Steamboat Springs It's not quite 9 a.m. Saturday morning on U.S. 40, and parking lots on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass look more like a New York City traffic jam than Rocky Mountain open space.
In heavy snow, before the magnesium chloride has even had a chance to penetrate the snowpacked highway, a steady stream of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks hauling multithousand-dollar trailers holding multithousand-dollar snowmobiles is pulling into the parking lots.
By 10 a.m., the snowmobile user lots are full, yet eager riders who spent hours battling Front Range traffic for a taste of 2 feet of fresh Routt County powder wiggle their trucks and trailers into any conceivable space.
"It's always like this," one Denver rider said. "Everybody wants to come here."
Rabbit Ears isn't the only local area hit by the rising popularity of a sport that requires snow, and lots of it.
Buffalo Pass and Gore Pass also have experienced the growing demand of snowmobiling.
Erik Woog, owner of Alpine Motor Sports in Kremmling, moved with his family to Kremmling in 1977. Raised in a family of snowmobiling enthusiasts, Woog has experienced the sport's rise in popularity firsthand.
"The progression of the sport -- the equipment alone -- is phenomenal," Woog said. "To imagine we'd have the equipment we do and that the sport is so wildly popular was almost inconceivable (in 1977)."
And this boom is occurring largely without mainstream media attention, though the growing popularity of the X Games and various snocross racing series are undoubtedly helping the sport's popularity.
A clear sign of snowmobiling's popularity was last month's declaration by Gov. Bill Owens that January 2003 be "Snowmobiling Month" for the state.
And, of course, there are the numbers.
Americans purchased almost 135,000 snowmobiles last year at an average retail price of $5,800 a snowmobile, according to International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association statistics.
There are 1.65 million registered snowmobiles in the United States; 33,000 of those are in Colorado.
Snowmobile organizations have sprung up across the United States. The Colorado Snowmobile Association oversees nearly 40 clubs, from the Delta SnoKrusers to the Wolf Creek Trailblazers. These clubs maintain snowmobile trails, organize group rides and keep their members up to date on important news within the snowmobile community.
The Routt Powder Riders snowmobile club has about 120 members, some of whom live on the Front Range, club President Bill Yowell said.
Location and accessibility to the Routt National Forest are the main reasons why the Routt County area has become so popular among snowmobilers, Yowell said.
U.S. Forest Service supervisory reforester Andy Cadenhead points to a more palpable reason for the area's snowmobiling boom.
"In the last few years, many areas haven't had good snow," Cadenhead said. "This area has had some of the best snow for snowmobiling. People had to look for snow, and they found it here."
After the snow, everything else the area offers for snowmobilers is just icing on the cake, Cadenhead said.
"All the things snowmobilers are looking for are here -- accommodations, fuel, groomed trails, challenging terrain and deep powder," he said. "It's a snowmobiler's paradise, really."
Snowmobilers from around the state and around the county experience a "discovery process" when they come to the Routt County area, Woog said.
"Riders from other areas came here for snow initially, and then they found out how wonderful our area is to ride," he said. "The snow starts it, but people come back because of the area. Nationwide, it's becoming renowned as an area that's wonderful to ride."
Officials at the Kremmling Chamber of Commerce and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association said neither agency does any snowmobile-specific marketing.
Because it's not necessary, said Carrie Schayer, director of the Kremmling Chamber of Commerce.
"We don't really have to sell snowmobiling that hard because people already know about it," she said. "Even if they haven't been here, they've heard of Rabbit Ears Pass. This is one of the best-known snowmobiling areas in the state."
"People have found out about us," said Sandy Evans-Hall, Chamber Resort Association executive vice president. "They want to come to the area and they want to experience the wonderful terrain here."
The Forest Service said it's nearly impossible to track the number of snowmobilers who access the Routt National Forest, but whatever that number is, it's increasing, Cadenhead said.
"It's been a fairly steady increase almost every year," he said.
Although a high percentage of snowmobilers who access the terrain in and around Routt County are from in-state, plenty of enthusiasts are more than willing to travel across the country for a taste of Colorado riding, Woog said.
"It's astounding the devotion snowmobilers have," he said. "We see people who drove from Vermont and Virginia. They'll trailer their snowmobiles the whole way to come out here and ride in the high country."
A family affair
The demographics of recreational snowmobilers are changing with the sport's popularity.
Almost 95 percent of snowmobilers consider riding snow machines a family sport, according to ISMA. Snowmobiling's allure to women and children can best be attributed to the sport's different appeals, Woog said.
"Snowmobiling is to each individual something different," he said. "Some people live for the discovery of new areas and fresh powder -- that feeling of serenity. For some, it's solely adrenaline. Some people are in it for the family experience and the camaraderie."
Skiers and snowboarders are also turning to snowmobiles for access to great terrain without the expensive lift passes and long lines at ski resorts, Mountain Sports Center salesman Blaine Zulian said.
Snowmobiles come in a variety of models and styles, from large, comfortable touring snow machines to state-of-the-art powder and racing sleds with technology that pushes the boundaries of where and how fast snowmobiles can go. So no matter what thrills a snowmobiler seeks, there's a model made for the job.
Regardless of why they do it, snowmobilers are a growing population and one that will continue to flock to Routt County for its wide access, spectacular snow, beautiful terrain and proximity to accommodations, Woog said.
"I don't see any real curb in the desire to come here," he said. "I don't foresee it tapering off. The popularity will continue to grow and people will continue to swarm here."