These are busy times on the mountain trails. Not quite bumper to bumper yet. It's more like occasional riders now, but that's better than it was. Once-sagging interest in snowmobiling is now on an upward climb . . . and to where is any snowmobiler's dream.
From Canada to Utah, maybe, or from Idaho to Colorado by way of Utah, or just from Evanston to Manti, or Kamas to Vernal, or simply from the Hardware Ranch trailhead to Bear Lake. Possible?Interest in snowmobiling stalled a few years back. In Utah, the sport began to fade. In the early 1980s, there were more than 20,000 snowmobiles registered in the state. Last year there were fewer than 13,000.
"This year," reported Scott Behunin, off-highway vehicle program coordinator for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, "total registrations will be up around 16,000.
"A lot of things probably caused the drop in Utah . . . the expense of the machines, the condition our trails were in, the lean snow years. We just know that interest is up now."
And so are sales. According to national figures, sales in the early part of the season were up by 48 percent over last year and indications were that the upward trend would continue over the winter.
There has also been renewed interest in promoting the sport among the states with snow. According to Behunin, about half of upper western states are currently involved in snowmobile tourism studies.
Some of the findings, he pointed out, are getting the attention of a lot of people.
"Montana, for example, just completed a study of just the nonresident user and found they generated $15 million in added revenue. The closest comparison we have is a study Wyoming did back in 1985. Wyoming registered 13,700 machines that year and Utah had 13,100. Anyway, Wyoming estimated that snowmobile use generated $25 million. Those are some powerful numbers."
According to Craig Cazier, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, a group of 13 different clubs scattered around the state with more than 1,700 members, part of the reason for the added interest in Utah was the change in the state's snowmobile program last year.
The program was terribly under-funded up until last year when legislation took part of the state's gasoline tax, a small part paid by snowmobilers to run their machines, and placed it with the DPR for use in off-highway programs.
In the past year the DPR has been able to purchase two new modern trail groomers to replace old ones that were frequently broken down and were expensive to operate. The first new groomer was put at the Hardware Ranch near Bear Lake last year. Earlier this month, a second new groomer was put at the Uinta complex near Kamas.
The newest groomer more than doubled the total miles of groomed trails open to riders in the area. With the old groomer, crews were able to care for only about 60 miles of trail per week. Now, nearly 150 miles are being groomed.
"Grooming," said Cazier, "makes snowmobiling a lot more pleasurable, besides making it safer. Snowmobilers use the trails to get to play areas. It makes it so much easier to get to where you're going to ride and when you get there you're not all beat-up and tired. And it opens up so much more riding."
Still, Utah lags behind most of its neighbors in snowmobile opportunities. Idaho, for example, has a fleet of 25 state-operated groomers and tends to more than 5,000 miles of trails. Utah has the two new groomers and four old ones, and now cares for about 600 miles of groomed trails. The most-groomed state is Wisconsin, with more than 13,000 miles of public snowmobile trails.
Behunin said future plans call for the replacement of a 21-year-old groomer that was literally pieced together by park employees several years ago in order to have some grooming in the area.
"One thing we are looking at is possibly going with a new prototype that LMC (Logan Manufacturing Company) is developing. It's a smaller groomer that we could trailer to out-of-the-way areas, something we can't do now. It would open up a lot of new country.
"People in the Vernal area, I know, would like to see us groom about 100 miles of new trails over there."
And there are talks of other plans to increase snowmobile opportunities. A few years back, trail systems in Idaho and Utah were linked by a common trail. Behunin said that recently Wyoming and Colorado have talked with him about linking trail systems.
"And who knows where that could lead?" he said. "Maybe someday coming all the way from Canada down into Utah."
Cazier said there are also in-state talks about linking up existing trail systems, from Kamas to Vernal, for one, and from Strawberry Valley over to Spanish Fork Canyon and Skyline Drive.
"There are places - lodges and camps - along these routes," he offered, "that would be willing to stay open in the winter if people used the trails. Once the trails are in place, I think snowmobilers would use them."
Presently, there are six areas now tended by state-owned groomers:
- Ogden/Logan canyons and Blacksmith Fork Complex groomed by the new groomer out of Hardware Ranch.
- The Mirror Lake Highway Complex groomed by the new groomer out of Kamas.
- The Wasatch Mountain-American Fork Canyon Complex cared for by one of the old groomers.
- The Central Utah Complex near Scofield, Ephraim and Manti, also groomed with one of the old groomers.
- The Cedar Mountain Complex tended by the 21-year-old converted ski-area groomer.
- And the Monticello-Blue Mountain Complex groomed with an old groomer.
Before snowmobilers' gas tax money was used to help develop the sport, it would have taken the entire budget for two years to replace just one of the groomers.
"Now," said Behunin, "we're seeing some real progress . . . and I think it's part of the reason for the growing interest in snowmobiling in Utah."