Sunlight-Powderhorn Trail Maintained by Local Snowmobile Club 8

Mt. Sopris Recreational Riders Club Raises Fun & Funds

After Steve Burns nimbly maneuvers the snowcat up a bank and to the side of the snowbound Sunlight-to-Powderhorn (SP) trail, half-a-dozen snowmobilers zip by.  “I bet if you asked them who maintains this trail, they’d tell you it was the Forest Service,” he says.

The packing and grooming of over 100 miles of the SP trail system on the Roaring Fork Valley side is done almost entirely by the 98 members of the Carbondale-based Mount Sopris Recreational Riders (MSRR) club. The nonprofit, volunteer-run club was formed about 30 years ago by Carbondale rancher Ernie Gianinetti and half-a-dozen friends, many of whom have now ridden off into the sunset.

“Everybody needs to recognize that this is not a government thing,” Burns says. “It’s not your tax dollars at work. It’s user funds. People are paying for this trail through their snowmobile registrations.”

In December, Gianinetti and Burns gave a tour to this magazine’s editor, its publisher, Rick French, and his wife Linda French. These three tourists took turns riding in the snowcat and Gianinetti’s white Geo truck, which is equipped with snow tracks instead of wheels.

“I’m such a motorhead,” chuckles Gianinetti. “I just love it out here.”

Under startlingly blue skies, amid stands of bare aspen and majestic blue spruce, their boughs heavy with loaves of new snow, it’s easy to see why so many people love snowmobiling. The SP trail, which was dedicated by former Colorado Governor Roy Romer in March 1989, begins from two different Roaring Fork Valley access points and climbs up to the Tri-County Ridge, a scenic spot where three local counties meet. It tracks through untrammeled miles of the Thompson Divide, climbs to the 10,000-foot heights of Grand Mesa, and terminates near the Powderhorn Ski Area.

Starting in 1986, the continuous SP trail was created by the Mount Sopris Recreational Riders, linking a patchwork of Forest Service, cattle trails, and oil and gas exploration roads. Each summer MSRR members maintain the trail, clearing fallen trees and repairing cattle-damaged road shoulders. Each winter, the club spends over $27,000 to pack, groom, and maintain the trail. The snowcat, bought used, cost MSRR $108,000.

The maintenance money is partly derived from snowmobile user fees rebated to MSRR by the State of Colorado, from club memberships that cost just $55 for a family or an individual. That fee includes membership in the Colorado Snowmobile Association. MSRR encourages all sorts of trail users, not just snowmobilers, to join the club, get to know each other, and work together. (MSRR is holding an important fundraiser this month; see Around Town and Lifestyle calendar.)

Steve Burns, the son of a local family that once owned ranch land around El Jebel’s Crown Mountain Park, is one of only three professional snowmobile trail groomers in Colorado. He takes the snowcat out three or four times a week, depending on snow conditions. He handles the huge machine, 14-feet wide at its front plow and 17-feet wide at its trailing tiller, with aplomb, tracking up steep grades and maneuvering around low-hanging spruce boughs with just inches to spare. That’s not surprising since Burns is both an experienced excavator and a cowboy who can square dance on horseback! (Although no photos confirm this claim, the story is put forth with authority by Gianinetti, who reported taught equine square-dancing to Burns.)

“Some jobs are just too big to expect them to get done on donated time,” Gianinetti observes. “This is one of them. Other clubs in the state have had a lot of friction around operating their cats. You know, ‘You got it stuck, so now you get it out’ or ‘you didn’t fill out the right forms’ kinda stuff. We know what we’ve gotta do to make the trail work.” MSRR avoids friction both by employing Burn’s professional services and by paying someone to fill out the many government forms required.

During the magazine staff’s trail ride, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and sledders were all spotted along the trail. “ATVers, backpackers, jeepers, dog mushers, horseback riders, and skiers all use these trails,” Gianinetti observes. “We don’t mind. We’re kinda for everybody. That’s why I’m so excited about MSRR. It’s a do-good kind of organization. But we’d sure appreciate it if all the trail users would give us a hand by becoming club members or just being benevolent donors.”