Steamboat Springs Members of the Routt Powder Riders snowmobile club met with the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, seeking assurances that the county would plow 1.5 miles of a U.S. Forest Service Road to ensure future access to a new parking lot.
“If they move the parking lot up the road without plowing from the county, we’re sunk,” Routt Powder Riders President Mary Sue Sorenson said.
The new parking lot isn’t a done deal, but the Forest Service has identified it as the preferred means of meeting increasing demand for winter recreation in North Routt.
The commissioners told the snowmobile enthusiasts that they had not been formally asked by the Forest Service to plow Forest Service Road 550 near the entrance to Big Red Park. However, Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said after the meeting that it was the county’s intent to clear the stretch of road of snow if the Forest Service moves ahead with its tentative plan.
The Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest recently conducted an environmental assessment of several approaches to developing a new parking lot and related snowmobile trails that would relieve the congestion of a current snowmobile staging area close to the historic mining hamlet of Columbine and private homes in the area. The agency has been working with neighbors and winter recreation enthusiasts in the area for years.
Winter trailheads in North Routt are limited to places where county roads touch the border of the National Forest. The most used parking area, known as the Quarry Lot, isn’t really a parking lot but an old gravel pit with a flat surface.
Now, the Forest Service has identified a preferred plan to move the parking area north to National Forest Service Road 550 near the entrance to Big Red Park. In addition, a new groomed section of snowmobile trail would be built to eliminate the practice of grooming along the county road right-of-way and to link Steamboat Lake to the new lot.
The Powder Riders prefer building a new 3.5-acre parking lot south of Columbine on the west side of Routt County Road 129 at Trilbey Flats.
They said that plan would provide dual access to a large snowmobile playground in California Park and riding farther north in Big Red Park via a new trail.
“We’re trying to figure out how to build a parking lot that serves everybody. It would be much less expensive to build a Trilbey Flats parking lot than for plowing” to a new lot in Big Red Park, Powder Riders board member Ed Calhoun said.
The reputation of Routt County as a top-10 snowmobile destination is growing, Calhoun told the commissioners.
In previous years, it was feasible to ride snowmobiles south from the Quarry Lot down C.R. 129 to get to Trilbey Flats (legal under county regulations), but since the road was paved a few years ago, it’s too hard on the snowmobiles, Powder Riders Vice President George Kostiuk said.
Last winter, Calhoun said, snowmobile rigs, as well as the cars of skiers and vans from guest ranches, were parked along the county road.
The Friends of the Routt Backcountry, a group that seeks to protect nonmotorized recreation areas in the National Forest, supports the new parking lot on F.S.R. 550 but strongly opposes the part of the plan that would build the new snowmobile route. That trail would cut across an informal backcountry ski route known as Columbine Meadows.
The group fears that snowmobilers would be tempted by the powder above and below the trail and track up the area where they carve Telemark turns.
The new trail “would put snowmobiles right in the middle of an historically nonmotorized area, destroying the quality recreation experience there for skiers, due to noise, poor air quality, safety concerns,” Friends spokeswoman Leslie Lovejoy wrote in a letter to the Forest Service. “The proposed alternative provides no protection for the higher areas on Hahn’s Peak and the lower meadows leading to the Quarry, thus inviting motorized users into these areas.”
Friends of the Routt Backcountry also opposes the Trilbey Flats plan because the group said it would open up additional nonmotorized areas to snowmobiles.
A decision by the Forest Service is pending about whether to act on its preferred decision or the Trilbey Flats proposal. A third option contained in the environmental assessment is to do nothing.