Cross-country skiers will be able to enjoy four miles of well-maintained and groomed trails this winter thanks to the Sandia Nordic Ski Club.
Club volunteers moved dirt, trees and rocks over the summer to create a safe and enjoyable trail system for skiers to use in the winter. Club President Scott Dietrich said the work was made possible thanks to a $39,005 grant, the U.S. Forest Service, Friends of the Sandia Mountains and other volunteers and organizations.
The state Economic Development Department Outdoor Recreation Division announced in a June 10, 2022, press release that 15 grant recipients were awarded a total of $2.74 million. The Sandia Nordic Ski Club was one of those recipients. According to the release, the club applied for the grant to “help offset costs of sustainable trial improvements which include widening, rerouting, and leveling sections of the trail system, improving natural contour alignment, installing signage at trailheads and along trails, and increasing skier safety and accessibility.”
A brief history of trail development in the Sandia Mountains
Prior to receiving the grant, the U.S. Forest Service Sandia Ranger District approved SNSC’s plans to expand the network of trails it already maintains. The club was officially incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in April 2017. That same year, SNSC applied for a special use permit with the forest service to allow it to continue grooming cross-country ski trails between Ellis Trailhead and the 10K parking lots and to improve and add on to the existing trails there.
In 2019, a public scoping letter was sent out to provide public notice and the opportunity to give feedback about the proposed Sandia Trails Improvement Project, which includes SNSC’s trails and its planned work. “There were like three or four public scoping meetings for the Sandia Trails Improvement Project, and we did not get any negative comments at all on what we were proposing to do with our cross-country ski trails. Not a single one,” Dietrich said.
In 2021, the project was given the green light, and SNSC went to work making improvements. Some of the trails were already being maintained and existed in the area prior to SNSC’s incorporation as a 501(c)(3). Those trails have undergone various changes and were maintained by different groups over the years. Dietrich explained that the founder of Friends of the Sandia Mountains, Sam Beard, was vital in the development of many of the trails in the Sandias.
“The guy who founded Friends of the Sandia Mountains, his name is Sam Beard and he’s about 84 years old and he’s still up there on the mountain lugging chainsaws and doing trail work,” Dietrich said. “He started that group back in the ’90s, I think. But Sam Beard really, with his cronies back in the ’70s, built most of the trails up on the mountain — the Switchback Trail, the Crest Trail, the Gravel Pit Trail, Rocky Point Trail — all of those trails up there at the top of the mountain were basically built by Sam Beard and his group.”
Dietrich said the trails Beard helped build are not groomed and are used by backcountry skiers. He said groomed trails have only been on the mountain since the 1990s. The University of New Mexico’s Nordic Ski Team, who at the time was coached by Klaus Weber, would groom some of the trails by dragging a quarry rock screen behind a snowmobile.
“They did that for years up until the University of New Mexico disbanded its ski team about three or so years ago,” Dietrich said. “There was another small group of unorganized volunteers that would try and maintain a group of trails with an old snowmobile. It was an air-cooled machine, and it really wasn’t reliable. It broke down quite a bit. So, when the ski team dissolved there was still a desire by a lot of people in the cross-country ski community up on the mountain up there to continue on with the groomed trails. So, that was the genesis of us forming Sandia Nordic Ski Club.”
Photos courtesy of the Sandia Nordic Ski Club
Trail maintenance and improvement is not cheap
In 2021, SNSC began making improvements to the trails it maintains. They rerouted and realigned Bunny Hill, created new aspen loops, added new corridors to the south and east ends of the 10K meadow and made improvements to a section of trail from the Ellis parking lot to Bunny Hill. For fiscal year 2021, SNSC had $10,732 in expenses, which included the purchase of a $3,250 60-inch Ginzu Groomer. After expenses, the club had a balance of $11,773.
After receiving the grant, the SNSC was able to complete even more of the trail improvement project, but there is still much work to do. Dietrich said they couldn’t start on any of the work until mid-July because they had to wait for the snow to melt and the ground to harden. Fire restrictions also limited access to the forest.
“The forest was closed pretty much most of June. So that’s something that confounds our ability to predict how long it takes us to do work up there,” Dietrich said. “So, we were up there July, August, September. Actually, in October we were shut down because a couple people couldn’t be up there on machines. So, we only had about three months working this year. We got in six weeks. We’ll probably, hopefully, go for four months for the next two or three years and probably six to eight weeks each one and $1,200 bucks a week. So, it’s not cheap.”
The 2022 year-to-date New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division Trails+ Grant expenses for SNSC came to $7,162. Total year-to-date expenses for SNSC, which includes general operations, insurance, fees and grant expenses, was $13,161. In addition to the costs of maintaining the machines used to move dirt and clear trails, there are a lot of volunteer hours that go into the improvement project.
This year’s accomplishments include completion of three-fourths of Klaus Trail, which the club will be able to groom once there is enough snow. Dietrich said Klaus Trail is named after Klaus Weber, but none of the trails are officially named yet.
The trails SNSC maintains are for classic and skate-style cross-country skiing. For classic skiers, the club creates two parallel tracks for skiers to follow. For skate, or freestyle, skiers there is an 8-10 foot flat lane to the side of the tracks. One of the main purposes of the trail improvements is to ensure those tracks and lanes are level and free of large boulders and trees.
Hazards, upcoming clinics and SNSC membership
Skiers should be aware there are still hazards, even after the improvements are made. “You should be looking up from time to time to make sure that there’s no dangerous trees. We’re aware of that as we maintain our trails. So when we’re up there looking for hazardous trees that can fall on people, then we’ll work with FOSM to remove them, but you have to be careful about a tree limb falling unexpectedly. You also have to be careful because a tree could fall over the trail overnight, for example, in the middle of a hill,” Dietrich said.
Other dangers include stopped skiers and grooming equipment that may not be easily visible, as well as wildlife and freezing temperatures. To help keep the trails safe, Dietrich recommends only using the groomed trails for cross-country skiing. But because they are public landsopen to the public, they can be used by hikers and snowshoers as well. Hikers will sometimes leave postholes along the trails from stepping through the compressed snow, which can be a danger to skiers. Dietrich said that if hikers trek along the cross-country ski trails, they should try to stay to the side and if they bring dogs, pick up after them.
Aside the dangers and hard work, Dietrich said the hours and time put into maintaining the trails are well worth the effort.
When asked what else people should know about SNSC or cross-country skiing in general, he said, “It’s great exercise. It’s fun.”
He also said SNSC is offering a free clinic for classic and skate skiers Jan. 22. No time is set for the clinics, but Dietrich said anyone interested can park at Ellis Trailhead and head down the service road about a quarter mile where they can join the clinic. He said the clinic will most likely be in the morning, around 9 or 10 a.m. Skiers must bring their own equipment and dress accordingly.
There is no charge to use the trails SNSC maintains, but the club accepts donations and offers an annual membership of $25 for individuals and $40 for families. Dietrich also recommends learning about FOSM and volunteering with the organization to help maintain trails all year long.