West Elk Trailhead boasts miles of snowmobiling, Nordic skiing trails

A snowmobiler heads out with some friends from the West Elk trailhead on a snowy morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Chris Skof had just finished working a graveyard shift as a public transportation mechanic when he decided he didn’t want to go to bed.

Powder was calling the morning of Jan. 21, and there’s nothing a powerful combination of coffee and sugary energy drinks can’t fix, he maintained.

“You can’t waste a good day like this,” he said. “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

A gray gloom hugged the West Elk Trailhead as the Carbondale resident joined friends and fellow co-workers Jeff Close and Trent Smith for a full day of snowmobiling. Though skies were drab, the gang of 20-something-year-olds buzzed with energy. After all, they had up to 6 inches of newly fallen snow to blaze through.

“We’re taking advantage of these mountains we got,” Close, a Rifle resident, said.

As they unloaded their snowmobiles from their pickup trucks, they saw the parking lot was relatively empty. Just a couple of other trucks and a giant trail groomer laid dormant amid the slumbering Aspen and Colorado spruce trees.

They had miles and miles of practically untouched snowmobile trails all to themselves.

A trio of snowmobilers heads out from the West Elk trailhead on a snowy morning north of New Castle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“This is a really good all-around place,” Smith, a New Castle resident, said. “You get the meadows, you get the trees. There’s some places where there’s a lot more trees and it’s a lot more technical, but it’s a good place up here for the family.”

It takes a little navigating to get to the trailhead. Tucked deep into the White River National Forest north of New Castle, it’s about a 15-minute stretch of navigating Forest Road 245 through thick forest land and mountainous terrain.

But once adventurers arrive, they encounter a gateway to more than 80 miles of snowmobile trails quintessential to Colorado.

A freshly groomed snowmobile trail near the West Elk trailhead north of New Castle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Within moments, their high-powered, high-octane machines are on the ground and ready to take on Western Slope high country. For Skof, Smith and Close, the feeling is liberating.

“It’s freedom,” Skof said. “When you’re in your helmet, it’s just you.”


What a barber is to a head of hair, Kurt Hill is to a landscape of fresh snow.

Hill, a 68-year-old retired pharmacist, usually wakes up sometime around 4 a.m. when the sky sheds snow, and Jan. 21 was no different.

The Rulison resident and Rifle Snowmobile Club member needed to get to New Castle before the day’s influx of gung-ho motorheads began shredding up the freshly blanketed terrain.

Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill walks around the snowcat after a morning of grooming the trails near the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

His task: Hop into a Tucker Sno-Cat and spend eight hours scooping snow up like ice cream. Without him, the vast trail system becomes unrecognizable, boundaries become unidentifiable, the potential for dangerous situations grows.

Standing in the West Elk Trailhead parking lot, he admitted his personal snowmobiling days are overshadowed by his volunteer efforts of keeping the trails primped and primed.

At minimum, he’s out trail grooming twice a week, Hill said.

“I spend most of my time in that,” Hill pointed to the school-bus-yellow metal beast. “I don’t get to snowmobile very much.”

Inside the cab, full with gadgets and gears that take years to master, Hill feels at home. It’s not just the small galaxy of buttons that requires acclimation, however. A groomer needs about three years to learn the trail system itself, he said.

Snowcat driver and Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill powers up the groomer before heading out on the trail at the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Snowcat driver and Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill powers up the groomer before heading out on the trail at the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

As Hill roams the Colorado countryside at a steady pace of 8 mph, he peers through the machine’s massive windshield. Any false move could cost hundreds, if not thousands, in damage.

Most of the funds Rifle Snowmobile Club uses are generated through snowmobile registration fees, which are then collected by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. After applying for a grant this season, the snowmobile club has $30,000 to work with.

That’s why Hill encourages everyone to join the Rifle Snowmobile Club — a $40 annual fee.

“If you’re in the club, you get to enjoy the benefits of me coming out and plowing the parking lot everytime we get 8 inches of snow,” Hill said. “You can actually park your vehicle and go snowmobiling.”

Kurt Hill points to a location on the map detailing the western portion of the Flat Tops recreation area.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

In addition to being one of the few responsible for clearing away snow on inclement days, Hill gets to enjoy looking back at a smooth, pristine trail eagerly waiting for the next snowmobiler to glide through.

“You get to get out here and see the scenery,” he said. “I love it up here in the wintertime.”


Tod Tibbetts is also an early riser. Like Hill, he’s a groomer.

Only thing is, the 71-year-old Tibbetts drags a significantly less expensive snowmobile-hitched groomer over about 12 miles of Nordic skiing trails. Mornings like these start at about 5:30 a.m., he said.

Cross country skier Tod Tibbetts talks about the joy he gets out of grooming the West Elk trails for others to enjoy and learn to cross country ski on.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
A cross country skier waits with his dog as the groomer passes on one of the West Elk cross country ski and snow shoe trails.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The trails, which also bifurcate from the West Elk Trailhead, are beautified pretty much once a week by volunteers of West Elk Trails Inc. Memberships cost $40 per person and $75 a family.

This nonprofit, under Tibbett’s executive direction, uses a shoestring $10,000 budget to help accommodate an average 100 skiers per week.

There are 80-100 members who contribute funds annually to this club. Meanwhile, the governments of Garfield County, Rifle, Silt and New Castle also pitch in.

“Interestingly enough, we have yet to get any money from Glenwood Springs, but a third of the people that donate are from Glenwood,” he joked.

These funds allow Tibbetts to not only keep the trails groomed, but it keeps him and his husky, Odin, who typically joins him, excited.

“To me the reward is, coming out here after I’ve groomed and being able to ski this,” he said. “Or the next morning when there’s 3-4 inches of fresh powder, it’s heaven.”

Tibbetts said the trail system is unique for the region. Aside from trails in Grand Mesa, it’s one of the only areas that boasts rolling terrain.

“When we first found this area, we loved it for skiing and decided to step up and do what is necessary,” Tibbetts said. “I’ve been really pleased over the years that we’ve had enough people that love it as much as we do.”

But as Tibbetts sat on his 2021 Ski-Doo snowmobile, his face pink from the cold, goggles over his eyes, Odin running around like a maniac, he reflected on the most important reason of all.

Sometimes, Tibbetts said, he sees a woman bring her two kids to go Nordic skiing. Even if it’s in some of the worst conditions, the kids love it.

“That makes this all worthwhile,” he said with emotion. “These kids are coming out here and experiencing this environment. It’s beautiful out here.”

“The peace and the solitude, it’s just tremendous. I love this area.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.