Chris Benson skis down Julie’s Glade on the La Sal Mountains after a recent snowstorm. [Photo by Max Forgensi, Courtesy of United States Forest Service]

It all begins at the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead.

When the snow is deep, the parking lot is usually full.

At 9600 feet elevation, it’s the first stop for most winter recreation on the La Sal Mountains. There you will find a sledding hill, eight miles of groomed trails and access to popular backcountry snow areas.

There is now plenty of snow and plenty of ways to enjoy it, whether one wants to sled, snowboard, ski, snowshoe or snowmobile.

The 3.5-mile stretch of Geyser Pass Road from the La Sal Mountain Loop Road to the trailhead is well-maintained.

“Without the San Juan Road Department there would be no access to sledding and skiing,” said Ed Grote, one of the Friends of the La Sal Avalanche Center.

“We’ll get a big dump and they’ll be up there within a day or two to plow the road just for us,” said Matt Van Scoyoc, another one of the Friends of the La Sal Avalanche Center.

Most cars with either snow tires or four-wheel drive should be able to make it to the trailhead after it has been plowed.

Lower Utah Nordic Alliance (LUNA) has been grooming the trails about twice week during the season for the last five years.

“There were more and more people who wanted to do Nordic skiing, and particularly skate skiing where you need a wider track,” said Kirstin Peterson, co-owner of Rim Tours and co-founder of LUNA.

The Manti-La Sal Forest Service was able to get a grant through Utah State Parks for trail grooming equipment, but didn’t have the operational budget to do the grooming.

“Skier people took it on and we became a subgroup of Trail Mix,” she said of the volunteer group LUNA. Peterson stresses that this is a multi-use trail. It is not for skiers only. “People will take their dogs on it. There are snowmobilers, too.”

But, for skiers, there is a variety of trails for different levels of ability.

For new skiers, the Meadow Loop is the easiest and closest track to the parking lot, Peterson said.

The Meadow Loop is a little uphill from the trailhead.

“You take off on the left and wind first through some aspens and then into a beautiful open meadow with Haystack Mountain in the background. The terrain is rolling and the loop rejoins the main track close to where you entered,” Peterson said.

Gold Basin is an intermediate track and is a five-mile trip from the trailhead.

“It is rolling, though more uphill on the return, and offers a peaceful ski through pines and aspens with occasional views of the red rock desert below. You may see backcountry skiers accessing many of the popular runs above the track or returning from turns in the powder,” Peterson said.

When conditions are perfect, LUNA will groom the La Sal Loppet Loop, which goes over Geyser Pass and is the highest groomed track in Utah at 10,600 feet elevation.

The Loppet Loop is for the ambitious skier and has a full 1000 foot climb on a two-mile trek from the trailhead. It was originally groomed several years ago for the Lasaloppet, a ski event created by McKay Edwards of Moab Springs Ranch.

The La Sal Loppet Loop takes off to the right from the top of Geyser Pass along the road towards Dark Canyon. After approximately a half-mile, the track leaves the main route on the left and winds through open meadows to a point offering wide ranging views of Colorado including the stunning San Miguel and Wilson mountains near Telluride.

“This rolling loop continues through the trees and emerges on the east side of the Geyser Pass Road where you will take a left up a short hill back to the pass,” Peterson said. “From the pass it is mostly downhill back to the trailhead, so be sure to have a warmer wind protective layer for the descent.”

When Matt Hebberd, co-owner of Rim Tours and co-founder of LUNA goes up to groom the tracks, he takes his mountain bike with him.

“I kept seeing what I thought were bike tracks, which I thought was weird. And then I saw him,” Grote said.

Hebberd uses super fat tires that bullies through the sand and the snow.

“There are about ten of us now who have them,” Hebberd said. “The tricky thing is that the conditions have to be perfect. The snow needs to be packed down.”

He will ride Geyser Pass Road to Gold Basin before he begins grooming the track.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, fun and different,” Hebberd said.

Van Scoyoc appreciates the views the most.

“You can be skiing powder and be looking at Island in the Sky. It’s amazing,” Van Scyoc said.

For those venturing to play beyond the hill and the groomed trails, checking out conditions with the La Sal Avalanche Center is highly recommended.

“There isn’t avalanche danger on the cross-country ski trails,” Grote said. “It’s the snowmobiling, back country skiing and snow shoeing.”

The La Sal Avalanche Center measures snow fall totals and forecast avalanche conditions.

“For people who are going up to enjoy the snow, we give them the information they need,” said Max Forgensi, forecaster for the Avalanche Center, who posts that information online. “It’s a tool. It’s an overview of what’s going on.”

He encourages people to do “nowcasting” as well, to be very aware of what is around them as they are on the mountain: Be aware of the moisture content, snowdrifts, the sun’s rays, and the level of new snow on old.

There have been fatalities from avalanches on the La Sal Mountains. There have been two incidents almost 20 years apart.

The Friends of the La Sal Avalanche Center was organized after a 1992 avalanche in Gold Basin killed Mark Yates, Maribel Loveridge, William Turk and Jeremy Hopkins. The four victims, plus Craig Bigler and Steve Mileski, were on a snow testing ski trip when the slope fell, burying all six. Bigler and Mileski were able to dig out of the snow and survived.

The Friends were part of the crew to recover the body of Garret Carothers, a Colorado snowmobiler that was caught in an avalanche in Beaver Basin on the La Sal Mountains March 3.

Gerrish Willis, one of the Friends of the La Sal Avalanche Center noted that the Colorado snowmobilers had the right kind of equipment and appeared to know what they were doing. The accident emphasized the importance of having a forecast center.

“They probably didn’t know how to access the forecast here,” Willis said. “They were kind of savvy, but if they had the forecast maybe they would have made different decisions about where they were going.”