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Beyond the Ikonic and the Epic: A Guide to Colorado’s Backcountry


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Edited to include an additional safety note from the author.

Grady James, Mt. Sneffel

 

Additional Safety Note:

Covid-19 has brought many unexpected trends to the world. For the backcountry and Outdoor Industry, the city shutdowns have created a surge of people desperate to get out of their homes and experience their surroundings, even if just for a place to not have to wear a mask. Our inability to travel has only exacerbated this. For many skiers the short lived 2019-2020 season was devastating, but it also forced a lot of them to find new methods to get on their skis. The backcountry offers that opportunity and it’s only more enticing now that the resorts are either closed, opening with limited capacity, require reservations, or can’t guarantee to stay open. 

Our intention with this article is to share the opportunity and we want to address valid concerns that the ever growing popularity of the backcountry, where infrastructure simply can’t handle the traffic, can be devastating to the backcountry, our environment, ourselves, and other people. We all need to be mindful. More people will also mean more human caused avalanches, which will inevitably lead to more deaths, especially for those unprepared. And with an already strained first responder system and the ever present risk of COVID-19, you are not only risking your own safety and the ability to evacuate you, you’re risking the lives of those around you. 

We stress – in the most serious of terms – that you need to be prepared if you’ll be skiing in the backcountry. This means that you have the proper gear, that you have a friend or two, that you’ve taken an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research Education) course, and that you are familiar with avalanche controlled areas and beacon parks in order to have adequate experience with your gear in a safe environment. The outdoor industry is growing and with it so are the dangers. Please make sure that you are prepared and that you NEVER take the backcountry lightly.

 
 

Resorts may crumble and chairlifts can fall but the pursuit for untouched bowls and hellish windblown peaks will live on, for nothing can take away our dreams of 4,000ft descents and fresh powder facials. With uncertainty around every corner and the head-spinning price tags of some of Colorado’s best season passes, we’re looking beyond the posh and the groomed and going where the crowds won’t.

Although some of these may be considered entry-level sites, please be aware that all backcountry excursions require the skills, knowledge, gear, and rationality to not only succeed but to survive.

 

Local Gear Shops

Angles Sports Exchange – Located in Longmont, Angles isn’t your typical ski shop. Their well-informed staff provide excellent info for your backcountry excursions, and they even rent telemark equipment! Whether you’re looking to skin, snowshoe, or cross country ski your way through the backcountry, Angles is there to support you.

Neptune Mountaineering – This family-owned brick and mortar staple is a force to reckon with for all of Colorado. They can’t provide you with the rationale to make good decisions, but at least they can inform you and provide the right gear. Head over to Neptune for all your backcountry skiing and mountaineering needs.

Crystal Ski Shop – Situated on the corner of 28th and Walnut, Crystal Ski Shop is Boulder’s best rental specific ski shop. Offering a wide range of brands, they’ll get you set up for a day or for the whole season. Best of all and especially useful for this article, they rent all-terrain setups for the backcountry and will even provide the beacon, shovel, and probe for just $15 more.

Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides– Money well spent. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed pro amongst chum, you’re Jimmy Chin, or you just don’t have a clue, Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides will set you up with fun, professional, and incredibly knowledgeable individuals to take you to new heights and, hopefully, new extremes.

Colorado Mountain School – They are currently offering a free avalanche awareness course. When you’re done with that, they have a wide range of backcountry safety courses to get you up to speed and ready to hit all the gnarliest lines in Colorado. Do yourself a favor and get schooled with the best before you attempt the backcountry.

 

The Lost Resorts of Colorado

 

Berthoud Ski Area | South of Winter Park

 

This ski area closed in 2001 and now provides a backcountry experience with a once upon a time on-piste backdrop. That means it’s an entry level area, but you still need to know what you’re doing. This is one of the busier areas on the list, though not as busy as the resorts, so time it right, get up early, miss the hordes, and hit the pow. Worst case, you’ll see some others tearing it up alongside you, and that’s alright as well.

 

Geneva Basin Ski Area | South of Georgetown

 

Having opened in 1963, the resort fought the good fight until 1984 when a chairlift fell and Geneva Basin was forced to close until proper maintenance was completed. After several unsuccessful attempts to get Geneva Basin back up and running, the U.S. Forest Service decided to burn down the lodge and all hopes of resurrection disappeared into oblivion. It’s about 4 miles to the base from the parking lot and 1,200ft gain. After that, it’s up to you how many runs you’re willing to take.

