The Rocky Mountains are an epicenter for outdoor enthusiasts. With the winter season approaching fast, we mustn't forget that Colorado is a must for backcountry skiers.
While the state is home to 32 world-class ski resortsEvery year more and more skiers venture into the wild snow of the hinterland. Colorado backcountry skiing is among the best in the country, and there are nearly endless acres to explore in the state's many national forests and parks.
Below are some of the best places to ski in Colorado.
A quick note on exploring the hinterland on skis
Backcountry skiing allows for immeasurable freedom and solitude in an often pristine winter environment, but it carries a real risk. While hunting wild powder is always tempting, it's not an endeavor that should be taken lightly.
Anyone who dares to venture into the hinterland in winter should take it upon themselves to enroll in the right avalanche training, decision making and rescue courses. In addition, every backcountry traveler must wear the appropriate equipment. If all of this is new to you, this article is an excellent introduction to the matter. After you get familiar with safety, check out ours Beginner's Guide to Backcountry Skiing, and the Primer for backcountry ski equipment.
When you've taken the courses, have the equipment, and are ready to explore all that skiing in Colorado has to offer, read on!
Ski touring in Colorado
Bluebird Backcountry offers avalanche-rated backcountry terrain. Photo by Scott Cody
- skill level: Beginner to advanced
- Dominant terrain: Clearings, bowls, some steps
- Best season: Christmas until the end of March
- Distance from Denver: 133 miles
Bluebird Backcountry is the country's first backcountry ski area. The area, which is 30 minutes outside of Kremmling and Steamboat Springs, has 1,200 avalanche acres and 3,000 guided acres out of bounds. There are also seven marked skin tracks here.
The mountain itself is perfectly geared towards new backcountry users, education, skill development, and curious backcountry users who are a little more risk averse. That said, there is serious terrain for those who want to push it a little harder too. Check out your website to learn more.
Photo credit: Paul A. Fagan
- skill level: Beginner to Expert
- Dominant terrain: Clearings, cliffs and steep skiing
- Best season: End of January until well into spring
- Distance from Denver: 55 miles
Berthoud Pass has grown in popularity over the years for good reason. This former ski area is relatively close to Denver and generally has most of the snow on the Front Range.
While it can get crowded, with a little work on your skin, you can safely escape into the hinterland and find pristine powder supplies. There are some extreme options in the area, but the Berthoud Pass is particularly suitable for those who just want to dive into the hinterland.
- skill level: Intermediate to advanced
- Dominant terrain: Mostly powder fields and trees with some cliff features
- Best season: February well into spring
- Distance from Denver: 60 miles
Loveland Pass is only about an hour from Denver and, when combined with easy off-road access, can draw the crowds. That said, if you're looking to take your next step into the wild, the easy hitchhiking loops on Loveland Pass can be a natural progression from a place like Bluebird Backcountry or Berthoud Pass. While there is a lot of terrain in this zone, you will share it with many other skiers.
It's worth noting that Loveland sees quite risky behavior, as many people don't carry beacons or probes or shovels. But it was also the scene of one of the deadliest avalanches in Colorado in recent years. Be respectful, kind, and practice safe back country etiquette.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo credit: Rocky Mountain National Park
- skill level: Advanced to become an expert
- Dominant terrain: Couloirs, slides, alpine faces
- Best season: Spring into summer
- Distance from Denver: 70 miles
For the seasoned skier, the famous Rocky Mountain National Park is hands down one of the best places to ski in Colorado. RMNP is arguably the most aesthetic place in the state to ride a skin rink. It is a paradise for experienced skiers.
Rocky Mountain has some of the best ski mountaineering destinations in the country, from challenging couloirs to open faces with high consequences. Most of the lines in the park are only suitable for skiing when the conditions are perfect, and that generally doesn't happen until spring.
The avalanche danger in RMNP is real, so skiers must be in their A-game.
Photo credit: RPerro
- skill level: Something for all levels of difficulty
- Dominant terrain: Clearings, bowls, couloirs, alpine faces
- Best season: January to summer, with steps stabilizing in late spring / early summer
- Distance from Denver: 200 miles
For many, Aspen is synonymous with Colorado skiing, and that reputation extends to the backcountry as well. While the Aspen area is home to a handful of world-class resorts, the hinterland behind the gates is also some of the best in the state.
Depending on how hard you are willing to work, there is a terrain for every type of skier and every ability. Lots of great side areas are directly accessible from the lifts, but if you do a little work, you'll be rewarded in kind. Powder stashes and clearings are great for skiing most of the winter, and very steep, technical alpine lines open up in spring and early summer.
Photo credit: Robin Hastings
- skill level: Expert. Be extremely careful and check mountain conditions with local guides before trying.
- Dominant terrain: Couloirs and Alpine bowls
- Best season: Spring
- Distance from Denver: 100 miles
America's mountain is also one of the state's most desirable ski mountaineering destinations. Conditions on Pikes Peak can be unpredictable, and skiing in couloirs, ledges, or faces on this epic mountain is only recommended for experienced skiers.
The old Pikes Peak ski area, located just off the Pikes Peak Highway, has low angle turns that tend to hold large snow while avoiding avalanche hazards.
Steeper lines on the mountain are sure to test your limits, but the rewards for a successful ski mission on Pikes Peak are well worth it. Spring is generally the best time to try.