A snowmobile, with tow ropes for skiers, parked in the "marina" behind the gondola building at the top of Aspen Mtn. The marina, on private land, is to be closed by Aspen Skiing Co, and the sleds may end up on the side of adjacent county roads.
A snowmobile, with tow ropes for skiers, parked in the \ Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Users of the snowmobile parking area at the top of Aspen Mountain known as “the marina” are likely to be informed by Aspen Skiing Co. officials this winter that they are trespassing on private land and should park elsewhere.

“We would ask that you don’t use the marina, or private land, as a parking spot,” said Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s vice president of mountain operations. “We would ask that you find another place to park your sled.”

The marina area is informal and does not have any infrastructure such as “berths” for sleds, or a fueling station. It is simply a snow-covered knoll 125 steps behind the gondola building, and just off of the two county roads that come together there.

Last winter, there were as many as 50 snowmobiles parked there on a given day. Primary users include residents of the Little Annie basin who drive up to ski or take the gondola to town, and those who ride the gondola to reach their parked snowmobiles and then make laps in the powder off of Richmond Ridge or travel further out the road.

While Burkley said SkiCo is focusing this season on education and is not going to begin an aggressive enforcement campaign, the company does have the right to call the sheriff’s office to complain of trespassing, which could lead to a misdemeanor ticket and a court appearance. (It also has the right to simply remove sleds left on its property).

There are no parking options for snowmobilers that are both convenient and legal, as SkiCo owns 150 acres of private land at the top of Ajax, extending back about a half mile on Richmond Ridge Road and a third of a mile down Midnight Mine Road.

And it is illegal to park a snowmobile within the 60-foot rights-of-way of the two county roads that frame the marina, which are Richmond Ridge and Midnight Mine roads.

Under state law, a snowmobile is not considered a “vehicle,” even though it must be registered with the state, so Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said the state’s motor vehicle laws don’t apply. Instead, the sheriff’s department views a parked snowmobile as abandoned property, even if it has only been left for a few hours, DiSalvo said.

And it is illegal to abandon property, be it a snowmobile or a kitchen appliance, on public land. So a parked sled within the right-of-way of a county road can be ticketed and towed. That often happens in the spring when deputies clean up snowmobiles left in county-approved staging areas on lower Midnight Mine and Little Annie roads.

It is only 125 steps from this sled to the entrance to the Aspen Mtn. gondola building, making it easy to access from downtown Aspen.
It is only 125 steps from this sled to the entrance to the Aspen Mtn. gondola building, making it easy to access from downtown Aspen.Smith Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

So will the sheriff’s office ticket and tow snowmobiles that are parked this winter along the county roads near the gondola building? Probably not, unless they are blocking traffic, which in the winter consists of other snowmobiles, and commercial and private snowcats.

“I’m willing to give the rules a wide berth until the public has a little more education on this,” DiSalvo said. “And what happens is going to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”

Burkley said he understands that “it is a real possibility, even a probability” that sleds will end up along the county roadway near the marina.

And while that could be problematic, as parked snowmobiles have blocked the roads in the past, SkiCo still feels it needs to act to protect itself against the legal exposure of snowmobile drivers parking on its private land.

“Internally, the liability has been a huge concern,” Burkley said.

Despite that concern, SkiCo has been lax over the years on asserting its private property boundaries near the marina, even though the area is currently signed as “private property.”

And SkiCo has even condoned parking there as part of an informal agreement with Powder to the People, a small group of locals who use snowmobiles to access fresh powder off of Richmond Ridge.

What has changed this season for SkiCo though is clear direction from the U.S. Forest Service on the travel management plan for the White River National Forest.

The plan was approved earlier this year. And in August, it was affirmed after a series of appeals were denied, including one from Powder to the People.
Under the travel management plan, the area on the Difficult Creek side of Richmond Ridge is to remain closed to public snowmobile use. 

The only motorized use allowed in that area is by a special-permit holder authorized by the Forest Service — in this instance, SkiCo’s Aspen Mountain Powder Tours.

“The two things that brought it into real clarity are the travel management plan being approved and the volume increase of users,” Burkley said of SkiCo’s decision on the marina, where he counted 44 sleds one day last winter.

“When you had six sleds back there, it was not as noticeable,” he said. “When you have 44, that’s a pretty big parking lot.”

Editor’s note: This story was published on Nov. 29 in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...