- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

ISLAND PARK, Idaho (AP) - Temperatures hovered near zero on a recent Saturday morning at Harriman State Park. Yet despite the inhospitable conditions, the parking lot was nearly full.

Groups of cross-country skiers, fat bikers and snowshoers zipped around Harriman’s 24 miles of groomed trails on the park’s annual free day. When the cold became unbearable, they crowded into a new warming hut, thawing out hands and feet and slurping cups of chili provided by the Idaho Falls Nordic Ski Patrol, the Post Register reported (http://bit.ly/2jIgj5W).

Long a popular summer destination, Harriman officials in recent years have turned their focus to the winter. They opened the park to the surging sport of fat biking - the first state park to do so - and began plowing the main road for easier access to cabin and yurt rentals. New events have been added on weekends, including Harriman’s first winter triathlon, “Moose on the Loose,” scheduled for Saturday.

The efforts are paying off. Day-use visitor numbers are increasing after years in a “flat line,” said Park Manager John Sullivan, who took the post three years ago. Winter overnight rentals are booked solid every weekend, he said, often requiring reservations months in advance.

Harriman’s winter program is now profitable, after years of losing money or barely breaking even. More are discovering the park’s abundant wildlife, and its gently rolling terrain offering sweeping views of snow-covered lakes and meadows.

Since the fiscal year began in July, the park has increased its revenue by about $25,000 compared to this time a year ago, growth Sullivan attributes in large part to winter. It’s a notable accomplishment for a park - and state agency - looking to eke out a little extra cash wherever possible.

“Once you come here, you’re going to want to come back,” Sullivan said of his strategy to attract more first-time visitors.

Most winter users remain cross-country skiers. But by allowing fat bikes, Sullivan said the park was able to create a new experience, and reach a new crowd of users through bike shops. About 600 fat bikers came to the park last winter, he said.

“We have the facilities, we have the trails, we can pull it off,” Sullivan said of fat bikes. “But how do we educate all these user groups and harmoniously exist? I think that will take a little bit of time.”

This weekend, the park’s three winter user groups will come together for a triathlon. The “Moose on the Loose” will include a 6-mile fat bike course, a 1.5-mile snowshoe trek, and 6 miles of skiing.

Event organizer Trever Turpin, who also volunteers as a Harriman ski patroller, said he previously organized traditional summer triathlons, and was “trying to think of something to do in the winter.”

Since it now allows fat bikes, Harriman seemed like a good spot to host a winter triathlon, and park officials were receptive to the idea, he said.

Turpin recognizes many people might not have all the necessary gear, so in recent weeks he’s featured local rental shops on the race’s Facebook page. People can also find a friend who has the gear and then “build a relay team,” he said.

“It’ll generate awareness for the park, and I’ll have all three user groups in the park at the same time,” Sullivan said. “We can all get along. We can share the trails, and have these types of events.”

Clarke Kido has watched the park’s winter popularity grow over the years. He began ski patrolling at Harriman about 20 years ago. In those days, only a handful of trails were groomed and skiers often made their own routes. Today, there are trails groomed specifically for every user, including a one-way singletrack trail intended for fat bikes.

“It’s gone from fairly modest user traffic back in the 1990s to a point where they have organized races and events,” Kido said.

Harriman’s scenery and wildlife, of course, remains the main attraction, Kido said.

Sullivan’s favorite scenic route involves jumping on a tree-lined trail that skirts the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, heading up to the Railroad Ranch, then turning back toward the visitor center along Silver Lake.

“It’s not super long, and you get to experience the entire park,” he said. “It’s the ultimate loop.”

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Information from: Post Register, http://www.postregister.com

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