For traditional skiers who don’t need a chairlift ride up the mountain, the Chicken Creek Nordic ski area near Mancos offers an authentic winter experience.
The 17 miles of rolling groomed trails wind through ponderosa pine forests, and include challenging climbs with views of the La Plata Mountains. The popular ski area depends on volunteer labor, and is threatened by logging in the area.
Every winter, Friends of Chicken Creek, an irrepressible group of dedicated volunteers, spend hundreds of hours grooming a skate ski and classic track using half broken-down snowmobiles.
On Tuesday, after decades of toiling in relative anonymity, the band of die-hard Nordic purists with a passion for perfect corduroy track were given their due recognition. The Mancos Valley Resources named the Friends of Chicken Creek the 2016 Project of the Year during a lively pot-luck party at the Mancos Visitors Center.
“For winter recreation it is an amazing resource,” said Peter Brind’Amour, of Friends of Chicken Creek. “It’s just five miles from town, you can skate ski, classic ski, bring the dogs up. It’s a great place, I love it, and our volunteers put in a lot of hours keeping it in good shape.”
Their sustained effort towards providing winter recreation heavily used by local residents earned them the award, said Tammy Graham of Mancos Valley Resources.
“It’s a huge asset for the community, and is very affordable,” she said, since the trails are on the San Juan National Forest.
However, donations are accepted at a trailhead box to help cover grooming costs. The group discourages snowbikes from using the ski track because it creates a gouge, and they urge snowshoers and hikers to avoid the track if possible, or stay off to the far side of it.
Last winter, the ski area saw 3,200 skier visits, and use has steadily increased, said long time volunteer Joan Brind’Amour.
“It is a lovely experience skiing through the forests,” she said.
Over the years, new loops and trails have been added, including one named Dolph Kuss, the founder of the Chicken Creek ski area.
The famous Fort Lewis College ski coach led team skiers to NCAA Division I championships in the 1960s and ’70s. He carved out the first 10 miles trails of ski trails in the late 1980s using a 1963 Tucker snowcat donated from the Durango Parks and Recreation Department.
Groomer John Gilbert said today the group struggles with keeping snowmobiles that pull the grooming equipment operating.
“They are not designed to pull at the low speeds we need to groom,” he said.
The group is planning a fundraiser to purchase a modern groomer machine with a cab that costs $22,000.
“It will be more reliable and allows us to groom at night, which is more ideal for setting up good track in certain snow and weather conditions,” he said.
The Chicken Creek area is within a timber sale area of the San Juan National Forest, which is a concern because of the impacts such as slash burning and diminished shade from fewer trees, organizers said.
The group has been working with forest officials to try and mitigate impacts, and recently were allowed to tag trees that should be left standing to provide needed shade.
Friends of Chicken Creek Nordic operates on donations and occasional grants, but maintenance costs on snowmobiles often outstrip their annual budget of $3,000 to $4,000. Last year, they logged 140 hours of volunteer time.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers for grooming and fundraising,” Bind’Amour said. “We need some new blood to keep these trails going into the future.”
Up-to-date trail conditions and grooming reports are online at the wittily written Chicken Creek Nordic blog (chickencreeknordic.blogspot.com) or on Twitter @ChickenCreekSki. On Facebook, search @ChickenCreekNordic. Supporters can volunteer through any of those channels or send donations to Friends of Chicken Creek, P.O. Box 111, Mancos, Colorado, 81328.
To reach the Chicken Creek ski area from Mancos, take CO-184 toward Dolores and, about 3 miles north of Mancos, turn right onto CR-40. Then drive 2 miles on CR-40 to the U.S. Forest Service Chicken Creek parking lot.