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Camp Hale: How a Disused Army 10th Mountain Division Base Became a Snowmobile Paradise

As powersports junkies and armchair war historians will tell you, there's no better place to build, see, and do cool stuff than a disused military base. There is nothing like several thousand square acres of vacant land kept relatively intact by military-industrial complex money to be the host of whatever escapades you might want to get up to. Such is the case with a humble vehicle-based guided tour center for snowmobiles, side-by-sides, and ATVs called Nova Guides.
Nova Guides 61 photos
Photo: Daniel Milchev (outer image) US Army Archives (Inner Images)
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Based out of Vail, Colorado, we had the privilege of being invited by BRP to test ride two of their snowmobiles for the 2024 model year across the vast, snowy tundras in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, roughly two or so hour drive from the Denver International Airport. But beyond the picturesque mountain views, countless miles of deep powdery snow, and cozy log cabin main lobby, the Nova Guides facility has an altogether separate past life as the genesis of one of the US Army's most unique and specialized training facilities.

Long before its days as the home of Nova Guides, this vast stretch of property used to go by a different name, Camp Hale. As the base of operations for the US Army's 10th Mountain Division, which specialized in training soldiers in mountain-based winter operations, Camp Hale was the be-all-end-all as far as American armed forces were concerned. Located not far from dead-center in the middle of Colorado at an altitude of 9,238 feet (2,815 m), the location that became Camp Hale is seemingly tailor-made to train human beings how to operate in the thin, often suffocatingly thin atmosphere of a mountainous region.

Such an environment was due to come in handy by the time of the 1940s. I.e., a time before the US had formally entered the Second World War but was still very much interested in prepping for the future war anyone who was paying attention knew was coming. By the turn of the 40s, US Army intelligence was intently studying the tactics and strategies of the Finnish Army, then fully embattled against the Soviet Union during the Winter War. During this conflict, US Army officers marveled at the Finn's capabilities in harsh winter conditions against their adversaries in the Soviet Union, ironically an American ally at the time through the Lend-Lease program.

US Army officials admired the Finn's ability to conduct combat operations in the ostensibly very hostile environment of a Nordic winter. Using little more than skis, snow shoes, the occasional snowmobile, standard issue firearms, and a supreme understanding of their environment, the Finns brought the fight to the far more numerous Soviets until relentless human wave tactics forced Finnish capitulation in 1940. From then going forward, the US Army knew their ranks required a training program forged in a similar image to that of the Finns.

Camp Hale
Photo: US 10th Mountain Division Archives
Lucky for the US, a nearly perfect representation of a typical harsh Finnish winter was located conveniently on US Soil in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Thus, in 1942, a stretch of land today used by Nova Guides was acquired by the Army and repurposed as a base of operations for winter environment-based combat training. Named after the famous Brigadier General Irving Hale of Spanish-American and Philippine-American War fame, American soldiers working to specialize in winter operations inevitably found themselves at Camp Hale during World War II.

From ski training and rock climbing training to learning about the unique tactics of winter warfare, the same factors that make the Nova Guides trails so fun to ride over today made for fantastic Army training material decades ago. By 1943, as many as 14,000 soldiers and officers had made their way through Camp Hale's ranks. Apart from multiple different disciplines of skiing, long-range shooting was another priority at Camp Hale. While stationed at the camp, many American soldiers had their first taste of the Army's standard-issue rifle, the M1 Garand. From top to bottom, every aspect of winter survival, from building firepits to crafting snow caves, was covered during training at Camp Hale.

For a time, a prisoner-of-war camp comprised of Nazi soldiers from Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps was housed at the base. It was these same POWs who, once the war in Europe was over, assisted in dismantling most of Camp Hale's infrastructure before the Army's 10th Mountain Division packed their things and left for Texas and then Upstate New York at Fort Drum, where it resides today. The base also housed a unique Army regiment called the 99th Infantry Battalion, a group of Scandinavian-American soldiers who primarily spoke Norweigan.

But this wasn't before the 10th Army Division played a key role in Allied victories in Italy and elsewhere along the western front, places where a keen understanding of mountain climbing proved vital to success in the region. After the war, the facility that was once Camp Hale continued to be used by US forces on and off into the Cold War. This included a stretch when the CIA occupied the sight alongside Tibetan mountaineers helping Special Ops train for potential future mountain campaigns against Communist China.

2024 Ski\-Doo Grand Tourer Sport
Photo: Daniel Milchev
By 1965, the former site of Camp Hale was gifted by the Pentagon to the U.S. Forest Service, which continues to help maintain the area to this day as a part of the White River National Forest. In 1984, much of this land, over 55,000 acres worth, became the founding grounds of Nova Guides, whose snowmobile/Jeep and ATV tours routinely traverse past the ruins of the 10th Mountain Division's field house, the last remaining piece of US Army property still standing. With two phenomenal Ski-Doo snowmobiles on hand at Nova, we likely had even more fun out there than any Army officer once stationed here.
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