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With the snow still skiable in town this weekend, I thought I'd present one more option that some skiers might not consider: the valley of the Rio de Flag south of Interstate 40 near Sam's Club.

Some hikers and skiers turn up their noses at this section of the Rio because it is fed by the city's sewage treatment plant.

But now that the effluent is "reclaimed" to 99 percent of pure water, the only reminder that the stream has been treated is the occasional whiff of chlorine emanating from the treatment plant itself. And in the dead of winter, even that smell is gone.

Last Saturday, I made a quick trip on skis south along the Rio past the 30-foot-high limestone cliffs to Hoffman Tank and back. My last visit was in March, when a bare, early winter had dried out the bicycle tracks not only in the valley but up into the Hardy fire burn area, too.

This time, there were ski tracks alongside the meandering stream, which was frozen from shore to shore. When Skye, the border collie, ventured out onto the ice without falling through, I followed -- it was only later that I remembered the fate of the Yukon streambed hiker in Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire."

But after a week of frigid nights, the stream was frozen solid, and I skied on it for more than a mile without mishap.

Even though it was only 3 p.m., the sun had already set below the ridge to the west -- no afternoon thaw for this hidden valley.

The terrain is billiard-table flat, which makes this route ideal for beginning skiers.

With warmer weather this weekend, I'd stay off the streambed and ski in the ample snow along the bank.

Hoffman Tank is a convenient turnaround point on the Emmitt Barks map, but more ambitious skiers might consider proceeding to the new Fisher Point trail that reaches Sandys Canyon in another two miles.

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Another Rio access point for beginners is from the back of Foxglenn Park, where there is a sheltered, one-mile ski south to Herold Ranch Road.

If you go...

Skiing the Rio

-- Access the Rio de Flag at the driveway to the wastewater treatment plant behind Sam's Club, where parking is available.

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-- Continue beneath I-40 and take the trail south alongside the Rio de Flag as it flows out of the holding pond at the plant.

-- With the limestone cliffs on your right, follow the banks of the streambed for about a mile before veering right along a fenceline that enters the woods. Follow tracks for about a quarter-mile to Hoffman Tank.

-- An alternative access point is from Foxglenn Park, skiing south to Herold Ranch Road.

Total distance: 3 miles round-trip

Difficulty: Easy

Map: Flagstaff Trail Map by Emmitt Barks Cartography

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