Trail networks help snowmobilers, skiers avoid conflict
On any winter day, snowmobiles zipping across the snow-covered landscape of Grand Mesa carry riders enjoying what is considered some of the best snowmobiling terrain in the nation.
At the same time, cross-country skiers at the nearby Skyway, County Line and Ward Lake ski areas take advantage of some of the country’s best cross-country skiing.
A network of special-use trails and areas have made it possible for both interests to enjoy their sports in relative solitude, although not totally without conflict in what are decidedly different approaches to winter recreation.
When conflicts occur, specifically when snowmobiles encroach on cross-country trails, the groomed ski trails are damaged and there’s some risk to skiers.
“When they damage our trails, and we believe most times this is done unknowingly, it makes it unusable for skiers because the surface can’t be used by skate skiers and the classic track is usually damaged as well,” said Leslie Brodhead, operations director for the Grand Mesa Nordic Council.
The nonprofit Nordic Council provides signage and regular grooming on the 60 or so kilometers of formal ski trails at the three ski areas. Money raised through membership fees, donations and a soon-ending grant pays for grooming.
When snowmobiles damage the trails, “it means re-grooming for us, which costs us up to $500 per day,” Brodhead said. “We are a small nonprofit member-driven organization, so when these incidents happen often, it really starts to eat into our budget.”
It’s also a matter of safety, she said.
“I personally have been skiing at Ward when a snowmobile came driving up the ski trail at high speed,” she said. “You can see the potential for an accident with a skier.”
Snowmobilers and skiers have had separate use areas on Grand Mesa since a “courtesy closure” was adopted about 25 years ago, said Loren Paulson, recreation director for the Grand Valley Ranger District in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest.
“Our files from the ‘80s talked about conflicts between the two and the need for separation,” Paulson said.
At that time, the snowmobile use focused on the Land’s End side of the highway and provided some protection for County Line, Paulson said.
Skyway was then much smaller and Ward Lake wasn’t developed until 1989, Paulson said.
Cross-country skiing at County Line began in the 1970s, and in 1983 the area — officially the Crag Crest Cross Country Ski Trail — was designated as the first National Recreational Ski Trail.
The name County Line was unofficially adopted for several reasons, including possible confusion with the nearby Crag Crest hiking trail.
As both snowmobiling and cross-country skiing grew in popularity, more conflicts arose as the ski areas expanded and snowmobilers started exploring east of Colorado Highway 65.
It’s great to buzz through untracked powder, but it’s equally tempting to poach a few tracks on some fresh-groomed trails.
Snowmobilers have their own set of groomed trails, thanks to the efforts of Ken Simpson at Grand Mesa Lodge, Paulson said.
The Forest’s 1994 travel management plan included guidelines for winter travel, Paulson said, including some official closures to motorized travel on and around the three ski areas.
“A lot of the closures went along with what already was the courtesy closure,” Paulson said.
One of the new regulations established a snowmobile corridor from the west side of the highway to eastern Grand Mesa, negotiating the open area between Skyway and County Line but also crossing the groomed ski trail connecting the two areas.
But rather than simply a courtesy closure, now tickets can be issued to violators.
On a recent weekday, Randy and Rhonda McCormick of Olathe were enjoying the quiet of a day skiing County Line and said they hadn’t been bothered by the snowmobile tracks that crossed the groomed trails.
“I saw them but they weren’t too bad,” Randy said. “We haven’t even heard any snowmobilers today.”
Most of the transgressions occur at Ward Lake, where a well-used snowmobile trail cuts close to the Nordic trails, Brodhead said.
“The majority of (the damage) occurs above Ward Lake where the campground is,” Brodhead said. “However, we (recently) suffered damage to County Line as well.”
The closed areas around the ski areas (called “pods”) are well-signed, including maps of the closures, Paulson said.
That includes the notice that snowmobile trails are marked with orange diamonds and ski trails with blue diamonds, he said.
“We have ‘you are here’ maps on all the trail heads of the marked and groomed snowmobile trails,” Pauslon said.
He noted the majority of the snowmobilers manage to get through the narrow restricted areas without problem.
“Once through the corridor they have thousands of acres” to roam, he said. “Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that the majority is doing OK, it’s minimizing the impacts of the minority.”
Brodhead concurred that the problem likely is limited to a few snowmobilers.
“We realize the majority of snowmobilers are aware of the multi-use (regulations) and don’t damage our trail system,” Brodhead said. “We ask them to help us by reminding their fellow snowmobilers to please be aware of ski area boundaries.
“Our greatest wish is that all winter sports enthusiasts can share the Forest Service land on the Mesa in a safe manner that creates a positive experience for all.”