Grooming For Greatness

Nordic Council Takes Trails to the Next Level

 Photography by  Lee Gelatt

Photography by Lee Gelatt

Looking east in Colorado’s Grand Valley, there’s a unique feature rising to more than 11,000 feet — the world’s tallest flat-top mountain, the Grand Mesa. It is home to several small towns catering to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as a ski resort and National Forest land. Tucked away off the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway, about an hour from Grand Junction, is an additional attraction: three trailheads featuring 31 miles of world-class cross-county skiing.

    It wasn’t always so. More than 25 years ago, a small group of like-minded Grand Valley locals saw a need for maintained nordic ski trails and created the Grand Mesa Nordic Council (GMNC) to fill that void. “We started very humble and small, but it’s been great,” says Tom Ela, who helped found the nonprofit organization and is now its race coordinator. 

    Ela recalls that for many years the group groomed with snowmobiles and had only several miles of trail. Thanks to many volunteer hours and to increased membership, interest in the sport, and donations, the GNMC has grown exponentially. Since its inception, the organization has created a vibrant community of enthusiasts for the sport of cross-country and skate skiing — and it doesn’t plan on stopping. 

Enviable Trails for Everyone

The Grand Mesa has the perfect conditions for this wintry pastime. On average, the mountain receives 300 inches of snow annually, and its ski season lasts about six months — typically between November and May. “We’ve developed a reputation around the greater region for having good snow,” says Ela.

    The Mesa’s three trail areas — Skyway, County Line, and Ward — offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced nordic skiing. The Skyway trail is home to a hut where skiers can gear up, get warm by the fire, or take a break from the day’s action.

    The rolling terrain traverses open meadows, high pines and aspen, and frozen lakes. “It’s hard to find that kind of terrain in Colorado as extensive as it is here,” says Ela. 

    The area’s scenery is also a draw. “Overlooks offer skiers spectacular, hundred-mile views of the San Juan Mountains to the south, and Battlements to the north,” says Terri Stright, GMNC treasurer.

    Tina Wilson fell in love with the trails in 2015 and has since been an active member of the GMNC, now serving as its vice president. With previous experience on trails throughout the state and region, Wilson believes the Grand Mesa has the highest-grade trails the state, and even the nation, can ask for — with the added bonus of being so close to the Grand Valley. “The trails are absolutely beautiful; they are impeccably groomed,” says Wilson. “They are forgiving for all levels of skiers, but challenging enough for advanced skiers.”

    The trails support recreation for about 25,000 skier days each season. Many visitors come from Colorado’s Front Range, Utah, and Arizona. “We hope to outreach to other regions in Colorado to check out our trails,” Wilson says. 

    “I’m not sure I want the world to know about it,” jokes Grand Junction resident and long-time GMNC member Laura Johnston. She has been skiing for more than 40 years throughout the country, and she believes western Colorado has a hidden gem. 

    “The trails can take a lot of visitors and still only see one to two people at a time. It’s tucked away in a wilderness setting, which separates it from other places in Colorado.” Johnston adds that while it feels like backcountry skiing, the mesa’s nordic area is still a formal trail system, so it’s harder to get lost.

    “Beginners and Olympic skiers can both have a great time,” she says. 

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Membership Is Key

The GMNC is membership, grant, and donation based. Its funds pay for grooming, events, staff, trail maps, signage, a warming hut, and more. It has more than 500 members and relies on many volunteers throughout the season for lessons, events, and trail maintenance. 

    Nordic ski trails throughout Colorado often charge $20 to $30 a day, but the trails on the Grand Mesa are available to use without a daily fee, thanks to GMNC’s efforts. “We have such a good thing going on the Mesa. It’s really important to continue efforts, which is why membership is so important,” says Wilson. Stright notes that without memberships, the programs provided wouldn’t
be possible.

    Membership costs $75 per person, $125 for families, or $25 for four-legged friends. Benefits include discounts on lessons and race fees, member newsletters, and grooming reports. 

    In addition to membership, donations are accepted at the trailheads. The suggested amount is $10 per person, though any amount helps. As a member, Johnston believes that while donations at the trailhead are welcome and appreciated, being a member gives the GMNC a better idea of what kind of money they have to work with. 

    Though there is a strong base of volunteers, Wilson and the group encourage members and the community to donate their time as well. 

Recent Improvements and Efforts

GMNC trails are maintained throughout the year. During the summer, groups of volunteers join together to remove downed trees and rocks, laying a foundation for smooth trails. 

    Winter grooming, which costs around $4,000 a week, takes place three to four times a week, depending on conditions. This effort is run by two to three staff members, and volunteers as needed. The GMNC recently purchased one of the most high-tech grooming snowcats, a PistenBully. This groomer creates a quality trail for side-by-side classic track skiing as well as an open lane for freestyle skating in one pass. According to Ela, it is “a giant leap forward.”

    “We are trying to upgrade our presence,” says Wilson. “We have set the ground for skiing with the new grooming gear, and now we are looking below the surface on how to sustain the trails.”

    During the summer of 2017, GMNC’s team of volunteers mapped every mile of trail and created a brand-new map to be displayed at each trailhead. The signs were made possible through a $6,000 grant from REI. Physical maps will be available through an app called Avenza. The new maps will help orientate skiers when whiteout conditions make the trails hard to navigate.

Offerings and Events

Those interested in learning to cross-country ski can sign up for lessons through the GMNC, either individually or in a group. Wilson suggests a series of three lessons to benefit the most from multiple instructors. “Each class builds technique,” she adds. 

    If instruction is not needed, ski tours are also available throughout the season and are helpful for out-of-towners and locals alike. 

    Beginning in December, the GMNC hosts races ranging from 5 to 20 kilometers, including youth events. Wilson encourages skiers to try out the local races to challenge themselves and to meet other skiers. “It’s a very social sport,” she says.

    Colorado Mesa University, which relies on the trails for training and races, also hosts sprint races at the Skyway trailhead. These events are ideal for spectators.

    Throughout the season, GMNC provides educational experiences for youth, family, and community programs — including Hilltop Community Resources, church groups, and Colorado Mesa University’s Outdoor Program. 

    According to Stright, The Nature Connection brings 1,000 students from underfunded rural schools, including schools from Mesa County Valley School District 51, to experience winter sports like snowshoeing and nordic skiing. “These programs foster an appreciation of the outdoors, physical fitness, and a healthy active lifestyle,” she says.

Looking to the Future

The GNMC is dedicated to helping people enjoy cross-country skiing as a lifestyle, and for a lifetime. “It works your body aerobically, builds balance and coordination,” says Wilson. “You continue learning every time you go out.” 

    GMNC hopes its membership will continue to grow so its programs, maintenance, and addition of new trails can too. Future possibilities include an expanded children’s program, more touring options, and a permanent warming hut or lodge at a trailhead. 

    For now, Wilson encourages people to take advantage of the existing trail system. “Even if you’re an hour away from Grand Junction, it’s so worth it,” she promises. “Make an effort to get there, and you’re rewarded greatly.”

    To learn more about, support, or join GMNC, visit gmnc.org