creek in the biennial FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. It’s the first time alpine skiing’s biggest race (outside of the Olympics) has been in North America since 1999.

Other U.S. resorts might try to compete with Vail and neighboring Beaver Creek in grooming, views or terrain, but, neither Jackson Hole nor Telluride or Tahoe can claim the only U.S. stop on skiing’s annual World Cup racing circuit, but Beaver Creek can.

“At all levels, Vail is in many ways the center of the ski racing universe today,” says Aldo Radamus, a former U.S. Ski Team coach and 1990 USSA Domestic Coach of the Year and, for the last 13 years, the Executive Director of the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), which counts Shiffrin, Vonn and at least eight other Olympians among its alumni. “Ski racing seems to be ingrained in this community’s DNA, and we’ve got two resorts that have the terrain and willingness to make it happen on the highest level.”

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And that’s why you’re here, to watch the best alpine skiers in the world race on some of the world’s most challenging courses. The only other North American resort to ever host an Alpine World Championships is Aspen. And that was back in 1950. 2015 is Vail and Beaver Creek’s third world championships (they previously hosted in 1989 and 1999).

Why does the international circuit come back? To race among some of the country’s most rabid skiing families, families much like Sounia Chaney’s. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” she says about the upcoming World Championships. Chaney, who, with husband Michael and kids Skylar, 18, Cameron, 15, Roxy, 13 and Dylan, 9, all skiers or snowboarders, moved to Vail in 2010 from Reston, Virginia. Roxy, herself an alpine racer, says, “Here I get to see pros skiing a lot, sometimes next to me, and it always makes me feel inspired that I can achieve my goals. I can’t even imagine how inspiring it will be to have all of the world’s best racers here.”

“When our kids started outgrowing the mountain closest to our home, Vail was a no brainer,” Chaney says. “We didn’t think twice about selling our house, our ski boat, our RV—everything. Vail offers the best training and the best coaches and challenging academics, and it has 300 days of sunshine. It’s not just our kids who ski. It’s a dream come true for all of us.”

Get back to your own racing dreams on Vonn’s namesake run, Lindsey’s. A groomed ribbon of ice on the front side of Vail Mountain, Vonn has described it as, “definitely the most challenging run on the mountain.” As you look down from the top of the run, its pitch elevating your pulse and slowing your breathing, you won’t be surprised to learn it was the site of the women’s speed events during the 1989 and 1999 World Championships, when it was still named International.

As a teen, Vonn skied the run that would one day bear her name, but, more often, like SSCV racers today do, she did laps on Vail’s Golden Peak. “That’s where we did so much of our training and raced for girls and boys Nor-Am,” says Paula Moltzan, who moved to Vail from Minnesota to train during her junior year of high school and now, at 20, is on the World Cup tech team.

Abby Ghent, a SSCV racer who was 6 the last time the valley hosted the World Championships and this season has a World Cup spot for Super G suggests you try Centennial at Beaver Creek. “We’d have Nor-Am downhills there. It’s a classic course,” she says.

And then, of course, there’s Beaver Creek’s famed Birds of Prey course and its new women’s course, Raptor. (Before the World Championships, the former hosts its annual World Cup race, The Audi Birds of Prey Men’s World Cup, December 6-8.) The pros own both during the World Championships, but, at other times in the season, the public can ski them. Fair warning, “Birds of Prey is terrifying,” says Moltzan. “I just can’t imagine flying off any of those jumps at the speeds the guys are going. But watching it is something else.”

Skiers to Watch

“The Norwegians have always done well here,” says Radamus, who coached for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s ski teams, and was named USSA Domestic Coach of the Year in 1990, before taking over as executive director at the SSCV. “I’ll be watching for Aksel Svindal, Kjetil Jansrud and their new young technical threat Henrik Kristoffersen, who exploded onto the scene last year.” “Past world and Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn, working toward a return to competition following two years of injury, is undoubtedly looking to add to her World Championship medal tally,” Radamus says. At the last FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, at Schladming, Austria in February 2013, Vonn tore her ACL/MCL and fractured her tibial plateau in a horrific crash. By August, a month and a half ahead of schedule, she was back on the snow. But then in mid-November, she crashed during a downhill training run at Copper Mountain in Colorado and reinjured herself. “Lindsey has something to prove and she’ll be racing at home,” Radamus says.

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“Among the Americans, our six Olympic medalists are medal threats at Worlds. Any one of them could win,” Radamus says. “Julia Mancuso because she always steps up when it counts. Ted Ligety owns this hill (he has won four straight giant slalom events on Birds of Prey) and is working hard to become a threat in [slalom] again; the snow suits him here in Colorado. Bode Miller for his last hurrah. Mikaela Shiffrin to defend her title. Keep an eye on (two-time Olympic Super G medalist) Andrew Weibrecht too. He loves the hill and has done well here.”

Designated Speeding Zones

Unlike pretty much every other resort in North America, Vail and Beaver Creek have runs where going as fast as you dare is the whole point. Vail Resort’s social media/ski tracker app, EpicMix Racing, partnered with four-time World Cup Champion and Olympic gold-medalist Lindsey Vonn, who, after moving to Vail at age 12 to train with the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail has become the most successful American skier in history, to design a course at Vail and a second at Beaver Creek. Vonn practiced on both until she had them dialed. Then the geeks at EpicMix timed her.

Now anyone with the EpicMix app open can race down either course—the Black Forest Race Area just east of the Avanti Express Li at Vail or beneath Beaver Creek’s new high-speed combination li that just opened at the beginning of this season—and measure themselves against Vonn’s time.

Good luck catching her; few skiers on the international stage can come close to her. EpicMix claims that the average racer is about 5-7 seconds slower than Vonn on either course and that it’s a rare skier that comes within three seconds of her.

The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

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The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

January 30, 2019

They come for the wine. And for the foie gras, the confit, the scenery, the chateaus and the black truffles. But increasingly, visitors to the hilly, castle-packed department of Dordogne also come to fly-fish its namesake river and its many tributaries.

The Dordogne River, France’s fifth longest, flows west for more than 300 miles from near the hot-springs spa town of Le Mont- Dore through many gorges, valleys and villages until reaching the Gironde Estuary just north of Bordeaux, in southwestern wine country. It’s a wide, fast river, especially in its upper reaches near the towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, where it’s more reminiscent of western U.S. fly-fishing destinations such as Montana’s Madison than of France’s northern rivers, like the slow-moving Andelle of Normandy. As the English angling writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson wrote of France’s northern chalkstreams: “These are rivers that Eisenhower, Hemingway and Ritz fished.

And of course they flow through French countryside, French villages, past cafés and restaurants and, in the case of the one where I’m sitting right now, the grounds of a private manor where you can stay on the top floor with views to the silent woods all around, and be absurdly well fed, wined and watered.”

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A trip to the Dordogne Valley offers equal or better opportunities to be well fed and well wined; there’ll just be fewer Brits around when it happens. Not that the Dordogne is tourist-free. It’s far too beautiful for that, and also too close to Burgundy’s wine country. Still, like most of France, the farther you get from Paris, the less touristy it becomes.

