Grab your inner tube the Cinch Hook snowplay area north of Strawberry is once again open to the public.
"We haven't even had a chance to do a press release on this, and people are flocking to Cinch Hook," Karen Malis-Clark, Coconino National Forest's public affairs officer, said. "People are just finding their way there."
Cinch Hook a large, tree-free hill off Highway 87 on top of the Rim was open for years to winter thrill-seekers, managed by the Coconino National Forest and run by a private concessionaire.
It closed in 1995 when the Forest Service lost its concessionaire, couldn't find a new one and decided the liability risk was too great. It's been closed ever since. Folks who stopped to play anyway were often shooed off by the long arm of the law.
This year, however, Blue Ridge District Ranger Larry Sears said he's had a change of heart.
"We were having an extreme amount of difficulty in trying to manage the crowds of people stopping to play there anyway," Sears said. "Then we were getting a lot of negative response from the action we were having to take.
"Since there was a potential liability whether it was opened or not, we decided to (give managing it another try)."
Parking, however, is still a problem at Cinch Hook, Malis-Clark said. There's only minimal parking at Cinch Hook itself, and parking along the shoulder of Highway 260 is illegal. Forest officials are working on a solution to that problem.
"Eventually, I think we'd like to make this a fee site," Sears said, "charging people to park there, and using that money to help manage it. Right now, we're taking money out of our summer budget to cover costs."
Sears said Cinch Hook opened without fanfare last month on President's Day weekend. Crews bladed the area Friday, Feb. 17, and it opened Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
"We had an average of 500 to 600 visitors each day," he said. "These are just people who were going up there anyway to play illegally."
While Cinch Hook will be open on a trial basis for the remainder of the winter, rules still exist to minimize the risk of injury. Only inflatable or plastic equipment is allowed, "specifically, we don't want any wood or metal devices up there," Sears said. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday only; weekday play is strictly prohibited.
For the latest conditions at Cinch Hook, call the Blue Ridge Ranger Station at (520) 477-2255, or the Happy Jack Information Center at (520) 477-2172.