Snowmobiles And ATVs: How To Find The Best Winter Rides

From windblown desert sands to snow-capped mountains, these resources will help ATV and snowmobile riders locate the best winter-riding destinations on public land.

By David Halsey

Snowmobiles And ATVs: How To Find The Best Winter Rides
Photograph Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
You can find popular snowmobile trails across the U.S. on a map provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Weeks before the official start of winter, snowmobile riders are heading for high elevations in the Rockies in search of groomed trails leading to deep powder. And in the desert Southwest, families are trailering their ATVs and multi-passenger Side-by-Sides to popular places where they can play in sand dunes and wide-open desert spaces.

Whether you’re looking for the solitude of putting the high mark on the mountain with your sled, or the fun of an RV/ATV “village” in the desert, here are some of the best resources for finding great winter riding areas on public land.

Snowmobiling at Its Best

State Snowmobile Associations and Clubs

There are an estimated 230,000 miles of signed and maintained snowmobile trails in North America that have been developed by snowmobile clubs and associations, usually in cooperation with state, provincial and local governments. 

Photograph Courtesy of Minnesota United Snowmobile Association
A great place to start your search for snowmobile clubs and trail maps is at the website of your state snowmobile association.

Choose a state or province with snow, and there is likely a snowmobile association for it. Their websites include local snowmobile rules and regulations, as well as lists of popular riding areas and trail systems. Also included are links to their association’s member clubs — often numbering in the hundreds — that groom trails and feature trail maps on their websites.

To get started, do an internet search for “(State) Snowmobile Association.” You can also go to the American Council of Snowmobile Association’s site for a complete list.

Quick Tip: For the best snowmobile trail conditions, find out when the local club or agency grooms the trail system you’ll be riding on. Be there soon afterwards for the best trail conditions, because trails get beat up fast, especially on sections close to towns.

 

U.S. Forest Service Interactive Map

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages over 150 National Forests. Many of them have snowmobile trails, and those in mountain states have vast expanses of public lands that get snow early and have long riding seasons.

  • Open the USFS interactive map,

  • Zoom into the state you are interested in

  • You’ll see the names of the National Forests in the area, with links to website pages for each Forest. You’ll also find season dates, directions, available facilities, trail maps and more.

Photograph Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service has an interactive map with links to National Forest websites and details on their snowmobile riding opportunities.

In Western states, large swaths of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are also open to snowmobile riding in mountainous terrain. To learn more about the riding opportunities in your area, check the website of the nearest BLM office in your state. Many feature winter recreation areas, with trail maps.

Rails-To-Trails Website

Across the snow belt at lower elevations, a good place to search for popular trails is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. It’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of motorized and non-motorized trails on former rail lines and connecting corridors.

  • Go to their website

  • Open the U.S. map 

  • Tap “filter” and check “snowmobile” in the list of trail types

  • Zoom into your state of choice to find routes of popular snowmobile trails groomed by state or federal agencies, or by volunteers with local snowmobile clubs, with links for more details.

What To Pack For Winter Riding:

Whether you’re headed to snow country or the desert Southwest for riding this winter, here are some quick checklists of key gear items you’ll want to carry with you.

Photograph Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

For Trail Riding In Cold Temperatures

  • Cell phone and charging cord

  • GPS

  • Extra clothes

  • Flashlight or head lamp and extra batteries

  • Emergency food and water

  • Knife

  • Rope

  • Hand axe and/or backpacking saw

  • Windproof lighter and waterproof matches

  • Fire-starting materials (fatwood, paper, candle, cotton balls dabbed in Vaseline)

  • Spare spark plugs and transmission belt

For Snowmobiling In The Mountains

  • Wear an avalanche transceiver

  • Pack a shovel and probe

  • Take an avalanche safety class.

When Riding Atvs in Dunes and Deserts

  • Water

  • GPS

  • Cell phone

  • Whip mast and flag (check state regulations for details).

 

Best Rides For ATVs And Side-By-Sides

StepOutside.org

Step Outside's integrated map automatically pulls together all of the rider information near you. Just type in your town or zip code to search your area on the site. Start your search with the map accompanying this page to find local destinations where you can go to enjoy riding off-road with friends and family.

In the southern half of the country, many ATV trails are open year-round. You should dig a little deeper in states across the snow belt. In some states, most ATV trails close during winter months, but some trail systems are open throughout the winter.

In Minnesota, for example, 20 trail systems are open year-round, and some ATV clubs hold “polar bear” rides in January and February, attended by dozens of hearty riders who like to hit the trails no matter what the thermometer reads.

RiderPlanet USA

This website displays a state-by-state list of public and private destinations for riding ATVs and side-by-sides (SxSs), as well as dirt bikes and 4WD trucks.

Go to the website

  • Tap on the state you are interested in, and you’ll discover a long list of public trails, open riding areas, private ATV parks and motocross tracks.

  • Details for each include open/closed status, rules and regulations, trail miles, difficulty level, local services, directions, plus photos and videos submitted by riders.

Quick Tip: Carry the charging cord for your smartphone, and a 12v/USB adapter if needed, to charge your cell phone in your snowmobile or ATV.

 

American Sand Association

The desert Southwest comes alive with off-roaders during the winter months. For a list of major sand dune areas open to off-highway vehicles, rules and regulations, and how to ride safely in the shifting desert sands, check out the American Sand Association.

Photograph Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
AmericanSandAssociation.org lists popular dune-riding areas, how to ride safely on shifting sands and much more.

Best Site for Both Snowmobiles and ATVs

Ride Command

Created by Polaris Industries, Ride Command features a website and a free mobile app with maps showing designated, signed trails as well as open riding areas across North America.

  • Create an account and log in

  • Then click on “map,” and move the tab to the snowmobile or ATV icon.

  • Zoom into the area you are interested in.

  • You’ll see the legal routes and trails. The far-left column lists public and private riding opportunities in the area, with links to their websites for more information.

  • When out riding, open the app on a smartphone or tablet to see your GPS location on the trails, as well as local places for food, fuel and lodging. 


About The Author: David Halsey has been riding snowmobiles for 50 years and writing about sleds and ATVs for 35 years. He is president of the 400-member Woodtick Wheelers ATV/OHM Club in northern Minnesota, and writes articles for the MN OffRoad magazine and the newsletter of the ATV Association of Minnesota (ATVAM).

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