If you like to combine fly-fishing and food, then France is a logical choice. But for hardcore destination anglers, the country may sound like little more than a vacation trade-off—a way to appease the spouse’s desire for luxury and a good pinot, while still providing the angler an opportunity to “wet a line while you’re there.” But don’t be mistaken; France has a strong tradition of fly-fishing and fly-fishermen. I witnessed both firsthand as guide to the world’s most decorated competitive fly-fisher—France’s three-time World Champion Pascal Cognard—in the 17th World Fly-Fishing Championships, held in 1997 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Cognard and his comrades have excelled in world competitions ever since, in part because they simply have a lot of exceptional home water in which to practice, including the Dordogne.

The mainstem Dordogne is big water, and if it were in the U.S., it would undoubtedly be fished from a driftboat. But in France, it is most often accessed by wading, walking the banks or by renting a canoe. “Most fishermen on the Dordogne chest-wade and do ‘the heron,’” says Nick de Toldi, owner of Gourmetfly, a French field-sports tourism company, referring to an angler who stands in the water and waits motionless, like a heron. “The strong current prevents you from covering big distances while wading. No one floats here in boats like in America, but some guide friends of mine have done it while visiting Montana and came back impressed by the technique. They spoke many times of adapting it here but it remained a mere project.”

Perhaps American driftboat manufacturers should look at expanding to southwest France. In the meantime, canoe rental operators along the Dordogne Valley provide a popular alternative. “A reader once asked me, if I were to bring a spry, 73-year-old grandmother to Europe, where would I go?” famed Europhile Rick Steves once wrote. “My response: I’d take her for a float down France’s Dordogne River in a canoe. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to enjoy great scenery while getting some exercise. And you can pop ashore whenever you like.”

Like Mr. Steves, fly-fishers have figured out that canoes are the tool of choice on the Dordogne. “Taking canoes is very common, because most companies allow you to rent upstream, drift down and get picked up by the canoe rental people to take you back to your car,” de Toldi says. “My brother has done it several times with a fly rod, but more to stop under cliffs of otherwise difficult access points than to fish as the boat drifts down.”

As the most famous waterway in the region, the main Dordogne can get crowded with canoes and kayaks in the summertime. Hitting one of its many smaller tributaries offers a more intimate angling experience, with clear, spring-fed runs surrounded with hatches of various mayflies and caddis. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy rivers to fish.

“You could compare the upper Dordogne to the Henry’s Fork [of the Snake River in Idaho],” says Cyril Kamir, founder and manager the popular French online fly-fishing magazine, LeMouching, who has fished the Dordogne region several times. “It’s a broad river, up to 120 feet wide, with many weeds and big trout. Due to the many little currents, you have to fish with very long leaders—16 feet is not unusual. The Dordogne always has a lot of fish, but they are difficult to catch, partly because there are a lot of water-level variations from the dams upstream. But it’s a good way to improve your fishing. I love it best in early and late season, when there are fewer people and lots of grayling and trout.”

According to Kamir, many French fly-fishers consider there to be two Dordognes. “No one fishes the lower Dordogne,” Kamir says. The anglers’ Dordogne is the upper or “Haute Dordogne,” near the charming, riverside towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. This area includes the Vézère River, a 130-mile fly-fishing-friendly tributary of the Dordogne that is home to 25 prehistoric cave systems containing numerous cave paintings dating back nearly 20,000 years. Both the Vézère and the Dordogne are home to several medieval castles along their banks, and UNESCO recently named the entire region, all 15,000 square miles of it, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site.

Within this area, you’ll find three of the Dordogne’s most famous tributaries—the Cère, the Maronne and the Doustre. The Cère flows 75 miles through the departments of Lot and Corrèze, entering the Dordogne on river left near the town of Bretenoux; the Morrone is a small stream with good mayfly hatches and big trout that could be mistaken for a river you might find in the Adirondacks of New York; and the Doustre is a small, sometimes technical river in a gorgeous setting. All three have dams, so anglers must be careful to keep a watchful eye on flows.

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Mayfly hatches on all Dordogne Valley rivers start with March browns in spring and generally end with the last caddis hatch in September. Browns, rainbows and grayling are the main species, though several area lakes also have pike and carp. As for techniques, most rivers are great for dry flies by mid- summer. In early season, streamers are effective, but many Dordogne locals consider streamer fishing to not be fly-fishing, so be prepared for that discussion if you are a diehard streamer fisherman. Sight nymphing is not easy in most places because of the weeds, but usually works fine with an indicator.

What better way to celebrate that symbiosis than with rod in hand and wine in belly, doing “the heron” along the Dordogne River?

History Lessons

There are two important UNESCO sites in the Dordogne region and both are worth a visit. The first is the Vézère Valley, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its vast collection of vivid, colorful cave paintings. The Lascaux Cave, near Montignac, is easily the most famous of the valley’s 147 sites, with numerous large-animal paintings that are thought to be more than 17,000 years old. An 18-year- old discovered Lascaux in 1940, but visiting the caves became so popular that they were closed to the public in 1963 and a replica containing the main sections of artwork (Lascaux II) was built less than 700 feet away.

The second UNESCO designation occurred in July of 2012, when the entire Dordogne River basin was designated a Biosphere Reserve, the largest such reserve in France. The designation came largely because of socio-economic aspects, the beautiful scenery, the balance between economic development and conservation, and the extensive plant and animal biodiversity found there, including its 39 different species of fish.

Fishing Guide

The rules for fishing in France are complicated and ever evolving, but no more so than in parts of the U.S. Each of the country’s 101 departments (roughly equivalent to counties in the U.S.) sets its own laws, so for the most up-to-date info, it is best to contact one of the major fly shops, such as La Maison de la Mouche, which has operated in Paris since 1934. No matter where you fish, you’ll need a license. A full- season license costs around 70 euros; and a weekly (sometimes called a “Holiday License”) costs around 40 euros. In 2007, many regions also started selling daily licenses, but those often didn’t allow fishing until after May, and you’ll sometimes need another license if you move to another region.

Trout season in France begins the third Sunday in March, and generally closes by the third Sunday in September, except in and around some of the mountain regions, which remain open through mid-October. After this, you can still fish for grayling or other “course fish” (carp, pike, bass, etc.— basically, anything other than trout or salmon). This late- season fishing is especially popular and productive in the Dordogne and parts of the Massif Central in south- central France.

Lastly, waters in France are divided into First Category (lakes or rivers dominated by trout and salmon, where only one rod is allowed), and Second Category, which are lakes and rivers dominated by anything else. Second Category waters allow up to four rods, and up to two hooks each.

Five Ways Nature Can Be the Best Medicine

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Five Ways Nature Can Be the Best Medicine

January 10, 2019

Despite an unattractive spring through the airport, I arrive at the gate for my connecting flight too late. The next flight isn’t until the next day, so I now have a day and a night in Vancouver. Nothing against Vancouver, but I’m not happy about the unplanned time here. Also I’ve got a headache. I’m stressed and sad my vacation is now cut short by a day. Until I find Stanley Park.

