While several areas in the West were
suffering through a light to medium blue (which, naturally enough,
gave us snowmobilers the blues), February last winter we found a spot
that was dark purple, even red at the highest elevations.
Yes, dark purple (and red) is good when
it comes to snow depth—at least as it’s measured on
www.nohrsc.nws.gov. If you go to the “Interactive Map” button on
the left side of the page and then click on the pull down menu on the
left, you can choose a date from last winter and see what we’re
Choose the date Feb. 8, 2010 and zero
in on southwest Colorado and you’ll see exactly what we’re
You know sometimes, how you just hit an
area at the right time and the snowmobiling is absolutely superb?
That was South Fork, CO, for us last February.
You know it’s going to be a good day
of riding when you’re busting powder on the groomed trail.
And we had two days of busting powder, sometimes so deep stand-up
riding was a must so we didn’t drown in the light, dry champagne
powder, and so we could see where we were going.
If that doesn’t pique your interest
enough, then go to the government’s snotel website
(www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/) and navigate your way to Colorado’s
Wolf Creek Summit snotel site and just take a look at the snow depth
for the past snow season. You’ll see that the first measurable snow
hit the area Oct. 8 and finally melted June 8—that’s eight months
of snow on the ground. During our two days of riding the area south
of South Fork, there was an average of 83 inches—nearly seven
feet—of snow on the ground. Less than two weeks later that total
was 102 inches.
You might be thinking, “Wow, if they
would have just waited a few days to go riding, the snow would have
been even better.” Perhaps, but you won’t hear any complaints
The snow was deep, mostly untracked and
had a great base for awesome off-trail riding, which we did a lot of,
especially on our second day when we barely remember hitting anything
Red Hot Snow
Snow like that doesn’t go unnoticed
in a season when it wasn’t so (red) hot in other places. That meant
more sledders than normal found their way to southwest Colorado,
especially South Fork, because of its easy access to the trails and
great services. Fortunately there were enough storms that snowmobile
tracks were quickly and easily covered up.
The riding around South Fork isn’t so
different than what you’ll find in many of Colorado’s other
snowmobiling locales. There are numerous—probably countless
parks—(wide open meadows) to track up, outstanding boondocking
through stands of pines and quakies that make for some fun but
technical riding, an impressive variety of terrain (there’s very
little flat country around South Fork) and miles and miles of groomed
trails. The South Fork Powder Busters club is responsible for
grooming 165 miles of trails, while the Silverthread Outdoor
Recreation Club grooms another 75 miles of trails, mostly north of
South Fork. The trails the Silverthread club grooms tie into the
Creede trail system. Powder Busters trails are all south of South
There are a couple of differences,
though, that set South Fork apart from many other riding areas in the
state. First, there are ample hillclimbing opportunities in this
section of the San Juan Mountains. That comes courtesy of the fact
that you begin riding at around 8,500 feet and can get to elevations
of at least 12,000 feet. If you decide to ride from town, which you
can on a groomed trail, you’re starting at 8,180 feet. And there
were times during our two days of riding that we were sitting at
elevations of 12,000 feet plus, including one spot where we were at
12,290 feet. The hillclimbing includes some wide-open faces as well
as tree-littered hillsides.
Second, while the locals were talking
about how many extra sledders they had seen last winter, there still
aren’t many sledding crowds in South Fork. The town and its riding
areas are just far enough away that if the snow is decent closer to
the population centers of the state (read: Denver), the crowds stay
closer to home. In fact, you’re just as likely to see snowmobilers
from Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico as you are from other spots in
We rode out of the Park Creek parking
area, which is about six miles south of town off U.S. Highway 160, on
our first day in South Fork, heading out on the Park Creek Trail as
it passes through a canyon. The trail heads to the old mining town of
Summitville, about a 17-mile trek on a groomed trail and then another
two or three miles on an ungroomed backcountry road. We eventually
made it to Summitville but in a very roundabout way. We played in a
couple of the parks—there is Corral, Coal Mine, Trail, Kelly and
Fivemile, just to name a few—scattered out alongside the trail
before peeling off into the trees toward the Continental Divide.
