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October 21, 2011
Routt County: Powder Heaven
Some years it’s risky to plan a ride late in the season—risky in that you’re never quite sure what the snow conditions will be like. Will the snow be spring-like conditions where you can ride just about anywhere on “hero” snow or will it be starting to get “rotten” and fall out from under your sled as you ride?
We count ourselves lucky if get any sort of powder conditions late in the season, like March and April. And if the powder is several inches or even feet deep that late in the season, well, that’s died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of riding.
What we experienced the very end of last March in Colorado’s northern Routt County was definitely a slice of heaven. We had two days of untracked powder riding where the fluff was anywhere from a few inches of new to coming over the hood. We had to look at the calendar once the ride was over to make sure that it was indeed March 28-29.
Yes, spring riding was great over many parts of the West last winter and we heard reports of decent riding well into May and even June. But that doesn’t diminish just how good the riding was in Routt County last March. In fact, after we finished our ride, it snowed several more inches so we certainly didn’t use up all the good snow—although we sure tried.
For the record, there was 88 inches (7.3 feet) of snow on the ground at the Lost Dog snotel site (elevation 9,320 feet) at the end of March.
A Bit Out Of The Way
In some ways, Routt County gets overshadowed by the more popular Rabbit Ears Pass and even Buffalo Pass riding areas, located south and east of the area we rode, which was near Hahn’s Peak and Steamboat Lake. That’s okay, it just means northern Routt County isn’t as crowded as Rabbit Ears. In our two days of riding we only saw one other group of sledders and very few tracks, mostly our own.
To northern Routt County’s advantage, the riding area is about 25 or so miles north of Steamboat Springs on a narrow two-lane road (County Road 129) which makes it, we guess in some people’s minds, hard to get to.
The riding area in northern Routt County is separated from the Buffalo Pass riding area, and farther to the south, Rabbit Ears Pass riding area by the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, so you can’t even access northern Routt County by sled, adding to its “isolated” setting.
Steamboat Lake could be considered the unofficial starting point for riding in this part of the county, mostly because that’s where some services (gas, food, and lodging) are located at Steamboat Lake Outfitters (800-342-1889) and it’s also where the trailheads are. The lake is in Steamboat Lake State Park, which offers a handful of miles of groomed trails for sledding, although most sledders use the trails to access Routt National Forest.
Nearly 150 miles of groomed trails fan out from Steamboat Lake, providing access to superb high elevation riding—Steamboat Lake sits at 8,100 feet and the riding goes up from there—in the shadow of the Continental Divide and other assorted peaks of varying heights, many stretching past 10,000 feet.
Hitting The Snow
Both days of our ride in Routt County included a mixture of some trail riding and a heavy dose of cross country riding through lots of drainages, across wide open parks (meadows) and through thick stands of forested hills and mountains. It was a perfect blend of all the kinds of boondocking we enjoy from the seat of a snowmobile.
Day one found us heading north to play at the base of Hahn’s Peak in more than a foot of untracked powder, then on to Circle Bar Basin, Dead Mexican Park (a Mexican really is buried there with a marker at the spot), Little Red Park, Big Red Park, the Continental Divide (along the Wyoming Trail), hillclimbing near the Hare Trail, climbing to the top of Dome Peak (10,524 feet) and riding parts of the Farwell Mountain Trail. Just after we hit Dome Peak we encountered a heavy snowstorm that forced us back on the groomed trail for a while before letting up and allowing us to head cross country through the trees again before heading back to the truck, literally on fumes.
Not surprisingly, the powder was deepest and lightest at the higher elevations, although even down low (if you can call 8,000-9,000 feet down low) it was very good, just not as deep.