Vancouver’s 1,001-acre Stanley Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America. It’s adjacent to downtown and almost entirely surrounded by water. Within its borders are ever-blooming gardens, about 500,000 cedar, fir and hemlock trees, a 5.5-mile paved seaside pathway (the Seawall), over 40 miles of dirt trails through the park’s interior and a collection of First Nation totem poles, among other things. The more I wander around Stanley Park, the more I wish I had longer to explore. Kiosks rent bikes. There are horse- drawn carriage rides and a shuttle trolley. Joggers and rollerbladers crowd the Seawall. The views of the city, craggy mountains rising verdantly behind, from the Seawall are spectacular, but evidently the park’s best views are from the Brockton Point Lighthouse, which I pass over in favor of the totem pole collection.

The longer I’m in the park, the more I relax. By the time I’m back at my hotel for the night, after a couple of hours wandering the woods, I’m not longer sad, and also no longer have a headache. Both history—going back to early Chinese medicine and Roman doctors—and recent scientific studies show I’m not imagining that my time in the outdoors has helped my mood. Spending time in nature can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving cognitive function and sleep. (A book that touches on both the historical use of time outside as a therapy and also on recent studies is Your Brain on Nature, by Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND. It is amazingly informative without being the least bit dull.)

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It turns out the beauty of travel is more than meets the eye. It goes all the way to your brain, if you take the time to plan an outdoor activity or two. (The science shows it doesn’t matter what you do outside; it’s the being outside that counts.)

Free Rx: Trees and plants secrete chemicals called phytoncides that impact our cognition, mental state and immune systems in ways science is only beginning to understand: Experimental studies have shown that phytoncides can lower the production of stress hormones, reduce anxiety and increase pain threshold; higher phytoncides cause increased production of anticancer proteins in the blood.

Park City, Utah: Ski (And Shoot) with Olympic Spirit

Park City has succeeded where many Olympic host cities have failed: It has kept the venues constructed for its Games alive and open. Here you can go bobsledding and watch ski jumpers train. The area’s Olympic spirit is most alive at Soldier Hollow, the site of the 2002 Games’ cross-country skiing and biathlon events. Today you can ski on the same 20 miles of skating and classic trails Olympians trained and raced on. Since one of the state’s best Nordic ski schools is here too, it doesn’t matter if your experience level is decidedly non-Olympian. Private skate and classic lessons are available daily, and there are scheduled group lessons for classic skiing every weekday. Group lessons are Saturdays and Sundays.

Soldier Hollow is also one of the few places int he U.S. you can give biathlon a try. A mysterious sport, for Americans, at least, because we so rarely see it, biathlon is a combination of Nordic skiing and target shooting. Soldier Hollow’s programs range from one-hour “Bronze Level” introductory shooting class (no skiing and you shoot from 10 meters) to a two-hour “Gold Level” experience, which includes ski gear and shooting .22 Olympic rifles on the Olympic range. (The shooting only happens after you’ve taken a safety clinic, also included in the program.)

Stress Test: Think you don’t have stress? It’s all relative. In a 151-country Gallup World Poll, Americans’ stress levels ranked fifth- highest.

Nevis: The Ultimate Locavore

Diving at the Four Seasons Nevis does double duty. The resort has teamed up with the Caribbean island’s original SCUBA outfit to help you hunt your own dinner. Have you ever lassoed a lobster? Their kitchen then turns your catch into a gourmet fireside feast on the beach. Generations of Nevisian divers have harvested Caribbean Spiny Lobsters—some up to five pounds—just one mile out from the Four Seasons’ beach. Your dive starts on the dive boat’s deck with a lesson on how to properly lasso a lobster—slide the specialized lasso around its tail from behind and then cinch it. After a few practice lassos, you strap on your diving gear, drop off the boat’s side and head down. You’ll see colorful corals, feather dusters and possibly even stingrays, but the dive master and resort chef have their eyes peeled for lobster. If you can’t lasso a lobster because they’re too fast—the latter might have been the case when I was on the hunt—the staff are professional backup.

Once back on land with lobsters in hand, you turn your catch over to the kitchen, where it disappears until lunch- or dinnertime. When it’s time to eat, head to the beach, where you’ll enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres while either lounging in front of a driftwood fire or watching the chefs work their magic in an open-air gourmet kitchen. When the chefs are done, take your custom, all-lobster menu— each course paired with a wine, of course— into a private beach cabana and savor your successes. Lobster sashimi, anyone?

Smart Walks: At least one study has shown that a nature hike elevates the neurosteroid DHEA, which declines with aging and whose administration has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in adults. An urban walk of the same duration did not have this effect on DHEA.

Bali: Serenity by the Bay

Sunrise or sunset? In your private villa courtyard with birds singing overhead, the beach pavilion with a background soundtrack of Jimbaran Bay’s crashing waves or under palm trees on the expansive, frangipani-scented lawn facing the beach? Such are the difficult choices when arranging for yoga, tai chi or guided meditation at Belmond Jimbaran Puri, on Bali’s southern tip. “Having a deep connection with nature can enhance your practice, increase wakeful relaxation and internal focus,” says Ida Ayu Citra, a yogi at the island’s Surya Candra Bhuana studio and school who has been doing private sessions at Belmont for more than five years. “You can feel limitless and open as you look up to the sky, or out at the ocean—your breath will be bigger.” Sessions are 30 or 60 minutes and can be modified for all levels of practice and experience. “Sixty minutes is best,” Citra says. “More time to establish a deep connection with the earth, sky and ocean.” Yogis typically do Ashtanga and Hatha yoga, with some Balinese modifications. If you don’t feel like anything physical, there’s also the option of claiming a teak chaise lounge under the palm trees at the resort’s infinity pool.

Mellow Out: Stress is one of the biggest factors of mental fatigue, yet spending time in nature has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol. It follows then that since nature can help you avert mental fatigue, time spent outside could improve cognitive health.

Napa Valley: Biking with Benefits

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You’d think wine country would be a place of rest. Maybe even som overindulgence. Then there’s Napa Valley, where rest and overindulgence are certainly allowed and encouraged, and where there’s also a winery founded and run by the Clifs, the same family behind the popular sports performance food brand Clif. The winery, Clif Family Winery just south of downtown St. Helena, welcomes everyone, but it is cyclists who flock there. Its tasting room is called Velo Vino and there, alongside wine and espresso, are branded bike shorts, jerseys and bottles. Staff can give recommendations for rides throughout the valley. Most of the people in the line at its food truck, Bruschetteria, sport spandex and bike shoes. “I know riders plan their route so that they hit the food truck when they’ve got about a quarter of their ride left,” says Thatcher Greene, a Calistoga Bikeshop rep who was born and raised in the valley. “They stop for some tasty bruschetta and a rest and then finish up.”

“The road riding here is world-class because you can be very selective with what kind of ride you want to do and there is so much scenery to see,” Greene says. “You can go out for a flat, mellow cruiser ride, or a 100-mile ride with climbs that have 20 percent grades. Add the great food and wine and amenities that come with being in a wine destination and you’ve got a five-star package.”

For a “mellow ride through pretty scenery on the most excellent shoulders in the valley” Green recommends Silverado Trail. This road is home to dozens of wineries. Ride as long as you want—stopping at as many wineries as you want—and then turn around. “You can hop on this road anywhere in the valley,” he says.

