Colorado is the perfect destination for experienced backcountry skiers and riders who crave the thrill of riding through untouched powder nestled deep in the wilderness. Explore the quieter side of the mountains this winter season at some of our favorite backcountry ski areas found around the state. Here’s a look at just a few.
Editor’s Note: Backcountry skiing is dangerous. Serious injury or death may occur. Before you go, please be aware of the potential dangers lurking around in the snowy mountains including extremely difficult terrain, avalanche hazards, inclement weather, and frostbite conditions. All backcountry skiers should be avalanche certified. If you’re not, it’s best to take an avalanche safety course first. Most backcountry ski areas require some level of hiking. Planning ahead is critical for your SAFETY. Get more information about daily avalanche risks in Colorado at colorado.gov/avalanche.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
Dreams of a winter wonderland come true at Rocky Mountain National Park. The beauty of the backcountry can be reached by snowshoes, skis, or even hiking boots (lower elevations). Soar through the snowy trees of Hidden Valley, a former ski area also known as Ski Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. Backcountry runs include the top of Flattop Mountain, The Drift, North Bowl, and Ptarmigan Glacier. In addition to incredible views, don’t be surprised if you spot wildlife during your high altitude journey. The 265,769-acre park is a year-round home to elk, coyotes, deer, snowshoe hares, and an abundance of other wildlife.
Restrooms offering running water sit at the bottom of the Hidden Valley parking lot, located right off Trail Ridge Road. Sledders are also welcomed to join in on the alpine fun, but no metal runners are allowed. Ranger-led cross country ski and snowshoe tours are also available with reservations made in advance.
2. Loveland Pass
Welcome to a backcountry skier’s dream – a beautiful 11,991-foot mountain pass situated along the Continental Divide and just 60 miles west of Denver. Loveland Pass offers plenty of legendary backcountry bowl and tree skiing. If you’re familiar with ski country, note that Loveland Ski Area is located at the eastern end of the pass and Arapahoe Basin is on the west side. This backcountry spot is especially convenient as skiers and riders can easily shuttle to the top for lapping. Before you go, give CDOT a quick scan. Occasionally, the high altitude mountain pass shuts down due to severe winter weather.
3. Pikes Peak
Take your winter adventures to a whole new level by exploring the snow-covered slopes of Pikes Peak. Skiing America’s Mountain is a lifelong dream for many but dangerous fields of jagged rocks, sheets of ice, and steep snowy chutes leave no room for error. The Little Italy Couloir is one of the most challenging routes, even for the most experienced backcountry riders. Other hotspots found on the mountain include the Bowl, Flying W, The Chimney, Rock Garden, and Cornice. See a map here. NOTE: Conditions can vary greatly on Pikes Peak. Beware of icy sections. People die on this peak while backcountry skiing on a regular basis.
Backcountry skiing on Pikes Peak is only recommended for EXPERT level skiers. Serious injury and death may occur. If you decide to go, be sure to plan ahead and use extreme caution. To access the magnificent backcountry terrain on the mountain, you’ll need to take the Pikes Peak Highway. The proximity to the highway makes this one easy to shuttle. Fees apply. It’s also worth mentioning that the scenic highway typically closes at higher elevations during periods of bad weather.
4. Mayflower Gulch
Venture off the beaten path to shreds fresh pillowy powder surrounded by high-altitude views of Mayflower Gulch. This wild and wondrous alpine setting is located a short distance away from Copper Mountain and Breckenridge Ski Resort, offering the ideal experience for ski bums. Gold Hill is one of the more notable runs. A short 1.8-mile trek climbing through the snowy pines will lead you there. Make your way past the abandon Boston Mine Ruins, and get ready to ride!
5. Herman Gulch
If you want to ski endless powder loaded with unbeatable alpine views, hit the backcountry at Herman Gulch. Located just 20 miles outside of Idaho Springs, escape to the snowy mountains and get ready for an enchanting ascent fully loaded with views of the Continental Divide – spectacular during any season. To get there simply take Exit 218 off I-70. Upon your arrival, a large parking lot awaits skiers and riders eager to set off and explore the snow-filled terrain of all varieties hidden along this true backcountry gem.
6. Indian Peak Wilderness
Explore the rugged and wild slopes of Indian Peak Wilderness. There’s plenty of backcountry magic waiting to be discovered at this high-altitude destination, located just a short car ride away from Denver and Boulder. The area is vast, featuring a variety of ascents including the Crooked Couloir on Mount Audubon, three areas on Saint Vrain Mountain, and the Lost Lake Glades. The East Portal of Moffat Tunnel is another top pick among backcountry enthusiasts. Find more routes here.
7. Quandary Peak
Skiing a Colorado fourteener is certainly a bucket list worthy adventure for both locals and out-of-towners. This winter, discover the thrill of surfing down the all-natural powdery slopes of Quandary Peak. Choose from four well-established backcountry routes on the mountain: the East Bowl (ideal for newcomers to backcountry skiing), Cristo Couloir, the North Gullies, and the North Couloir. Read more about skiing these routes here. After a long day of climbing high above the trees and shredding deep powder, head to Breckenridge (6 miles away) for mountain town vibes, delicious grub, and crafty refreshments. NOTE: People have died backcountry skiing on this peak in recent years. Watch out for hidden obstacles.
Skiing the backcountry is extremely dangerous and fourteeners are no joke, especially during the winter season where you’re bound to battle blistering cold temperatures, strong gusty winds, and rapidly changing weather conditions.
Editor’s Note: Be avalanche aware. Before stepping foot in the backcountry, always check the local avalanche forecast at colorado.gov/avalanche. Common factors seen in reported avalanche accidents include traveling into the backcountry alone, stagging in high danger areas, and lack of proper rescue equipment (avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe). Don’t make these same mistakes. Play it safe and be prepared for accessing the backcountry. Exercise caution and always go with your gut feeling. For more tips on backcountry safety, click here.