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Rod Boam, for the Deseret News
James Wakefield snowmobiles in the Tony Grove area. Utah is No. 3 in the U.S. in percentage of public lands, where many people snowmobile.

Snow wasn't the problem. Timing was.

Snowmobile country opened up early here in Utah. For the first time in more than a decade, riders were squeezing the throttle and churning up clouds of snow by mid-November, roughly two months ahead of schedule.

To some riders it was simply a bonus, an early Christmas gift, and only meant moving up the timetable for tuning machines and getting winter gear out of storage.

Dean Rossum, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, recalled that, "Not since

1997 or 1998 have we been able to ride before Christmas. Usually, it's the second week in January before we can get out. It's been a good year and the snow keeps coming."

Good fortune, and good snow, can be traced to a climate conditions known as "La Niña," a flip-flop of "El Niño."

Under a La Niña, water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific cool slightly. This causes weather from the Pacific Northwest to come into Utah in much stronger storm tracks. This results in above-normal to above-average snowpack, which meant in an early opening of trails and powder fields for snow machines.

The consensus among those involved in the snow sport is it created more interest in the sport this winter.

While there are no official counts, Rossum said on some of his midweek rides he's definitely seen an increase in the number of machines and riders.

Dee Eggett, manager of the snowmobile program at Daniels Summit Lodge southeast of Heber said there have definitely been more people out riding this year.

"The previous two years were kinda slow, probably because of the economy and other factors," he said. "This year there has been an increase in numbers, especially among groups, such as businesses and families."

It is all good news to the Utah travel industry. Luke Peterson, director of Wasatch County tourism and economic development, confirmed the rise in interest.

"We were involved in several different ad programs intended to appeal to different groups — skiing, biking, snowmobiling," he said. "Snowmobiling is by far the one that has drawn the most attention, which kind of surprised me, but it shouldn't have. This is a very popular area for recreation. And, hospitality and tourism is by far the largest sector of our economy."

Utah is far from being a major player in the snowmobiling industry. While Utah admittedly offers some of the finest riding in the country, it falls short on registered machines.

Utah has just more than 26,000 registered snowmobiles, which is down from a peak of around 35,000 in 2005. Reasons for the drop range everywhere from the bad economy to the cost of modern machines to the fact people can rent rather than buy.

Jerry Phillips, sales manager at Honda Suzuki of Salt Lake, which sells Polaris machines, said one of the more popular machines comes with standard equipment like heated grips, a 800-cubic-centimeter engine that produces 180 horsepower and a 155-inch track. Machines such as this one sell for between $11,000 and $11,500. A high-performance machine runs between $14,000 and $15,000.

The greatest number of machines is found in the east. Michigan, for example, lists 301,000 registered snowmobiles; Minnesota 277,000; Wisconsin has 232,000; and New York 146,000. Among those states offering winter activities, Nebraska has the fewest with just 2,100.

Most of the riding in the East is on private lands, mostly on fairly level ground and on a lower snowpack.

Utah offers more opportunities, which would include some of the country's most spectacular scenery, such as the Uinta Mountains, Bryce Canyon National Park, the Strawberry Reservoir area and the open powder fields along Skyline Drive, to mention but a few of the riding options.

And, of course, Utah offers riders the opportunity glide through snow so light and fluffy it floats rather than falls when disturbed.

"What we've found, too, is that many visitors come here and don't realize we have so much public land and that they can actually ride on these public lands," said Chris Haller, off-highway vehicle program director for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. "Most of the areas we groom are on (U.S.) Forest Service property."

By comparison, Michigan and Minnesota have just more than 8,000 acres of public lands where Utah has more than 37,000 acres. Among the 50 states, Utah is No. 3 in the highest percentage of public lands. Alaska and Nevada are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

There are, in fact, nine areas supported by state groomers totaling close to 1,500 miles of groomed trails for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

Those nine complexes are Hardware Ranch near Logan; Wasatch Mountain near Midway; Mirror Lake out of Kamas; Uinta Basin north of Vernal; Scofield; Skyline Drive west of Price; Ephraim/Manti to the east of the two towns; Fish Lake east of Richfield; Cedar Mountain east of Cedar City; and Strawberry.

Crews from the DPR, with a dozen state-owned groomers, will log more than 1,200 hours smoothing trails and put a total of more than 25,000 miles on the groomers this season.

Grooming, though, is not an easy task. Most of the work is done at night, mostly during good weather but occasionally during a storm. And, at an average speed of about 6 mph, only about 50 miles of trail can be smoothed and manicured in a day by a single groomer.

DPR groomers start work on Dec. 15, and Haller said he is hoping funds hold out to be able to groom through March, "and work with some special events in April."

Along with state groomers, there are also a number of private businesses grooming trails. Daniels Summit, for example, grooms on a regular basis 38 miles of trail — a 25-mile loop, the most popular ride, and a 13-mile loop.

These trails interconnect with those groomed by the state in the Strawberry Complex. This trail system reaches south to Soldier Summit and north to an area near Kamas where it is possible to link up with the Mirror Lake Mill Hollow Complex, which has a groomed-trail system reaching up into Wyoming.

The largest growth in snowmobile activity is in the rental market. There are more than 100 businesses offering snowmobile rentals and guide service in Utah.

In some cases a truck is needed to transport machines to a trailhead. But there are a number of rental operations located on or near trailheads.

Daniels Summit, one of the largest operations in Utah, which has a fleet of 90 machines, grooms trails directly from the lodge. The same is true at locations at Beaver Creek in Logan Canyon, Duck Creek near Brian Head and Ruby's Inn near Bryce Canyon.

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Cost range and depend on whether or not the rider or riders want guide service. A ride on the 25-mile loop at Daniels Summit, for example, is $129 for a single rider. An extension to four hours is an additional $30 and an all-day rental is $189. A second rider over 16 is $50; riders under 16 are free. A helmet is included in the rental. Winter clothing is available for rent.

Those heading into the snowy country are advised to follow certain guidelines:

 Be certain of weather and avalanche conditions. Always check with the Utah Avalanche Center before leaving home. The snowmobile hotline number is 800-648-7433 and the Utah area forecast number of 1-888-999-4019.

 Snowmobiles today are much lighter, faster and have features that can take them into more places, so use good judgment when riding.

 Have a plan. Let people know where you will be riding, when you expect to return and never ride alone.

 Riders should always carry survival equipment to include such things as candy bars, water, change of socks and gloves, matches and fire starter, signaling device and space blanket.

 Never ride beyond your ability level. Ride at a safe skill level and know your physical limits.

 All riders need to practice "zero tolerance." The penalty for drinking and riding is no different from that of drinking and driving a vehicle and no less dangerous.

For a free CD showing maps and vital information on the nine trail systems in Utah, call the DPR at 1-801-538-7220 or visit www.stateparks.utah.gov.

For information on snowmobile rentals and guide service visit www.utahtravel.com, click on "Outdoor Recreation," then "Snowmobile" and on "List of guides and rental companies."