Land, Water, and People: Volunteers make a difference with winter recreation

Kick, slide; kick, slide; kick, slide… the morning air was crisp in the shade of the steep slope as I skied up the gentle incline. The only sound was that being made by my cross country skis on the cold, packed snow. My sliding skis were actually kind of loud, much louder than the whisper of skiing through soft powder. But the skiing was also much smoother, faster and easier.

I was skiing on a freshly groomed trail on Forest Service Road 410, the Big Meadows Road. There were perfectly set cross country ski tracks on the left and right side of the road, with the center packed smoothly for snowmobilers, snowshoers and skate skiers. A large parking area had been plowed out just off the highway providing enough space for several vehicles including those with trailers.

The Rio Grande National Forest does not receive funds to groom over-the-snow trails. Instead the extensive network of snowmobile and cross country ski trails on the Forest are all maintained by volunteers. Four clubs routinely groom trails on the Divide Ranger District. The San Juan Nordic Club and the Upper Rio Grande Nordic Club groom trails for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The Powder Busters and Snow Country Explorers groom trails for snowmobiles.

All four clubs have trail maps that can be picked up at local visitor centers and an internet search will bring up links to maps for the San Juan Nordic Club, Powder Busters and Snow Country Explorers.

The Conejos Peak Ranger District in the southern part of the Forest gets a lot of snow in the Cumbres Pass area and is a mecca for winter recreation. There aren’t any clubs that routinely maintain trails in this area, but the folks who organize the Chama Chili Ski Classic near Windy Point groom a ski track for the January event and then continue to groom the trail the rest of the winter.

Most of the winter trailheads have plowed parking areas. Once again, the Rio Grande National Forest doesn’t have funds to do this, so these are all courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation, and Mineral and Rio Grande Counties. 

I broke out into the sun after about a mile and soon reached the intersection of Big Meadows and Shaw Lake Roads. The intersection was well signed indicating the route to the campground was only for non-motorized use. The San Juan Nordic Club grooms all the loops within the campground creating a beautiful and quiet experience for skiers and snowshoers.

I skied into the campground and took the upper loop. The trail steepened as it curved around the corner and my waxless skis started slipping causing me to have to step out of the grooved track and onto the smooth packed section. I “herring-boned” my way up the short hill and then stepped back into the grooves. There wasn’t a cloud in the deep blue winter sky.

Sometimes, I’ll get off the trail and ski out onto the frozen reservoir and make a long loop on the snow-covered ice. Other times, I stay on Shaw Lake Road and ski on the snowmobile trail to the lake. Since much of that is uphill, I fasten short kicker skins on my skis that grip the snow making it easier to climb. I then take them off for a fast ride back down.

The trail slopes gently down as I round the last corner out of the campground allowing me to double pole once in a while and glide down the track. Soon I pass the intersection as I head back to the trailhead.

Kick, double pole, glide… kick, double pole, glide… the ski back to parking area is much quicker. Two pickups with trailers are now also parked in the cleared area. I wave to the people as they unload their snowmobiles and I take off my skis.

Thank you, partners, counties and CDOT for helping to create such fantastic winter recreation opportunities on the Rio Grande National Forest.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.