Snowmobiling offers different way to see the snow-covered wilderness

Posted Feb. 22, 2012, at 4:25 p.m.

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — There’s something about turning onto Kaiser Pass Road from Huntington Lake that always feels like entering the wilderness. Regardless of your method of travel.

I’ve hiked up the Central California road carrying a 35-pound backpack, mountain biked, drove and cross-country skied.

But none of those times was as enjoyable as earlier this week, when I got to experience going to 9,200 feet with a 550 cubic centimeter engine underneath my seat. It was only my second time on snowmobile, thanks to an invitation from Dave Newton, co-owner of Rancheria Enterprises, but it probably won’t be the last.

During the summer, Rancheria Enterprises is a full-service marina. But during the winter, snowmobile rentals, service and sales account for a huge chunk of the business.

“It’s a really big sport around here, and it’s growing,” Newton says. “Last year, our Sno-Parks were totally packed. Every trail was utilized to the max with snowmobiles.”

This year, with the Southern Sierra snowpack a paltry 38 percent of normal, it’s a different story. Most of Rancheria’s rental fleet of 23 machines sit covered and unused. But timing is everything. The night before my arrival, it snowed about a foot. So we got to break trail all the way up to Kaiser Pass.

Our primary destination was White Bark Vista, the panoramic viewpoint above Kaiser Pass. According to Newton, it’s one of the three most popular day trips from Huntington Lake, along with Mount Tom and Mono Hot Springs.

On skis, it would me take most of a day to cover the 8.5 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain from Huntington Lake to White Bark Vista. But on a snowmobile, it takes us 45 minutes, including a photo stop and the time it took Newton to help me pry my sled out of deep powder after I got it stuck going off-trail.

No matter how many times I’ve visited White Bark Vista, the view never gets old. But this day — with fresh snow coating the peaks located along the Silver and Mono divides and clear air lacking even a hint of smog — was more jaw-dropping than ever.

“Everything looks different in winter,” Newton says.

Ten minutes later, we’re back on the road headed for Kaiser Pass Meadow. In the summer of ’85, I played an epic game of tackle football out there with 30 fellow Boy Scout camp counselors. So to see the meadow covered with fresh, untracked snow (well, at least before we got there) brought back a flood of memories.

As long as you don’t count that one uphill corner I overcooked, driving the snowmobile was fairly easy. And the more time I spent on the sled, the less the noisy whine from the two-stroke engine bothered me. While not nearly as strenuous as cross-country skiing, my stiff lower back and shoulders attest that there was some effort required.

Sometimes it’s good to slip out of your comfort zone and try something new.

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