By Wendy Pitlick
Black Hills Pioneer
LEAD — For snowmobilers, the 2022-2023 winter season was one for the record books.
Ryan Raynor, trail program specialist with the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks said this year’s traffic counters showed 116,515 snowmobilers in the Black Hills. That compares to 2022, when there were only 27,777 sleds counted. Raynor said the department has about 15 counters positioned throughout the Black Hills trail system.
Julie Ebright, owner of Trailshead Lodge said this season’s snowmobile numbers were comparable to what she saw in 2020, when visitors flocked to the Hills during the COVID-19 shutdown. The higher numbers of 2023 helped the business recover from the last two years, and she was grateful for the snow.
“Two years ago was the worst ever since 1986,” she said. “The year after that was 20 times worse. We only rented for two weeks last year. They could only groom three times and didn’t go out until Jan. 29.”
But this year groomers started Dec. 15, and they worked every day until the season ended March 27. Raynor said groomers work seven Snow Cats over the Black Hills’ 350-mile trail system. They work three shifts so that there are groomers out 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Groomers spent a total of 5,984 hours on about 40,273 miles this year.
“At the end of the day we had a great year for snowmobilers, but years like this do provide challenges for operators,” Raynor said as he discussed several instances of Snow Cats that got stuck in deep snow on the trails. This year, he said the department spent close to $250,000 to replace grooming equipment. The department purchases one groomer a year that goes directly to the Black Hills trails system where it is used for about seven years before it gets rotated out to the eastern part of the state for use. Overall, Raynor said the groomers have a life span of about 20 years.
The trails program has a $1.3 million budget, and Raynor said the current trails fund balance is at about $916,000. The three main sources of revenue for the trails fund are a 3 percent excise tax on all snowmobile purchases, a $10 snowmobile license fee, and the gas tax that comprises about 45 percent of total revenue for the system.
Ebright said many of the snowmobilers she saw came from the east. Visitors traveled from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Daktoa, Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wyoming.