Share the snow: Designated nonmotorized areas help provide ideal experience for winter users |

Share the snow: Designated nonmotorized areas help provide ideal experience for winter users

A snowshoer uses a map to get familiar with the area on Rabbit Ears Pass. There are hundreds of signs along boundaries of motorized and nonmotorized areas to ensure the user groups have the best experience.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

On any given weekend, anywhere from dozens to hundreds of cars will park in lots alongside U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass, as the Routt National Forest attracts fat bikers, snowshoers, skiers and snowmobilers from the Yampa Valley and beyond.

To maintain order among all the user groups, there are designated motorized, mixed-use and nonmotorized zones between Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes, designed to give everyone the best experience.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to provide different recreational experiences up there,” said Brendan Kelly, a recreation specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Some people want the quiet area where there is no motorized traffic going around. … The open snowmobile areas, people can get out on their powder snowmobile and explore around.”

On the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, everything from the West Summit trailhead to the North Walton Peak trailhead is designated a nonmotorized zone and open to snowshoers, cross-country skiers and split boarders.

Likewise, everything east of the Dumont trailhead is motorized and mixed use, meaning it’s fair game for snowmobiles and open to any nonmotorized users willing to coexist with snowmobiles.

East of Dry Lake on Buffalo Pass, there is a hybrid zone known as a combined commercial-mixed use area. In that area, snowmobiles are only allowed on designated routes. Typically, snowmobilers will drop off skiers who take advantage of the open areas where the snowmobiles can’t travel.

Volunteers with Routt Powder Riders groom more than 100 miles of trails between Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Pass. The group also receives a little bit of money each year, collecting a small fraction of the snowmobile registration fees that are divided among 28 groups in the state.

Snowmobile owners must register their machines annually with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Of course, nonmotorized users don’t have to pay to use the National Forest.

“Our volunteers are volunteering to create trails and everybody gets to use them, but nobody has to pay for them, except for the snowmobile community,” said Ed Calhoun, president of Routt Powder Riders. “That’s where most of them have heartburn.”

A sign reminds people they are spending time in a nonmotorized area on Rabbit Ears Pass.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

There are maps at every trailhead and hundreds of signs along territory boundaries, but it’s up to users to know where they are and where they should not be. Users should also be aware of wildlife closures, such as the lynx wildlife corridor around Muddy Pass Lake.

“It is the responsibility of the users that are going out there to educate themselves on where they can and can’t go,” Kelly said. “It’s always good for users to look at maps (and) figure out where they are before they go out.”

If a user wants to be particularly aware of their location, they can download the Avenza app, which will show them their exact coordinates in relation to the boundaries.

The designated territories were assigned in 2005, following a large planning effort by the U.S. Forest Service. Kelly said the Forest Service is confident the zones still serve their purpose and doesn’t see a need to redraw any lines.

“The assessment we did up there was pretty comprehensive to designate areas to provide enough opportunities for the different types of winter recreational uses,” he said. “But we always take input from the public on different areas.”

The Forest Service patrols Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears Pass and the groomed trails in between every weekend, enforcing boundaries and closures, as well as answering any questions people may have.

Occasionally, there will be some conflict between groups, particularly when skiers see snowmobile tracks in nonmotorized areas. Calhoun said that doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a problem that needs to be addressed.

“That’s a very small percentage of the usage of that area,” Calhoun said. “I always equate it to how many people don’t stop at stop signs. … There are always those people who do something that is not good for the rest of the sport.”

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