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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cell phone and charging cord
Flashlight or head lamp and extra batteries
Emergency food and water
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
Wear an avalanche transceiver
Pack a shovel and probe
Take an avalanche safety class.
Whip mast and flag (check state regulations for details).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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).