 

Cuchara Mountain | South of La Veta

 

This resort closed in 2000 but it hasn’t completely faded. The old rental office now serves as a day lodge that’s open on select weekends, along with 50 or so acres that are still skiable. With well-defined trails and a variety of different grades, Cuchara is an excellent place to learn or excel. If Cuchara isn’t enough, you can always drop off the backside and explore the entire San Isabel National Forest that surrounds it.

 

Hidden Valley | Estes Park

 

Ah, the gateway to the Rockies! Although there’s some of the best backcountry skiing hiding within the boundaries of the National Park, Estes Park has a little slice of heaven as well, called Hidden Valley. Opened in 1955 and closed in 1991, the resort now serves as an accessible backcountry area with a 2,000ft vertical drop. You’ll need to skin or snowshoe up Trail Ridge Road and then head higher and higher above the treeline until you find the powder.

 

The Big Mamas

 

Loveland Pass | Near Loveland Ski Area

 

You know it, I know it, even your neighbor knows it. We’ve all seen people hitch-hiking along Route 6 for another run and to be honest, we can’t blame them. Yeah, it’s famous and well known and easily accessible, but for good reason. There are lines for the beginners and chutes for the pros, trees for me, and open bowls for you, and with Route 6 right there you’ll be taking laps all day. Covid is still around so hitch-hiking is more difficult this season, we recommend taking two cars and going with your pod.

 

Vail Pass | West of Copper Mountain

 

Vail, land of the glamorous. Good thing Vail Pass is 20 minutes east of Vail, and for most just a passing point for those driving by. This area is also used by snowmobilers so lookout and head to the less populated non-motorized routes. Shrine Pass Ski Trail is easier, Corral Creek is intermediate, and if you’re looking for a challenge take the 4.5-mile route to Janet’s Cabin via Wilder Gulch. For the pros, head to the chutes on the southeast side of Uneva Peak.

 

Rocky Mountain National Park | Estes Park

 

Yup, you can ski the NP, but you might need some help. Unless you’re good and I mean real good, finding the perfect line will come down to your navigation skills, line identifying ability, weather, and commitment to the challenge. RMNP isn’t for the easily deterred so for those with the resilience, the skillset, and the right beta those 40+ degree lines will be there for the taking come April when conditions close in on perfect. Luckily for the rest of us, there are lots of guides willing to show you the way, check out Colorado Mountain School for the hookup.

Crested Butte Backcountry Area  |Crested Butte

Crested Butte is a trek but perhaps that’s why it’s the last great Colorado Ski Town. Surrounded by epic peaks, there are lots of options to go skiing beyond the resort. Crested Butte also gets one of the largest snowfalls in Colorado. Most of the backcountry will be for advanced skiers, but areas such as Coney’s via the Washington Gulch Trailhead or the Anthracites are a delight.

 

Aspen Backcountry Area | Aspen

 

A little place called Aspen. Although you won’t find very much backcountry access within the town itself without the help of the resorts, you can head out via Castle Creek Road and find some fresh snow by following Express Creek Road. This will lead you to the 10th Mountain Division’s Markley Hut from where several trails start and end. If you’re looking for the extreme, check out Mt. Sopris, 25 miles North of Aspen.

 

Backcountry Wilderness Areas

 

 

Indian Peaks – Navajo Peak / Apache Peak  | Nederland / Ward

 

Some of the closest backcountry skiing to Boulder County, and definitely some of the best. Brainard Lake Trailhead will be the closest you’ll get until the road to Long Lake opens back up in June. The two 13,000ft peaks present an inspiring approach and three delectable lines for your choosing. If you play your cards right and leave early, you could probably be back in time for work.

 

Butler’s Gulch | South of Winter Park

 

Take the main skin track to Butler Bowl. From there you can access the bowl itself, Power Line, and Point 12,085. All the routes exit at the skin track or at the creek (from which you may need to climb out of and back to the skin track to head home). If you’re desperate for powder get to Butler Gulch as soon as the storm stops, the winds will already be gearing up and all that fresh snow will be blown before you know it.

 

Hoosier Pass | South of Breckenridge

 

Avalanches! Whether you’re skiing Mt. Lincoln, Quandary Peak, or the Red Mountain Glades, Hoosier Pass is a great backcountry location while staying close to Breckenridge. Avalanche danger is high in this area so be careful and come prepared. This area is littered with gullies and peaks and a great opportunity to hone in some of your more technical skills. And for those who want to experience this place without as much worry, there’s also great cross-country options.

