Buffalo Pass – Colorado’s deepest snowpack

buffalo-pass-steamboat-colorado (28)Buffalo Pass, located just North of the Steamboat Ski Area, across Fish Creek Canyon, is where Steamboat Powdercats has been operating our snowcat skiing tours since 1983.  Our special use permit, issued from the Routt National Forest allows us an exclusive guiding opportunity to access this remarkable powder factory. Satellite image here. Known for its Champagne Powder (TM), Northern Colorado, the Steamboat Ski Area and the terrain on Buffalo Pass receives some of the lightest and driest snow conditions in the entire world.  Where the Steamboat Ski area annual receives 330+ inches of snow accumulations per year, Buffalo Pass, just 10-miles north of Steamboat receives over 500+ inches per year.

An amazing difference in snow amounts for just a short distance away. We take daily snow levels at our mid-mountain cabin where we serve lunch and offer dinner, moonlight skiing tours.  We usually see our base of snow rise into the 100-inch range come mid-February.  During the 2010/11 season, this 100-inch (254 centimeters) depth was surpassed on January 21st. Buffalo Pass is situated in the Park Range which is a North-South mountain range.  During the winter, as storms come in from the Pacific Ocean on west and/or north-west flow, the Park Range is perfectly situated to block the moist air. As the air stalls and rises up and over the Park Range, this forms Orographic lifting which is a fancy term for “major snowfall”.  Read about this weather phenomenon here and here. In May of 2011, the snowpack levels on Buffalo Pass surpassed previous historic levels. Buffalo Pass officially topped a Colorado record for snow accumulation, making it truly the deepest snowpack in Colorado. That’s right, buffalo-pass-steamboat-colorado (36)the Tower Site, which measures remote snowpack levels for the Natural Resources Conservation Service,  hit a level never recorded in the history of record keeping here in Colorado. Read more about this historical snow amount here in the article from the Steamboat Pilot and Today and the Denver Post. How lucky are we to operate in this area?

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Elevations on Buffalo Pass range from 8272 feet in elevation to 10,804 feet on Soda Mountain and 10, 379 feet on Buffalo Mountain.  For reference, the elevation of Mt. Werner which is at the top of the Steamboat Ski Area is 10,568 feet (3224 meters). All of the terrain on Buffalo Pass is below “tree line” which in Colorado is around 12,000 feet.

buffalo-pass-steamboat-colorado (36)Named for the bison that remained on the pass after they had been exterminated elsewhere, the Pass was a common route for the early settlers to the area.  Buffalo Pass Road was originally built in 1894 south of a Ute tral that also went over the Continental Divide over the Pass.  The Park Range, of which Buffalo Pass is a part of was formed from a large anticlinal fault, and is composed primarily of Precambrian granitic rocks and gneisses, capped in places by Quaternary glacial tills and Tertiary volcanic extrusives. Although continental ice sheets did not extend into Colorado, the mountains did experience significant alpine glaciation during the last ice age, known as the Pleistocene.  In general, the Pleistocene (dating from roughly 1.6 million to 10,000 years before present was a time of greatly fluctuating climatic conditions. buffalo-pass-steamboat-colorado (20)Prior to European settlement of the area, Buffalo Pass was considered traditional Ute territory.  While other tribes came and went during the historic period (Arapahoe and Shoshone), the Utes remained until they were forcibly removed to Utah in 1879.  Even after their removal, the Ute often returned to visit and hunt.  A great fire conflagration raged across the top of Buffalo Pass in 1879.  Some blame a group of renegade Utes but others believe a group of homesteaders started the blaze in order to blame the Utes.  One can still see the beautiful old weather sculpted ‘veteran’ stumps from this historic fire. It was during this time that the US Cavalry was brought in to keep eye on the Utes.  On Soda Mountain there is a “Cavalry Point” on the southern flank of the mountain which historians believe the Cavalry was positioned to view the Yampa Valley from high.

naked-lady-tree-buffalo-passOther notable historic evidence that exists on Buffalo Pass are the interesting tree carvings from Peruvian sheep herders who were brought in to tend the sheep herds for local ranchers in the early 20th century.  Figures of naked ladies and cowboys in interesting positions are found deep in the Aspen forests and along travel routes.  Read Steamboat Magazine article about these carvings here. The first sawmill near Steamboat Springs was built in 1883 on Soda Creek which originates in the ski fields of Soda Mountain.When the Park Range Forest Reserve (now the Routt National Forest) was established in 1905 by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt, a long-time admirer of the area which he hunted in the 1890’s, there was a ranger station built on Buffalo Pass as a look out for fires.  It was later destroyed in 1941. Today, Buffalo Pass is one of the most visited areas in the Routt National Forest both during the winter and the summer.  Dry Lake Campground, where we base our snowcats out of during the winter is a hosted campground in the summer and sees thousands of campers during a typcial summer season.  This is also where the popular Spring Creek mountain bike trail summits.  Mountain biking on Buffalo Pass has become very popular and several “rogue” trails have appeared over the years offering exceptional downhill and cross country mountain biking opportuinties. Near Summit Lake, along Buffalo Pass Road, there is another campgound located there offering great fishing and hike to locations for other trails and smaller lakes along the Continental Divide.

buffalo-pass-steamboat-colorado (13)In the winter, Buffalo Pass is a major destination for not only those coming cat skiing with Steamboat Powdercats, but also for those looking for vast areas to snowmobile or backcountry ski and ride.  Due to its popularity and close proximity to Steamboat Springs, there are many conflicts existing on Buffalo Pass with the motorized and non-motorized passionate user groups looking to preserve a piece of the pie for their respective type of recreation. In the mid-2000’s, the Routt National Forest established the Buffalo Pass Winter Recreation area which now requires all users to receive a daily pass.  This pass allows users to have day access into the terrain and requires them to obey certain rules of the game. View map of area here.