Snowmobiling in the Laurel Highlands is revving up.
The first day for legal snowmobiling on state forest lands is Dec. 15, and Jan. 15 for game lands.
Three area snowmobile clubs are responsible for maintaining the trails throughout the Laurel Highlands – Maple Summit Snowmobilers Inc., Rolling Ridge Snowmobile Club and Laurel Highlands Snowmobile Club Inc.
The clubs belong to the state Snowmobile Association.
Members of Maple Summit Snowmobilers Inc. maintain trails from Seven Springs to Ohiopyle, said vice president Todd Harcum.
“Maintaining the trails is a year-round project,” Harcum said.
“We also have a snow groomer we call the blue monster.”
The state reimburses for fuel expenses, but other operating costs, including repairs, are covered by the club.
With 53 miles of trails to maintain, club members start in September and work until Thanksgiving, clearing trails of fallen trees and brush and building bridges where needed.
Maple Summit is responsible for connecting small sections into one continuous trail to state Game Land 111, north of Ohiopyle.
“When you have a gap in the trail, it kills tourism,” Harcum said.
The weather is always a factor in any outdoor activity, but Harcum said the busiest season for snowmobiles is from January to the first or second week in March.
He remembers snowmobiling with his parents when he was 3 years old.
Maple Summit also is known for its groomer chuck wagon, a barbecue on skis.
“We don’t have a clubhouse, but we have a place centrally located on the trail,” Harcum said.
“It’s private property near Seven Springs. We cook hot dogs, pulled pork and burgers, and it’s free. You can make a donation if you want, but we just want you to enjoy it. It’s nice to socialize.”
In addition to trailside cookouts, the club has poker runs, a summer picnic, fall dinner and Christmas party.
Each year, donations are made to various charitable causes, including the Children’s Home in Somerset. Children in need and the physically challenged also have benefited.
The family-oriented group has about 135 members, mostly Pennsylvania residents.
Rolling Ridge Snowmobile Club shares responsibility for trails from Linn Run north of Route 30 to the Conemaugh River in Johnstown, said club president Barry Harcum, brother of Todd Harcum.
Rolling Ridge and the two other clubs have given support to a bridge being built across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which will be a big connector for the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and along with it, snowmobile trails.
“It’s a new bridge in the same place, at the 100-mile marker on the turnpike,” Harcum said.
“It’s a parks’ department bridge on forest department land. It connects near Tunnel Run at Linn Run State Park.”
Harcum said the bridge was found unrepairable and had to be removed.
Without its connection, the trail system is cut in half for all groups, whether hikers, bikers or snowmobilers.
“It will connect the Yough River to the Conemaugh River,” Harcum said. “It means a lot to the trail system and the economy.”
The rebuilt bridge is due to open Thursday, and as of late November, Harcum said the project looked to be on schedule.
Harcum and his crew volunteer on state game and forest lands to help clear trails and are involved with private land owners whose properties are part of the trails.
“It’s a second job,” he said.
“There have been a lot of improvements to the Laurel Highlands in the past few years. More are getting involved, and we’re looking for a solution.”
Harcum would like to get snowmobiling back to the way it used to be in the ’60s through the ’80s, when the average age of a snowmobiler was 30.
“There wasn’t much snowmobiling for several years because there was a lack of interest,” he said.
“The state is doing a good job of clearing trails, but they can’t take on any more.
“We’re involved in every way possible in our area, and so is Maple Summit and the other clubs. We all work together, but we need a hand.”
Through the Laurel Mountain Snowmobile Trail Fund, donations benefit all three clubs.
Rolling Ridge is three years old and has more than 100 members.
Like his brother’s club, Maple Summit, Rolling Ridge has no clubhouse, but does have a groomer.
“All clubs have something different to offer, and the riding experience is different,” Harcum said.
“The three clubs have four types of riding. There are 44,000 snowmobiles registered in the state. Pennsylvania is on the map for snow. We’re the best-kept secret. We’re not Michigan, but without a doubt, we’re worth visiting.”
Trails maintained by any of the clubs are open to anyone with a state-registered snowmobile and insurance.
Registration is $10 per year.
Laurel Highlands Snowmobile Club Inc. maintains trails in Westmoreland and Somerset counties, said president Steve Matscherz.
The group, which has 250 members, is the only one of the three clubs to have a clubhouse, located off Route 31 near Donegal.
As much as 200 inches of snow can fall in the mountains of the Laurel Highlands, and the Allegheny National Forest is a prime destination for snowmobilers, Matscherz said.
“It’s a big deal for the state,” he said.
“Snow can start in December and stay until the end of March. January and February are prime months. After the February thaw, it’s hit-and-miss.
“Pennsylvania is the southern most state that has an organized trail system of rideable snow. It’s because of the mountains in southern Pennsylvania. Where it’s flatter, it’s hit-and-miss. The mountains make the difference. The Laurel Highlands are as good as it is.”
As treasurer of the state Snowmobile Association, Matscherz knows that snowmobiling is very organized in Pennsylvania.
Money collected from registrations and other fees is given back to the clubs as grants.
“It’s 20 percent matching funds,” he said. “All the volunteer hours are credited toward the funding.”
Matscherz advised that if riding alone, a snowmobiler should let someone else know their itinerary.
“It can be desolate,” he said.
“Even riding in a group, there can still be trouble. At least if you’re riding with someone and something happens, one snowmobile can pull the other.”
Matscherz recommends taking a course to learn the safety aspects of riding in the snow.
“Make sure you understand the laws and rules of Pennsylvania,” he said.
For those who would like to try out riding a snowmobile, there aren’t a lot of rental opportunities in the Laurel Highlands.
Guided tours are available at Seven Springs Mountain Resort that allow those with little or no experience to ride.
“I highly recommend taking the tour,” Matscherz said.
“You can find out what it’s really like. It’s a slow ride. There are guides in front and back.”
One-hour guided snowmobile tours for those with no experience are offered at 9 and 10:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2 and 3:30 p.m. daily.
Helmets are provided with the rental.
After-dark guided snowmobile tours for those with previous ATV, jet ski or snowmobile experience are offered by reservation only.
There will be a maximum of 10 snowmobiles available for this tour, and drivers must be at least 18 years old with a valid driver’s license.
Reservations for the 5 p.m. tours must be made by 4.
The cost of either tour is $65 per driver for Mondays through Thursdays and $75 per driver for Fridays through Sundays and holidays.
The cost for passengers, who must be at least 12 years old, is an additional $40 per person.
Information: (800) 452-2223, ext. 7932.
Snowmobiling in the Laurel Highlands is revving up.
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