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The Trail Less Traveled

<em>Other</em> spots to ride your snowmobile

Published in the December 2009 Issue Published online: Dec 09, 2009 Feature
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BountifulIn the Western Guide to Snowmobiling that SnoWest Magazine published this fall, we highlighted and showcased nearly all the groomed trail systems in each of the western states.

But those aren't the only places to ride in the West. Not by a long shot.

Anyone who follows SnoWest on a regular basis knows we spend a fair amount of time talking about off-trail riding. In this issue we want to hit a few areas we've discovered either by snowmobile or through tedious research.

We'll admit right up front that all the possible riding areas in the West is pretty tough to nail down. We've spent hours researching all the places you can ride and we're sure the list doesn't come close but it's fun to try and find new places to ride. One thing that lets us know we don't have a complete list are other snowmobilers. Every year we hear from snowmobilers from across the West about some of their favorite (and secret) riding spots. And that is usually followed by, "But don't tell anyone else about it." We tend to heed that plea because we want to ride there someday and don't want to jeopardize our chances by blabbing it all over the snowmobile world.

In other words, this list is incomplete because we are keeping some of those sweet off-trail locations between us and those willing to share with us.

Following, in each state section, are snowmobiling locales that are somewhat already on the snowmobiling map. Most are accessible by sledders of any skill level but just know that there are many off-trail spots in the West that are for advanced riders only.

The places we discuss in these pages are off-trail riding places that might not necessarily be close to a groomed trail system so keep that in mind as you read through the various locations. If you decide an area or two appeals to you and you `d like to try it out, you may have to ride a shelled-out section of forest road or through some thick stands of trees or cross country to get there. Many areas are explore-as-you-go. So either find someone who knows the area or get yourself a trusty GPS.

That's our only disclaimer.

Alaska

AlaskaAlaska seems like the perfect state to start with in a discussion about awesome off-trail riding opportunities or trails less traveled.

In some states, off-trail riding is somewhat of a novelty. In Alaska, groomed trail riding is the novelty.

The state is pretty much wide open and covered with snow. The off-trail opportunities in Alaska are virtually endless with the only limitations being how big the gas tank is on your snowmobile.

Of course, some spots in Alaska are more popular than others, but usually only because they're close to the state's population centers. But even those spots aren't as crowded as you might think.

The state is so big that snowmobilers are easily dispersed in the vast backcountry. Every kind of backcountry experience you can imagine-except groomed trails-can be had in Alaska, from mild to wild and absolutely everything in between.

While we can't recommend just one or two spots you should give a try-there are probably hundreds if not thousands of great riding areas-we do have one recommendation: take a local snowmachiner along with you. Someone who knows the area, especially when it's as big as what you'll find in Alaska, and the associated hazards, such as crevasses in glaciers or avalanche danger, can be invaluable on a snowmachine trip in the Final Frontier. Even advanced riders should have people with them who know the area.

If you don't know anyone, a good place to start would be to contact the Alaska State Snowmobile Association through its website, www.aksnow.org.

 

Arizona

Arizona is in the same category as Alaska: there is no extensive groomed trail system in the state and all snowmobiling is backcountry riding on forest service roads and cross country riding.

So Arizona might be in the same category but it's not in the same league as Alaska. The Grand Canyon state's riding areas are much smaller and more confined, limited to the higher reaches of Arizona's most mountainous regions.

But you can snowmobile in the state and, as you can imagine, there are very few crowds you have to share the snow with.

The mountains where you can snowmobile dissect Arizona from northwest to southeast.

This swath of mountains is about 250 miles or so from one end to the other.

Some of the most popular snowmobiling areas in Arizona include around Mormon Lake, which is south and a little east of Flagstaff, as well as the White Mountains over near Pinetop, Show Low and Lakeside. Still another fairly popular area is Hannigan Meadows, near Alpine.

The season is shorter in Arizona compared to other western states, with the best riding being in January and February.

Good sources of information for snowmobiling in Arizona include the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau and the national forest offices scattered throughout the state.

 

California

CaliforniaThe best way to describe snowmobiling in California is "fragmented."

Now that's not necessarily a negative or a slam against sledding in the state, just an observation.

In some states, it's easy to go from one groomed trail system to another because there are trails that connect one, two or more systems. The same can be said for backcountry riding in some western states. You can cross country snowmobile from one area to another.

