Multi-use club maintains Flat Tops trail network |

Multi-use club maintains Flat Tops trail network

Carrie Click

If you like to cross-country ski, snowshoe or even dogsled, there’s a local club for you.

It’s called the West Elk Multi-Use Club: a group of winter sports enthusiasts who work closely with the Rifle Ranger District to maintain a 19-mile network of linked, rolling trails on the Flat Tops.

“This is our national forest,” said Kay Robinson, the club’s trails co-chair, referring to the White River National Forest land the club is using for the trail system. “We’re very happy to be able to utilize it in this way.”

Robinson said the Multi-Use Club received Forest Service approval for the 2002-2003 winter season to run snowmobiles on existing trails, which creates a base for skiers and other users. Club members use their own machines and their own money for gas. They also mark trails with painted wood stakes.

It’s a hands-on club.

“I met a man named Eric Bolay skiing on club trails the other day,” Robinson said. “And I saw him again after our recent snowfall, running his snowmobile on the trails. He came up on his own. He wanted to be sure we had a good base after getting all this new, fresh snow.”

The club’s trails originate at the winter closure gate on Buford Road, 16 miles north of Interstate 70 between New Castle and Rifle. The area, at the southern end of the Flat Tops Wilderness, is a popular spot for snowmobilers, who have been leaving their vehicles and trailers for decades in a large, turnaround parking lot. They take off to the north on the snow-covered Buford Road to a 90-mile network of trails.

However, the Buford Road and adjoining snowmobile trails have become increasingly popular with cross-country skiers and dogsled teams over the years. This was causing a potentially dangerous situation, because there’s such a disparity between speeds snowmobiles can attain versus the pace of cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

And for dogsledders, sharing the same trail with sleds powered by bunches of energetic dogs and fast-moving snowmobiles was an accident waiting to happen.

Robinson said safety concerns were the main focus of starting the Multi-Use Club – not animosity between snowmobilers and nonmotorized winter sports enthusiasts. In fact, she said many cross-country skiers and snowshoers who use the Multi-Use trails are also snowmobilers.

“I’m a snowmobiler and a member of the Rifle Snowmobile Club,” she said, referring to the area’s established motorized club, which has more than 100 members. “I enjoy both types of winter sports, but we could see we needed to separate the two.”

The West Elk Multi-Use Club is true to its name, in that snowmobilers – even ones not creating a base for trails – are allowed to use the club’s trails.

“But they don’t like it,” Robinson said. “The terrain isn’t particularly good for snowmobiles, because on a snowmobile you can cover so much more territory. The Buford Road and points north are filled with miles of wonderful snowmobile trails. The Multi-Use area is really more suited to nonmotorized use.”

This is the first winter the club has received approval from the Rifle Ranger District to mark and create a base for trails in the multi-use area. It’s a pristine winter wonderland, filled with meadows of untouched white powder snow, views that stretch from Mount Sopris to Mamm Peak – and quiet. There’s no sound of engines revving or the smell of gas fumes.

Snowmobiles are used on the trails, however, in order to create a base in the snow and create a stable and consistent trails.

“We follow old cattle roads with our snowmobiles,” Robinson said, as well as looping trails together to make for an interesting day of touring. Robinson said club members, including herself, club chairman Ron Aldrich, and Robinson’s son Jess, generally run a 12-foot-wide trail that can be used for everybody from skate skiers to Nordic track skiers.

The difference between having a trail with a solid base and breaking trail is night and day. Often, although the club’s trails provide a secure base for touring, a step off the trail results in skis and ski poles sinking sometimes thigh-high into the powdery white snow.

“We wouldn’t be able to ski or snowshoe here if we didn’t run snowmobiles,” said Robinson.

Robinson said she discovered the parcel of national forest land when she was running cattle with some of her Rifle ranching neighbors.

“We rode through these beautiful meadows,” she said, “and I thought what a wonderful place to set up a cross-country trail system.”

The trails curve gently through rolling meadows and dip into groves of aspen, where branches arch over the system’s old ranch roads. The trails are marked extensively with painted wooden sticks set up by club members, and there are easy loops perfect for a troop of novice skiers, as well as Musher Trail, geared for dogsleds when they’re around, and a steep draw wonderful for downhill hauling – or a true grunt for climbing uphill.

Anyone can use the trails system – after all, it’s on national forest land – but Robinson would love to welcome more members into the fold to use the trails, and help her and other club officials with the work that goes into caring for the system.

“We have about 25 people so far,” she said of her membership base, “and we’d love to have more.”

New Castle dogsledder Ron Aldrich serves as the club chairman, and his wife, Georgia, is the club’s secretary and handles membership. The club’s treasurer, Yvonne Chambers, is a snowshoe enthusiast. And Robinson co-chairs the trails committee with snowshoer James Fletcher.

Work takes place both summer and winter, and recreation opportunities abound in both seasons. In the summer, hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders can take advantage of the trail system. Adult and youth groups work with Rifle rangers Tom Sierzega and David Silvieus clearing and marking trails.

“We need this kind of outdoor work help, and we’re also looking for grant writers and people who can help us with the money side of things,” Robinson said.

Money is also needed to help with plowing the parking lot and use of the outhouse that’s shared with the Rifle Snowmobile Club.

“This is our backyard,” Robinson said as she poled her way into a downhill curve, snow sparkling all around her. “What a wonderful place we live in.”

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