The trouble with winter is that when it’s extremely cold, it doesn’t snow … and when it’s wet, it’s not cold. We’ve seen it reoccurring way too frequently over the past decade. Freezing cold air sitting on top of us forcing the moisture to drop below the cold front. Then, when the cold front breaks, warm air from the south turns the moisture into rain.
This kind of weather pattern certainly makes it frustrating to try and plan a snowmobile vacation—you never know if you’re going to be riding in an ice chest or a shower. But there’s a simple solution: Don’t depend on winter.
Even though winter is extremely unpredictable, the days are short, the temperatures cold, spring, on the other hand, is much more predictable and the weather patterns are considerably milder.
So here’s the thing about spring: There’s no snow in the valleys. In fact, it might even be “spring” in the valleys. The flowers might be blooming, the grass turning green, days are longer, temperatures reaching the 50s and maybe even the 60s. Every indication is that winter is now over and it’s time to break out the golf clubs.
But that’s just in the valleys.
In the mountains, the snow tends to continue to stack up. Every rain storm received in the valleys translates to great snow in the mountains. Even though temperatures are mild, they seem to hover around 25-35 degrees F … which makes for perfect snow-making temperatures.
The trick is that you have to drive just a little further up the mountain to park.
But once you get there, access to the high elevations is almost immediate and the snow is set up with an incredible base. It’s point-n-go type riding.
Oh, you can still get stuck. And it will still test your riding skills. But your options are greatly expanded. The snow is different than what you were encountering in January. It’s heavy. Early in the day it’s like concrete. Late in the day it’s like mashed potatoes. But during the magical time in the middle, which usually lasts about 3-4 hours, there are 2-4 inches of soft snow on the hard base that offers great traction and smooth riding.
Spring riding conditions vary from location and elevation. In some areas, you have only April to make the most out of the snow. In other areas, you can ride into July.
In the Snowy Range of southern Wyoming, clear skies and moderate temps create the perfect atmosphere for ditching work and donning sunscreen. Fresh snow from typical spring storms creates wind-loaded slopes causing snowmobilers to use caution as they picked their ways up the steep slopes. On the other end of the state, the Big Horns can satisfy the hardcore enthusiast late into the spring. And in the western part of the state, between Alpine and Pinedale are some big hills with deep snow that provide superb riding for those willing to make the effort.
At Cooke City, MT, snowmobilers don’t need to travel far to get into some terrific riding conditions. Naturally, by April the trail groomers have long since been put away for the season. Where the dirt ends and the snow begins, the trails are riddled with moguls for the first couple of miles before the mountain starts opening up and allowing riders to pick fresh lines up the slopes to reach the higher elevations. But basically, anywhere off the Interstate 90 corridor can provide great riding opportunities throughout western Montana.
In California, temperatures can start to break triple digits in Death Valley while just 75 miles north in the Sierra Nevada Range snow continues to stack up. Riders can be highmarking on their snow buggies in the morning and doing flips on their wakeboards in the afternoon. Even at the end of April the snow continues to stack. In the higher elevations of Siskiyou County, riders test their skills against nearly three feet of “Sierra Cement” while Alpine Meadows and Mammoth continue to invite snowmobilers with the promise of prolonged riding through May and June. In a typical season, Shasta is still measuring well over 100 inches of snow at 7,600 foot elevation on Bunny Flat.
In Island Park, ID,? fresh powder happens into May on a typical year. Those strong enough to break the bands of yard work can sometimes find better snow conditions in the late spring than they experience in December. Southeastern Idaho offers some high elevations and deep fluff for a prolonged season, as do the mountains in the middle part of the state north of Boise. And one would never want to overlook Stanley.
Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and the rest of the West still feature a caravan of trucks and trailers making early morning exoduses from the “burbs” to the trailheads. As each spring day goes by, sledders hope for one more “last ride” before the dog days of summer create the start of the long anticipated wait for next winter. Some of the annual standouts include the Grant County area in eastern Oregon; Ellensburg, WA; and the Routt National Forest in Colorado. Then there’s Canada—another whole realm of spring riding opportunities.
Gut Check Riding
Spring riding is different. Your riding restrictions are based more on where you have the guts to go and less on where your sled has the capability to go. In fact, because your sled is capable of going about anywhere, you actually have to be a little more conscious about where you are. You’re more apt to run out of mountain and oxygen before you run out of power. It’s easier to wander into restricted or closed areas that would not have been physically accessible during the winter. Wilderness is still Wilderness, regardless of the season.
Even though you are likely to be riding in 60-plus degree temperatures, you are still exposed to the elements so be prepared for winter conditions. A sudden storm can drop the mercury 40 degrees in a heartbeat.
And even though the nice weather in the valley tempts you? to break out the Bermuda shorts and t-shirts, always keep one thought in the back of your mind: anytime you’re in the backcountry, anything can happen. Dress like you might have to spend the night out in the snow. By dressing in layers, you can stay cool and comfortable under the hot sun. Yet, by just adding a light windbreaker and a fleece jacket, you can probably stay comfortable if temperatures drop drastically.
Some people will even go so far as to wear neoprene socks to ensure dry feet. After all, if the wet, slushy snow doesn’t get your feet soaked, the sweat in your boots will.
There are two other “musts” to pack with you for spring riding—sunglasses and sun screen. This time of year, both the eyes and the skin are subject to damage from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light. Both can burn … yet both can be easily protected.
Change Is Good
Spring riding also means different snow conditions—which requires a slightly different suspension setup. During winter riding, you’ve got the light fluff to consider. You’re going through the snow more. You want a softer suspension and less ski pressure. In the spring you’re dealing with heavier snow. You can stiffen up the suspension a little more and increase your ski pressure.
Check your jetting. Warmer temperatures may mean you’re running just a tad rich. Keep track of the rpm you’re turning. Again, this is another sign that your jetting or clutching isn’t providing the right delivery of power you need for the snow conditions.
Also, you may want to run a slightly tighter track. Again, with the heavier snow you increase the resistance to the track. This can cause track ratcheting. And be aware of your belt condition. The heavier, stickier snow will increase the potential of burning or blowing a belt. If you get stuck, be sure to take the time to clear the track from any snow that may have balled up into the suspension and tunnel.
Also, as you fly up those steep snow-packed slopes remember that the trip down can be an adventure. Without the deep powder to slow you down, your descent could be faster than your ascent … leaving you to the mercy of the terrain at the bottom of the slope.
Spring riding is exciting, challenging and unique. It prolongs winter, shortens summer and provides an entirely different look to the backcountry. It can be dangerous. It can be expensive. It can also be easy and relaxing. The days are longer, the weather warmer.
So don’t be dependent on getting your “snowmobile fix” during the short months of winter. Start planning for some exciting late-season riding. There are still resorts open that will put you close to the snow and provide easy access to some great riding. After all, the lawn waited five months to be cut … what’s another few days.