In California, there are pockets of riding, whether it's groomed trail systems you're looking for or backcountry riding. But very few are connected in any way to other riding spots. That's okay, it just means a little more highway time to get to some great riding spots.

Here are a few we've uncovered during our hours of riding and researching.

There is snowmobiling in the Six Rivers National Forest (707-442-1721). Or west of Chico and Interstate 5, you can ride in the Mendocino National Forest (530-934-3316). Both these riding areas are in the Coast Range and Siskiyou Mountains.

You might also be surprised to find out you can actually sled not far from Los Angeles in the Coon Creek area near Barton Flats in the San Bernardino National Forest, a mere 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Contact the Mill Creek/San Gorgonio Ranger Station for more information (909-382-2881). There is also some riding in the Running Springs/Arrowbear area off State Highway 18.

North of LA you can ride in the Los Padres National Forest, where snowmobiling is allowed on designated routes in the Mt. Pinos area. Contact the Mount Pinos Ranger District for more information (661-245-3731).

Sonora Pass, south of Lake Tahoe, has some of the best backcountry riding we've experienced in California. Near Mammoth Lakes some fun riding can be had near any of the several volcanic craters that are scattered across the landscape.

There are many more areas in addition to what we've listed here and we'll continue our research-on and off the snow.

Most snowmobiling in California is between 5,500-9,000 feet.

 

Colorado

Winter recreation has been around a long time in Colorado. Yea, we know, that's kind of obvious.

The point we're trying to make is that the mountain ranges that dominate the western half of the state have been explored, hiked on, skied on and snowmobiled on for a lot of years. We don't imagine there are too many stones left unturned-to borrow a phrase-when it comes to finding new places to ride a snowmobile.

But then, we're not really talking about actually finding new places to ride. We're talking about diving off the groomed trails-which Colorado has plenty of-and playing way back in the trees, on countless bowls and shooting up nose-bleed high mountains.

Most areas we've explored off-trail are close to existing groomed trail systems.

We've been sworn to secrecy on a couple of the spots we've been in Colorado that are amazing places to ride.

One we will tell you about is the headwaters of the Illinois River. This is big horsepower country with numerous drainages, some awesome bowls and excellent tree riding. At the farthest point back in where the headwaters actually begin, you're surrounded by Wilderness. Generally speaking, the Wilderness boundary follows the ridgetops.

Another great backcountry spot is west of Crested Butte near Lake Irwin and the small hamlet of Irwin. We snowmobiled there years ago when the Irwin Lodge was still open and saw more backcountry skiers than snowmobilers. Riding here isn't as extreme as it is in the Illinois River headwaters area but it can be if you look hard enough.

Farther south near Creede is even more great backcountry riding while up north check out between about Steamboat Lake and the Colorado/Wyoming border.

There's also a lot of country on BLM land that, when the snow conditions are right, you can sled. For more information, log on to www.blm.gov/co/st/en.html.

Regardless of where you decide to ride in Colorado you might want to bring the big hardware. Remember that Colorado has the highest average elevation of any state in America-6,800 horsepower-robbing feet. We've ridden as high as 12,000 feet in Colorado but we could only get to those spots on an 800. Oh, and by the way, we weren't even at the top of the mountain-we were only on the saddle.

Backcountry skiers are looking for the same untouched powder that snowmobilers are so don't be surprised if you come across a skier or two way back in the sticks.

 

Idaho

IdahoIdaho has more than two dozen well defined groomed trail systems spread out from one end of the state to the other.

There are probably as many as that or more spots where you can explore with nary a groomed trail in sight. Most of these are on BLM or forest service land and just like the groomed trail systems scattered across the state, the out-of-the-way places you can sled are found in just about every corner of Idaho at every elevation.

One of those areas is the Owyhee Mountains in southwest Idaho. There is no groomed trail system even close and cross country riding rules here. When the snows are right there is lots of excellent backcountry riding. And you can get a good look at Silver City, one of Idaho's most famous mining towns. Contact the BLM (208-384-3300) for more information.

In the southcentral part of the state are the Mount Bennett Hills, north of Gooding, roughly following the Gooding-Camas county border. This riding area is about 20 miles north of Gooding off State Highway 46.

Another great spot that is popular among several snowmobilers is Swan Valley, which is east of Idaho Falls and kind of west and north of Palisades Reservoir. Technically this area is in Bonneville County but it really is its own little area. Extreme riding rules here. Sheep Creek is a local favorite among the big horsepower crowds.

