West Elk Trailhead offers miles of snowmobile trails and Nordic skiing

A snowmobiler leaves with friends from the West Elk trailhead on a snowy morning.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

Chris Skof had just finished his night shift as a transit 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 potent combination of coffee and sugary energy drinks can’t fix, he argued.

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



Gray darkness hugged the West Elk trailhead as the Carbondale resident joined friends and colleagues Jeff Close and Trent Smith for a full day of snowmobiling. Although the skies were dull, the gang of 20-year-olds were buzzing with energy. After all, they had up to 6 inches of freshly fallen snow to cross.

“We take advantage of these mountains that we have,” said Close, a Rifle resident.



As they were unloading their snowmobiles from their pickup trucks, they noticed that the parking lot was relatively empty. Just a few other trucks and a giant snow groomer slept amid sleeping aspens and Colorado spruces.

They had miles and miles of virtually untouched snowmobile trails to themselves.

A trio of snowmobilers set off from the West Elk Trail on a snowy morning north of New Castle.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

“It’s a really good all-purpose place,” said Smith, a New Castle resident. “You get the grasslands, you get the trees. There are places where there are a lot more trees and it’s a lot more technical, but it’s a good place here for the family.

It takes a bit of navigation to get to the trailhead. Nestled deep in the White River National Forest north of New Castle, it’s about a 15 minute stretch of navigating logging road 245 through thick forest land and mountainous terrain.

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

A freshly groomed snowmobile trail near the West Elk trailhead north of New Castle.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

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

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

LIKE AN ICED SPOON

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

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

The Rulison resident and member of the Rifle Snowmobile Club had to make it to New Castle before the day’s influx of enthusiastic bikers began to shred the freshly covered terrain.

Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill walks around the snowcat after a morning of trail grooming near the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

His task: Ride in a Tucker Sno-Cat and spend eight hours picking up snow like ice. Without it, the vast network of trails becomes unrecognizable, borders become unidentifiable, the potential for dangerous situations increases.

Standing in the West Elk Trailhead parking lot, he admitted his personal snowmobiling days are overshadowed by his volunteer efforts to keep the trails groomed and prepared.

At a minimum, he grooms the trails twice a week, Hill said.

“I spend most of my time in there,” Hill pointed out, pointing to the yellow metal beast of the school bus. “I don’t do a lot of snowmobiling.

Inside the cabin, full of gadgets and gears that take years to master, Hill feels at home. However, it’s not just the small galaxy of pimples that requires acclimatization. A groomer needs about three years to learn the trail system itself, he said.

Snowcat driver and Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill turns on the snow groomer before hitting the trail at the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position
Snowcat driver and Rifle Snowmobile member Kurt Hill turns on the snow groomer before hitting the trail at the West Elk trailhead.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

As Hill zips through the Colorado countryside at a steady 8 MPH, he peers through the machine’s massive windshield. Any wrong move could cost hundreds or even thousands in damage.

Most of the funds used by the Rifle Snowmobile Club are generated from 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 — an annual fee of $40.

“If you’re in the club, you get the benefits of me going out and plowing the parking lot whenever we have 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 Freelance / Freelance position

In addition to being one of the few responsible for snow removal on inclement weather, Hill enjoys looking back at a smooth, pristine trail that waits eagerly for the next snowmobiler to swoop down.

“You can get out here and see the scenery,” he said. “I like it here in the winter.”

NORDIC PARADISE

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

The only thing is that 71-year-old Tibbetts drags a much cheaper snowmobile-hitched groomer for about 12 miles of Nordic ski trails. Mornings like these start around 5:30 a.m., he said.

Cross-country skier Tod Tibbetts talks about the joy he gets from grooming the West Elk trails for others to enjoy and learn to cross-country ski.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position
A cross-country skier waits with his dog as the snow groomer passes on one of West Elk’s cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.
Chelsea Freelance / Freelance position

The trails, which also branch off from the West Elk Trailhead, are groomed about once a week by volunteers from West Elk Trails, Inc. Memberships are $40 per person and $75 per family.

This non-profit organization, under the executive direction of Tibbett, uses a shoestring budget of $10,000 to help accommodate an average of 100 skiers per week.

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

“Interestingly enough, we haven’t received any money from Glenwood Springs yet, but a third of the people who donate are from Glenwood,” he joked.

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

“For me, the reward is coming here after preparing and being able to ski,” 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 the Grand Mesa trails, this is one of the only areas that has hilly terrain.

“When we first discovered this area, we loved it for skiing and decided to step up and do what was needed,” Tibbetts said. “I’ve been very happy over the years that we’ve had enough people who love him as much as we do.”

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

Sometimes, Tibbetts says, he sees a woman take her two children Nordic skiing. Even though it’s in some of the worst conditions, the kids love it.

“It’s worth it,” he said with emotion. “These children come here and experience this environment. It’s beautiful here.

“Peace and solitude is just wonderful. I like this area.

Journalist Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or [email protected]

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