Cyclists looking for a challenge should check in at Clif Family Winery or the Calistoga Bikeshop for details on riding the Oakville Grade to Dry Creek or Howell Mountain to Pope Valley. Both of these are loops with “good, solid climbs off the valley floor,” says Greene. Thankfully the 1,500-foot climb up Howell is slightly blunted by the scenery—the mountain is terraced with vineyards; grapes from Howell vines go into some of Napa’s best wines, including several of the Spire Collection’s seven Napa wineries. I love wine and cycling equally, but the high- speed, twisty descent through pine forest off the backside of Howell Mountain down into Pope Valley excited me more than any wine I’ve ever had, including the 2010 Dancing Hares cabernet blend (95 points from Wine Advocate) I enjoyed at the Michelin-starred Solbar at Solage Calistoga the evening after my ride.

Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

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Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

December 17, 2018

There comes a point when the speed seems natural. Cruising through the open valleys, banking turns and floating through powder, the snowmobile no longer feels like a separate entity but merely an extension. And that’s when things really get fun.

Vail, the largest ski mountain in the U.S., has the kind of invigorating terrain that draws people back year after year, generation after generation. (And the fleet of non-stop groomers helps.) But beyond the ski runs is a whole Rocky Mountain playground for those who want to venture out of bounds. Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing all have cult followings.

Whether you call them snow gos, snow machines or snowmobiles, the ones available for rent can fit two people — the driver and the hanger-on. There are advantages to both roles, and it’s easy to swap back and forth. 

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Nova Guides is the largest touring outfit in the Vail Valley, and in this instance, bigger really is better. Headquartered at Camp Hale just a few miles down the road from the Continental Divide, they have a full-service restaurant in their lodge that dishes out hearty lunchtime fare, warm drinks and ambiance from a two-sided fireplace that is perpetually stoked. Though the point of snowmobiling is, in part, to get out there — really out there — it’s easy enough to hightail it back to the lodge if you need a warm-up drink or if you’re done with the adventure before the rest of your group is. Nova Guides has a secondary base camp on the outskirts of Minturn for shorter excursions, too.

There are a couple of ways to take to the snowfields: by-the-hour rentals for do-it-yourself touring, as well as guided tours with full and half-day options. Guided tours are a good way to get used to the machines, which have a kicky burst of power as soon as you rev them. They also eliminate the need for trail finding, as the guides know exactly where they’re going. And where is that, exactly? Why the top of the Rockies, of course.

“We’ve got 80 miles of trail to choose from,” says Drew Fortner of Nova Guides. “No two tours are alike.”

Guides take the pulse of the group as a whole — who’s gone where before, how fast people want to travel, what they want to see — and then create an itinerary. Camp Hale is a natural starting place, as it’s right out the front door and is a wide-open valley peppered with history. At Vail’s Covered Bridge stands a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper sculpture, replete with M1-Garand semi-automatic rifle, 7’6” skis and white ski suit. During World War II, American soldiers trained at Camp Hale so they could fight the Germans in Italy. They were known as the 10th Mountain Division, and they took the Germans by surprise at Riva Ridge. Though most of the infrastructure that was at Camp Hale is now gone, folks can still cruise by the ammunition bunkers, firing range and the foundations of the barracks. And for those who don’t have much of an interest in history, the endless views and jagged peaks provide some eye candy.

That same valley is an excellent spot for dialing in your snowmobiling technique. Though it’s fairly simple to turn the key, give it gas and make some turns, there is a bit of finesse that comes with experience, especially when you’re dealing with fresh powder. Just as you do on skis or a snowboard, snowmobiles float and swoosh in the powder. Given the size and power of the machines, it seems incongruous that they’d feel so light and airy, but that’s part of the draw. Tours dip up and down over the Rockies, peaking at 12,700 feet above sea level. The wind-scrubbed, open terrain is testament to how harsh the conditions are.

“There are often non-skiers in a group,” Fortner says. “And sometimes, this is the only chance they’ll get to see what it’s like above tree line.” Though the machine certainly does the lion’s share of the work, snowmobiling is more physical than one might expect. Because they respond to conditions, snowmobiles dip and lurch just like your muscles. It’s what makes it more interactive and fun. For those with itty-bitties in the group, or people who are sensitive to the cold, Nova also has snowcat tours, what they call “snow coaches.” Heated, the coaches allow for anyone to tour the highalpine Rockies, though they’re not as exhilarating as the snowmobiles.

Experienced backcountry travelers extol the virtues of the sheer distance the snowmobiles can travel in such a short period of time. From Camp Hale it’s easy to cruise over to Vail Pass or Shrine Pass on a snow go and check out the lay of the land. Mount Elbert and Mount Massive — two of Colorado’s tallest peaks — keep watch over the world. Mount of the Holy Cross, a talisman of sorts for Wild West settlers and adventurers, almost always holds snow in the cross, made by crevasses, on one side. Groups can end up in Red Cliff, a funky town at the end of the Shrine Pass road. Red Cliff doesn’t have any stoplights, but it does have dogs galore, a single liquor store and Mango’s, a multi-story restaurant that specializes in, of all things, fish tacos. And beer, or course. There’s also a rock in the middle of town, which played host to the entire settlement during the mid-1800s. Word of an Indian revolt to the east made its way to Colorado, and the town of Red Cliff ran to the rock, sleeping, eating and drawing water from the river below with a bucket on the end of some rope. The wild Indians never showed up, and eventually the settlers left the rock and went about their business. But the rock is still there, one of countless bits of history scattered throughout the White River National Forest.

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Before skiing became a downhill sport, it was transportation. Scooting across miles and miles of snow, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are time-honored ways to get exercise and cover some ground. In Norway, there are miles and miles of trails between villages, with little huts along the way that offer spiced wine and lunch, sometimes reindeer. In the U.S., the two activities are more specialized. As such, they require specific trails.

Many golf courses in Eagle County allow both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Some of them, such as Vail, even cater to them. But inside the county lines there is no better place to fall into the groove than McCoy Park at Beaver Creek.

“Most ski resorts have their Nordic courses down in the valley,” explains Nate Goldberg, Beaver Creek’s director of hiking. “But McCoy Park is at the top of Beaver Creek. With a five-and-a-half-minute chair ride you’re there, and it’s so quiet and beautiful. You’ve got three mountain ranges to look at.”

Other than during the occasional snowshoe race, McCoy Park doesn’t see a lot of action. Located at the top of Strawberry Park Express, you can’t see or hear the interstate that runs through the valley, and there’s not much in the way of human company. It is, for the most part, a solitary activity along the crystalline paths that spiral out from the course’s center. A yurt along the way allows for shelter from inclement weather — or simply a rest stop to reapply sunscreen, stretch the hamstrings and relax. The trees are more sporadic up at the top of the world, and the occasional porcupine can be seen propped in those trees every once in a while. Bark eaters, porcupines are oddly comfortable in the snow, and have called Beaver Creek home for longer than the resort has been around. Foxes, weasels and snowshoe hares can also be seen at McCoy, though they often like to stay out of sight.

