By Jamie Kujawa Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Bridger Ski Foundation trained and raced on the ski trails that meander through Hyalite Canyon, on and off, as far back as the 1970s, all the way into the ‘90s. So in 2006 it was only natural that BSF was one of the groups involved in getting the Hyalite road plowed during the winter.

Gallatin County maintains the road year-round, something Brian McNeil, roads and trails manager for the Gallatin National Forest Bozeman Ranger District, is tremendously grateful for.

“[The plowing] opened up many opportunities for us to do great things in the canyon,” he says. For McNeil, that means working and recreating on the network of groomed and un-groomed nordic ski trails.

McNeil and his crew of two other groomers, Adam Norlander and Will Shoutis, are up in Hyalite weekly, depending on snow and weather. They’re essentially storm-chasers: after a big dump, they’ll groom up to 20 kilometers of trails for classic skiing. The team keeps some of the trails un-groomed so hardcore backcountry enthusiasts can have the option of skiing virgin dendrites after a storm.

The goal for the Hyalite ski network is to “keep the look, feel, smell of the whole area as a backcountry experience,” McNeil says.

With this winter’s unseasonably warm weather, however, grooming hasn’t been just about big dumps. Because hikers and dog-walkers pack down the snow on the trails, the groomers still go out weekly or every other week to “set some corduroy and set down some track,” McNeil said.

McNeil works with the Bridger Ski Foundation and the Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition to maintain grooming and road access in Hyalite. According to Hal Stanley of BSF, the Forest Service team does 80 percent of the grooming, and BSF supplements that.

This year, BSF and the Forest Service made a big push to improve the groomed cross-country trails. This past fall, BSF used roughly 700 volunteer work hours and spent about $10,000 on materials for trail improvements.

Volunteers helped with trail maintenance like lopping branches, building small bridges over creek crossings and removing large rocks from trails. One of the major goals was to connect the different segments of trail into one big loop around the reservoir.

All of the groomed terrain in Hyalite is two-way skier traffic, so some of the work this fall was to reshape trails in order to prevent collisions or fast descents. Stanley says there is still work to do to optimize the trails for skiing.

Because Hyalite is too far from Bozeman to be a training facility for race teams, these efforts by BSF and the Forest Service are meant for the community to enjoy.

“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful place,” Stanley says.

Stanley and McNeil agree that during the early part of this winter, Hyalite was one of the best places to be for great nordic conditions. And with McNeil and crew out working through early April, conditions should stay good all winter.

All of the skiable trails are marked with blue diamonds to keep folks on course, and detailed maps are provided at all parking areas. For a printed map, stop into the Gallatin National Forest Bozeman Ranger District or download one at bridgerskifoundation.org.

Jamie Kujawa is not much of a cross-country skier, but she sure does like Hyalite Canyon.