Snowmobiling the San Juans: High Adventure for the Entire Family
by Gus Jarvis
Apr 26, 2010 | 4166 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mike Doherty carves up the powder in the alpine terrain of Alta Lakes. (Photo by <a href=""><b>Brett Schreckengost</b></a>)
Mike Doherty carves up the powder in the alpine terrain of Alta Lakes. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Telluride Snowmobile Adventures guides a tour through the historic ghost town of Alta. (Photo by <a href=""><b>Brett Schreckengost</b></a>)
Telluride Snowmobile Adventures guides a tour through the historic ghost town of Alta. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
The San Juan Mountains are a winter wonderland for every sort of recreation, from the relative hush of ice fishing, skiing and snowshoeing the backcountry to, for those who want horsepower in winter sport, snowmobiling.

From beautiful open terrain of Molas Pass to the historic trails surrounding the ghost town of Alta to the long and satisfying trails of the Grand Mesa, an ample terrain is available for backcountry snowmobiling bliss – that’s fun for the entire family.

Any number of snowmobile tour companies in the area can meet the needs of adventure seekers, from the never-evers to experienced riders. Most offer a variety of trips, complete with safe instruction, picnic lunches and even transportation to and from your home base. Most visitors see the San Juan Mountain horizons from mountaintops and chairlifts. Riding in on a snowmobile offers instant access to a pristine, uncrowded backcountry experience.

Organizing a backcountry day to remember? Check out snowmobile tours into parts of the region accessible to visitors only during the winter months. Here are a few snowmobile adventures to check out while visiting the San Juan Mountains this winter.

Alta: For the History Buff

Telluride Snowmobile Adventures offers two-hour tours to the ghost town of Alta, in a historic mining district a few miles out of Telluride. Three trips are offered every day; they’re perfect for families with children.

After being picked up from their lodging establishments, guests will typically start the Alta Ghost Town Tour with a safety orientation before heading onto the Alta Lakes Road, one of the oldest roads in San Miguel County, discernible on area maps dating back to 1885, the year the road was built for the mining operations it accesses. While touring the area on groomed trails to Alta, guests will have epic views of the Ilium Valley and the South Fork of the San Miguel River. There are also great views of the historic railroad grade on the flanks of Sunshine Mountain.

After an exhilarating tour comes a stop at the historic ghost town of Alta.

“The Alta ghost town is one of the best examples left in all of Colorado of what a mining town or outpost looked like” more than a century ago, says Mike Doherty, owner of Telluride Snowmobile Adventures. “For us to have one of the last ones, intact, it is really special.”

Guides point out the once active-mines, as well as where the old Bessie Mill once stood. “The whole basin was full of mining activity – huge mining efforts,” Doherty says. “We really like to take people out there and show them the history of this area. But if it turns into throwing snowballs and making snow angels with the kids, we will make sure that’s enjoyable, too.”

And if the historic mining tour just whets the appetite of travelers determined to see high points in the historic West, the next stop can be at the site of one of the most significant events in world history: A visit to the Ames Power Station, where Nikola Tesla first tested and transmitted Alternating Current electricity, working with George Westinghouse and Lucien Nunn.

“This is by far and away the most significant event in the area’s history,” Doherty says, of the debut of AC electricity. “We are really excited about bringing guests into this area and showing them the historic significance of it all.”

For the Free Rider

There are those who are looking for the speed and freedom a snowmobiling tour delivers, but aren’t quite ready to head on out into the backcountry on their own.

No worries here. For more experienced riders, or those who are looking to hit the throttle a little harder, there’s a plethora of snowmobile tours designed specifically for you.

Outlaw Tours, based in Durango, offers a variety of tours on more than 65 miles of trails in the Molas Pass area between Silverton and Durango, offering one- and two-hour trips daily and four-hour trips upon request.

The four-hour trip is the ultimate thrillseeker’s trip, with everything from a trip in on the first-ever road into Silverton, a rollercoaster ride of a trail, with a half-hour of free time at Scout lake and adventurous tree runs throughout the area.

The China Wall section of this trip gives riders a view of the Twilight Mountains, one of the most sought-after views in the San Juans.

“The views are incredible,” says Keith Harper, owner of Outlaw Tours. “We also have open lakes set up as race tracks and on open meadows for free time.”

Telluride-based Dave’s Mountain Tours also provides beautiful backcountry experiences on over 80 miles of trails in Beaver Park, just 18 miles out of Telluride. This open and pristine area gives riders two-, three- and four-hour tour options on trails packed and trails featuring powder. Riders can also choose a full-day tour to really explore the backcountry areas near the base of Mount Wilson and Lone Cone.

And for those looking to get into the backcountry further south of Telluride on Lizard Head Pass, check out Telluride Snowmobile Adventures’ full-day backcountry tours on ungroomed trails that allow for an abundance of free play and hill-climbing.

“These trips are more akin to jet skiing in a lake,” Doherty says. “You get the opportunity to ride around in the meadows.”

Dinner and a Soak?

While there are a never-ending number of fine dining experiences to be had in Ouray, Durango, Telluride, and Mountain Village, visitors should also set a night aside for a real dinner adventure. Many tour agencies in the area offer dinner tours that start with a memorable a snowmobiling adventure, and an out-of-this-world meal, too.

Outlaw Tours offers a dine-and-ride tour, where riders are treated to an hour of scenic snowmobiling and then their choice of a steak, chicken or pasta dinner after the ride, a soul-stirring combination they guarantee will “excite the taste buds and stir the passions of adventure.”

Interested in an overnight stay? Silverton-based Red Mountain Tours offers guided snowmobile tours and overnight cabin packages in the Molas Pass Lake area. Riders will enjoy miles of groomed trails and snowmobile races with the comfort of warm and cozy cabins that are furnished with kitchenettes.

Riders can also soothe body and soul with Telluride Snowmobile Adventures’ full-day trip to the luxurious Dunton Hot Springs, in the historic ghost town of Dunton. This trip offers a gourmet lunch and a soak in the natural hot springs. Vast open fields of snow abound, allowing for free play, before and after pampering at this unique and varied selection of hot springs.

Reservations are required, for the most trip part, so make plans now to get onto a snowmobile and into the winter wonderland that is the San Juan Mountains. Happy sledding.

Snowmobile Tour Operators:

Dave's Mountain Tours:, 970/728-9749 or email:

Outlaw Tours:, 970/259-1800 or toll-free: 877/259-1800.

Red Mountain Tours:, 970/387-5512 or 888/970-5512.

Telluride Snowmobile Adventures:, 970/728-4475 or email:
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