Trail names help tell the unique story of Spring Gulch Nordic ski area west of Carbondale | PostIndependent.com
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Trail names help tell the unique story of Spring Gulch Nordic ski area west of Carbondale

Ski demo and lessons day Sunday; Ski for Sisu fundraiser coming in February

Tim O’Keefe, who works with Colorado Rocky Mountain School in the development office, checks out the latest information on the sign board at the Spring Gulch trailhead on Wednesday.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Cross country skiing enthusiasts know the Spring Gulch trail system near Carbondale as one of the most special places on earth to enjoy their favorite wintertime outdoor activity.

With stunning views of Mt. Sopris and the Elk Range, ample sun for extra warmth on a bluebird day and a feeling of seclusion amid the thick sage brush, gambel oak and aspen groves, Spring Gulch is a must-do for anyone willing to step into a pair of classic or skate skis.

The history of how it all came to be is told in part by the names of the 21-plus kilometers (Nordics use the metric system, after all, do the conversion yourself) of trails that snake their way up the hillside where cattle graze in the summer months.



But you might have to ask a few questions of those who were around to help make Spring Gulch a reality back in the mid-1980s to get the rest of the story.

That’s really not hard to do since there’s a good chance you’ll bump into one of those folks out on the trails any given winter day.



Upcoming Spring Gulch Events

Free gear demos and lessons

9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16

Independence Run & Hike presents this opportunity to try out skis and boots from Fischer and Salomon. There will also be free lessons and complimentary snacks and drinks.

Ski for Sisu fundraiser

Feb. 5 through Feb. 13:

This community skiathon raises money to support the Spring Gulch trails. Skiers collect pledges per kilometer they ski from donors. More info at the Spring Gulch website [springgulch.org].

Information on how to become a Mount Sopris Nordic Council member also can be found on the website.

A skier makes his way across one of the lower trails at the Spring Gulch Trail System west of Carbondale on a bluebird Wednesday morning.
John Stroud/Post Independent

From Lazy Eight and Rafter T, which make use of common ranch names, to Finlandia, which tips a hat to the Scandinavian region that gave birth to Nordic skiing while paying tribute to the ancestral heritage of late Carbondale rancher Bob Perry who helped give birth to the Spring Gulch Trail System, the backstories are as long as some of those trails.

Carbondale resident Wick Moses was a student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in the mid-1960s about a decade after the school’s founding by John and Anne Holden.

Moses knew them well — Holdens is one of the longest of the network of trails at Spring Gulch — and it was the outdoors ethic instilled in students at CRMS from its early days that was part of the impetus for creating the ski area.

Holdens and Sidewinder merge along the ascent to Finlandia on Wagon Road at the Spring Gulch Trail System west of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Independent

“They were the king and queen during my three years at CRMS,” Moses said. “John was a force of frickin’ nature, and just had that physique that made him a real mountain man.”

Moses himself was a member of the school’s first Nordic ski team, and remembers training above the old coal mining town of Marion just north of Spring Gulch, which also was a mining colony.

“Back in those days of wood skis and three-pin bindings, there were no snowmobiles, so we laid out a series of trails up there,” he said of what today is a popular snowmobiling trailhead for the Sunlight-to-Powderhorn trail system.

When Moses came back to CRMS to teach and help coach the Nordic team a few years later, he said he remembers trekking south along the old narrow gauge railroad bed above Spring Gulch that eventually connected with the old North Thompson Mine.

That old railroad bed now serves as the Finlandia Trail that’s part of the Spring Gulch system.

Aspen groves appear once skiers make their way up to North Star and Finlandia, two of the uppermost trails at the Spring Gulch Trail System west of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Independent

“I don’t really remember saying, ‘Hey, this would make a great cross country ski track,’” Moses said.

Around that same time in the early 1970s, though, snowmobiling had started to become popular, and Marion had been discovered by the motor sledders.

“So we started skiing up on McClure Pass to do our training,” said Moses, who served for several years in the early 2000s on the nonprofit Mount Sopris Nordic Council that oversees the ski area.

Credit for the epiphany that Spring Gulch would make for a great cross country ski trail network goes to a CRMS classmate of Moses’, renowned extreme skiing pioneer Chris Landry.

As the story goes, Landry had a bike crash on the Thompson Creek Road sometime in the early 1980s, and while picking himself up off the road glanced over across the expanse of sage brush and thought it would make for a perfect cross country ski area.

Landry and others of the many characters involved in the creation of Spring Gulch are featured in a 10-minute documentary “Spring Gulch: A Community Treasure” that was produced in 2019 by a group of CRMS students. It can be found on the Spring Gulch website and Youtube.

After that epiphany, Landry started working with Bob Perry and other members of the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association to lease the private ranching property at Spring Gulch for the wintertime ski trail system.

Landry, who now lives in Silverton, worked closely with another avid cross country skier and Carbondale icon, Paul Lappala, to plot out and build the looped trail system, which first opened to skiers (and skiers only — no snowshoes, hikers or dogs are allowed) — in 1986.

The Chris Cross trail that connects the upper section of Rafter T and Bulldogger — a western rodeo term given to steer wrestlers — back to the base area is named after Landry.