If you're in the Island Park area there is Mt. Jefferson, which is for experienced riders only. It offers some of the best backcountry riding in all of Idaho and is famous for its steep bowls and rugged terrain.

On the other side of the state, west of Council and hugging Hells Canyon, is the Seven Devils, another extreme riding area that might just be one of the best in the state. There are some dedicated followers who love this area for its hillclimbing and challenging boondocking. This area is not for the faint of heart or small horsepower sleds.

In central Idaho, a great backcountry ride is out of Yellow Pine. You follow the Stibnite Road (ungroomed) east out of Yellow Pine along the East and then South Fork of the Salmon River and there is some great drainage riding as well as climbing and sidehilling. Just be aware that you're close to a Wilderness area once you get farther back in, where you can't ride.

Another option is a couple of state parks where snowmobiling is allowed, including Priest Lake and Bear Lake. Sledders might not travel to Idaho just to ride one of these state parks, but if you're sledding in a nearby area, you should check them out. For more information go to the Idaho Parks and Recreation website http://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.

One more riding area worth mentioning is the City of Rocks National Reserve, in southcentral Idaho. Snowmobiles are allowed on the unplowed roads during the winter and you can see some great rock formations in this reserve. For more detailed information, check out the listing below. The riding elevation here is between 5,500-8,867 feet. For more information, contact the City of Rocks National Reserve (208-824-5519).

We just scratched the surface of the backcountry riding that is available in Idaho. Although it primarily focuses on groomed trail systems, Idaho has a decent website dedicated to snowmobiling. Check out www.visitidaho.org/winter/.

 

Montana

MontanaMontana is world famous for its snowmobiling-on- or off-trail. Of course, most sledders and those who want to give snowmobiling a shot, hear about famous places like Cooke City, West Yellowstone, Lincoln, Seeley Lake, Lolo Pass and the list goes on.

For every one of those famous snowmobiling spots, indeed every established groomed trail system in the state (there are 24 separate areas), there is an equally stellar backcountry experience waiting nearby.

For example, in the Flathead Valley of northern Montana, there's a impressive backcountry experience waiting sledheads who don't mind a rough ride in. There's a small parking area for sledders just across the Hungry Horse Reservoir Dam where you can unload and hit the mountains above the lake. We rode this area for the first time last winter and it was one of our best rides of the season. Contact the Flathead Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-543-3105) for information.

Or you can ditch the groomed trails in the Crazy Mountains in the southern part of the state or hit the Bridger Range across the valley. Here's another "or." Along the Montana/Idaho border north and east of Leodore, ID, is the Continental Divide and some truly spectacular riding-with very few sledders to share it with. Then there's Cooke City, which is much better known for its backcountry riding than its trails.

We can even show you some awesome out-of-the-way places near West Yellowstone, which definitely sees its fair share of snowmobilers.

A handful of other areas where you can ride in Montana include in the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer National Forest in far eastern Montana. Log on to www.fs.fed.us/r1/custer/recreation and click on the Sioux District. Riding here is in the 3,000-4,000-foot range. While you're on that website you can also click on the Beartooth Ranger District to find all the riding there (in addition to the Beartooth area), which includes the Pryor Mountain Unit adjacent to the Crow Indian Reservation.

In northcentral Montana, up near Havre, are the Bears Paw Mountains and Beaver Creek Park. The 10,000-acre Beaver Creek Park is 12 miles south of Havre and extends to the north slope of the Bears Paw Mountains and allows snowmobiling. For more information on this area contact the Havre Chamber of Commerce (406-265-4383).

Another couple of smaller areas include near Choteau (29 miles northwest of town) on the east flank of the Rockies and another in the Big Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown near Crystal Lake. For information on both these areas log on to www.russell.visitmt.com/winter.

For snowmobiling information in Montana, try www.wintermt.com.

 

Nevada

Here's another western state that could be considered Boondocking Central.

As we mentioned in the Western Guide to Snowmobiling, Nevada is one of only three states in the West that doesn't have an extensive groomed snowmobile trail system.

In Nevada's snow zones and mountainous areas, the riding is pretty unrestricted (unless, of course, it's a Wilderness), but most of the sledding takes place north and south of Elko and over near Lake Tahoe.

