Snowmobiles offer great way to see backcountry

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"This area is outstanding," said Bill Yowell, former president of Routt Powder Riders. "This is a very popular area."

The trucks, trailers and motor homes that line the parking lots on Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass throughout the winter are a testament to the joy of riding in the area's famed champagne powder.

To get to that deep backcountry powder, snowmobilers may use some of the 115 miles of groomed trails that Yowell's group regularly maintains in those areas, he said.

For beginners or riders without snowmobiles, the best bet for enjoying the sport may be a snowmobile tour, such as those offered by High Mountain Snowmobile Tours, which provides guided trips ranging from two hours to a full day, owner Marcia Cobb said.

Because of skyrocketing insurance costs, most snowmobile dealers do not rent machines to riders wanting go out on their own, Cobb said.

"It's good to have a guide out here because we do have deep powder ... It's good to have somebody who's familiar with the area," she said, noting that riders who do not know an area or have little experience riding in powder risk getting lost or getting stuck.

High Mountain Snowmobile tours range from two hours to full day trips, which are only recommended for experienced riders, Cobb said.

The cost is $85 to $215 for drivers depending on the trip. Private tours are available for an additional fee.

Snowmobilers will enjoy about 15 to 60 miles of riding through varied terrain including groomed trails, open meadows and forest.

The company offers trips on Rabbit Ears Pass, in the Flat Tops area and in North Routt County off of Seedhouse Road, Cobb said.

Each tour averages about six snowmobiles and starts with safety orientations as well as tips on operating the machine and what to expect. All the company's guides have first responder emergency training in case of accidents, she said.

To prepare, snowmobilers should dress as they would for a cold day, and Cobb will supplement their attire with snowsuits, boots, helmets and other equipment, she said.

Snowmobilers looking to venture out on their own may want to pick up maps of groomed and other snowmobile trails in Routt National Forest at the U.S. Forest Service office, 925 Weiss Dr., across from the Holiday Inn in Steamboat Springs.

Most of the forest is open to snowmobiles, however, the Forest Service has established and will enforce non-motorized areas on Rabbit Ears Pass, Forest Service recreation officer Rachel Franchina said.

In general, motorized use is allowed on the east side of the pass. The agency hopes to establish enforceable non-motorized areas on Buffalo Pass by this winter.

Snowmobilers venturing into non-motorized areas will face fines, Franchina said.

The Forest Service asks that motorized users also respect suggested use boundaries in North Routt County and other parts of the forest.

"It's to provide the experience all users are seeking," Franchina said.

For safety, Gary Eubank, owner of Extreme Power Sports in Steamboat Springs, emphasized the importance of making sure snowmobiles are mechanically in good shape. A lot of people, particularly from the eastern U.S., are used to having gas stations along snowmobile routes, something they definitely won't find in Steamboat's backcountry, he said.

"Once you leave your truck, you're on your own so your sled needs to be serviced and ready to go," he said.

Eubank recommends carrying food, water, first aid equipment, extra gas and maps, which are also available through snowmobile dealers.

Though cell phones can be helpful in some areas, reception is difficult in many parts of the backcountry and the devices should not be counted on to get riders out of emergency situations, he said.

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