For those who have both the time and inclination, a morning, afternoon or full day at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is unforgettable. Located at the base of Ski Cooper — the only ski resort in Colorado that is publicly owned, this by the town of Leadville — Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is a secluded network of cross country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.

It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch Range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about “expanding” the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand’s yurt.

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse has long been a local favorite for birthdays, anniversaries, and run-of-the-mill hoopla among friends. It’s the epitome of living large in Colorado: gorgeous views, alpine activity, good food and excellent friends. There’s even the possibility of a little live acoustic music later at the Nordic center.

“Part of it is our location — the view is exceptional,” Roxanne says. “But it’s also the yurt. It wouldn’t be the same if it were a cabin. It’s so quaint, plus we feel really far away.”

The Cookhouse serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner only has one seating. Both have cult followings.

“It’s scratch cooking,” says John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.

Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxie (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt — Cooper Loop — is about a mile. There’s a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry’s Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.

The feta-stuffed buffalo burger is a lunch highlight that will tempt even those who prefer to skip the red meat. At dinner, wild sockeye salmon is grilled on a plank, giving it a lightly smoked flavor. Colorado rack of lamb is roasted to tender succulence, while the elk tenderloin is seared and served with blueberries and sage. Roasted chicken and curried tofu are also on the menu. 

All the food and water used at the yurt is schlepped in by snowmobile. That means the “facilities” are two outhouses, riding high above the snowpack. Sometimes it can be an adventure, dashing out into a snowstorm to use them. But coming back into the yurt afterwards is rather friendly. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. If meteors obliterate the world or global warming washes away the continent, that solid stove will remain intact. It keeps the yurt downright balmy even on the coldest of nights. Those in the know usually bring house slippers or booties to wear during mealtime, as heavy winter boots aren’t necessary — or particularly comfortable — inside. 

The trick is not to eat too much for the trek back to the car. Primarily downhill, it’s easy to make it to the base lodge as long as you stay awake and upright. Otherwise, all bets are off. And those who decide to nap in the forest will certainly awaken to a different type of adventure entirely. But hey, at least it’s an adventure. And that’s the stuff memories are made of.

Telluride, Colorado’s Best Kept Secret, Is Open for Discovery

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Telluride, Colorado's Best Kept Secret, Is Open for Discovery

December 11, 2018

Telluride wasn’t always the destination it is today. Long before cinema elites like Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone put the Telluride Film Festival on the map and before free- spirited entrepreneurs strung up Telluride’s first chairlifts in 1972, the area was known to American Indians and starting in the 1850s, intrepid miners seeking personal fortune.

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This was because Telluride rests deep in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, an isolated pocket of the state where many peaks top out between 13,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. 

Until direct flights to nearby Montrose (only 45 minutes away) were established, Telluride was a five-hour to seven-hour drive from all major metropolitan areas. Only the most committed made the trip, one that winds over and around treacherous mountain passes.

Their effort was rewarded with a stunning welcome, though. The Ute Indians dubbed the area the “Valley of
the Hanging Waterfalls” for good reason—Bridal Veil Falls is among Telluride’s most visible and arresting natural features. And the falls have good company. Telluride is saturated with staggering beauty. Pyramid-like peaks encircle the town and create a geographical marvel of canyons, rivers and high lakes. Try not to be awed.

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As imposing as the geology is, access is as easy as a ride up a chairlift. Come spring, enjoy Telluride Ski Resort’s butter- smooth slopes, guaranteed to be bathed in bright sun (unless a freak storm dumps a foot of fresh snow, which has been known to happen), before savoring a glass of pinot noir and a salumi plate on the deck of Alpino Vino, a must-visit on-mountain bistro. Telluride truly was Colorado’s best kept secret…until now.

Fly-Fishing South Carolina’s Kiawah Island

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Fly-fishing South Carolina's Kiawah Island

December 10, 2018

As we round a grassy, flooded corner of Kiawah Island, moving slowly in Capt. John Irwin’s flats boat, all three of us onboard begin scanning the shoreline for fish. Irwin spots one first. “We’ve got a belly-crawler at 2 o’clock, about 20 feet in,” he announces. “You see him?”

Charleston-based angler/artist/musician Paul Puckett is standing on the bow, fly rod in hand. He sees the fish a split-second after Irwin does, and makes a perfect cast, landing the fly 6 inches in front of the feeder’s nose. It pounces without hesitation, coming clear out of the water to eat the fly and connect Puckett with 5 pounds of hard-fighting red drum, a.k.a. redfish, one of the most popular game fish in America.

As he’s bringing it to the boat, a man yells “Fore!” from an adjacent golf course, and I instinctively duck my head. Such are the risks of fishing in coastal South Carolina.

Kiawah is a barrier island along the South Carolina coast, sitting about 20 miles south of Charleston. It is known primarily as a golf destination—a fair assessment, considering that five acclaimed courses weave around the island’s 11 square miles, including the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course, host of the 2012 PGA Championship. But many anglers have discovered that Kiawah and the surrounding area is also an exceptional fly-fishing destination, especially for tailing redfish found in the Spartina-grass salt marshes.

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“The endless interconnected creeks and rivers here make it easy to forget that you’re fishing close to civilization,” says Puckett. “Even with some of the best shops and restaurants really close by, Kiawah’s not quite as developed as other towns, so whether you’re wading or in a boat, you feel like you’re on your own private island.”

Indeed, most of Kiawah is a private island. Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, through a partnership with Kiawah Development Partners, offers a beautiful public beach on the west end of the island called Kiawah Beachwalker Park. But beyond that, Kiawah is essentially a gated community, albeit one with many rentable vacation properties, where it’s possible to find fish on foot or in a rental car without even leaving dry land.

“There are brackish ponds on Kiawah that hold lots of big redfish,” says local photographer Jason Stemple, who spent five years as the staff photographer for Kiawah Development Partners, exploring the island every day, including its creeks and marshes. “It’s pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you can pull up to a pond, hop out and see fish right away. Other times you can cast for hours and never see a thing. But each little creek is unique, and has the possibility of holding belly-crawling, shrimp- gobbling redfish.” (Kiawah also has a few freshwater-fed springs and ponds with good largemouth bass fishing, along with other fish that can survive in brackish water, like carp and tarpon.)

These belly-crawlers that both Stemple and Irwin refer to are redfish that have come into very shallow water at “flood tide” to feed, swimming half-exposed—sometimes even their eyeballs are above water—through stretches of Spartina grass that look like a flooded hayfield. A flood tide is the term for the highest high tides of each month. The food chain on these flooded flats goes something like this: flyfisher chasing redfish; redfish chasing blue crabs or fiddler crabs; crabs chasing the snails that cling to the stalks of grass. The result is a unique and challenging visual fishery for three or four days on both sides of a new or full moon. “Tailers” are redfish that are nose-down, eating in the mud or grass, with their tail sticking above the water, often wiggling from side to side.

“We usually get two sets of flood tides each month between
May and November, which keeps us pretty satisfied,” says Puckett. “There’s just something special about being able to see a fish before you catch it.” Stemple adds that shooting pictures of redfish during a flood tide offers the best opportunity to photograph them without a human involved. “It’s the only time they take a part of their body and place it in our world,” he says. “Flood-tide tailers give you the best chance, whether fishing or photographing, of stalking an individual fish in the most visual way possible.”

