Breckenridge Local Legend: Gene Dayton of the Nordic Center
What does it mean to be a true Breckenridge local?
Imagine Breckenridge 50 years ago: Lift tickets cost skiers $4. Main Street was empty. The roads were unpaved. There was no line of cars coming into town. No gondola. Only 300 residents or so called it home.
Local legend Gene Dayton knows Breckenridge well. He lived in the midst of it. He has watched the town grow and change and has brought growth and change to the town himself.
And he’s got stories about it all; stories of moose and mountain lions, of the guy that sat on the hood of his Cadillac with a shotgun and a fabricated water claim to protect Cucumber Gulch, of kids and concussions, of Adam Shock Hill’s transition to Sticker Shock Hill.
And he tells them all while seated between eight tour-goers, buckled inside a $300,000 heated snow cat, designed by Antonio Ferrari. It’s the only one like it in the US. “It will revolutionize Nordic trail grooming,” he says.
Gene tells tales of the past while shaping the future. This is Gene Dayton.
Originally from the small town of DeKalb, Illinois, Gene was always an athlete. He attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship and knew he wanted to carry his active lifestyle into his career.
“Growing up in the mid-west, there wasn’t much skiing. I was an indoor swimmer. It wasn’t until my brother came home from his freshman year at Dartmouth that I was introduced skiing. That was 1957.”
Skiing fascinated Gene so much that he incorporated it into his studies, despite his southeastern setting. “I wrote my master’s thesis on alpine skiing in Summit County.”
And that’s where it all began.
After achieving a master’s in education and recreational studies, Gene started dreaming. His long-held ambitions of helping others began to merge with his newly-acquired knowledge and passion.
“I wanted to start a school specifically for kids with special needs after working in therapy programs for those with disabilities.” A visit to Summit County in 1961 made him realize that Breckenridge could be where he would to fulfill those dreams and spend his life.
In 1967, Gene and his big heart moved to Summit County.
Gene arrived in Breckenridge in when Main Street was a dirt road with no stoplights. “There was very little traffic, there were junk cars in yards and dogs ran freely throughout town. The ski area had only been open for six years.”
Gene immediately began paving the way for Nordic skiing in Summit County. His love for the outdoors grew and he began sharing it with others by leading cross-country tours.
Two years later, the Breckenridge Nordic Center vision came to life.
“At first it was nothing but struggle, mostly because of the lack of interest.” But after talking to the ski area, run by Aspen at the time, Gene saw hope. “We agreed it was a good idea to have a touring school as part of the mountain. The trails that you cross-country ski now used to be mining roads so it was only feasible to incorporate Nordic trails there.”
Over time, many locals and guests of all ages came to enjoy Nordic skiing in Breckenridge and in Frisco.
All three of his kids – Ami, Matthew, and Josh – grew up on the Nordic trails and excelled in all of their athletics. He recommends starting kids on the cross-country path when learning how to ski.
“My favorite part about the growth of the Nordic Center is watching kids catch on and be able to take it to other sports! Cross-country skiing incorporates all aspects of fitness”
On a day-to-day basis, Gene runs the show along with his wife, Therese. He takes visitors on snow-cat tours, snowshoeing and of course, Nordic tours.
“I love the snow-cat tours because I meet people from all over the world. Some people have never seen snow before. It’s an activity that visitors at any age would love.”
And with all his different tours and teachings, he gets to enjoy his favorite activity: making people laugh. “I’m so old, I remember when the Dead Sea was only sick. My grandmother was a waitress at the Last Supper,” he interjects.
The Nordic Center is grass-roots success. “There were a lot of miracles [on the way to success of the Nordic Center]. We were building something that takes a village and a lot of like minds”
Gene also made the outdoors more accessible. He and other local volunteers, led cross-country ski trips for people with disabilities when the Nordic Center first opened.
Along the way, he met Olav Pedersen, who helped blind skiers and founded the Ski for Light program and Aris Sophocles, a Breckenridge doctor that helped people who were disabled get on the snow.
In 1976, Gene, Olav, Aris, and the Town Attorney, Kim Batcheller established the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) which provides programs for those with disabilities. Gene calls this non-profit his dream come true, “It’s what I’ve always wanted to accomplish.”
Still operating today, the BOEC runs year-round. Its activities include alpine skiing, rock climbing, white water rafting and dog sledding, and many more. There are also camps and retreats that focus on specific disabilities and events such as the Breckebeiner 60k, a Nordic ski-a-thon.
40 years later, Gene said the BOEC continues to change lives and show people that they have the power within themselves to change their own lives.
And, still, there’s more to Gene Dayton.
Along with his many other achievements, Gene has completed all of the cross-country ski races in the world. He has traveled to European countries and finished, Vasaloppet, a 55-mile race in Sweden. “We started in the dark and finished in the dark. It was incredible.”
After operating the Frisco Nordic Center for 28 years, Gene and Therese stepped away from day-to-day operations in 2016 when they turned it over to The Town of Frisco. It was a great transition for the family, and some may think they have more time to relax, but they are still as busy as ever. The multi-generational Dayton’s continue to bring adventure and smiles to visitors year-round at the Breckenridge Center which they have operated for 49 years!
Gene is certainly a Breckenridge local legend and the heart of cross-country skiing in Breckenridge. You can meet him and his family on any given day at his favorite place in town, the Nordic Center.
Want to VisitBreck and the Dayton’s at the Nordic Center this spring? Let us help you find the perfect vacation rental for your mountain getaway…