Maximizing Mountain Fun with Aspen's Sun Dog Athletics

Skarvan and one of his "sun dogs" on the trail with clients.
Skarvan and one of his "sun dogs" on the trail with clients. Erik Skarvan
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It’s not that locals have anything against more people enjoying time in the great outdoors. Instead, there's a sense of responsibility—the last thing anyone wants is for an eager, oxygen-deprived flatlander to go ass over handlebars when they try to ride down Sunnyside Trail. Luckily for residents and visitors alike, there's Sun Dog Athletics, an Aspen collective that has deep knowledge when it comes to useful beta, with a variety of lessons, athletic tours, and customized, learn-as-you-go adventures.

“When we started 20 years ago, teaching mountain biking skills was our own unique niche,” says founder Erik Skarvan, who prides himself on offering one-of-a-kind experiences. “Most people were just offering guided tours—here are the brakes, here are your shifters, and off you go.”

At the time, the Wisconsin native, who grew up vacationing in Aspen in the 70s, was selling memberships at the Aspen Club. Members who knew he was avid mountain biker would ask for advice because no one was teaching nuts and bolts skills. He soon realized there was a demand, and possibly a business. Once Skarvan lined up four clients, he quit his full-time job to become a mountain bike instructor, and Sun Dog Athletics was born.

Skarvan and one of his "sun dogs" on the trail with clients.
Skarvan and one of his "sun dogs" on the trail with clients. Erik Skarvan

“I remember telling my mom what I was going to do—all my work experience and education and I was going to be a mountain bike instructor,” he says. “I wondered if it was what I should do, but she had me look at it a different way saying that by teaching people this skill, I was opening a door to something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”

Skarvan differentiates between a guided tour and a lesson using a mountain town analogy between a ski ambassador and ski instructor. An ambassador gives an orientation, points you in the right direction, and sends you on your way—certainly helpful, but not revelatory. A few hours with an instructor, meanwhile, can literally save years of time in pain and effort when trying to learn something new. You learn the basics (or more based upon your abilities), take your skill set to the next level, and have more fun.

“Whether you’re here for four days or the rest of your life, why waste your time?” says Skarvan. “What’s the quickest line to the fun part, that’s the real question.”

Skarvan and Sun Dog Athletics help clients have fun year round with a variety of sports including road, mountain, and fat biking, snowshoeing, canoeing, fitness hiking, and cross country skiing. Experiences are custom tailored based upon desires and fitness and include instruction and immersion into the magical wilderness beyond town. Sun Dog Athletics employs seven instructors, all who have 20+ years of outdoor education experience. New sports are added based upon what Skarvan and his team love; fat biking is a new favorite.

Fat biking, the fastest-growing segment in the cycling industry, according to Skarvan, is a hit with both Sun Dog Athletics' clients and staff.
Fat biking, the fastest-growing segment in the cycling industry, according to Skarvan, is a hit with both Sun Dog Athletics' clients and staff. Erik Skarvan

As for the company name, it comes from Skarvan’s first dog and trail companion, a yellow lab named Sunny, who also happened to be named for his favorite local trail—Sunnyside. Sammy and Luna are Skarvan's current four-legged partners in crime and often join in on adventures with clients.

Another important aspect of maximizing fun is being physically prepared. According to Skarvan, customized experiences, dialed instruction, and plenty of water help visitors get the most out of their Aspen adventure. But those living here need to put in more focused sweat effort.

The shoulder season (that time in the fall when summer weather is gone but it's not yet time to ski; i.e., now) is the time to shift gears. Skarvan recommends choosing sports and activities to help prepare for ski season.

“It takes six to eight weeks to prepare for the next season's sport,” says Skarvan, who calls the lingering fall a "Joy Cave." “If you start training now, you’ll be ready for ski season. Most locals aren’t really ski fit until January.”

A bluebird day is perfect for winter snowshoeing tour.
A bluebird day is perfect for winter snowshoeing tour. Erik Skarvan

Uphill hiking is good way to get winter fit, as are ski conditioning classes if that’s your thing (although Skarvan admits the only class he takes indoors is hot yoga, calling it his mobility master key).

Based upon the weather and what the mountains have to offer, Skarvan suggests these three ways to make the most out of shoulder season.

Inline Skating (roller blading and roller skiing)

With the same motion as skate skiing, these activities build your lungs and legs for winter sports endurance. Skarvan heads out on the Rio Grande Trail or on Maroon Creek Road up to the Maroon Lake.

Trail Running and Boulder Hopping

This is a great time of year to hit the trails. Hopping from boulder to boulder, Skarvan only gives himself three to five seconds per boulder, and running develop agility, power, coordination and strength. One of his favorites is Hunter Creek trail.

Mountain Biking

With quiet trails and stunning colors, fall is a great time to go for a ride. Sunnyside Trail is Skarvan’s go-to choice.

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