Free, public ski area outside Carbondale depends on ‘Community Powered Skiing’

The view from the Finlandia trail at Spring Gulch cross-country ski area was outstanding one recent day. Paul's Point is named in honor of the late Paul Lappala, one of the founders of the ski are outside of Carbondale.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times


What: Fundraiser for Spring Gulch cross-country ski area

When: Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: Spring Gulch is about 7 miles west of Carbondale on County Road 108.

Cost: Participants are urged to raise pledges for each kilometer skied or they can pay $15.

Ask anyone who occasionally visits or regularly tours the Spring Gulch cross-country ski area outside of Carbondale what they like about the place and the all-inclusive nature of it will likely rank high.

The 21-kilometer network of groomed trails attracts everyone from Olympic-class skiers to folks in blue jeans and rusty old gear, said John Armstrong, a member of the Mount Sopris Nordic Council’s board of directors. The council oversees Spring Gulch.

The ski area is free and open to the public. It relies on donations for its operations — mostly for the grooming equipment, fuel and labor to keep the trails in immaculate shape.

“We’re pretty lean, but it’s still $500 per day to run the ski area,” Armstrong said.

The Nordic Council has about 300 dues-paying members. It also relies on a flagship event called Ski for Sisu to raise about 25 percent of its annual revenue. Every year on Super Bowl Sunday, classic and skate skiers are urged to complete laps on designated courses and collect pledges from supporters for each kilometer completed. There are 3.5-, 10- and 12.5-kilometer courses.

The event will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Participants who didn’t arrange pledges can pay $15. Costumes are urged during the event. There also will be a silent auction.

The Nordic Council likes to say that Spring Gulch displays the best of “Community Powered Skiing.”

The community aspect extends beyond helping at the fundraiser. The Crystal River Ranch and North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association allow use of summer grazing land for the winter skiing. Volunteers work on the trails during summers.

The ski area has interesting roots. Former Carbondale resident Chris Landry and the late Paul Lappala were ski enthusiasts who wanted to provide Nordic skiing in the high ground surrounding town. Landry thought ground in the Thompson Creek area would be excellent terrain. He and Lappala approached the ranchers with the pitch and the ski area was born in 1986.

According to Armstrong, Lappala came up with the idea of a fundraiser about five years later. This will be its 27th year.

“Lappala pinned the name ‘Ski for Sisu’ after a Finnish term describing the unflagging grit and determination of the Finns,” Armstrong said in an email. “The Scandinavian trail grooming implement was built by Sisu.”

Lappala and his wife, Ginny, were ingrained in the fabric of Carbondale. For example, they donated the land for what became the Lappala Center of Colorado Mountain College in Carbondale.

Lappala made the ultimate sacrifice for the ski area he loved. He was killed in 1993 when a bulldozer he was operating to build a trail at Spring Gulch rolled over, according to Armstrong. One of the most stunning vistas as Spring Gulch is named in Lappala’s honor. Paul’s Point is on the upper trail, Finlandia, and provides great views of the Crystal Valley, Mount Sopris and the surrounding big peaks.

Spring Gulch’s trail network stretches over about 700 acres of diverse terrain. There are wide meadows, trails through the oak brush and jaunts through big aspens. An outing can be on laid-back flats or more challenging hills.

The network seems to absorb the people. The parking lot is often packed with 60 to 70 vehicles on weekend days, Armstrong said, but skiers feel like they have the trails alone once they move out of the base.

More on Spring Gulch, including Ski for Sisu, can be found at


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