As great as flood tides are, they’re certainly not the only time to catch redfish. Nor are redfish the only quarry worth chasing around Kiawah Island. On two consecutive mornings fishing with Irwin and Stemple, a black drum at low tide was my first fish of the day. Black drum are a close cousin to red drum, but grow even larger, with a few recorded catches of more than 100 pounds. Mine were both about 4 pounds, and were just losing the vertical dark stripes they sport as juveniles— markings that sometimes cause them to be mistaken for another Lowcountry specimen, the sheepshead.

The state fish of South Carolina is the striped bass, but with stripers falling on hard times of late, visitors to Kiawah target everything from dorado to cobia to seatrout to sharks to amberjack to false albacore— even the occasional tarpon. We saw several fishermen targeting sharks close to shore, but offshore options are also available, especially during summer months, when bluewater captains use bigger boats to target species like wahoo, snapper, grouper, tuna, mackerel and billfish.

We caught redfish each day on both dropping and rising tides. Some were tailing in the shallowest water of a small bay, some were milling about near the mouths of creeks, waiting for the tide to rise, and a few bigger fish were found cruising alone or in pairs, looking for unsuspecting shrimp, crabs or glass minnows, or working the oyster beds, which they love. All of this was sight-fishing—the best kind of fly-fishing—and would not have been possible without clear water, which doesn’t always occur, especially in summertime. Nor is it possible without the eyes of a competent guide, which Irwin certainly is. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he grew up spending summers on Kiawah, or that his father still lives there, giving him easy access to boat ramps, as well as the occasional golf game.

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“I spent seven years guiding for trout in southwest Montana,” Irwin says. “But I decided to return home in 2001, get my captain’s license and focus on the fish I grew up with. Plus, it’s warmer here.”

Trading south Montana for South Carolina also allows Irwin to
guide year-round—a huge bonus for a career that’s often seasonal. To accommodate both inshore and near shore clients, he has an 18-foot skiff for redfishing and other shallow-water endeavors, and a 23-foot V-hull boat for trips to the ocean side of the barrier islands, when chasing migrating fish like dorado (also called mahimahi or dolphinfish.)

Come fall, flood tides in South Carolina can last longer than in spring or summer, which keeps most fly-fishers targeting redfish. But as temperatures drop during winter, crabs start hibernating, causing fewer redfish to feed on the flats during high tides. While this reduces the number of tailing redfish, it causes them to school up into larger groups. Winter is when some of the biggest schools of reds can be found, sometimes along the beach, but also in the same marshes they occupy the rest of the year. It’s also when redfish will push into very skinny water to try to avoid dolphins (the mammal, not the dorado)—one of their major predators. If you’ve ever seen an Internet video showing dolphins “herding” redfish and mullet onto dry land, chances are it was filmed near Kiawah Island.

The climate of Kiawah makes redfishing a year-round sport, and with several guides offering early morning or late afternoon options to match the best fishing conditions, it’s possible to get in nine holes or a game of tennis and still have time for fishing the same day.
Three great fly shops in the area—Charleston Angler in Charleston, Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant and Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort—all have knowledgeable staff that can outfit you or connect you with a guide. In addition to Irwin, Captain Mike Tucker lives and works on Kiawah, offering anglers both fly and light-tackle charters.

If you’re interested in lessons instead of, or in addition to,
a chartered trip, Bay Street Outfitters offers several one-day “Redfish Schools” throughout the year, focusing mostly on casting, knots and flies. Irwin teaches seminars as well, which are run through Charleston Angler. He also hosts several two- day redfish schools throughout the year, scheduling them to coincide with flood tides. “Having the two-day classes works best,” Irwin says, “because it allows people to screw everything up on the first day, and still redeem themselves on the second.” It also provides what all anglers want from every redfishing trip we take: one more day on the water.

Telluride’s Lesser Known Winter Activity Travelers Should Try

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Telluride's Lesser Known Winter Activity Travelers Should Try

November 5, 2018

The hardest thing about catching a trout on Telluride’s most popular tailwater is learning how to pronounce its name: Pa-Co-Chu- Puk. This mile-and-a-half stretch of the Uncompahgre River flows from the bottom of Ridgeway Reservoir, keeping it a near constant 50 degrees and allowing for a year-round fishery. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is a Ute Indian term—for either “water buffalo” or “cow creek,” depending on the source—and is pronounced “Pa-co-chew-puh.” But non-linguists needn’t fear, as locals long ago shortened the name of the tailwater to “Paco” and the river to “Unc.”

The Uncompahgre is one of the “big four” fly-fishing rivers near Telluride, the other three being the San Miguel, the Dolores and the Gunnison. The Paco tailwater on the Unc is about an hour away from Telluride, located inside Ridgeway State Park. It’s the closest year- round fishable water from town, and offers a more intimate walk- and-wade experience than the other year-round fishery—the lower Gunnison, which is mostly fished from a drift boat. For such a short, shallow section of river, Paco holds some surprisingly large rainbows and browns, with four-pounders not uncommon.

Since both the Gunny and the Unc are typically fishable throughout the winter, they are favorites of many skiers/flyfishers looking to squeeze a day of fishing into their ski vacation (or vice versa). “Mid- March is tough to beat for both fishing and skiing in Telluride, because there’s usually the greatest amount of snow on the mountain and the least amount of snow along the river,” says 23-year veteran Telluride fly-fishing guide Frank Smethurst. “You can try to do both in a day—and many do—but the fishing is often best right about when the corn snow is peaking, so it’s usually better to just rest your ski legs and focus on fishing for a full day.”

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Regardless of the season, Smethurst’s ski-or-fish dilemma highlights another challenge of chasing trout in Telluride: choosing fly-fishing over the many other world-class activities waiting out your front door. When summer rolls around, even the most hardcore flyfishers must admit that the alternative activities in Telluride—from music festivals to mountain biking to backpacking—rival those of any mountain town on Earth. And I hate to disappoint you indecisive types, but even after settling on fly-fishing for the day’s activity, your options are far from limited.

For those wanting a natural, free-flowing fishing experience, the
two most popular freestone rivers are the San Miguel and the upper Dolores. (“Freestone” is an undammed river; “tailwater” is a section of river flowing below a dam.) The San Miguel is definitely Telluride’s local river, starting high above town in the San Juan Mountains and flowing northwest through town and along the valley below, toward Placerville. The South Fork of the San Miguel, a great fishery in its own right, joins the main branch just outside of town. About five miles up the South Fork from the confluence, the Nature Conservancy has a 67-acre preserve, where catch-and-release fishing is allowed.

The upper river can be covered with snow for much of the winter, but the San Miguel River usually offers Telluride anglers their first freestone fly-fishing of the season. “March
is my favorite time of year to fish it,” says John Duncan, co-owner and general manager of Telluride Outside, a local fly-fishing guide service since 1984. “I love the process of inspecting the San Miguel when the ice starts melting away, it makes me feel like I’m searching a new river each season.”

