Road improvements could change dynamic of camping on Buff Pass |

Road improvements could change dynamic of camping on Buff Pass

Summit Lake is just off Buff Pass Road, right on the Continental Divide with water here flowing east. Shown here in October 2020, Summit Lake is home to a campground that gets much less use than others in the region with better access.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

All outdoor enthusiasts should need to drive on Buffalo Pass Road is a standard passenger car.

But Michael Woodbridge, the top ranger for the Hahns Peak, Bears Ears Ranger District, doesn’t enjoy driving on it — even with his four-wheel drive vehicle.

“It’s supposed to be a level-three roadway in our system, which means able to be traveled with a passenger car,” Woodbridge told Routt County Commissioner on Monday, Feb. 14. “It’s not a very fun road.”

The road is currently closed for the winter, but even in the summer, it is a bumpy, somewhat treacherous trek that winds through the Routt National Forest toward Walden.

Woodbridge said a project to improve 7.5 miles of the road is currently in its final approval stages. Pending funding, work to improve the road between Dry Lake Campground and a point just beyond Summit Lake Campground could start later this year.

About 7.5 miles of Buff Pass Road, also called National Forest System Road 60.1, is slated for improvement, bringing the road to one that can be used by passenger vehicles.
U.S. Forest Service/Courtesy map

In addition to repairing the roadway, which is plagued by deep ruts, an uneven driving surface and rocks protruding out of the roadway, Woodbridge said the project will allow the U.S. Forest Service to restore some dispersed campsites in the area that have become unsustainable.

The project is in a process called objection review, where people who previously commented on the project in 2019 can submit additional related comment after viewing the proposal. An environmental review of the project conducted by the Forest Service found the improvements won’t have significant environmental impacts.

Buffalo Pass is one of the closest — and most popular — forest access points from Steamboat Springs, with Dry Lake Campground seeing frequent use year-round. Woodbridge said the Forest Service is looking to place a trail camera there to better understand the extent of use.

Buff Pass Road is supposed to be passable by a typical passenger car, but deep ruts, loose rocks, narrow roadways and uneven terrain can make the drive difficult even in four-wheel drive vehicles.
U.S. Forest Service/Courtesy photo

“We’re certainly continuing to look at the Buffalo Pass area and the intense use up there camping,” Woodridge said. “The Buff Pass Road decision will kind of change the dynamic up there.”

Woodbridge said he wasn’t sure what that dynamic will eventually be, though.

If the road is an easier drive, it may spur more use at high-elevation developed campgrounds at Summit Lake and Granite. But it could also lead to more use in general, for both official and unofficial campgrounds.

“I think that we will be looking at our options of designated dispersed camping or another campground,” Woodbridge said.

One issue that has arisen is people having extended stays at Forest Service campgrounds, sometimes beyond the 14-day limit. When people stay longer, they accumulate more trash and their impacts on the land are magnified, Woodbridge said.

There is a Forest Service law enforcement officer based out of Yampa who helps police campground usage.

Woodbridge said they also have forest protection officers, who are unarmed, have about 40 hours of training and can issue tickets.

“It’s a constant battle,” Woodbridge said. “If you don’t enforce it they see that, and you just have more.”

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