Near Elko sledders head to the Ruby Mountains and/or Mountain City. Near Mountain City, you'll find two of the tallest peaks in the state, the Matterhorn (10,839 feet) and Jacks Peak (10,198 feet). In the Jacks Creek/Peak area you have the Independence Mountains, which offer open riding and terrain for riders of all skill levels. Farther to the east, and near Mountain City, are Wild Horse Reservoir, Gold Creek and Merrit Mountain (elev. 8,792 feet) with its miles and miles of open country.

Keep going east and you'll ride the North Fork, Charleston and Jarbidge area, offering much of the same kinds of riding. Closer to Elko is the Adobe Summit (elev. 6,548 feet), where sledders will find big, open meadows and elevations that rise 2,000 feet. During normal snow years, the BLM says (and we can substantiate this) the Wild Horse, Gold Creek and Charleston areas have the best snow conditions.

The Ruby Mountains are just southeast of Elko and offer sledders riding from about 6,500 feet right on up to 10,000 feet. Ruby Lake (6,012 feet) gets about four feet of snow a year, but the surrounding mountains get much more.

For information on riding near Elko, contact the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority (800-248-ELKO).

 

New Mexico

There are only about 100 miles of groomed trails in New Mexico but there are plenty of riding areas that are accessed by forest service roads and other old mining roads.

And, despite the lack of an extensive groomed trail system, New Mexico sees a good number of sledders each winter who come from places like Oklahoma and Texas for the backcountry riding.

New Mexico's major mountain range is the Rocky Mountains and it's along the spine and sides of those mountains much of the riding is found.

The major riding areas in the state are (from north to south): Chama, Red River (where the groomed trails are), Angel Fire, Mt. Taylor, San Pedro Mountains, Jemez Mountains and Cloudcroft.

A good source of information on snowmobiling in northern New Mexico can be found at www.fs.fed.us/r3/carson. Once there, go to the "recreational activities" section and click on the snowmobile info. You can also try www.fs.fed.us/r3/sfe.

 

Oregon

In Oregon, snowmobilers have a pretty sweet thing going if they're looking for a groomed trail system. Oregon's snowy, mountainous regions are well represented by extensive groomed paths that provide access to lots of backcountry riding.

And where there aren't any groomed trails, there's usually a Wilderness area (or two). That's certainly not a knock on snowmobilers in that state. Quite the opposite: it's a compliment that the snowmobile community has been able to protect the riding areas they have, especially along the Cascade Range.

Because the state is so well covered with trail systems, don't think that there aren't any backcountry experiences waiting for you. One that we particularly like is near Klamath Falls and Lake of the Woods off the Cold Springs trail system. There's a trail that leads to the top of Pelican Butte. Some sledders stop there but the more adventurous drop off the edge of Pelican Butte and play in the massive bowl on the northeast side. That is some great hillclimbing.

A couple of other islands of mountains in Oregon where you can sled include near the Pacific Ocean in southwest Oregon at Page Mountain. There aren't any groomed trails here but you can boondock in this area, which is served by the Page Mountain Sno Park on Happy Camp Road. The other small riding area is the Steens Mountains in southeast Oregon. The BLM administers that land and would be the best source of information. Log on to the BLM website (www.blm.gov) and click on Oregon and then head to the Burns District.

Most of the backcountry riding we've done in Oregon was in the eastern part of the state in the Blue Mountains, especially near Sumpter and farther north near Tollgate. There is also great boondocking and backcountry riding in Grant County. It's a little more wide open than in the western part and not as heavily used by other winter recreationists.

 

Utah

UtahUtah may be more famous for its winters than its summers-and for good reason. Everyone has heard Utah's famous "Greatest Snow On Earth" claim.

That's why skiers-and snowmobilers-flock to Utah every winter-to take advantage of what really is some of the West's best snow conditions.

Utah's backcountry riding is another feature that sets it apart from others-lots and lots of boondocking and wide open country riding.

There are a handful of riding areas that aren't well publicized, but offer just as much fun as any offered in the state.

One of those areas includes the Stansbury Mountain Range, west of Salt Lake City, near Tooele. There are more than a half-dozen trails/roads here sledders can ride on. Then, in Davis County, north of Salt Lake City, there are roads near Bountiful (namely Skyline Drive east of town), Centerville and Farmington where snowmobilers can access great backcountry riding in the Wasatch Range. Another area is in southwestern Utah, south of Interstate 70 on the Utah/Colorado border in the La Sal Mountains in the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

Further to the south and a little to the west of the La Sal Mountains is another popular area for riding, near Dark Canyon Lake, as well as Gold Basin, although snowmobiles aren't allowed to leave the road in Gold Basin. Farther south are the Abajo Mountains, where some snowmobiling takes place.

