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Increased backcountry traffic highlights lack of parking at some trailheads

With more people going into the backcountry, parking has become an issue, especially near the intersection of Routt County Road 129 and Forestry Road 550. (Courtesy/Leslie Lovejoy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Over Presidents Day weekend, Leslie Lovejoy counted more than 20 trucks and trailered vehicles in the Quarry Lot near Columbine in North Routt County. She saw another 16 of them out on Routt County Road 129.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have flocked to the backcountry in search of open spaces, but while the landscape may be open, it is becoming harder to find a parking space.

North of Steamboat Lake near the intersection of C.R. 129 and U.S. Forest Service Road 550, the small parking lot often lacks enough room for everyone. Lovejoy, director of Friends of the Routt Backcountry, has been recording the number of vehicles she sees in these lots since January.



On Jan. 9, she recorded that Routt County Search and Rescue almost couldn’t get through because of the number of vehicles parked on the side of the road. It also has caused problems for snowplows.

“If people are getting to the trailhead earlier and earlier and earlier, it can get in the way of our plowing, and if we can’t go to get in there to either just push back snow banks or to plow the road in general, it can really screw up the parking for the next day,” said Mike Mordi, assistant public works director for Routt County.



Mordi added that the county is not driving a pickup truck with a plow up there. They are using motor graders and larger dump trucks with a plow. It also is not easy to swing back later, as it is about a 70-mile round trip to get up there.

There are other problem areas in the county too like Dry Lake Campground on Buffalo Pass, Mordi said.

Some mountain counties have passed new parking ordinances in response to similar problems, increasing the penalties of parking illegally. Mordi suggested an ordinance like that could be appropriate for Routt County to try to deal with the problem, but commissioners and Mordi himself said the problem might be too big for parking tickets to solve.

One issue is that the Routt County Sheriff’s Office needs to make contact with the driver of a vehicle to issue a ticket — they cannot just leave it on the vehicle.

“We have to issue the ticket to the driver, the violator, that is actually committing the violation, which creates a problem,” said Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins. “We don’t have time just to sit and wait for them to come back to their vehicles.”

There is no state law that allows a sheriff’s deputy to leave a ticket on a vehicle, according to Routt County Attorney Erick Knaus. Traffic violations would cover parking issues, but that would need to be issued to a driver and not left on the vehicle.

Knaus said cities like Steamboat Springs have ordinances around parking in their charter and have set up systems to process those tickets. If the county wanted to allow sheriff’s deputies to leave tickets on improperly parked vehicles, they would not only need to pass that ordinance but also set up the administrative capabilities to process those tickets.

A citation can be issued when the driver is present as outlined in state law, and they would be issued a summons and complaint from a state court. In this instance, if the driver fails to pay the fine and misses their court date, a bench warrant is issued to collect the fine. But the county would not have access to this enforcement system if they passed a county ordinance.

“We wouldn’t have the ability to enforce it, because we are not a state court,” Knaus said.

The changes made in other counties like San Miguel County increase the penalties for the Class B traffic violations in state law that can be enforced but do not allow sheriff’s deputies to leave a ticket behind. Most of these violations in the unincorporated county are currently capped at just $50, Knaus said.

Wiggins suggested that many of the complaints have come from residents who are more annoyed with the noise from snowmobiles than the parking situation.

“I have been up there several times myself, and there has been plenty of room for vehicles to pass by,” Wiggins said. “I have not personally witnessed anybody blocking anybody’s driveway — that would be a significant issue.”

Still, Wiggins said the county needs to find a long-term solution because the area draws tourists and backcountry areas are attracting more people.

Commissioner Tim Corrigan agreed, saying that whatever the county does it needs to be a combined effort on several fronts.

Lovejoy said there is another parking lot up near Columbine, but it does not currently get plowed. She said she is working with the Forest Service to bring together various stakeholders to figure out how to deal with the problem and hopefully open up that parking lot.

Another solution is parking at the Steamboat Lake Marina, but Mordi said even that can fill up as it did by 11:30 a.m. over President’s Day weekend.

Corrigan said the Routt Recreation Roundtable will be a key player to address this problem. He pointed to work on Rabbit Ears Pass in past years to provide for more parking that could only have been done through a partnership between counties and the Forest Service.

As for a short-term solution, Wiggins suggested the county try plowing the roads wider to make it safer to park on the road, and then later in the spring or summer, they can work on a long-term fix.

“We can start working with the Forest Service and all these other stakeholders on what we can do long-term to make it at least somewhat reasonable,” he said.


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