Grooming habits: Grand Lake Trail Groomers ensure easy access to world-class winter trail network (with video)
Nearly every night in winter, as the sun descends over the distant mountains and local temperatures start dropping, Grand County resident Cameron Stone gathers his gear and heads up into the vast and frigid network of trails west of Grand Lake.
Stone is head groomer for Grand Lake Trail Groomers, a nonprofit entity that oversees winter maintenance of the vast complex of old forest service roads and alpine pathways that make up the Grand Lake snowmobile trail system.
For winter trail enthusiasts, his job is an important one.
Grand Lake Trail Groomers have worked for the last several decades to provide relatively easy access to the 87 miles of trails that make up the popular snowmobile trail system. Those trails, which are all officially multi-use trails open to other forms of travel in addition to snowmobiles, are located almost entirely in the Arapaho National Forest between Highway 125, U.S. Highway 34 and the Continental Divide. There are brief segments of the trail near Grand Lake that cross segments of Rocky Mountain National Park, providing direct snowmobile access to the larger trail network from town. Riders can literally go from downtown Grand Lake to the highest points of the trail system without leaving their sleds.
“We try to provide a safe and enjoyable trail system for all backcountry winter enthusiasts who visit Grand Lake,” Stone explained. “We are providing easy access to a signed trail system close to town.”
Nick Hanson, president of Grand Lake Trail Groomers, put the significance of the organization’s efforts into an economic context.
“This community, Grand Lake, really counts on this activity, this industry, to keep the town alive in the winter season,” Hanson said of snowmobiling. “It is a significant program, just bringing people to this area to recreate. This is a world-class destination. We see people from all over the world come here.”
The Trail Groomers are an officially registered nonprofit entity. According to Stone, most of the organization’s funding is derived from grant money and donations. Colorado’s State Parks provide significant funding for the organization, around $26,000 annually, according to Stone, as the town of Grand Lake also provides substantial funding, to the tune of about $22,000 annually.
The organization also receives donations from local snowmobile rental businesses, which charges a small fee on all rentals that is donated to the organization. The amount received from local rental businesses varies year to year but averages around $36,000 annually.
Funding is also received from several dozen other individuals or entities such as the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce and Grand County government.
Stone’s personal connection to the Trail Groomers began in the mid-2000s.
Story continues below video.
After moving to Grand County from the mountains of Vermont, Stone began working for On the Trail Rentals and became interested in snowmobiling because an injury sidelined his skiing activities. Stone already had experience working as a trail groomer at Jay Peak while he studied ski resort management in college.
The then-head groomer for Grand Lake Trail Groomers offered Stone a position because of his interest in grooming. Since then, the gregarious and eccentric Stone has spent over a decade overseeing the methodical process of trail grooming for the system.
During his tenure, Stone has had some close calls.
He and the snowcat he was driving were partially buried in an avalanche several years ago, on a segment of trail that is now blocked off during winter months. After calling Hanson and others for help, Stone and a small crew spent several hours digging out the snowcat.
“We don’t go that way anymore,” he said with a laugh.
A normal day of grooming
A normal day of operations for Stone begins at around 4 p.m.
After reviewing his snowcat’s operational checklist and gathering any equipment he may need in the field, such as replacement signage, he heads off into the snowy dusk. After deciding which route he will groom that evening, Stone begins his journey.
“Then I am just grooming all night,” he said. “I’m filling corners, dealing with trees, replacing signs that might be down.”
After completing his rounds, usually sometime in the early morning hours, Stone heads back to the Trail Groomers shop, located just off Grand County Road 4 near the Idleglen Staging Area. He returns his snowcat, one of three Prinoth Bison snowcats owned by the Trail Groomers, to its heated garage bay and runs down a final checklist before heading home.
Stone typically grooms down into Grand Lake every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, grooming as far as the Circle 3 parking lot, to ensure snowmobilers leaving town have an easy access route. Stone must alternate the direction he grooms each particular route.
“I try to do everything alternating,” he said. “For example, I have to go up and down Pony Park. If I keep going to town first, and go down Pony Park, I am pushing all the snow down the hill. We have to push the snow up the hill though. We are trying to keep the snow where it should be, trying to pull it from the outside to the center.”
The entire trail network is groomed roughly every two days. While Stone handles most of the grooming work, part-time groomer and former backcountry ranger for Rocky Mountain National Park, Mark Daniel, assists him.
Stone’s winter grooming work normally begins in mid-November, usually shortly before Thanksgiving, and continues until conditions prevent further grooming efforts.
The history of the Grand Lake Trail Groomers began several decades ago and had its genesis in the Grand Lake Trail Blazers, a social snowmobiling club that is still in existence and, according to Stone, is one of the largest in the state.
“It got to the point that the grooming alone was so intensive that the club split up into two parts, with one part staying as the social club and the other part becoming the working club,” he explained.
Stone said he believed the split occurred during the 1970s, well before he made the move to Middle Park.
The organization is made up of a board of directors that includes Hanson and eight others. Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and representatives from Rocky Mountain National Park attend most Trail Groomer board meetings, held the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. inside the Grand Lake Fire Station, though they are not official members of the organization.
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