After an almost unprecedented dry spell, precipitation has finally returned to the Desert Southwest along with the first winter snow in the La Sal Mountains. In the recreation department of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, this means putting away our shovels and chainsaws, and shifting our emphasis to helping manage and facilitate fun and safe winter recreation in the mountains.
With an average snowfall of 250 inches a year, the La Sals offer a variety of winter recreational opportunities including backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
With all that snow comes the danger of avalanches. That’s where the US Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center steps in.
The Utah Avalanche Center is a collaborative effort between the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center and a non-profit arm that together provides statewide avalanche information and education for motorized and non-motorized recreational users.
First and foremost, the UAC provides regularly updated snow, avalanche, and mountain weather information, as well as grooming conditions and road plowing status. This information is available online at www.utahavalanchecenter.org (select Moab) or by calling 435-259-7669 (SNOW).
The Forest Service also maintains the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead, access to which is graciously provided by Grand County.
Winter recreational use has exploded in the La Sal Mountains in recent years, creating occasional traffic and congestion problems along the road and at the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead. Even when plowed, all-wheel-drive vehicles with good tires are required. The road is narrow, sometimes only one lane in places, and a stuck vehicle can completely block the road and create a traffic hazard. Please check the avalanche advisory for the latest road conditions.
At the trailhead, please park cars as orderly as possible. Do not park along the road below the parking lot. Instead, beat the crowds by going around to the east side of the mountain range to take advantage of the La Sal Pass or Upper Two Mile trailheads.
A gate at the bottom of the Geyser Pass road will be closed when plowing operations are underway. After large snowstorms, recreationists can expect to wait a few days before the county is able to plow the road. The road won’t be closed during these periods—but it may be impassable. Please consult the UAC website for road condition updates and respect the closure when the county is plowing.
Last winter, the UAC added an avalanche beacon tester and an avalanche beacon training park at the Geyser Pass Trailhead. Both are designed to aid motorized and non-motorized winter backcountry users who intend to venture beyond the roads, meadows, and groomed trails into steeper, avalanche-prone terrain. Having a functioning avalanche beacon can mean the difference between life and death for those headed into the snowy backcountry.
To ensure that an avalanche beacon is on and functioning, users can pass a beacon tester installed at the trailhead: a green light will indicate that the beacon is working, a red X means that it is not.
Beyond the beacon tester sign, a control panel can activate multiple buried beacons so users can practice searching for them. It’s not enough just to have the right equipment, you have to know how to use it!
The Forest Service also coordinates volunteers from the Lower Utah Nordic Alliance (LUNA). LUNA volunteers groom approximately 12 km of trail from the Geyser Pass Trailhead over Geyser Pass and on the road into Gold Basin for both classic inline and skate skiing. The trails utilize meadows and areas adjacent to the road whenever possible. None of the groomed cross-country trails face a threat from avalanches. We would like to encourage motorized traffic to avoid the Gold Basin Road to preserve the grooming for cross country skiing. Excellent powder riding terrain for snowmobilers exists in the areas up and around Geyser Pass, off the Upper Two Mile Road and in the La Sal Pass area.
The Manti-La Sal National Forest and the UAC wish you a fun and safe winter. Dress well and be prepared for changing conditions in the mountains. If you plan to venture into the backcountry beyond the trailhead and groomed trails, learn to recognize avalanche terrain and take an avalanche course.
We will be offering our annual free Know Before You Go Avalanche Awareness talk at the Grand County Library on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 6:00 p.m.
Don’t forget to check the forecast before you head out, and we’ll see you up in the mountains this winter!
Eric Trenbeath is an avalanche forecaster for the USFS Utah Avalanche Center on the
Manti-La Sal National Forest. He started calling Moab home in the 1990s when he worked summers as a river guide and winters as a ski patroller in Alta, Utah. He has lived in Moab year-round since 1999.
“Don’t forget to check the forecast before you head out.”
– Eric Trenbeath