Smethurst also likes late-winter fishing near Telluride, but for different reasons. “The best thing about it is spending time in the high desert,” he says. “Many people don’t even realize that Colorado has a desert, and it’s a 20-minute drive west from downtown Telluride. I think the best two rivers for winter fishing are the Unc and the lower Gunnison, where you’re fishing a few thousand feet lower than the elevation in Telluride, which is 8,750. So it’s usually much warmer than town, and there are big fish to be had.”

The “Lower Gunny” is basically anything below the bottom of Gunnison Gorge, but usually refers to the section from the Gunnison Forks—near the Gunnison River Pleasure Park—down to the Austin Bridge, a float of about 5 miles. This is the stretch that is most often floated during winter—an area Duncan describes as “the stark and stunning landscape of high-desert canyon country.” When summer rolls around, the Gunnison has several other float or hike-in sections, including Almont to the town of Gunnison, Gunnison to Blue Mesa Reservoir, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge, just below the National Park.

If you’ve got a car in Telluride, and are looking for a good one- day road trip, Colorado State Highway 145 (CO-145) is one of the country’s best state highways for fishing. The 116-mile- long roadway follows the San Miguel River northwest from Telluride for 50 miles, and follows the Dolores River southwest from Lizard Head Pass for 45 miles. There are
a few bits of private land along both rivers, but most of it is public and remote, making it easy to lose the crowds. “There are few fly-fishing destinations with the amount of public access that we have here,” says Duncan. “Most anglers are accustomed to fishing around other people, but we are spoiled by solitude in Telluride. Any extra effort—a short hike, a four- wheel-drive road or even just the creative use of a map—will probably result in all-day solitude.”

Besides solitude, another thing the San Miguel, Uncompahgre and upper Dolores have in common is a fairly reliable mayfly hatch—the Pale Morning Dun in early July. Though caddisflies come first, they often show up during runoff, when the San Miguel and Dolores are too dirty to fish. The San Miguel is a nymphing river in February and March (the “window” before runoff), but despite a lack of prolific surface hatches, trout will still key on dry flies. Best bet is to fish a dry fly with a nymph dropper, so you’re covering both zones. And if we’re discussing hatches in this part of Colorado, then—sorry, PMDs and caddisflies—but you play second fiddle to the famous salmonflies of the Gunnison.

The salmonfly is one of the country’s most famous hatches, and the Gunnison has some of the country’s most famous salmonflies. It’s always in the conversation with other top salmonfly rivers like Oregon’s Deschutes or Montana’s Madison, Yellowstone or Big Hole. If you’re in good physical shape, hiking down to the river in Black Canyon National Park is a rewarding experience. It’s also a lot of work, and if you go during the June salmonfly hatch, you won’t be alone on the trail. Fishing during the emergence of these 2- to 3-inch-long bugs is considered a rite of passage for many flyfishers, so the salmonfly event can sometimes draw a crowd. Another option is to fish the Gunny later in the summer, after the salmonflies have gone but while grasshoppers are still around.

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I was fortunate to join a private group from Telluride a few years back on a three-day August float down Gunny Gorge. It turned out to be perfect time to do it, especially if you’re more into the fishing and less into the big-water rafting of spring. (Don’t wait until too late in the summer, though, because passage gets pretty tight in the narrow part of the gorge when flows drop below 1,000 cubic feet per second.)

As for the classic, sometimes-technical tailwater experience near Telluride—
the lower Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir—anglers must understand that this special section of river is not “on the way” to anywhere. But neither is Telluride, so if you’ve made it that far, what’s a day trip to the Dolores? (The drive is a little more than 60 miles from Telluride, so a bit farther than going to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. But don’t be afraid to stop along the way for photos at Trout Lake, or for fishing at Snowspur Creek or Lizard Head Creek.)

Duncan’s favorite time on the Dolores tailwater is early summer. “There’s no other river in my experience that comes to life quite like the Dolores,” he says. “You’ll be blown away by the number and variety of hatching bugs. And there are so many shades of green, it confuses the eye.” Duncan adds that high water on the Dolores recedes a couple weeks earlier than on the San Miguel, so it’s the first river they fish after runoff.

And finally, while tailwaters are sometimes the only fishing available during winter, it’s the free-flowing rivers that many of us desire. “Our local fishing is more focused on freestone streams than tailwaters,” Duncan says. “The San Miguel and upper Dolores are not trophy fisheries like the Frying pan, Yampa or Platte, but they run wild and free, and fishing these rivers re-immerses anglers in the natural variables of a trout stream, things like flow, temperature and clarity. I think many flyfishers feel a reawakening of their fishing senses on these streams.”

Why Travelers Who Visit Alaska Return Over and Over Again

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Why Travelers Who Visit Alaska Return Over and Over Again

October 18, 2018

Once in Alaska, it doesn’t take long to understand how the place can upend a person’s travel life. In a good way. Alaska either grabs your heart and your imagination, or it doesn’t. (When it doesn’t? Well, I don’t understand that, but it happens.) But if it does? There’s a good chance future vacation planning conversations will start with, “Well, we could go back to Alaska again.” 

The more you learn about Alaska, the more you want to see of it. A cruise is a great sampler platter, but don’t expect it’ll make you cross off Alaska from your “to see” list. It will rev up your hunger for more of this most dramatic, diverse state.

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Ask around when touring the state and you’re sure to meet other travelers who came to gaze out on a pod of orcas swimming around Prince William Sound or to see bears or a massive bull moose, the latter’s antlers weighing up to 80 pounds, from a cruise ship. They visited for the chance to step out on a glacier with a guide leading the way or to try their hand at salmon fishing, hoping to ship enough reds back home for an elaborate dinner party.

That all stuck with them when they got home. So, another Alaska trip. And then another. Visitors here return again and again because their fishing skill exceeds their expectations (and the taste of the salmon is even better). They want more of the quiet they experienced while hiking through the thick of an old growth forest, dense with more greens than one could ever imagine—from dark green spruce tips to bright green mosses. 

They return for the unexpected variety: The public art in Ketchikan; the lazy paddling around Sitka’s islands; the chance to learn about Alaska’s rich Native heritage in some of the finest small museums imaginable and the stories of the Tlingit and Haida people who have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

That all, of course, is both an endorsement and a warning. Your future may require more rain gear. I was a return tripper myself. Now? I still call myself a New Yorker, but I’m a full-time Alaska resident.

But first, the cruise, an introduction to one of Alaska’s many regions. Watch for a circle of bubbles rising up in the water—a sign that a group of humpbacks is feeding below. Bubbles. Bubbles. Bubbles. And then a massive burst of energy as the whales come to the surface to catch the fish caught in their “net.” It’s always surprising. Also keep watch for the state ferries, dressed up in blue and yellow. The Inside Passage doubles as the Alaska Marine Highway, the only all-water National Scenic Byway in the country. The ferry service—which started in 1949—shuttles nurses to their jobs, basketball teams to tournaments and cargo to the towns that dot the state’s shoreline.

