Ski season looks a little different this year. Concerns about Covid-19 safety at ski resorts means social distancing, mask requirements, and closed indoor spaces.
For dedicated adventure-seekers, ski season doesn’t have to be canceled just because it’s 2020. Backcountry skiing offers extreme social distancing, and an opportunity to have open spaces in Colorado’s world-famous mountains to yourself.
Colorado offers backcountry skiing for all levels of experience — from beginner routes to extreme terrain. Venturing into the backcountry can be very rewarding for advanced skiers and riders.
But remember that backcountry skiing or snowboarding comes without traditional ski resort amenities such as ski patrol, restaurants, and equipment rentals. It also comes with extra risk, as the backcountry is also avalanche country.
Below we’ll explore the best backcountry skiing locations in Colorado for all skill levels, and how you can stay safe while doing it.
BACKCOUNTRY SKIING SAFETY FIRST
Safety should be your top priority when planning your backcountry skiing adventure.
Before setting foot in the backcountry, make sure everyone in your party is avalanche-aware and consider taking an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course or making arrangements with a professional mountain guide if you are not an expert.
When planning your out-of-bounds adventure, make sure to check the local weather and avalanche forecast to stay up to date on the conditions wherever you’re going. Lower your risk of getting caught in an avalanche by not traveling into the backcountry alone, and bringing safety equipment with you like an avalanche shovel, probe, and transceiver.
Don’t be deterred, but also don’t be caught unprepared.
Study your routes, and know what equipment is necessary to reach them. For example, will you need snowshoes to access the area? How will you get back to your vehicle? Do you need split skis or skins?
Plan ahead and be prepared so that you can focus on maximizing fun while adventuring in the backcountry.
BEST COLORADO BACKCOUNTRY SKIING
Now that we got safety out of the way, let’s move on to the fun!
For some, backcountry skiing means hiking into the wilderness to find isolated, peaceful trails. To others, it’s about climbing to the top of a mountain peak for the ultimate winter workout.
Regardless of your experience level or the type of backcountry skiing you enjoy, you’re guaranteed a crowd-free, pandemic-proof experience unlike anything else this winter.
Once you’ve got the essential gear and safety experience (see our safety notes above!), head to these areas for some of the best backcountry skiing in Colorado.
1. QUANDARY PEAK
Amazingly, there are 58 mountains in Colorado towering at over 14,000 feet. If skiing a “fourteener” is on your bucket list, then check out Quandary Peak in the Ten Mile Range.
Located only 6 miles away from Breckenridge and 2 hours from Denver, you can find established backcountry routes for all experience levels here.
The East Bowl is a good route for backcountry newbies to get started, with a not-too-steep ascent and a fun descent down a wide snow field, set in the beautiful alpine scenery. The avalanche danger is relatively low, but exercise caution on slopes steeper than 25 degrees (which you’ll come across on your way).
Don’t wander too far north, or you may run into what has been referred to as “Gnarnia” – dangerous cliffs and drops you don’t want to get near.
Other routes include Cristo Couloir, the North Gullies, and the North Couloir. Cristo Couloir is more popular, whereas the North Gullies and North Couloir (also known as Quandary Couloir) are left for expert-level skiers only.
All routes are very high elevation, so be sure to take altitude into account, take frequent breaks, and stay hydrated.
Once you’ve worked up your appetite, head to the nearby ski town of Breckenridge for some outdoor food and drink to refuel. Quandary Peak is also less than 15 minutes away from another easily accessible backcountry ski spot, Hoosier Pass. There is plenty of out-of-bounds territory to cover in this region.
2. LOVELAND PASS
Loveland Pass is only about an hour’s drive outside of Denver, making it a popular weekend destination for city-dwelling skiers. The 11,990-foot-high pass is sandwiched between Loveland Ski Area to the east and Arapahoe Basin to the west. It’s usually road accessible, but you’ll want to check for travel alerts and road closure information before heading out.
In pre-Covid times, skiers would park at the bottom and hitchhike their way up to the top, reuniting with their cars at the end of their run. These days, you’ll want to plan out your trip so you’re not exposed to strangers’ germs.
You can drop in right from the summit parking lot for an easier run, or you can hike (anywhere from 5 minutes to a couple of hours) to different routes for various skill levels. From the front side of Loveland Ski Area, head straight down into the trees, and you’ll be funneled back toward the highway.
The front side is mostly forested, so the avalanche risk is pretty low in this area. Bowl skiing is also available, but bear in mind that these areas are more avalanche-prone.
Check out the nearby towns of Keystone or Silverthorne if you’re on the hunt for some apres-ski options after your time on the slopes.
3. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Skiing the wilderness of one of the country’s most beautiful national parks? Yes, please.
Iconic Rocky Mountain skiing among 14,000-foot peaks is only an hour and a half drive away from Denver. From March through June, this is one of the best destinations for backcountry riding in Colorado.
A stash is a sought-after untouched pocket of powder. At more than 265,000 acres, “Rocky” is full of them. Keep in mind that most of the terrain in the park is advanced to expert level, demanding and technical with elevations up to 14,259 feet on Longs Peak. You may want to consider a guide to help you find these stashes while staying avalanche-safe.
