Colorado is one of the most popular areas for backcountry skiing in North America, and with good reason. Vast amounts of terrain and endless snowy winter wonderlands await those who are willing to earn their turns. If you are just getting started with backcountry skiing it can be intimidating to feel ready to get out there and that you can handle yourself safely in unpatrolled territory.
For that reason, we put together this list of beginner friendly areas of budding backcountry skiers and riders. Take a look, find some ski partners, make a plan, and get to shredding!
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Rocky Mountain National Park (Hidden Valley)
Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, CO (about 1.5 hour drive from Denver) is home to an expansive variety of backcountry ski terrain. While many are drawn to the steep chutes and technical terrain in Rocky Mountain, there are several beginner areas that are low angle and therefore relatively safer ski areas.
Hidden Valley is a popular spot that is great for beginners. The area used to be home to the Hidden Valley Resort that shut down in 1991, and you can still tell where the runs used to be by the cutouts in the trees. Most lines are a fairly low profile (equivalent to green or blue runs).
Hidden Valley can be crowded during the weekends, but luckily you are nearby Bear Lake and Dream Lake in case you need other options.
In between Loveland Resort and Arapahoe Basin lies Loveland Pass. This is another popular area, especially considering its proximity to two local ski mountains. Typically, skiers and riders can start their descent right at the parking lot at the pass, or hike to further or fresher terrain. Once at the bottom, you can hitchhike or draw straws on who has to walk back up the switchbacks to the car.
Another contributing factor to the popularity of Loveland Pass is that many of the hikes can be done on foot without touring specific gear because they are either hard packed from the wind or so often traveled the snow is already packed. In this sense, its one of the few places easy for skiers and riders without touring specific setups to get some free laps in.
On the way to Winter Park, CO is the switchback drive up and down Berthoud Pass. The area is popular for backcountry skiing and has a plethora of routes to choose from. A great beginner run that is fun on powder days and easy to lap is the lower CDW West route right from the parking lot at the top of Berthoud Pass. On the other side of the road, you can do the obvious, but short line called Powderline.
Alternatively, Berthoud Pass is closeby to Jones Pass. Jones Pass is an easy to navigate area that has some solid open bowl skiing options. The area is serviced by a cat skiing operator that takes guided groups.
There is a quite extensive network of winter recreation opportunities off of Vail Pass. This is a hugely popular sport not just for backcountry skiers and riders, but for snowmobiling and guided trips as well. Vail Pass has a nice winter recreation map that designates difficulty and what kind of traffic is allowed. This kind of coordination makes it one of the better managed and easily navigated backcountry areas out there. The Shrine Pass trail is a non-motorized, easy ski path that is well suited for beginners, however be sure not to accidentally venture off into steeper and more dangerous terrain.
Just down the road from Copper Mountain Ski Resort is a wide and very easy approach to some really nice low angle terrain. Mayflower is a gem because of both the ease of access, ease of terrain, and it is incredibly scenic. Taking a small detour of Gold Hill gives you a range of possible lines on an open face and into gentle glades.
For the more advanced, there are some expert lines up Fletcher Peak that you likely need an ice axe and crampons to access.
Herman Gulch has a large parking lot just short of Loveland Resort, off of exit 218 on I-70. You follow the normal Herman Gulch hiking trail for a bit until after a few miles it turns uphill toward the lake. At this point you continue straight up the drainage to get to the Citadel and surrounding peaks, where you will have a few options of lines to choose from for your descent.
Herman has some pretty amazing alpine views and of the Continental Divide and provides a pretty stunning backcountry experience.
When you are ready to step up your game, Quandary Peak will be waiting for you as a comparatively easy 14er to go skiing off. Quandary isn’t just a bucket list item for adventurers wanting to brag about skiing 14ers. It is genuinely a fun day in the backcountry. There are several well-established routes ideal for people who still consider themselves beginner backcountry skiers.
The east bowl contains pretty low angle slopes that are generally on the safer side, with the East Ridge and Northeast Bowls being best bets for newcomers.
Keep in mind, this is still a 14er that is no easy hike in summer months and will not be any easier in the winter. The East Ridge route is 3.1 miles and almost 3,200 worth of vertical climb – no easy feat in your ski gear. However, the ascent just makes the satisfaction of the descent that much sweeter.
Quandary still has many routes and faces that fall squarely into avalanche terrain, so do your research and make sure you have your game plan and route down pat.
Hopefully this article gave you some ideas on some easy or first-time trips into the backcountry. While we hope these spots get you hooked on the backcountry, REMEMBER that anytime you are in the backcountry you still need to have the necessary knowledge and gear to travel safely. Even in “easier” areas, you still need to be in tune with avalanche awareness.
Good luck and have fun!