Listen for the sound of giant blocks of ice calving off of Hubbard Glacier. Speed along on a Zodiac for an up-close (but not too close) look at icebergs and South Sawyer Glacier. Visit the wee fishing settlement of Elfin Cove—which blooms to 100 people during the busy summers. Once winter rolls in, making access to Elfin Cove challenging, the population drops somewhere south of 20 hearty souls. Wander the town’s boardwalks before going to visit the area’s other inhabitants by Zodiac—the sea lions and otters await. (And, yes, they really are as amusing as you imagine.)

Another warning: Alaska is both a photographer’s delight and greatest frustration. Even for pros. It doesn’t take long to realize that, despite the oohs and aahs your photos will garner back home, they don’t capture that the glacier stretching across the frame sits 1,800 inches thick and 32 miles long. Or the details of wildlife. Puffins in particular all too frequently end up as blurry blobs in images. These birds, which stand only 10 inches tall, jet past at speeds up to 55 mph.

No matter, memories both large and small will forever stay in your mind. And your urging of friends to make the trip themselves—“You can’t understand until you see Alaska for yourself ”—will probably include a follow-up sentence: “Hey, we should all go together.”

Pedal the Val d’Orcia to Experience the Essence of Tuscany

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Pedal the Val d’Orcia to Experience the Essence of Tuscany

August 14, 2018

Tuscany is always a good idea. When your mind dreams of the Italian countryside—the stuff of Renaissance paintings and Puccini’s operas—the Val d’Orcia is where it’s wandering. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Val d’Orcia is the essence of Tuscany. One of the most intimate ways to experience it is from the saddle of a bike, when there’s nothing between you and the region’s sights and smells—or between you and that gorgeous Tuscan sun.

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Villa Azzurri is a restored farmhouse that can accommodate up to 10 guests.

The Val d’Orcia begins south of the provincial capital Siena and continues to the volcanic landmark, Monte Amiata. Its rolling, cyprus-tree-studded hills are best suited to touring bikes so you can access the many miles of unpaved backroads and trails. This network triangulates within the villages of Pienza (a 15th-century urban-planning experiment from the mind of Pope Pius II), Radicofani (once the stronghold of the 13th-century gentleman bandit, Ghino di Tacco) and Montalcino (the appellation of the famed Italian varietal, Brunello di Montalcino). 

Here you may taste Sangiovese and Trebbiano wines, nibble on pecorino cheese, and lose yourself in a land where you can practically hear an angelic soprano singing Puccini with every pedal stroke.

Villa San Bartolomeo, Tuscany, Italy
Villa San Bartolomeo, a historic villa that's been fully updated.

If you’re looking to experience Tuscany as authentically as possible, choosing the right accommodations is essential. Inspirato has a few options for your next stay. First, there’s Monticelli, a six-bedroom farmhouse tucked away in the rolling Tuscan hills. Next, there’s Villa San Bartolomeo, a historic Italian villa that sleeps 12 guests and boasts much of its original charm. Finally, there’s Villa Azzurri, another restored farmhouse on an Italian hillside.

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Monticelli is a contemporary farmhouse in the Italian countryside.

It’s time to add pedaling the Val d’Orcia to your bucket list. Tuscany is notoriously one of the most beautiful places in the world, and there’s no better way to experience it than on the back of a bicycle riding the winding gravel roads.

Gorgeous Natural Destinations for Adventurous Travelers

Gorgeous Natural Destinations for Adventurous Travelers

June 6, 2018

There are two types of travelers: the adventurer and the comfort-seeker. Neither type is right or wrong, they’re merely matters of preference, but some destinations are simply not cut out for the comfort-seeker. The gorgeous natural destinations featured in the slideshow below are for adventurous travelers only.

Only the most adventurous of travelers will take a chance on the beauty of Antartica.

Drive the winding roads of St. Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies.

Natural Destinations, Amanyara, Turks and Caicos

Watch the sunset at Amanyara, a hotel in Turks and Caicos that's built into its natural surroundings.

Natural Destination, Xhale Villa, St. Lucia

The lush mountains of St. Lucia are the perfect setting for relaxation and meditation.

Beaver Creek, CO Westin Riverfront Hotel

Excitement and serenity await those kayaking down the legendary Beaver Creek in Colorado.

Natural Destination, Gstaad, Switzerland

Walk the winding paths among summertime greenery and mountains in Gstaad, Switzerland.

Natural Destination, Copa Caneel,St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Lounge in the hammock at Copa Caneel on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Natural Destination, Telluride, Colorado

Traverse the pink-hued fields at sunset in Telluride, a gorgeous mountain town in Colorado.

Natural Destination, Mykonos, Greece

Soak up the fresh, ocean air in the beautiful coastal town of Mykonos in Greece.

Natural Destinations, Big Sur, California

Cruise along California's coastline and stop in at Big Sur, one of the state's most beautiful destinations.

Natural Destination, Big Sky, Montana

Big Sky, Montana is one of America's best kept secrets and a must-see for nature lovers.

Natural Destinations, Vancouver, British Columbia

Walk the hazy hiking trails of Vancouver, British Columbia in the springtime.

Natural Destination, Wailea, Maui, Hawaii

Wailea is one of the most beautifully treacherous places in Maui.

Natural Destinations, Zermatt, Switzerland

Explore the stunning mountain scenery in Zermatt, Switzerland.

When the two types of travelers go on vacation, they are each searching for drastically different things. The comfort-seeker prefers destinations with predictability, easy transportation, and a large variety of places to lounge on site. On the other hand, the adventurer prefers to be surprised, even challenged, every step of the way.

Adventurers love when their destinations require multiple forms of transportation to get there, i.e. a flight to a ferry ride to horseback, while comfort-seekers might request a pre-paid car to meet them at the airport the minute they land. Comfort-seekers like to know what they’re getting into before they arrive, while adventurous travelers prefer the road less traveled. Predictability is what sets these two types of travelers apart.

Caribbean Adventurous Travelers

There are plenty of island destinations in the Caribbean that are perfect for the comfort-seeker. Jamaica, The Bahamas, even Turks and Caicos are ideal for travelers seeking predictable transportation, resorts, and languages.

Some islands in the West Indies are less predictable, like St. Kitts and Nevis, a 100 square-mile area with less than 60,000 residents known for it’s expert-level hikes, winding roads, and untouched beauty. And while the crime rate is still a conversation topic, if travelers don’t walk alone at night in urban areas, there should be nothing to worry about…although carrying around a can of pepper spray couldn’t hurt.

Another destination only the most adventurous of travelers would enjoy is Antarctica. Crossing Drake’s Passage, the world’s most tumultuous body of water, is only one of the discomforts Antarctic adventurers will have to endure. Staying on board is your first task.

Of course, once sailors reach the peninsula, the seas are about as calm as they come. As Antarctica’s tourism scene grows, the ships get bigger and the amenities get richer, making this adventure less dangerous (and way less uncomfortable) than it’s ever been.

Antartica Adventurous Travelers

There are two types of travelers, meaning there are two types of destinations: those for the comfort-seeker and those for the adventurer. Thankfully, there are plenty of travelers that fall on both sides of the spectrum, so no destination will ever go untraveled or unloved. If you’re not sure which end you fall on, perhaps you might give one of the adventurous destinations above a try to figure it out.