Steph Davis cross-country skis in Gold Basin on the La Sal Mountains after recent snowfall. [Photo courtesy / Matt Hebberd]

It all begins at the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead. When the snow is deep, the parking lot is usually full.

At an elevation of 9600 feet, 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.

Matt Hebberd has already been on the mountain a few times enjoying the snow this year. Hebberd is co-owner of Rim Tours, as well as the co-founder of Lower Utah Nordic Alliance (LUNA), which grooms ski trails on the La Sal Mountains each year.

“The snow is great,” he said. “Those first three snowstorms put down a lot of snow. We have a good base going.”

You don’t have to own skis to cross-country ski on the mountain. Harrison Jelly, who works at Moab’s oldest bike shop, Rim Cyclery, said the store been renting cross-country skis for at least 20 years.

“We’ve been doing it every winter,” Jelly said.

Everything you need – skis, poles, shoes – is available for $20.

Kelby Groff, manager of Rim Cyclery, said that the shop opens at 10 a.m. and renters have about 24 hours to return the skis.

“These are fish-tail, low-end skis,” he said. “These aren’t meant to go deep into the backcountry. These are more for groomed trails.”

Hebberd said that there is a new poster at the trailhead advising where different recreationists should play on the track.

“We’re trying to get everybody to use the portion of the track that is best suited for their activity,” Hebberd said.

The poster shows where snowmobiles, classic cross-country skiers, cross-country skaters, snowshoers and walkers should be in relation to the track.

“For people who aren’t familiar, there is a great photo for people to look at,” Hebberd said.

We try to keep the snowmobilers off to the side, Hebberd said. The poster also suggests keeping classic cross-country skiers within the grooves of the groomer, and having snowmobilers and snowshoers go up and down within the same track, “so they’re not trashing the whole thing,” he said.

That leaves the track in the best condition for cross-country skaters.

“It is multi-use,” he said. “It was so busy on the weekend. Everybody was up there.”

The 3.5-mile stretch of Geyser Pass Road from the La Sal Mountain Loop Road to the trail head is maintained by the San Juan County road department. Most cars with either snow tires or four-wheel drive should be able to make it to the trail head after it has been plowed.

LUNA has been grooming the trails about twice week during the season for the last five years. Hebberd said that there are 15 volunteers this year, taking turns to groom the tracks on Mondays and Fridays. It takes about three hours to groom the lower meadows and Gold Basin. It is an additional three hours to do the upper loop, he said.

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. Skiers took it on and created LUNA as a subgroup of Trail Mix, which has built and maintained bicycle trails throughout Grand County.

For skiers, there is a variety of trails for different levels of ability from the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead.

For new skiers, the Meadow Loop is the easiest and closest track to the parking lot. It is a little uphill from the trailhead.

It winds through some aspens and then into an open meadow with Haystack Mountain in the background. The terrain is rolling.

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

It, too, features a rolling track, though there is more uphill on the return. There is skiing through pines and aspens with an occasional view of the red rock desert below.

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 San Miguel and Wilson mountains near Telluride.

It is a rolling loop that continues through the trees and emerges on the east side of Geyser Pass Road.

When Hebberd goes up to groom the tracks, he takes his mountain bike with him. Hebberd uses super fat tires that ride atop the sand and the snow.

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

“If it doesn’t snow in the near future, the track and Geyser Pass Road will be excellent biking conditions,” Hebberd said. “The tricky thing is that the conditions have to be perfect. The snow needs to be packed down.”

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

Eric Trenbeath, the new avalanche forecaster, updates the La Sal Avalanche Center’s web site almost daily on the weekends, then again on Monday for conditions for the week. If there is a storm mid-week, he will post again to have current conditions.

He said more snow is needed for a good season of winter recreation.

“We are at about 36 inches in Gold Basin and 20 inches at the Geyser Pass trailhead,” he said.

He took a trek to the Corkscrew Glades on Thursday, Dec. 19 and found the trek had some unmanageable low snow.

The avalanche center’s web site gives information on the avalanche danger levels. Trenbeath recommends checking conditions before a day of play on the mountain.

There have been fatalities from avalanches on the La Sal Mountains, with 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.