As of the new year, the Spring Gulch Trail System has opened six new kilometers (3.7 miles) of high-elevation, cross-country skiing trails, with the intention of extending both early and late seasons. The expansion is a large step in a pattern of development meant to keep up with increasing popularity at the amenity, southeast of Carbondale.
Operated by the Mount Sopris Nordic Council (MSNC), Spring Gulch has served as a venue for locals and guests alike to enjoy consistently groomed trails in a beautiful, natural environment. The trails are located entirely on private property for the sole purpose of cross-country skiing thanks to the generosity of Crystal River Ranch and the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association. Far beyond the modern asphalt of Carbondale, Spring Gulch’s mixed groves of aspen and piñon, sparse fencing for cattle and views of Mt. Sopris all make for an old-time Western atmosphere for winter trekking.
However, as the last decade revealed a pattern of diminishing winter snowpack in the area, MSNC decided that measures had to be taken in order to ensure that Spring Gulch could continue its success in the face of continual climate change. In 2022, the council worked with the Cattlemen’s Association to break ground to the north and west of previously existing trails.
Near the Marion Gulch hiking paths, these new trails are higher in elevation and more protected from the sun, ideally skiable both earlier in the winter and later into the spring. “The aspects are primarily north and on a snow-covered ridge,” said MSNC Vice President Elliot Norquist. “This area has been thoroughly studied, and quite a bit of work has been done.”
The trails’ difficulty is generally blue with some hillier sections of black, and while paper maps are not yet available for these new areas, there are maps posted at their trailheads and more information is located online on the Spring Gulch website.
As of yet, these new areas can only be accessed through the existing trails, but MSNC has announced its intention to construct a parking lot nearby Marion so they can be accessed directly. This direct access will come in handy if the new trails live up to their intended purpose when the lower-elevation paths melt beyond usability. For now, the Spring Gulch website stated that they hope for the new parking lot to be usable by the 2023/24 ski season.
However, Norquist stated in an interview that the permit acquisition process from Garfield County has been complicated, so a completion date is indefinite. Additionally, since Spring Gulch operates primarily on ranching land, construction has to pause in some summer months to make way for herds of cattle. Until the second lot is complete, when the warmer season rolls around and the lower trails melt, dedicated skiers will have to make do with muddy boots.
“People will just have to hike and bushwhack their way up there,” said Norquist. “That’s been the historical thing.”
The new parking lot is also simply intended to keep up with increasing demand. “The first lot [located off County Road 108] was enlarged a couple years ago, but it’s already been filling up. On weekends, the real challenge can be finding a spot!” Norquist laughed.
Overall, increasing popularity has meant increased development at Spring Gulch. A solar-powered electric trail groomer was recently gifted by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to ensure high-quality trails for increased usage, but it doesn’t yet have a place to be stored. For that reason, the equipment shed will need to be expanded to keep the machine safe from the elements, and that project will be worked on contemporaneously with the parking lot.
Impressively, most of Spring Gulch’s development and operations have been funded through private donations. “The people of this community just love Spring Gulch,” Norquist said. “Our private contributors are phenomenal.” The costs are also paid partially through grants from Pitkin Country, but in Norquist’s words, “We’ve done great on funding, but the bills are gonna get bigger as the ambition gets bigger.” And, as nearby Carbondale rapidly expands, the future might hold even more changes to the beloved trail system.
For those interested in testing out the new trails, the Spring Gulch Trail System is located west of Carbondale on C county Road 108. A restroom is the only provided facility, and usage is technically free to the public, though donations are solicited at the base of the trail network. Grooming reports, maps and membership information can be found online at www.springgulch.org
It takes community support to keep The Sopris Sun shining.