Problems of popularity: Officials urge more responsible winter recreation around Steamboat Springs amid overcrowding, conflicts |

Problems of popularity: Officials urge more responsible winter recreation around Steamboat Springs amid overcrowding, conflicts

Cars and trailers fill the road way on Routt County Road 38 where plowing ends.
Ben Saheb/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs has become one of the country’s most popular destinations for outdoor recreation — perhaps too popular. 

Amid issues of overcrowding and user conflicts on public land around Steamboat, U.S. Forest Service officials are urging people to be more courteous and better educate themselves on policies and regulations. In an announcement, issued in the middle of International Snowmobile Safety Week, the agency said it has fielded a growing number of questions and concerns around winter sports. 

Brendan Kelly, a recreation specialist with the local Forest Service district, said many of these issues are not new. Every year, his agency has to remind the public about recreation etiquette and rules. Inevitably, enforcement officers must issue citations to violators. Just before the New Year, nine snowmobilers received monetary fines of up to $500 for traveling in wilderness or in nonmotorized areas. 

The most popular areas for winter recreation — particularly Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass — also are the areas with the most conflicts, Kelly said. 

For 20 years, Kent Vertrees has worked with Steamboat Powdercats, a local company that takes guests on snowcat rides on Buffalo Pass where they can get access to untouched powder stashes in the backcountry.

In that time, he has seen firsthand a major rise in the number of people accessing not just Buffalo Pass but well-known areas around Steamboat. The vast majority of those people are considerate of other users, he said, but not all. 

“It’s the 5% of people who might be impatient or aggressive with us. It’s really frustrating,” Vertrees said. 

To maneuver the snowy terrain, Steamboat Powdercats builds and manages a 50-mile road system for its snowcats. The company operates on public land with a lease from the Forest Service, meaning the road system is open to other users. 

Because the roads are just wide enough for a snowcat to fit, Vertrees said his drivers often encounter congestion problems and safety concerns around other vehicles, particularly snowmobilers. He described situations where people get impatient with the snowcats and try to pass in hazardous areas. 

“The last thing we want to have is an incident where a snowmobile runs into one of our snowcats,” Vertrees said. 

Know before you go


  • Know your limitations before heading out.
  • Routt County Search & Rescue is the only emergency response in the backcountry.
  • The Colorado Avalanche Information Center website,, provides condition reports and safety recommendations for the backcountry.


  • On trails and roads, please yield to snowcats.
  • Even if you are familiar with the area, others may not be. Slower speeds will keep you, other users and your equipment safe.


  • Travel to the National Forest typically begins on county roads or state highways. Know and observe regulations about parking, emergency lanes, prohibited activities, etc.
  • Be aware that mandatory and voluntary big-game winter closures exist throughout the area.
  • Know where you are, what recreational uses are allowed in that area and use maps.

Parking lots

  • When parking, ensure emergency vehicles have access to necessary areas.
  • Be sure to use posted parking diagrams in order to maximize the use of small spaces without blocking other vehicles. Failure to do so may result in a citation.
  • Have a backup plan in case you cannot park where expected. Many parking lots have limited space. Consider shuttles and carpooling.
  • A full lot does not constitute illegal parking. Make sure plows, groomers and our neighbors have access.
  • Overnight parking is highly discouraged, as vehicles left overnight prevent plowing, and decrease the availability of parking for other forest users. Trailers may not be stored or left overnight in day-use lots.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

He encourages people to be patient and yield the right-of-way to the large machines. Snowcat drivers will move to the side and allow other vehicles to pass when it is safe to do so. Often, drivers will point to the best path of travel to pass the snowcat, Vertrees said. 

Adding to the user conflicts is an ever-worsening issue of parking. The Dry Lake Campground, the gateway to thousands of acres of winter recreation, has struggled with a parking problem for years. A spike in visitation in recent winters has caused an overflow of parking onto Routt County Road 38A, which has blocked traffic and angered homeowners in the area. 

Some residents have complained that during peak periods, the congestion is so bad emergency vehicles could not have bypassed the vehicles in the event of an emergency.

Recently, the Forest Service has recruited volunteers to manage the parking situation at Dry Lake. People now get turned away if the lot is full, Vertrees said.  

Kelly acknowledges that public lands around Steamboat will only get busier as time goes on. That is why solutions to user conflicts have centered around educating people on how to share those lands respectfully and responsibly amid an ever-growing interest in outdoor recreation.  

For now, that includes sharing guidelines, safety messages and etiquette information for public use that goes along with access to the National Forest. Officials also have teamed up with locals and special permit holders, such as Vertrees’ company and Steamboat Resort, to devise more creative, comprehensive fixes. 

“The more people work together, the better experience everyone is going to have,” Kelly said. 

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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