Start your engines: Snowmobiling in and around Summit County
Skiing and snowboarding get the bulk of attention during a Summit County winter, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only outdoor activities to do. For those who want to take a day off from chairlifts and hear the rumble of an engine underneath them, groomed trails for snowmobiling can be found nearby or only a short drive away.
On a tour
The easiest way to get acquainted with the sport is to find a tour company and ride the snow with a guide. It’s less of a monetary investment and there’s safety in numbers.
“Go out with someone experienced,” High Country Tours manager Tim Vermeer said. “If you get lost and you get stuck out somewhere where you don’t have cell service, are you going to be able to keep yourself alive for what could be hours or days before search and rescue or us find you?”
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High Country Tours, which has been in business since 2003, offers tours for various levels of experience. “We’ve taken probably hundreds of thousands of people snowmobiling for the first time in their life,” Vermeer said. “The biggest thing is that they just shouldn’t be scared. If you can drive a car, you should also be able to drive a snowmobile.”
Their Summit County location, Heeney Outpost, has a network of groomed trails spanning roughly 30 miles on private land. At The Overlook cabin, guests can enjoy hot cocoa and 360-degree views of Cataract Lake, Byers Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park and more.
The location allows High Country Tours to offer a natural tubing hill that’s 1,000 feet long. Another highlight is the company’s groomed track.
“We have a three-quarter mile-long oval track that’s kind of shaped like Talladega that we groom out to about 200 feet wide,” said Vermeer, who has snowmobiled for 25 years. “And people love ripping the snowmobiles around that thing.”
High Country Tours also has a system of trails in Lake County at its Birdseye Outpost.
People wanting to explore that neck of the woods might also want to check out White Mountain Snowmobile Tours. Nestled in between Copper Mountain and Leadville on Colorado Highway 91, the tour company owns 25,000 acres at the base of Mount Arkansas.
Like High Country Tours, White Mountain can pick up clients and has a wide selection of tiered tours. Judith Gilman, general manager of White Mountain Snowmobile Tours, has seen the roughly 30-year-old business grow from six snowmobiles to 150. According to Gilman, the activity adds variety to a ski vacation and can be physically more accessible.
“They come up, take a skiing lesson to see what its like, and then they’re going to do all kinds of other things,” she said. Some of those other destinations might be a day of zip lining or going on the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad — two pastimes the company offers in combination with snowmobiling.
Another scenic option is exploring Turquoise Lake Recreation Area, which has more than 25 miles of groomed trails in the shadows of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert.
“Sunset during the last tour of the day at Turquoise Lake is amazing,” Gilman said. “It is absolutely magical.”
No matter where you go, you’ll probably be back. Gilman and Vermeer frequently see repeat customers.
“Once they come with us for the first time, we start seeing them a second, third and fourth time after that,” Vermeer said. “It becomes a little bit of a routine that’s part of their ski vacation.”
On your own
Knowledgeable riders who own their gear or rent a high-performance sled from a place like High Country Tours can find a few pockets of public powder in the region if they so desire. Many locals are reluctant to share their favorite spots due to fear of crowds, but Vermeer and Silverthorne resident Karina Possenti mention Vail Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass as popular destinations.
“There’s lots of hill climbs, lots of open bowls and lots of snow up on Vail Pass,” Vermeer said. They actually have a fantastic groomed trail system up in that neck of the woods. Miles and miles of it.”
Meanwhile, the open meadows of Rabbit Ears north of Kremmling entice Possenti, an Alaskan native who has been snowmobiling for about 18 years.
“The thing I like about Rabbit Ears is that you can go there with any skill level,” she said. “It’s got a lot of different variety of terrain, and I personally don’t like going into avalanche terrain if I don’t have to. I avoid it entirely. I have all of the equipment, but I don’t want to use it ever.”
Vermeer is also a fan of Rabbit Ears. “The trees are spaced out more so you can get in the trees with your snowmobile and just keep cruising for what seems like forever,” he said. “You find all of these hidden, little treasure pockets where nobody has been.”
According to Possenti, a snowmobiling club out of Steamboat Springs manages the system. Locally, Summit Snow Riderz, formally called the High Country Snowmobile Club, has a similar set up at Spring Creek by the Green Mountain Reservoir. Also known as Elliot’s Ridge, the system has 18 miles of groomed trails and an avalanche beacon checkpoint overseen by the group that has existed since 1978. Board member Carolanne Powers said it’s volunteer run and free to the public, whereas Vail Pass charges a daily fee and is operated by the Colorado State Forest Service.
“It’s a lot more enclosed than Rabbit Ears,” Possenti said. “You’re either on the trail or in the trees, but once in awhile you come upon an open area.”
Possenti enjoys riding in the High Country. She’s going on her third year in Summit and participates in other sports such as snowboarding and cross-country skiing, but this winter she’s planning to have her foot on the gas more frequently.
“This year, I didn’t buy a season pass anywhere because I decided I want to sled more,” Possenti said. “Mostly because you can get away from the crowds. It’s nice to be able to get out into the backcountry and just be with your friends.”
What to wear: Dress for snowmobiling tours the same way you would for skiing. Wearing multiple items made of fleece and other synthetic fibers keeps you dryer than cotton and you can remove layers if you become too warm.
Bring extra gear: While tour groups will lend snowsuits and helmets for people unequipped, that doesn’t mean they have everything. Double check what your outfitter provides. Most likely you’ll need to bring your own pair of goggles and gloves.
Join a club: Like a Nordic club, participating in a group such as Summit Snow Riderz is a good way to make friends with similar interests. Additionally, membership fees go toward maintaining the trail system so that all can enjoy the groomed terrain. The club, which is a subgroup of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, also provides avalanche education.
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