Generally speaking, there was about
10-12 inches of new snow we were floating through and definitely more
the higher we climbed. When we were close to Elwood Pass (11,631
feet) we were also close to the South San Juan Wilderness Area,
which, of course, is off limits to motorized recreation, so be sure
you know your bearings when you’re down in this area. Our lunch
stop for the day was at the Elwood Guard Station, which you can rent
for overnight stays. The cabin sits in a big open area where you can
play before heading back to the surrounding taller mountains.
After lunch we sledded through a narrow
drainage along the edge of Sheepshead Mountain, across Schinzel
Flats, up along South Mountain Creek and then towards Summitville.
Summitville, which sits at 11,500 feet,
actually had more than one mining life. Gold and silver mining began
around 1870 but tapered off in the mid 1880s. The town somewhat came
back to life in the mid 1930s when some of the mines were reopened,
this time producing copper. Then, from 1986-1991, a mining company
opened a pit heap leach gold mining operation before abandoning the
site in 1992. The area now has the dubious distinction of being a
Superfund site. You can ride around and look at some of the original
buildings still standing in Summitville, but you need to watch out
for equipment and respect government property. South Mountain
(12,473) towers over the old mining operation as well as over
During the day’s ride we were able to
experience all the variety of riding near South Fork has to offer—and
we still had another day to ride.
Secret Powder Stash
Day 2 was mostly off-trail riding.
After parking at the Tucker Ponds trailhead, we headed south along
the Pass Creek Trail toward Campo Molino, a very popular play area
past Tucker Ponds.
We headed off-trail before we got to
Campo Molino and headed into our guides’—Matt Entz (whom you
might recognize as a rider for Boondockers) and his friend Marshall
Mathias—secret stash of powder.
About all we’re allowed to reveal
about our second day of riding was that we rode near, on and in the
shadow of the Continental Divide. One more morsel—we did cross
Bonito Pass at one point.
The snow was deeper in this area than
where we rode on the first day in South Fork but then we stayed more
in the trees except on a couple of occasions when we rode out on a
couple of points to see the surrounding amazing scenery or on an open
ridgeline. In places we were at 12,000 feet plus. It was a
challenging day of riding as we traversed drainages, hillsides,
mountains, parks and backcountry roads—all laden deep with powder.
Early in the day we were forced to stay
at lower elevations because of low cloud cover and, you guessed it,
snow showers. The clouds never really disappeared that day but they
did lift enough that we had decent light and could see the
We didn’t see another sledder on our
first day of riding in South Fork and on day two, well, we didn’t
see any sign of human anything, including snowmobile tracks.
Aside from all the qualities
snowmobilers look for in a riding area, perhaps South Fork’s
greatest asset is its location: just far enough away to limit the
number of snowmobilers who are willing to travel that far to ride,
but close enough that it’s well worth the trip if you do.
Elevation 8,500-12,000 feet
Snowfall 350 inches
Miles of Groomed Trails 240
Full Service Town South Fork
Nearest Airport Alamosa (48
Getting Started South Fork
Visitors Center 800-571-0881 or www.southfork.org
Getting There South Fork is
located at the junction of U.S. Highway 160 and State Highway 149 in
southern Colorado. Most of the snowmobile trailheads are off Highway
160 between South Fork and Wolf Creek Pass.
Getting Around The local Arctic
Cat dealer (and only snowmobile dealer in South Fork), Twin Pine
Motor Sports, rents snowmobiles. Contact Twin Pine at 719-873-9873.
Bedding Down We stayed at the Ute Bluff
Lodge (800-473-0595 or www.uteblufflodge.com), located right on U.S.
Highway 160 across the highway from the Rio Grande River. Ute Bluff
offers log cabins as well as lodge rooms. The cabins can accommodate
up to 10 people and come complete with kitchens and gas fireplaces.
The lodge rooms accommodate up to four people. You can ride right
from the lodge to the snowmobile trails. Our cabin was plenty
spacious and very clean. The kitchen is fully stocked with whatever
you might need. The lodge is just outside of town so it’s very
quiet and is a great place to stay. We highly recommend the Ute
Eating Out There are several
dining options in town. For a list of restaurants, contact the South
Fork Visitors Center.