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Minn. snowmobile trails officially open Saturday, but not enough cold, snow yet for safe riding

Many snowmobile trails across the northern Minnesota officially open Saturday, Dec. 1, but there's not enough snow yet to make them safe. Officials say about a foot of snow is needed on the ground to properly groom trails, as well as ample cold to freeze swamps, lakes and streams. File / Forum News Service

DULUTH — Minnesota's snowmobile trails officially open Saturday, Dec. 1, but as has been common in recent years, state officials and snowmobile enthusiasts warn that more snow is needed before the trails are passable.

The Department of Natural Resources lists Dec. 1 as the date it opens the trails it manages each year, about 1,000 miles in all. More than 21,000 miles of grant-in-aid trails managed by 250 local snowmobile clubs across the state also officially open on Dec. 1.

“But we need more snow everywhere in the state. It’s not time yet,’’ said Nancy Hanson at the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association, the coordinating group for all of the state's local, volunteer clubs. She added that many of the trails won’t open until after the muzzleloader deer hunting season is over on Dec. 9.

About a foot of snow is needed for groomers to adequately pack and track trails. And while the cold November has been good to freeze creeks, lakes, swamps and firm up low ground, critical to support large trail grooming tractors (about 15 inches of ice is needed to support the groomers) there hasn’t been enough snow to cover boulders and other debris on the ground.

Ice on many larger, deeper lakes and faster-moving streams isn't yet thick enough to support snowmobiles, let alone trail grooming tractors.

When the trails do open, the DNR urges riders to use caution. Early season trails may have trees or debris across them, unfrozen swamps and flowages, rocks or ruts, or standing crops and closed gates. Also, road ditches can have obstacles such as culverts, signposts and rocks.

The DNR is asking snowmobile enthusiasts to be patient.

“While the cold air is helping the ground freeze, we still need more snow and thicker ice to access trail segments that cross wet areas for brush clearing and other maintenance,” said Guy Lunz, DNR trails supervisor in the Grand Rapids area. “Crews are out now removing brush from trails where they can, and the pace will pick up as continued cold freezes the low-lying areas.”

Wisconsin trials are set to open Dec. 6 in areas where enough snow is on the ground. Michigan Trails open Dec. 1, like Minnesota, but many won’t have enough snow yet.

There’s about 10 inches on the ground along Lake Superior's South Shore snowbelt, including the Hurly and Ironwood areas. But Wally Maki, a snowmobile enthusiast who works at Cloverland Motorsports in Ironwood, said the trails aren't ready.

“The clubs are out trying to get them in shape for the early birds. Some people who don’t mind wrecking things might be out there Saturday. But you wouldn't see me out there yet,’’ Maki said. “We just need a little more snow.”

There are about 222,000 licensed snowmobiles in Minnesota, about 200,000 in Wisconsin and 284,000 in Michigan.

While you are waiting for more snow to fall it might be a good time to make sure your registration is up to date. Registrations for new snowmobiles must be purchased in person at any deputy registrar of motor vehicles or at the DNR License Bureau in St. Paul. Renewals of registrations and out-of-state trail stickers may be done in person, or online at licenses.dnr.state.mn.us.

In Minnesota, snowmobile trail maintenance costs are partially funded through the combined snowmobile registrations, trail sticker sales and state gas tax allocated to snowmobile use. Donations and volunteer work by trail clubs make up the remainder of the costs and efforts to operate these trails.

State trail conditions for DNR trails and state park ski trails are posted each Thursday on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/snow_depth. Local snowmobile clubs report to MNUSA  often. Go to mnsnowmobiler.org and click on Trail reports.

Links to snowmobile trail information, state trail maps, regulations, safety training, and more is available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/snowmobiling.

Wisconsin snowmobile trail reports can be found at  travelwisconsin.com/snowreport/snowmobile while Michigan reports can be found at msasnow.org/trail-reports/.