Steamboat Springs Forest Service officials say recreational use at Buffalo Pass has reached critical mass and that illegal parking in the area must come to an end.
The parking lot at Dry Lake Campground, the highest plowed lot in the Buffalo Pass area, is designed to hold 30 vehicles with snowmobile trailers. During most weekends this winter, the lot has filled early in the morning, causing skiers and snowmobilers to park illegally along the road.
"There has been a lot of activity up there," Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said.
Ken Vertrees, the vice president of Blue Sky West, a backcountry skiing company permitted on Buffalo Pass, agreed. "It's over capacity every day on the weekend," he said.
A Forest Service law enforcement officer wrote 60 warning tickets for illegally parked cars in the lot on a recent weekend. But next time, the cars won't be given warnings, Vogel said.
Vertrees said one of his employees counted 77 illegally parked cars recently.
"This has been an ongoing problem for the past decade," said Ed Patalik, recreational planner for the Forest Service.
The lot's size manages the number of people using the area, so expanding it is not an option. This year the number of people parking illegally and accessing the mountain is just too much, causing safety issues and reducing the quality of the backcountry experience, Vogel said.
"The root of the problem is the parking," Vertrees said.
If people aren't allowed to park illegally, there won't be a problem with overuse there, he said.
Vertrees has an interest in bringing usage back to normal on Buffalo Pass. This year, the Forest Service isn't letting Blue Sky West build Elk Run Road, a snow road from the Upper Road to Soda Mountain, because the company is technically not permitted for it.
Without Elk Run Road, the terrain the company can access by tracked snow machine is reduced by 50 percent compared to last year.
An environmental analysis will be done to determine if Blue Sky West can build the road in the future.
Vertrees said there are some concerns about the road allowing snowmobilers and skiers to further access the areas.
If use decreases to what the parking lot allows for Buffalo Pass, Vertrees said the chances for building the road in the future could be better.
Forest Service officials said the overflow in parking at Buffalo Pass reflects the growing popularity of snowmobiling.
"What we want to do is disperse that recreation," Vogel said.
The Forest Service is urging people to find an alternative place in the Routt National Forest to ride.
"There is a lot more terrain and parking on Rabbit Ears Pass," Vogel said.
But the six parking lots for motorized users on Rabbit Ears can fill up on the weekends, too, another reason for the increased use on Buffalo Pass, she said.
In that case, Forest Service officials would like users to look south, north and west for backcountry access.
Northern areas, such as Hahn's Peak, also have limited parking, but Patalik said the Forest Service is working to solve some of the problems.
Gore Pass and Dunkley Pass, in South Routt, also are good alternatives, and expanding parking lots in those places may be considered, Vogel said.