The parks we rode through, including Little and Big Red, were untracked and the snow was good but we still couldn’t help imagining what it would have been like to play on them with another two or three feet of powder. However, a couple of small parks we rode through at higher elevations were true powder stashes where the snow was coming over the hood. The snow was particularly good up along the Continental Divide (9,000 feet plus), which marks the border with the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. There is a trail along the Divide, appropriately named the Continental Divide Trail or sometimes called the Wyoming Trail, portions of which are groomed. The part of the Continental Divide Trail we rode wasn’t groomed though, so we blazed our own trail through 1-2 feet of untracked powder. Parts of the stretch of CD trail we rode were wide and fairly open while in other spots it was dense trees and single track riding. The variety was fun and amazing.
The views from certain parts of the CD trail—where trees didn’t obscure your view—were splendid, including in the Wilderness where peaks punctuated the horizon.
Our Vantage Point
We also rode to several vantage points along the edge of the Wilderness on day two of our ride in Routt County, this time farther south in an area known as Lost Dog. That was later in the day, though, as we spent a good portion of our morning and early afternoon working to get to the top of Farwell Mountain (10,824 feet) from the south side. It was a truly amazing adventure, one we almost gave up on as the snow was so deep and we were digging our sleds out on a regular basis.
Our first route ended with us turning out to find a spot a little more wide open to climb. Part of the issue that day was that the mountain was obscured in clouds and we couldn’t even really see the peak and the light was flat because of cloud cover. The second route we tried had us weaving through Quaking Aspens and pines as the hill got steeper. We made it to within a few hundred feet of the mountain top but didn’t try to climb any higher due to the flat light and not being able to see a clear route to the top. Rocks, boulders and ledges littered that last few hundred feet.
So we dropped back down and found another spot, this time taking a ridge along a drainage to the top. It was a battle, but well worth it. We spent a couple of hours digging and trying to find the right path through the trees, which eventually opened up as we got closer to the top. By the time we ascended that last route, the clouds had lifted and the views from the top of Farwell were excellent. There isn’t really a defined peak on top of Farwell, but more of a flat area with big rocks and trees. Once to the right spot on top, we could see our tracks from our second attempt up the mountain. We really were pretty close but the last stretch would have been treacherous.
You could see for miles in all directions from the top of Farwell, including the ski runs at Steamboat Springs, several peaks in the Wilderness and Hahn’s Peak to the west.
Interestingly, there is a trail on the north side of the mountain that leads right to the top of Farwell. We definitely took the more challenging route—and in our minds, the more fun way.
From Farwell, we boondocked over to the Lost Dog area and the edge of the Wilderness. We climbed to the top of the ridge marking the Wilderness boundary in two different spots so we could look at the amazing mountains (like Big Agnes Mountain, elevation 12,059) and lakes (such as Mica Lake) in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Both climbs to the ridge were steep and we’d definitely recommend you go with someone who knows the area.
Over near the Lost Dog area is where a forest fire went through years ago so the riding today is wide open and lots of fun for boondocking. Because there are so few trees to shade the snow in the area, the snow was a little more beaten down by the sun, but it was still mostly untracked and great for riding.
Just like the previous day, we were running on fumes by the time we got back to the truck. Another good day on the snow.
There really are places where you can have heaven on earth. Put northern Routt County in that category.
Snowfall 300 inches
Groomed Trails 150
Full-Service Town Steamboat Springs (with some services near Steamboat Lake and in Clark)
Nearest Airport Steamboat Springs
Getting Started Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association 877-754-2269 or www.steamboat-chamber.com
Getting There The northern part of Routt County is about 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs on County Road 129.
Getting Around There are several snowmobile rental outfits in the county, including at Steamboat Lake Outfitters (800-342-1889) and from High Mountain Snowmobile Tours (877-879-6500). There are dealers for all four brands of snowmobiles in Steamboat Springs. Contact the chamber for a complete list.
Bedding Down There is a handful of lodges and cabin rentals in Clark and near Steamboat Lake. The majority of lodging is in Steamboat Springs, a big ski resort town, so there is no shortage of accommodations for every price range. The chamber has a complete list.
Eating Out You have to plan ahead if you want to eat out up in the Steamboat Lake area. Some restaurants don’t stay open real late so if you’re having a late supper then you might have to head to Steamboat Springs, which offers a myriad of dining options.
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