The Chief Joseph Ski Trail System in southwest Montana provides for easy and safe use by a variety of winter visitors.
Photos from Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club
The Chief Joseph winter trail system is a 25+ year project that provides free cross-country skiing for the public. In recent years multi-use trails have been added to the system that provide recreational opportunities for a wide variety of winter activities.
There are now over 13 miles of trails groomed for skate and classic skiing, and 19 miles of multi-use trails appropriate for skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing, fat-tire biking, snowmobiling, and people who wish to ski with their dogs. The trail system is groomed at least weekly during the season by Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club, with multiple loops in the system of varying lengths and difficulty level.
Every trail junction is marked with a trail map— it’s almost impossible to get lost— and benches are placed at appropriate spots along the trails. There is a warming hut open from December 1 through mid April. by assisting appropriate public authorities in the management and operation of the Chief Joseph Cross-Country Ski Area.
The Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club is a nonprofit, non-partisan, public-interest corporation whose purpose is to benefit the public by promoting Nordic (cross-country) skiing and other outdoor recreational activities. Efforts of the club include educating the public about the health and recreational benefits of outdoor activities, and by assisting a variety of public agencies in the management and operation of the Chief Joseph Cross-Country Ski Area.
According to the club, “Based upon comments left on the trailhead sign-in sheets, it must be assumed that skiers are overwhelmingly happy with the trails this winter. However, it appears our volunteer groomers (using snowmobiles to put the finishing touches on the trails) are even more pleased. That is what we’ve been working to achieve, happy skiers and ecstatic groomers!”
During the 2013-2014 ski season, the Club made an agreement with the Lost Trail Powder Mountain Downhill Ski Area to groom the wider ski trails at Chief Joseph Pass (on a test basis) with a PistenBully snow grooming machine. That test proved so successful that the decision was made to prepare all of the ski trails at Chief Joseph Pass for grooming with a PistenBully.
The Missoulian newspaper stated that “the new equipment was paid for by a grant the ski club won from the Montana Tourism Infrastructure Improvement Program, and grooming costs are covered by a Forest Service Recreational Trails Program grant.”
During the 2013-2014 ski season, the Club made an agreement with the Lost Trail Powder Mountain Downhill Ski Area to groom the wider ski trails at Chief Joseph Pass (on a test basis) with a PistenBully snow grooming machine. That test proved so successful that the decision was made to prepare all of the ski trails at Chief Joseph Pass for grooming with a PistenBully. The Missoulian newspaper stated that “the new equipment was paid for by a grant the ski club won from the Montana Tourism Infrastructure Improvement Program, and grooming costs are covered by a Forest Service Recreational Trails Program grant.”
In partnership with the Bitterroot Back Country Horsemen, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, and the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club, during August and September 2014 volunteers spent more than 550 hours preparing the ski trails to accommodate Lost Trail’s PistenBully, newly purchased for the purpose of grooming cross-country ski trails. The organization continues to volunteer hundreds of hours each year to improve the trails. Most of the grooming is done with the PistenBully, with only occasional snowmobile grooming needed.
The Job Corps made new wooden signs for all of the Chief Joseph Ski Trails, and they have been installed, which helps skier navigation greatly.
A few new metal signs are placed along Gibbons Pass Road to help control snowmobile traffic on the multiuse trails. The wording of the signs was developed with collaboration between members of the Bitterroot Ridge-Runners Snowmobile Club and the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club. A generous grant from the Rapp Family Foundation is covering the cost of both the wooden trail signs and the Gibbons Pass Road signs.
The Club was awarded a new Recreational Trails Program grant of $40,000 to cover the cost for an additional outhouse in the Chief Joseph trailhead parking lot. This will be installed in the summer or fall of 2018. In additions, grants pay for a large portion of the costs of operating groomers, which allows the club to keep memberships inexpensive, and most importantly, provide free outdoor recreation opportunities to the public.
The Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club makes it clear that “One man was primarily responsible for the existence of the groomed cross-country ski trails at Chief Joseph Pass. That man was Gordon Reese."
Gordon came from Alaska where he had enjoyed skiing on groomed trails. He felt that Chief Joseph Pass would be the best location to develop a cross-country ski trail system. But his efforts to persuade the Forest Service to approve trail grooming failed in both 1985 and 1987. In 1989, Gordon and others promoted the idea of a new ski club. About 50 people attended the first meeting. Forest Service personnel present at the meeting were impressed with the obvious interest in establishing a ski area.
With the Bitterroot Club established, an agreement was signed and volunteers started laying out trails. The first grooming machine was a hand-me-down snowmobile. And Gordon was the lone groomer during the first season of 1990-1991. A decade later, club members invested over 5,500 hours in construction of a warming cabin. When it was dedicated in 2001, it was fittingly named for Gordon Reese.
A variety of educational programs are also hosted by the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club including annual free cross-country ski lesson days. Lessons are for beginners through lower-intermediates of all ages. The traditional classic style of cross-country skiing is taught. Would-be skiers and beginning skiers of all ages are welcome. Youth Cross-Country Ski Days are scheduled during January and February for local schools. These are ski classes for public school students.