The first trails at Happy Jack Recreation Area were cleared in the summer of 1979. Quintin Skinner was coaching the University of Wyoming Nordic Ski Team which, back then, was a NCAA team and not, as now, a club sport. At that time UW had an A, B and C men’s team and a full Women’s team with 60 to 70 skiers.
The team was nationally ranked with Skinner coaching from 1971 through 1980 and the team even won the NCAA title in 1968 and 1985 while placing as runner up five times from 1967 through 1978.
Going through the necessary clearances and working closely with the U.S. Forest Service, Skinner, along with members of the ski team that included two actual loggers, cleared what are now the Aspen and Middle Aspen trails. Skinner recalls beginning the clearing on a Saturday and finishing by the next day.
“My motive was to build the trail before I retired from coaching,” Skinner said. “In addition to having the trails for the team, I hoped to have a ski trail close to town for my own personal skiing in later years.”
Prior to that, the ski team trained on trails near what was then the Medicine Bow Ski Area, now known as the Snowy Range Ski Area. Many of those trails were obliterated when the ski area eventually expanded.
“I always tried to ski up at Happy Jack since it was so much closer than going to Centennial,” Skinner said. “The important aspect was to clear a trail in the trees where there would be less wind impact.”
The Happy Jack Ski Area opened in the 1930s and continued to haul alpine skiers up the slope until closing in 1977. Access to the newly cut cross-country ski trails was via the now-closed ski area location since the Tie City Trailhead had yet to be built.
Stig Hallingbye, who now lives in Cheyenne, was a member of the UW Ski team from 1974 through 1977 specializing in ski jumping. Hallingbye, came to Laramie in 1974 as one of a growing number of Norwegians who skied for UW. Rather than return to Norway after graduating, Hallingbye stayed in Laramie and coached the UW team with Skinner from 1979 to 1982.
Hallingbye recalls having to drive up to Happy Jack every day to pack the trails and set the course before the team practiced later in the day.
“Back then it was a much narrower trail and packing the snow and setting the track was hard work,” Hallingbye said. “I did it alone and often got stuck and had to dig my machine back out. The trail was skied going only one direction since it was so narrow and, back then, it was all classic style, so they were nothing like the wider skating trails we have at Happy Jack now.”
Grooming continued in the winter by coaches until the UW Ski Team was eliminated in 1992. By then the core trails covered about 5 kilometers and were heavily used year-round by the general public. The skiing community was accustomed to skiing groomed trails and, with the demise of the ski team, volunteers stepped forward to fill the void.
The Medicine Bow Nordic Association was formed and, to enable easier communication among those volunteering to groom, all the existing trails got names: Meadow, Upper UW, Lower UW, Blackjack, Roller Coaster, Ridge and Alder.
According to Van Jacobson who was one of the founding members of the MBNA, since 1992 there have been significant changes to the trails.
“My earliest memory of the trails was from about 1980 when we decided to try running up the Aspen ski trail one summer day,” Jacobson said. “We had some difficulty doing that because there was no worn dirt path so we were often running through tall grass and would occasionally stub our toes on smaller tree stumps. All that changed with the invention of mountain bikes and steadily increasing foot traffic on the trails.”
Significant expansion to the winter groomed trails occurred in 2003 with the construction of the series of ski loops, like pearls on a necklace, comprised of Phil’s Loop, Gobi’s, Tie City Turnpike, Moose Loop, Van’s Loop and Haunted Forest Loop.
Snowbikes began appearing on the ski trails in 2012. Their presence on the groomed trails created some friction but a solution was found by incorporating more of the summer trails into a multi-use winter trail system. A couple of connector routes were cleared and last season packing of these trails provided a separate trail system for those opting to snowbike or snowshoe.
Meanwhile, summer use continues to climb with efforts taking off two years ago to repair and reroute some segments to better accommodate the popular mountain biking activity.
As skiers, snowbikers, snowshoers, hikers and mountain bikers enjoy the Happy Jack trail maze, few likely realize it all began back in 1979 thanks to Quintin Skinner and members of the UW Ski Team. It is hard to say if the trails would even be there if not for the ski team.
Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.