SPEARFISH — Hikers, fatbike riders, and cross-country skiers make regular use of the Big Hill Trail system, south of Spearfish along Tinton Road. However, not all trails are the same.

Josh Wangeman serves as president of the Black Hills Nordic Ski Club. That group, along with the Grooming Alliance of Spearfish (GAS), seeks to educate the public on their tasks in the Black Hills National Forest and how to responsibly use the resources it maintains.

“Both of our organizations groom trails for over-the-snow, non-motorized traffic,” Wangeman said. 

Black Hills Nordic involves itself with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. GAS’ interests center on fatbiking trails, but those trails are also able to support the skiing and snowshoeing endeavors.

The trails are located in the area of Big Hill Trailhead, south of Spearfish along Tinton Road. Access is also available from Spearfish Canyon at the Iron Creek drainage.

“We focus on cross-country skiing, but we also accommodate trail opportunities for snowshoers and hikers on the snowshoe trails,” Wangeman said. 

Black Hills Nordic boasts ski trail lengths of 12 to 15 miles, depending on what is groomed. The club boasts 80 members and was formed 40 years ago.

The fatbike trail system consists of an additional 14 miles.

Nicholas Myers is the GAS vice president. The group has six members and was founded in 2018.

“Our trails are multi-use,” Myers said. “We encourage hiking as well, but with the right user etiquette.”

The group tries to prevent post holing, which occurs when a hiker creates holes on the trail surface. 

“If you are cutting like an inch or inch and a half into the snow, we do recommend snowshoes,” Myers said. “Otherwise, it does destroy the trail.”

Both nonprofit organizations rely on public funding and nonpaid volunteers. 

Rushmore Bikes owner Jesse Hansen previously groomed the fatbike trails. He retired, and this led to the formation of GAS.

The aim is to notify users of what activities are suggested on a snowshoe trail, cross-country ski trail, or a fatbike trail.

“It’s hard to exclude any user from using their forest,” Myers said. “But, we can highly recommend where they should go, what trails are designed for skiing and snowshoeing, fatbiking.”

Tire pressure is a critical component of fatbiking. Myers and GAS recommend a pressure no more than 5 pounds per square inch (PSI).

“If you’re starting to cut into the groom, or leave a rut, you need to let more air out,” Myers said. He advocates the “when in doubt, let it out” motto.

GAS and Black Hills Nordic members are at work on preparing the proper signage to notify users where they may go, and how they may preserve and trail. Myers said the aim is to help people make the right decisions.

Black Hills snow is relatively dry compared to that near a coast or large body of water like in Michigan.

Wangeman said compacting that wet snow is rather easy, as it can be rock solid only one hour after grooming. A person could likely walk on that surface without causing too much damage.

“That’s just not the case here,” Wangeman said. “The low PSI is really important for the fatbike trails.”

Black Hills Nordic’s trail equipment uses a larger surface area. A user is not able to compact the surface as much, so fatbiking and hiking are not possible on the ski trails.

“Skiing doesn’t need as dense a trail to have a successful or enjoyable experience,” Myers said. “What we groom for fatbiking, we have to get a lot more compaction in order for those tires to float on the snow surface.”

Fatbike trails measure roughly 30 inches in width. Ski trails usually have a classic track on one side and are 10 feet wide. A snowshoe trail does not have a defined width but is slightly narrower than a fatbike trail.

Both groups use similar equipment for grooming trails. All aid in the top priority of compacting the snow.

Utility snowmobiles drag implements across the snow to create a trail. A roller takes the air from the snow and compacts it. Drags level off the snow and add to compaction levels.

A ginzu groomer performs the final function. Teeth churn up the snow and compact it, helping to bond the snow together for a harder surface.

Wangeman said it takes time for snow to set after grooming. Skiers may go on the trail after one hour, with fatbike riders needing to wait 12 to 24 hours depending on the temperature.

Ski surfaces may be a bit on the soft side, while fatbike trails need a lot of compaction. Grooming occurs after each snowfall or in case of trail damage.

Fatbike riders sometimes reduce tire pressure to 2 psi to stay on top of the groom and gain the desired traction. 

The groups are working together on upcoming events. 

A Winter Carnival is set for Jan. 18, 2020. Fatbike demonstrations, skiing demos, fatbike tour, and ski races are on the schedule.

Attendees may participate in a free “learn to ski” day, with equipment and an instructor available. Those interested in fatbiking may try the sport.

That carnival will begin “Chinook Days” set for Jan. 18-25. Jan. 22 is the anniversary of the 1943 instance where the Spearfish temperature rose 49 degrees in only two minutes for a world record.

Killian’s will supply food for the carnival, and Crow Peak Brewery will supply the beer. Those events are free of charge, but donations are welcome.

A poker tour is scheduled for late February. Racing action begins in the morning, followed by a tour through the trail system. Travelers visit different stations and receive a prize for having the best poker hand.

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