(This story was included in the Ravalli Republic's Winter Recreation publication that was included in Sunday's newspaper. Copies are available at the Ravalli Republic office.)
Once the snow starts to pile up, Tony Neaves and others go to work grooming miles of road and trail at Lake Como, Skalkaho Pass, Lost Horse and the Skalkaho/Rye Road.
Close to Hamilton, Lake Como’s trail network offers opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even fat tire biking thanks to the support of the Bitterroot Cross-County Ski Club.
Depending on the weather, grooming usually occurs once a week.
“If we’re having a real warm spell of a low-snow winter, we will not always try to keep it groomed,” Neaves aid. “It’s best to check the club’s Facebook page for current snow conditions.’
All grooming is done by the club's volunteer crew with the club's snowmobile equipment.
Parking is a half-mile above the boat ramp up the 550 road at the 550A and 550 intersection. The road above that point is closed from Dec. 1 to March 31st to wheeled motorized traffic.
Due to the low elevation at the base of the lower trails, folks should know that the lower section can become icy, but the conditions up higher tend to hold up well all winter.
“We ask that Fat Bike riders be aware of snow and temperature conditions and ride with their tires at 2-4 psi to avoid leaving ruts,” Neaves said. “If the bike is sinking more than an inch, we ask that you not ride on the ski trails that day or get there early before the snowpack warms up. Bike ruts are hard to remove with snowmobile pulled grooming equipment.”
Dogs are welcome but the club asks that people keep their dogs under control and pick up after them. The dog waste became an issue last year especially in the parking area and on the main trail.
“Dog sled teams are not recommended to use the trails due to the problem of the dogs leaving their waste behind while on the run,” Neaves said. “Our grooming equipment just smears it all over the trail, the equipment and everyone's skis!”
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The Ridgerunners Snowmobile Club grooms and maintains a vast road system for winter recreation.
The SnowCat that performs the grooming task is provided by the State of Montana and FWP programs. The money to operate it is raised through snowmobile user fees and gas tax refunds.
The club maintains Skalkaho Pass from the gate 14 miles up Highway 38 on the Bitterroot side to the gate just up from the Sapphire Mine on the Phillipsburg side, plus all of Skalkaho Basin to above Dam Lake and Sand Basin road to the Bowles Creek intersection.
The club also grooms the Skalkaho/Rye road FS 75 from the Skalkaho road to Rye road eight miles up from Highway 93.
This road is groomed less often and due to changes in the forest from the 2000 fires has become more difficult to keep open due to heavy drifting in the now treeless areas up higher, Neaves said.
Lost Horse Canyon is the latest trail added to the grooming list in the Bitterroot. It is a very popular route for both snowmobile riders and backcountry skiers who snowmobile to the back of the canyon to gain access to deep powder runs.
The grooming schedule is flexible, again depending on weather and temperatures, but all routes are groomed weekly.
“We highly recommend skiers and Fat Bike riders who use the grooming to join the Ridgerunners club to help support their efforts,” Neaves said.
Montana State law requires any route groomed under a special use permit to be closed to wheeled motor vehicles once grooming starts, whether it's a ski trail or snowmobile route. There are no exceptions.
Neaves said this has been quite a problem for both clubs at Rye Road, Lost Horse and Como in years past.