Of all the winter playgrounds Colorado has to offer, the Vail Pass Recreation Area stands apart for sheer size, number of visitors and the variety of users it attracts.
Located only 70 miles from metro Denver, the sprawling landscape west of Copper Mountain and Vail Pass encompasses 85 square miles with 50 miles of groomed trails, 52 miles of non-motorized trails and 67 miles of motorized trails, all managed by the White River National Forest under a special use permit. In addition, there are six backcountry huts managed by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association or Summit Huts Association.
In the winter when fees are required, around 39,000 users purchase $10 day passes annually, and another 500-600 opt for season passes ($65). Parking lots at Vail Pass tend to fill up before 10 a.m. on weekends, attracting backcountry skiers and snowshoers, snowmobilers, backcountry hut users, “hybrid ” skiers who use snowmobiles to access ski terrain, even the occasional kite skier. The vast majority manage to get along and recreate safely — but not all. Operations manager Kate DeMorest, the area’s lead backcountry ranger for the White River National Forest, says she’s on the phone frequently with search and rescue groups responding to incidents.
“They’re up here a lot,” DeMorest said. “I don’t have the exact numbers, but I haven’t had a weekend yet when I haven’t been called by either Vail search and rescue or Summit search and rescue or the sheriff’s department about needing help up here. Thank God, we haven’t had any injuries (that were) avalanche-related. We’re hoping that’s a sign that we’re getting information out there.”
They’re doing quite a bit to spread the word, actually, with some recent improvements. Last winter, they installed avalanche awareness signs developed in collaboration with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, offering basic information for users who may not understand the risks of the backcountry. Also last winter, a sign was installed at the Vail Pass trailhead with a QR code. Users who have the Avenza Maps app on their cellphones can scan the QR code to download the Vail Pass Recreation Area map, geo-referenced so they can pinpoint their location on the map while recreating there.
“Avenza has been a really neat mapping app for us,” DeMorest said. “For Vail Pass, to have this map for the public, it’s been huge.”
Last month beacon checkers were installed so skiers heading into potential avalanche terrain can check to see if their electronic search beacons are working. The forest service also has increased the number of rangers assigned to the area. Over the past four years, there were four to five rangers working the area in winter, some paid and some volunteer. This winter there are two crews with 10 full-time paid rangers.
DeMorest said 95% of the fees paid at Vail Pass stay there.
“People say, ‘What do you even do up there?’” DeMorest said. “That’s like the million-dollar question for the fees. We talk about the grooming, the access, the amenities. I train all of our rangers to be Avy 1 (avalanche) certified so they know what to do in the case of an accident, for themselves and their partners and the public at large. We run this like a business.”
They’ve also developed a new web page on the White River National Forest site covering winter backcountry recreation safety with rules and tips on how to plan a trip and what to do so when you get there. It has links to CDOT road conditions, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, even the uphill skiing policies at 11 ski areas within the White River including Aspen Snowmass, Sunlight, Vail, Beaver Creek and the four Summit County areas.
The intent is for that page to be a “clearing house of information” for winter recreation.
“It has our rules of etiquette, if you need a permit or not, how to plan your trip and make good choices before you even get on the road.” DeMorest said. “We’re really trying to promote that responsible recreation aspect.”
There’s little doubt the number of users will continue to increase.
“Vail Pass gets a lot of the newer recreational uses for winter,” said Sam Massman, acting deputy district ranger for the White River’s Dillon Ranger District. “Not only do we have this increase in hybrid skiing, but we’ve got kite skiing, folks driving around in John Deere tractors with tracks on, Jeeps with tracks, classic snowcats — the entire spectrum. It’s a great place for it, because we have this additional management with groomed trails, marked and signed routes. The terrain is amazing for skiing and snowmobiling, the snow is consistent, and you can get on snow right at the trailhead.”