Some consider this to be a Wyoming thing, but another great riding area in Utah is accessed via Evanston, WY, where you head south on the Mirror Lake Highway and ride the Uintas. You can get there from the south, like from the Kamas area, but gas would get pretty low (or bone dry) by the time you went up and over the pass on Mirror Lake Highway. This is high elevation riding in awesome powder.

 

Washington

WashingtonContrary to what you might have heard on the news about Washington state and the new Wilderness areas, the state is open for snowmobiling and offers plenty of sledding opportunities statewide.

Washington is known for its extensive groomed trail systems which cover many of the state's mountainous areas that aren't locked up in Wilderness and most slices of backcountry riding are generally located near those groomed trails.

In fact, some of Washington's most exciting backcountry riding is accessed by groomed trails, as is the case in most western states. Our past riding experience in Washington has shown us that while some of those backcountry hotspots are definitely popular among the state's sledders, you can find some solitude if you know where to go and are willing to explore a bit.

For example, there is some excellent hillclimbing off the Salmon La Sac trail system back in near Huckleberry Mountain as well as Hawkins Mountain. Across the valley from the Salmon La Sac area is Manastash Ridge and some superb backcountry riding. If you were to look at a trail map of this area, it might look like groomed snowmobile trails pretty much cover the entire region. But we've found some off-the-beaten path spots where we never saw another sledder or tracks.

There are also several sweet riding spots in Okanogan County where riders can get away from the groomed trail system and ride in the trees and access huge mountain bowls and cross country riding. A couple of our favorites are near Sweetgrass Butte and farther east near Little Tiffany Lake.

Some of the most awesome riding in the state is near Mt. Baker. We were able to get fairly close to Mt. Baker itself and see the steam venting from the mountain.

During one past ride in Washington state, we went off trail and, from our vantage point, we were able to see Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet), Mt. Adams (12,276), Mt. St. Helens (8,366) and Old Snowy Mtn. (7,930 feet). We could also see Mt. Hood (11,239) in Oregon.

A pretty good source of information for riding in Washington state is on the state's parks website www.parks.wa.gov/winter. Navigate to the sno-parks section where you'll find trail maps. Nearby are ample backcountry rides.

 

Wyoming

WyomingIf Wyoming is as famous as it is for its groomed trail systems, just imagine how good the backcountry riding is all over the state.

We've experienced some of the Cowboy State's backcountry-some secret and some not so secret-and can vouch for the champagne powder and awesome terrain.

Groomed trail systems can be found in all four corners of Wyoming but in between and even close by are some of the West's best kept backcountry secrets.

We're kind of cheating on this first area because you use a groomed trail to access the backcountry, but it's worth the trip, with or without a groomed trail. The trail is south of Jackson Hole, a few miles southeast of Hoback Junction, and leads to a hot springs and some stellar backcountry riding. Another excellent backcountry riding area is near Bedford, on the west side of the state, where there is bowl after bowl for those who like to test their horsepower (and personal stamina).

Down south of Evanston, located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, you can ride in the High Uintas and Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

There is a groomed trail system here but on one of our trips to this part of the state we completely bypassed the groomed trails and played all day in the backcountry. For more information contact the Evanston Chamber of Commerce (800) 328-9708.

A lesser known spot is the remote Shirley Mountains, north and east of Rawlins. Riding here is on BLM land with about 90 miles of ungroomed trails. Access to the area is available along the Shirley Mountain Loop Road. For more information on this area, contact the Carbon County Visitors Council (800) 228-3547.

Or there is some great riding in the Laramie Mountains between Laramie and Douglas (in the Medicine Bow National Forest). Contact the Douglas Chamber of Commerce (877) 937-4996 for more info on that part of Wyoming.

In the northeast corner of Wyoming outside the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park is a small groomed trail system in the Beartooth Mountains. Go to the eastern end of where the state stops grooming Trail A (U.S. Highway 212) and keep going up and over Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet). The scenery is spectacular and the riding for experienced sledders only.

There is one more area near Alpine that we've been sworn to secrecy about but it's a killer area with great climbing and some of the best backcountry riding you'll find anywhere. We really can't tell you where it is . but if you see the SnoWest trailer on the highway between Alpine and the Hoback Junction, you might want to follow it.