On This Last Day of Winter . . . Happy Trails, Leadville!
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
Wide. Open. Spaces. There are some still left in Colorado. And Leadville is the place to find them! After all, one of the things Lake County proudly touts, is that 75% of its land is open space and accessible to the public.
Of course, there is a certain irony to that when a majority of those trails are situated at, or above, 10,200 feet, and can be covered in snow most of the year. But thanks to the grooming efforts of the High Riders Snowmobile Club (HRSC) , Leadville’s high mountain recreational trails have been made more accessible to ALL users.
So, on this last official day of winter, as high-country dwellers know that “The First Day of Spring” is only a mere note on the calendar, here’s some information about the Leadville Winter Trails program, sponsored and maintained by the HRSC.
In February, Leadville Today rode along with HRCC Groomer Clay Stewart, one of two the club has to maintain 50 miles of trails between Leadville’s East Side Historic Mining District and Turquoise Lake area, located west of Leadville. Every Wednesday, Stewart grooms miles and miles of terrain that most only see during the summer months . . . until recently. But get ready, because the secret is about to get out!
Since the early 1980s, the snowmobile club has groomed the trails around Turquoise Lake, one of the most heavily used snowmobile areas in the county. It’s only been in the last few years, that they’ve taken on Leadville’s east side, where they maintain 25 miles of snow-laden trails.
About three years ago, the Lake County Commissioners gave the club permission to groom unplowed county roads through the mining district. From where the plow stops at the top of 5th Street (County Road 1) and 7th Street (County Road 3), the HRSC groomer picks up the task, and continues the trail maintenance through Adelaide Park, Stumptown, up to the top of Mosquito Pass, over past the Hopemore Mine and on through to the “overlook.”
The grooming maintenance agreement also reaches out to the west, to Turquoise Lake, for another 25 miles of trails, which includes the lake trails, Boustead Tunnel, St. Kevins, and up towards Hagerman Pass.
“Our biggest customers (on the east side) are walkers,” explained Stewart. The trail is a solid base layer, so folks are not likely to “fence-post” it. But, he adds, he sees all kinds of users skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, winter mountain bike riding, dog sledding, walking, and of course snowmobiling.
The club’s new, smaller groomer allows HRSC to access the tighter connections, something unlikely with the bigger snow cat models. The funding for the groomer’s operating costs comes primarily from Colorado Trails. This state trails program uses money from snowmobile registration fees, redistributing it to snowmobile clubs for developing, maintaining, and grooming multi-use trails
In addition, the snowmobile club secures funding from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Recreational Trail Program, these are federal funds generated from the fuel tax that off-road vehicles pay when gassing up. These monies, in turn, are rebated back to the state. Based on usage, Colorado then distributes the revenue to programs, like the one HRSC has in place for Leadville Winter Trails.
While the maintenance and grooming comes from the state’s trail programs, the machine’s initial investment came together with some local funds as well. HRCC’s fourth, and current groomer, was paid for with monies from Lake County GOCO funds to the tune of $20,000, $35,000 from Colorado State Trails, a trade in from a $65,000 state trails old groomer, $20,000 from Climax’s Community Investment Fund and $5,000 from the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation. The total was $165,000 for a new machine, and one small enough to operate on the narrower trails, especially en route to the top of Mosquito Pass.
Video from the top of Mosquito Pass
The club has two groomers: Eddie Halcomb and Clay Stewart. Here’s some insight into their grooming schedule and when you can take advantage of the best conditions. On Monday mornings at 6 a.m. Halcomb, who is the HRSC chairman and primary groomer, starts grooming the Turquoise Lake trails. These areas see heavy snowmobile use, so smoothing out the trails after the weekend, allows weekday users a more enjoyable experience. Then Halcomb will hit those Turquoise Lake trails again on Friday so that they are ready for the big weekend usage.
After Monday morning’s stint at Turquoise Lake, Halcomb heads east, to take to the mining district, which has seen an increase in use since the grooming program was implemented. Mid-week, on Wednesday, Groomer Clay Stewart comes in to groom the mining district again. He also takes charge of designated areas after significant snow storms, to keep the trails open to users.
After three years of grooming, the snowmobile club has proven to themselves, and users, that could stick to a reliable schedule, and now it’s time to start marketing that to a wider audience.
Leadville Winter Trails Map, from the High Riders Snowmobile Club.
So what’s next for the Leadville winter Trail program? Stewart, a career military guy, has created an acronym for the next steps: GPSMML, which stands for Grooming, Parking, Signage, Mapping, Marketing and Leadership.
Recently the group’s efforts have been focused on mapping and signage, which has made respectable strides since last summer. As any backcountry user will tell you, any landscape and geographical points of reference can change quickly when you add a couple feet of snow and blowing wind. So, creating a map, and on-trail signs to let people know where to go, was essential from a safety perspective.
“We’re about half way through the system (with the trail signs),” said Stewart. The county paid for the hand-made signs to be manufactured, and Smith Lumber donated the posts. In addition, there are now information kiosks at pivotal trailheads, which provide a large reference map to the area, as well as a detailed topographical map of the district that users are encouraged to take with them. Eventually, the plan is to have a Leadville Winter Trails website, allowing users to interact with historical markers and access information regarding current trail conditions.
“Think of it as the winter tour of the Route of the Silver Kings,” said Stewart, referring to the popular summertime driving tour of the historic mining district.
So, if you’re one of the thousands of recreationalists who love Leadville’s historic mining district in the summer, consider discovering those same trails during the winter!
“Very little compares to this backcountry scenery, maybe the French Alps,” states Stewart, who has traveled the world extensively during his lengthy military career, but choose to settle in Leadville for retirement.
“The miners left us this fantastic trail network. Nature gave us the snow, sunshine, and scenery. So if you’re sitting in your house for those 6 months of winter, and not getting out and enjoying this, then you’re not enjoying Leadville.” concluded Stewart.
High Riders Snowmobile Club has been around since the early 80s. In recent years, between the club’s Leadville Winter Trails grooming program, and the Annual Leadville High-Altitude Snowmobile Drag Races held annually in early February, interest in the group is growing. The group is currently seeking new members for rides, recreation and a really good time out on the trails. If you’re interested in becoming part of the HRSC or have any questions concerning the Leadville Winter Trails program, contact Clay Stewart at 719-486-7311 or connect with the group on the HRSC’s Facebook Page.