 

Red Mountain Pass | San Juan Mountains

 

The San Juans, sharp, jagged peaks that condemn the weary and condone the rad. These mountains are beastly, beautiful and offer incredible backcountry opportunities, this being just one of them. Between Ouray and Silverton is a place called Black Bear Pass Trailhead, opposite of Forest Rd. 825. Take this road until you reach a gully 1/10th of a mile past St. Paul’s Lodge. From there it’s open country and definitely avalanche territory so you’ll need to know what that means if you want to continue.

 

Cameron Pass | Fort Collins

 

You’ll be up against the FOCO locals but supposedly they’re all pretty friendly, so your odds are good. This area is huge so we’re sticking to South Diamond Peak, the proclaimed epi-center of Cameron Pass. If you want to find the hidden gems – which there are plenty of – you’re on your own. With a fairly straight forward skin track that ascends steeply, South Diamond Peak provides seven established lines and lots of area to play. Chutes, avalanche slides, and spooky cornices await.

 

Monarch Pass | Salida

 

350 inches of snow a year, which is twenty-nine feet! Just East of Salida and near Monarch Resort there’s plenty of intermediate and expert trails to explore. Snow Stake is a great intermediate option, and for those looking for a longer day, the Tour de Monarch Pass offers a 3.5 mile round trip with 2000ft worth of climbing and 3000ft of descent. For the experts, check out Point 11692 or head to the Grand Couloir on Mt. Aetna.

 

Clark Peak | Medicine Bow Mountains

 

63 miles north of Fort Collins lies the easily accessible Blue Lake Trailhead, for the highest mountain in the Medicine Bow Range. This one is less established offering lots and lots of possibilities, including several stacked bowls, forming a length not so steep descent. You’ll need to be on top of your backcountry navigation skills to comfortably ski this area and get yourself back to the trailhead.

 

14’ers

 

Mt. Sneffels  |Yankee Bowl Basin near Ouray

 

Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. The two options are either axe your way up the chute or axe your way along its East Ridge while audaciously gazing at Telluride lying graciously 5,000ft below you. This is for the best of the best, meaning the reward and the risk are immense. Not only do you dare the high risk of avalanches but you are walking on the very edge of the San Juans eagerly grasping for one of the best lines in Colorado.

 

Quandary Peak |Hoosier Pass

 

It’s the 13th tallest 14er and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The altitude, the risk of avalanche, the wind, and the cold will all factor into your success. Although the risk of avalanche is lower due to the more subtle grade, don’t be fooled by its comparisons to other places on this list. After ascending the East Ridge, you’ll have either the North or the South Gully to choose from, ranging from 2,575ft to 3,250ft in elevation.

 

Mt. Bierstadt | South of Georgetown

 

Depending on the road conditions to Guanella pass, you might need to bring a snowmobile or embrace a lengthy skin to the summer trailhead. From there it’s a fairly mellow ascent to the summit at which point you’ll be righteously embraced by a mighty sea of something frozen. You can certainly head over to Mt. Evans and ski some of the gullies on the North East side, but then you’d be in for a pretty long day and those runs are fairly well known. Instead, make your way back down Bierstadt minding the rocks poking out along the way. Take extra care to make sure there’s enough snow before you head out.

 

Mt. Elbert | Twin Lakes

 

Although it’s the tallest 14er in Colorado, it isn’t the most difficult to ascend. Follow the East Ridge to the summit and from there take the infamous Box Creek Couloirs dropping right around 2000ft and meeting back up with the East Ridge ascent route. From BOCO, head to Twin Lakes, and turn off Colorado 82 towards the Mt. Elbert Trailhead. At close to 14 miles and over 4,000ft of gain, you’ll have plenty to fill your day with.

 

ONE LAST NOTE: 

 

In the backcountry, there are no chairlifts, no trails, and no boundaries to guide you. There’s no base lodge, or made-to-order burgers waiting for you after a long day on the slopes. There’s no price tag, no lines, and certainly no slow signs. Instead, the backcountry offers up wide-open ranges, rolling valleys, and dense forests to carve, float, and pummel your way through. A merciless opportunity to explore the untamed and unstructured. A place where opportunities are seemingly endless, where the only thing standing between you and 4000ft of waist-deep fresh tracks, is you. So go on, sign-up for that safety course, buy or borrow that gear, plan that trip, and take that very first step towards a life beyond the ikonic and the epic

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