It’s always interesting to see all those snowmobile trailers headed out in late November or early December looking for the first offerings of winter. Perhaps it’s the long summer hiatus … or the chance to put the first miles on a new sled. Regardless of the reason, most snowmobilers can’t wait to get out in what’s got to be the worst snow of the season.
Then, fast-forward to April. The grass is growing, the birds are singing, the sun is shining … and there’s scarcely a snowmobile to be found. After all, it’s spring. The season is over. It’s time to move on with life.
Let’s play a game: I’m going to give you some snow depths and you tell me if I’m talking about Feb. 1 (during the peak of the snowmobiling season) or April 1.
Let’s start with 91 inches and 95 inches; or how about 87 inches and 102 inches; or 52 inches and 56 inches.
If this game is too hard, let’s make it a little easier. Let’s guess between February and May: 136 and 122; or 104 and 104. Get the picture?
By doing a little research at the National Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center (the snotel site at www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snotel/), we compiled some interesting snow depth facts for snowmobilers. For example, in Island Park, ID, the White Elephant site (which sits at about 7,800 feet elevation and is just east of Mt. Jefferson) shows last February there was 91 inches of snow on the ground—and this is the fluffy kind of snow. In April, the same location had 95 inches on the ground (and this is the stuff with lots of moisture and a great base). On May 1 there was still more than 83 inches of snow sitting at 7,800 feet elevation.
Now by May, the snow on the valley floor is somewhat scarce and you need to trailer up to the tree line to start riding—a little more work … but not nearly as much work as power raking your grass. And once you hit the snow, the riding is fantastic.
And Island Park doesn’t have a lock on spring riding. We compared sites in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. And we could have continued on with the rest of the western states finding similar numbers. Like at Blind Bull, WY—in February there was 78 inches on the ground. In April it grew to 80 inches with much greater water content (read: great base). By the first of May, the depths were holding at 63 inches—that’s more than five feet of snow. You ain’t going to find that in many places in early December.
In lower, milder climates like Daniels Summit in Utah, February had 52 inches, April had 56 inches and May still maintained 20 inches. And if you venture to the east up Mirror Lake Highway where elevations climb well past 9,000 feet, you can find significant snow depths into July.
So now we know the snow is still in the mountains, what are we going to do about it?
There’s another concept to spring riding that also gets lost in translation—it’s not nearly as cold. Now some may enjoy the colder temperatures … but it sure makes it nice when you can dress a little lighter with less restricting (bulky) snow suits.
A prime example is West Yellowstone, MT. In this snowmobiling mecca, February temperatures average from daytime high of 30 degrees F to nighttime lows of 4 degrees F. The mean temperature during February is 12 degrees—not bad … but it will still take a frosty nip out of your cheeks.
In April, West Yellowstone temperatures range from 45 degrees for the average high to 20 degrees for the average low with the mean temperature being 34 degrees. And in May you can add about 10 degrees to each of those figures.
In Grand Lake, CO, February temperatures range from the average highs of 34 degrees to the average lows of 4 degrees (almost identical to West Yellowstone). And the April and May temperatures are also similar to those of West Yellowstone.
Now who would prefer to snowmobile in 30-degree temperatures rather than 10-degree temperatures?
Seeing The Light
If snow depths and warmer temperatures don’t help you catch the vision of what springtime riding has to offer, well, perhaps there is one other way to help you see the light—that is, by seeing the light a little longer.
In February, you have just more than 10 hours of sunlight in most areas. And temperatures are blistering cold for the first four hours and last two hours of that light. That leaves you about a four-hour window of good snowmobiling.
In April, you have more than 13 hours of sunlight, with temperatures starting a little brisk during the first hour and then very enjoyable for the next five hours. If there’s a downside, you may need to stop midday to take a nap and work on your tan. But for most who ride during this time of year, you can burn through a full tank of gas in the morning and still be on the golf course in the afternoon.
Finding great riding areas in the spring isn’t too difficult. Just look for high elevations. Fresh snow from typical spring storms creates some fantastic riding in the Snowy Range in the southern portion of Wyoming. On the north side 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.
One of the first spring-riding discoveries was Cooke City, MT. 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. 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. 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 Forrest in Colorado. Then there’s Canada—another whole realm of spring riding opportunities.
So while all the others are accepting a slow and terminal death of winter, there will be some who will still be celebrating its long and lingering life. And besides, the parking lots are a lot less crowded in April.