The late Paul Lappala is remembered at a special spot overlooking Mt. Sopris and the Elk Range at Spring Gulch west of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Lappala died in a tragic bulldozer accident while working on the trails in 1993. He is memorialized at Spring Gulch at a spot called “Paul’s Point,” situated on the uppermost part of the trail system with a panoramic view southeast across the Elk Range.

Paul’s wife, Ginny Lappala, who also has since passed, is remembered with the trail Ginny Lane.

Located at the far northwestern part of the trails network, it was built at Ginny’s request to provide an easier route up to Finlandia, said another Spring Gulch pioneer and current Nordic council board member Elliot Norquist.

Colorado Rocky Mountain School Nordic ski team member Ellie Urfrig waxes her skis before setting out onto the Spring Gulch trails on a bluebird Colorado morning Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
John Stroud/Post Independent

“I had skied with the CRMS kids in the 1970s and knew the territory pretty well,” Norquist said. “Chris (Landry) called me up one day and asked what I thought of the idea, and I thought it was great.

“A lot of people were very interested and positive about it, but it was mainly because of Bob Perry convincing the cattlemen that it was a good idea.”

Perry Pass, connecting Holdens to Rodeo, is named for the Perry family, members of which are still actively ranching in the Carbondale Area. Some of those cowboys can also be found skiing at Spring Gulch on occasion.

Norquist recalls those early climbs up to Finlandia on what’s now the Wagon Road Trail up the south end of the trail system.

“It was literally the old wagon road that went up through Spring Gulch,” Norquist said.

He tells a story of skiing down Wagon Road one day with his group of CRMS students and flipping into the sage brush with a heavy pack on his back.

“I crashed in such a way that I landed on the bamboo ski pole that we used in those days,” he said. “It broke, and my fall drove the broken pole right through my boot and my foot.

“I might have scared some of the kids away from skiing after they saw that,” he laughed.

Coincidentally, Norquist said he had met the new doctor in town, Rick Herrington, up skiing about a week before that.

“He was the one who ended up sewing my foot back together,” Norquist said.

Before Ginny Lane was built, the only ways up to Finlandia were either Wagon Road or North Star, both of which make for a steep climb and a sometimes icy descent.

Norquist also remembers laying track with the ski area’s first groomer, David Powers, using a Dodge Power Wagon to pull the track setter behind them.

“You ask anyone about Spring Gulch and they’ll say they like the variety of the trails,” Norquist said. “There is something for everyone. It’s interesting, with a dynamic that has a lot of cool aspects to it and human scale intimate challenges.”

Colorado Rocky Mountain School Nordic ski team member Tristan Trantow, foreground, and head coach Alex Perkins, test their ski wax before setting out for training on Wednesday morning.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Another longtime Carbondale local and avid Nordic skier, Andy Taylor, served on the Mount Sopris Nordic Council for several years as the once-quiet hidden gem of a ski area had finally been discovered and the sport of cross country skiing began to take off in the United States.

“It was something to do with my winters,” he said of his own introduction to the sport in the late 1980s. “If you live in town, it’s a great way to go out and get some exercise for an hour or so that doesn’t take too much time out of your day.”

It was during that period of time in the mid-1990s that the organization went through some growing pains.

Roundabout meets Wagon Road.
John Stroud/Post Independent

“It was a time of transition,” Taylor said. “Our groomer (Powers) had been grooming it for 10 years and was stepping away, so we had to search for new groomers. And our equipment was on its last legs, so we had to replace that.”

At the same time, there was growing interest in cross country skiing and use of the trail system by some of the up and coming young skiers who were taking the sport seriously, he said.

A push ensued to grow membership, and eventually the organization was able to overcome some of the challenges — and build some new trails to accommodate the increasing number of skiers.

Signs point the way to some of the uppermost destinations at the Spring Gulch Trail System west of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Rafter T was extended up to Little Dipper, one of the harder trails in the system because of its steep ascent at the top. Big Dipper on the south end is even steeper, and is the only trail at Spring Gulch earning the coveted double-diamond extreme ski designation.

Finlandia was also extended to the north past North Star when Ginny Lane was built — making for a most pleasurable ski descent south to north, or a good ascent workout north to south, depending on your mood on a given day.

“The whole trail system was designed as these concentric loops where you never have to go out and back or even go on the same trail,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the things that makes Spring Gulch really unique.”

Signs point to the more difficult North Star passage to Finlandia, or the gentler climb up Ginny Lane, at the Spring Gulch Trail System west of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Indepdent

Retired U.S. Ski Team member Simi Hamilton of Aspen had this to say about Spring Gulch, as declared on the Nordic council website:

“When people ask me about where my favorite trails in the world are, the answer is always the same … Spring Gulch. The pure flow of all of the trails is unreal, and winding through the sagebrush and gambel oak trees on a bluebird Colorado day might be the greatest feeling in the world. Not only does it have some of the most fun trails in the world, but its character is local and laid back. … Everyone who skis is there to have fun, smile at everyone else they see, and just enjoy being outside in a beautiful place.”


To get to Spring Gulch, take Thompson Creek Road (County Road 108) west from Colorado Rocky Mountain School. The ski trails are located 7 miles west of Carbondale where winter maintenance on the road ends.

Post Independent senior reporter and managing editor, John Stroud, at Paul’s Point high atop the Spring Gulch Trail System near his hometown of Carbondale.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.


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