Snowmobiling on the Rio Grande

As the sun began its daily ascent into the cold skies of the San Luis Valley, the light above the mountains responded by displaying beautiful hues of purple, pink and blue that gave way to the dark grey of the waning night sky. Always up early, I particularly enjoy the scene this day as I head for the mountains for a favorite activity of mine. The colors seem to greet and welcome me to the day’s adventures.

We arrive in the parking area and are blasted by cold as we exit the warm truck. The cold keeps the snow fresh, so we don’t mind. We uncover and start the sleds to let them warm as we don our gear and prepare for an active and exhilarating ride up to… well, it really doesn’t matter where we go today. It could be anywhere there is enough snow, and this year, there is plenty of that near the divide.

Snowmobiling on the Rio Grande National Forest is older than me, although I might argue that I could run faster than the snowmobiles of 50 years ago. But the sport is alive and well and with advances in motorized equipment technology along with over-snow power developments, the “sleds” are significantly better equipped to provide an experience sure to challenge even the most hardcore thrill seekers.

With most activities like this, there are a couple of responsibilities that snowmobilers must embrace. First, and probably most importantly, the safety factors. Wear your helmets. Period. A huge concern is avalanche awareness. I implore upon all snowmobilers to carry, and know how to use, all the avalanche safety gear, including transceivers (beacons), shovels and probe poles at a minimum. Equally important to the safety gear is the safety knowledge. We are lucky to have the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) produce daily weather and avalanche forecasts on which we can base our daily activities. Use these forecasts, make appropriate decisions, choose travel routes wisely and always leave your plans with someone other than those in your immediate activity group. Please remember that in certain areas, your actions can possibly affect other backcountry users so be completely aware of your surroundings. Visit CAIC’s most excellent website:

Second, snowmobilers have the responsibility to ride in appropriate areas. I can think of four locations that are closed to snowmobile use but certainly LOOK like it would be a fun place to “play.” Two high use areas on Wolf Creek Pass come to mind here. The south side of highway 160 is a great place to start, but riders should be aware of the possibility they could encroach on the area managed by Wolf Creek Ski Area. The area is closed to public snowmobile use for the obvious reason. No one wants to be involved in a human vs snowmobile crash. And besides, it is just not that fun to ride on a ski area. So please avoid that area. It is just not that hard to do.

The north side of Wolf Creek pass has a special area that serves to provide both cross country skiers and snowmobilers a quality experience. In the Lobo Overlook area, snowmobiles must stay on road 402 up to the tower. This allows the area closest to the highway to be enjoyed by backcountry skiers. Once out of the area, snowmobiles can resume regular off-road travel. The two other restrictions on the RGNF are at the Pass Creek Yurt and on Cumbres Pass. I always recommend consulting our excellent Visitor Information Specialists to find out more. Finally, snowmobiles are never allowed in any Wilderness area.

MOST of your Rio Grande National Forest lands are open to all users, most of the time. Occasional and limited restrictions are put in place for good reasons, often safety related, and those restrictions primarily benefit you in the long run. Don’t let a moment of weakness for a short-term thrill compromise your good land and recreation stewardship ethics.

After a long day of trail riding, hill climbing and boondocking in a meadow chock full of fresh powder, we reluctantly made our way to the trailhead. Back in the parking lot, we loaded up the sleds as the evening skies began their colorful farewell bidding to another great day here in the San Luis and the Upper Rio Grande Valleys.

Gregg Goodland is the Public Affairs Officer for the Rio Grande National Forest.