You can access a wide variety of backcountry riding options via Bear Lake and Longs Peak trailheads.
For less experienced backcountry skiers who want to experience Rocky Mountain National Park without the technical demands of other routes, try Hidden Valley. This is a former ski resort west of Estes Park that has shut down, leaving 1,200 acres of prime ski slopes to tempt riders of all skill levels.
The safest area for beginner-intermediate backcountry riders is below the tree line, and is generally safe from avalanches. Hidden Valley also has some daring routes, such as the famous Dragontail Couloir descent into the Emerald Lake Basin. Under the right conditions, it’s possible to start from the summit of Flattop Mountain and descend all the way to Emerald Lake.
When skiing and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to soak up the amazing views and keep your eyes out for the abundant wildlife that calls the park home. You may come across elk, coyotes, snowshoe hares, and much more along the trail.
4. RED MOUNTAIN PASS
Some expert skiers consider the Red Mountain area near Silverton the best in the state, which is saying a lot in a state with seemingly endless backcountry options. However, the same elements that make it exciting and fun also make it dangerous — the avalanche danger is high, and preparation is a must.
This is such an active avalanche zone that Highway 550, the route to get there, has its own avalanche forecaster. Check the forecasts and plan accordingly, or work with a guide.
Red Mountain offers every type of out of bounds terrain you could want — from mellow tree runs to summits, traverses, couloirs, and bowls. It’s a total paradise for expert level skiers. As for beginner or intermediate backcountry riders, consider hiring a mountain guide to get you safely to the best routes.
Getting here is also part of the adventure. From Denver, Red Mountain is a 6 hour drive through some of the most scenic mountain areas in the country, including Ouray and the Million Dollar Highway.
Ouray is about 30 minutes away and Silverton is 20 minutes away, both offering old western mountain town vibes and plenty of dining options for the hungry skier.
5. BERTHOUD PASS
Berthoud Pass is another former ski resort-turned-backcountry-skiing mecca, and a great place for newer backcountry skiers to build their experience.
Entry-level skiers can drop in straight from the parking lot, meaning you won’t have to invest in skins or splitboards to access great skiing in this area.
There’s something for everyone here. The eastern side of the pass is more established, but those willing to set out into the western area will be rewarded with impressive terrain.
Only an hour outside of Denver and less than 20 minutes from Winter Park, Berthoud Pass offers sweeping views of the Continental Divide and receives a whopping 500 inches of snow every year.
Because of its convenient location, it can draw a crowd. But with that much fresh powder, there’s sure to be enough to go around. Plus, your camper rental with Overland Discovery will allow you to sleep nearby and get out there early to beat the crowds.
While this was once an established ski resort, remember that it’s no longer avalanche controlled since the resort closed in 2001. A local organization, Friends of Berthoud Pass, offers free avalanche awareness courses that can help you prepare for your backcountry adventure.
6. CRESTED BUTTE
Sometimes called Colorado’s last great ski town, Crested Butte is an ideal destination for avoiding the weekend crowds that gather at the ski resorts close to Denver like Breckenridge and Keystone, or more internationally-famous spots like Vail and Aspen.
Crested Butte is a secluded winter wonderland offering hundreds of routes for intermediate and advanced backcountry enthusiasts, located about 4.5 hours from Denver.
Crested Butte is home to a large ski resort, a local favorite, but beyond the ski resort limits you’ll be in backcountry heaven. Once you arrive, you’ll find yourself surrounded by mountain peaks, including several 12, 13, and 14,000 footers in the Elk Mountain Range.
The Red Lady Bowl on Mt. Emmons offers great challenging terrain, or try Snodgrass Mountain for some more entry-level skin-in ski-out options. You would be hard-pressed to run out of options in this backcountry paradise.
Downtown Crested Butte is a charming and colorful mountain town, offering everything from burgers and beer to Nepalese food and a French bistro. This is a great stop on your ski tour of Colorado.
WORLD-CLASS BACKCOUNTRY SKIING RIGHT OUT YOUR BACKDOOR
Colorado is home to endless incredible mountain peaks and vast backcountry skiing areas. There are options for everyone from the adventurous-but-less-experienced traveler on up to expert level athletes.
You don’t have to go very far outside the city to experience world-class skiing and riding. However, farther-flung adventures might reward you with more untouched powder.
Did we miss any of your favorite backcountry skiing destinations? Let us know in the comments!
RENT THE BEST BACKCOUNTRY SKIING VEHICLE
Overland Discovery’s fleet of adventure-ready rental vehicles is ready to get you out there in Colorado’s exceptional powder. We offer 4-wheel drive Jeep campers, fully-equipped campervans, and cozy compact RVs with interior heating.
You’ll have your lodging and transportation in one fun package, and you’ll be ready to hit the road from Denver to explore the endless backcountry opportunities throughout the state of Colorado. Check out our winter vehicle rentals today >
Once your legs are worn out from all that powder-hounding, there are even more snow adventures awaiting you in Colorado. Leave the running to the dogs on a dog sled ride, or soak your tired muscles in a hot spring. Check out our roundup of the most fun winter activities in Colorado. >