Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Webpage posts virtual winter trailheads

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Thursday, February 16, 2006

PALMER—Before a snowmobiler hauls a sled 100 miles up the Glenn Highway east to Lake Louise, the rider might first want to know whether conditions include soft pillows of snow or spine-rattling moguls. Before driving up to Hatcher Pass, a Nordic skier would want to know if the trails are packed near Independence Mine. Those who love to play in winter can now get quick, comprehensive updates on the near and far-flung trails. For the first time, information on nearly all of the winter trails within the 24,000 square miles of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is compiled in one spot. Timely updates are accessible simply by clicking on the webpage for the MAT-SU Borough, where a new button called "MSB Trail Conditions" is posted in white snowflakes and deep blue. "It's hard to find one website, one location n, where you can see conditions on trails from Big Lake to Eureka," said Pat Owens, the Borough land management specialist who taps her friendships in the trails community to get volunteers to report conditions. "We want people to use these beautiful winter trails," Owens said. The new trails site gives reports on the gamut of snow-driven activities - dog mushing, sledding, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, skijoring, and snowmobiling. Even long-time outdoor enthusiasts aren't aware of the extent of the winter trails reaching across the MAT-SU. In the Susitna River area, the cold transforms the region, making it more accessible in winter than summer. The rivers, lakes and wetlands freeze and turn into trail corridors. Closer to Palmer, the trail up the west side of the Butte isn't only active through the glacial dust of summer. A groomed trail, part way up, awaits anyone in winter with snowshoes. Nearby Nordic ski trails loop around the lower slopes of Lazy Mountain, which is generally thought of as a summer hike. For those who ride a metal sled with horse power, hundreds of miles of well-marked trails are yours for the driving, along frozen river basins and through state parks. Trail conditions are updated every Thursday, just in time for the weekend. For example, the eight miles of Nordic trails at Crevasse Moraine, off the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, recently were described as "packed for skating on Wednesday, before the rain and had marginal bases." More than the depth of the snow-pack is reported. The site warns trail-goers of hazards, whether it's wandering moose near Trapper Creek Community Center up Petersville Road or the greater risk of a potential slab avalanche for snowmobilers at Hatcher Pass. Under the trail guide section, the site gives directions, descriptions and maps to many of the trails. Special events are listed, such as a weekend invitation to a 50-70 mile ride toward the Dutch Hills by the snowmobile club, the Curry Ridge Riders. The comprehensive, virtual trailhead relies heavily on trailside reports from volunteers. Lodge owners, snowmobile clubs, trail groups, and chamber organizations give their time to groom trails, stake trail markers, and give the snowy details. "One-stop shopping," Assemblywoman Lynne Woods calls it. "I am delighted that the MAT-SU Borough webpage is becoming a site for information important to residents, would-be residents, and visitors alike. It is a vision many different entities in our Borough share. The new trail information is a perfect example of how this can work. Timely, factual information is what we all want. I applaud everyone's efforts to make this happen," said Woods, an avid trail user. Every year state grants go toward keeping snowmobile trails clear. The state Snowmobile Trails Advisory Committee awards grants to non-profits and some contractors. The money comes from the registration fees on snowmobiles. About $80,000 was awarded this winter in the MAT-SU area, according to MAT-SU area State Parks Superintendent Dennis Heikes. Borough grants for trails compliment the state grants. Both ski and motorized trails get up to $40,000 from annual bed taxes generated by visitors to the Borough. For the more labor intensive trails that require grooming every week such as at Hatcher Pass, a contractor with a big snow cat is paid to groom. But on most of the snowmachine trails, volunteers such as the Lower Susitna Drainage Association give their free time and only ask for reimbursement on fuel, belts and oil, Heikes said. Borough Community Development Director Ron Swanson said without the volunteers, the trail system wouldn't be as comprehensive as it is. "The volunteers, the non-profits, really make the whole system work, Swanson said. " If we contracted out, it'd be a zillion dollars." Swanson said the Borough gets quite a deal from volunteers like groomer Corky Matthews who covers 200 miles of what Swanson calls "gorgeous" trails at Lake Louise. A grant for $3,000 goes to Matthews, who barely recoups operation costs. "It's all part of an effort to provide a nearly continuous trail system, north to south and east to west in the Borough rather than bits and pieces of trail," Swanson said. The goal is to have trails from Knik, north to Denali State Park and from Lake Louise, east to the Alaska Range, most of which has already been accomplished. The MAT-SU Borough website is For more information contact Pat Owens at 745-9572 or 745-7714.