The snow’s delay this year in the mountains postponed not only openings at the region’s resorts, but also the ever-popular Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area. Snowmobile and backcountry enthusiasts need not worry though — the treasured amenity is now open for business.
The 55,000-acre gem with sweeping vistas as far as the eye can see, innumerable natural meadows and top-notch skiing and riding above and below tree line, usually unlatches the gates on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Due to the lack of proper snow coverage, however, White River National Forest management and supervision of the area did not start this season until the beginning of December.
“That area has to be one of the most beautiful high-elevation areas in the state,” said Sam Massman, the Dillon Ranger District’s mountain sports administrator. “The amount of use is unbelievable, but this year we postponed collecting fees until Dec. 1 because there wasn’t enough snow to groom, or really do anything.”
A typical winter and spring consist of about 35,000 visits to the tract of land bordered by ski areas Vail and Copper mountains to the north and south, and Interstate 70 and the prominent Uneva Peak, and U.S. Highway 24 and Camp Hale near Red Cliff to the east and west. Aside from the diversity of terrain for hut trip devotees, snowshoers and cross-country skiers, the proximity to the Front Range makes it the prevailing spot for catching virtually unfettered turns within Colorado’s borders.
“It’s got any number of dedicated trails open to snowmobiling as well as all off-trail to tow skiers with the increase in ‘slackcountry’ use,” said Bill Jackson, Dillon District ranger, referencing a term for easily accessible backcountry areas. “They get thrashed with that amount of use up there, and it continues to grow as one of the most accessible high-alpine winter recreation areas to Denver. So the true cost of running that program is not cutting it with those fees — it’s not covering the basic program costs.”
As a result, and because the Vail Pass winter area falls under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the White River National Forest proposed raising rates for both day and season passes back in January 2015. Presently costs to participants are $6 per day or $40 for the season, but have the potential to climb to $9 and $100, respectively. The increases would help the Forest Service and recreation area task force provide more presence in the field as well as keep up with improved trail grooming and clearing of parking lots.
“Plowing is a big deal,” said Jackson, “and that eats our lunch. You don’t know when it’s going to dump, and then it just hits one of those days.”
The locations to park include the Vail Pass lot, which can accommodate approximately 50 snowmobile trailers, and another 80 or so spaces split between overnight hut guests and day users. When that hits capacity — and on the weekends it almost certainly does by 9 a.m. — the three smaller Camp Hale lots at the main entrance, and south and north ends are available but also fill up quickly. A parking site outside of Red Cliff on Shrine Pass Road is a final option for visitors.
Costs for the grooming of the area’s 50 miles of trails have also recently gone up. The local task force, made up of citizens and established in the early 1990s, has in the past used a single snowcat to prepare the network of routes every five-to-six days at a cost of $50,000 for the year. Swelling use has made daily grooming necessary though, which requires another $35,000 annually and the use of a second snowcat. As a result, the Forest Service needs to find more funding to cover these added expenses.
“The intent is to groom everything every day,” said Massman. “We have to rebuild the trails as they get more traffic. But what we’re finding is with expanding the grooming, the money that we came up with for that is not sustainable to supply that without increasing the fee.”
The fee expansion, which would also widen staffing for the area from four or five days each week to seven-day coverage with two rotating crews, didn’t go far two years ago. The Forest Service is currently planning for a renewed effort as it hopes to heighten the quality of the experience for visitors and also meet that surging demand on the resource.
“We’ve been able to get by every year so far,” said Jackson, “but we burn out our employees big time. If we can increase fees, we can groom more frequently and provide that higher standard.”