Whether you’re looking for a workout, stunning views, steeps, pristine powder or just to say “I did it,” Colorado offers some of the best inbounds “hike-to” skiing in the country. The following five classic Colorado ski resort “hike-to” areas will help fill your need for adventure with the added bonus of knowing that the resort’s ski patrol monitors and controls the areas.
That said, before heading out and hiking your favorite peak, bowl or knife-edge ridge, heed the advice of Mac Smith,Aspen Highlands ski patrol director: “There are inherent risks in the snow that we try to mitigate, but the needle is never at zero.”
1. East Wall, Arapahoe Basin
The East Wall of A-Basin soars majestically over the skier’s right front side of the resort, bookending a giant basin. With a season that typically runs from October to May, the East Wall may have powder, chalky snow or corn—depending on the time of year and even time of day. The extreme double black diamond terrain is accessed through the North Pole gate, which skiers and riders can reach from the top of the Lenawee Mountain Lift, the Zuma Lift or the Lazy J Tow. Depending on weather and conditions, the gate is open until 2:45 p.m. every day.
“It’s a 20-minute hike in the alpine that starts on a groomed boot pack leading you to the summit of Little Lenawee Mountain at 13,050 feet,” says Tony Cammarata, operations director at Arapahoe Basin. “From there you can traverse on the south side of the ridgeline to access 1st Notch, 2nd Notch, Narrow and North Pole proper.”
The North Pole is slightly wider than the other chutes, with a less technical, but rocky entrance. “All of these [descents] are north-facing couloir skiing with approximately 1,000 vertical feet of turns,” says Cammarata. Once you exit the rock-lined couloirs, ski the apron, designated as Land of the Giants or Lower East Wall. Ride the Lenawee Mountain Lift back up for the next lap of high-altitude hiking and skiing.
2. Highland Bowl, Aspen Highlands
Aspen Highlands is home to Highland Bowl, an imposing amphitheater-like bowl with more than 20 runs averaging 40 degrees in slope angle. The summit of Highland Bowl reaches to 12,392 feet, and the hike can take anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour, depending on the trail you choose, your level of fitness and reaction to high altitude conditions. Experienced hikers bring a pack to attach skis/boards or purchase a Highland Bowl logoed strap from ski patrol. The hike is accessed from the top of Loge Peak lift (where the Deep Temerity lift tops out as well).
A snowcat ride cuts some hiking time along the boot pack, which is established daily by patrol. The panoramic views from the summit, including Maroon Bells and Aspen Mountain, do not disappoint, and if the wind isn’t howling, it’s a great place to have a snack and hydrate before the descent. Ozone drops directly below the summit and descends down the gut of the bowl for long, steep, sustained turns. “Aspect is everything,” says Smith. “You can go from South to North in Highland Bowl, so if you don’t like where you are, traverse to an aspect you like, whether it’s a sun or shade line.” The bowl runout filters to a bottom cat track where you traverse back to the Deep Temerity chairlift, and possibly another Bowl lap to earn more turns.
3. The Peak, Crested Butte
“The last great Colorado ski town,” as Crested Butte self-claims, is home to a mountain that harbors a ski resort known for its extreme terrain. Crested Butte’s iconic peak may be forever memorialized in photos, but it also provides a chance to ski over 3,000 vertical feet, drop a cornice and ski a wide open bowl—all off of the 12,162 foot summit. The Peak is accessed from the top of the High Lift T-bar, where a boot pack ascends the summit ridge in a 20-30 minute hike. From the summit, the classic peaks of the Elk Mountain Range surrounding Crested Butte are visible on clear days including Whetstone, Emmons, Gothic and the Anthracites.
“From the Peak, skiers and riders can expect a steep drop-in, often over a cornice, to a wide-open bowl that is around 35-40 degrees in pitch,” says Zach Pickett, senior communications specialist for Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “The Peak offers approximately 400 feet of vertical descent, but can easily be connected to other expert runs such as Big Chute, Peel or Banana for much longer leg-burners.”
The south-facing chutes that cascade under the Peak are double black diamond runs with a double-fall line, an average pitch of 35 degrees, challenging traverses and sometimes Mini Cooper-sized bumps. After 3,000 vertical feet of turns, catch the Silver Queen Express Lift from the base back to the High Lift to test your legs again.
4. Rope Dee Dope Bowl, Silverton Mountain
To say that Silverton Mountain is unique is an understatement. Nestled in the rugged San Juan Mountain range in southwest Colorado near the historic mining town of Silverton, the ski resort has one double chair and only double blacks across its 26,819 skiable acres, accessible by hiking (and also by helicopter). Most of the season includes guided skiing and riding with a short window of unguided access—though avalanche gear is required at all times. Daily skier and rider numbers are capped, and the mountain is typically open Thursday through Sunday, which means that the chances are really good for fresh snow.
Nearly every trail includes some amount of hiking, and the uber-fit guides punch in quick boot packs for guests to follow. One of Silverton’s iconic runs descends from Billboard Peak, topping out at 13,001 feet. “From the top of the lift, hike along the ridgeline past Tiger and Rope Dee 4 to see Silverton’s take on the Hillary Step,” says Jen Brill, co-owner and co-founder of the resort with her husband, Aaron. “It’s a short uphill that has a rope next to it for stability. It’s straight up, like hand holds and foot holds, then one more small ascent to the Billboard Peak and then a very steep face with peppery rocks defining the chute.” From the peak, skiers can enter Dope Chute or White Wave and descend into the vast Rope Dee Dope Bowl. The runout descends to a cat track that wends along a creek. A bus labeled “Silverton Correctional Facility” picks up skiers and riders and brings them back to the base of the lift for another adventure.
5. Palmyra Peak, Telluride
The historic town of Telluride sits in a stunning box canyon set in the western San Juan mountain range surrounded by steep, jagged peaks, pristine forests, and after snow melt-off, waterfalls. “Palmyra Peak or ‘the Peak,’ at 13,150 feet, towers over the Telluride Ski Resort at the apex of the Gold Hill and Prospect ridges,” says Scott Pittenger, director of mountain operations at Telluride Ski and Golf Resort. The Peak is accessed from the top of the Prospect Lift, or lift 12.
Skiers and riders have multiple options off the boot pack up to the summit, including the Prospect Extremes, Black Iron Bowl and steep runs off Palmyra Peak. The Peak is located east of Black Iron Bowl and can take anywhere from one to one and a half hours to reach the top. “Seniors, the descent from the summit, is steep and north-facing with plenty of powder for nearly 2,500 feet back to the base of Prospect Lift,” says Pittenger. Along with the stunning views, couloirs, steeps, glades, cliffs and open faces, the high alpine terrain means variable weather and exposed traverses. All the trails are considered extreme terrain, for experts only.
Echoing the sentiment of Aspen Highlands’ Mac Smith above, Ed LeBlanc, 20-year veteran ski patroller for Eldora Mountain Resort, offers up this advice given the inherent risk of skiing steep terrain & off-piste conditions.
10 Safety Tips
2. Talk to patrol. They are happy to tell you about conditions and pertinent information about that terrain.
3. Have a plan about what line/area you will ski.
4. Choose the right time (of day, year).
5. Choose the right gear (for the conditions, the terrain, your ability).
6. Always obey gates, signs and closures.
7. Hydrate and snack.
8. Know how to layer so that you don’t overheat while hiking but stay warm for skiing.
9. Know when gates and lifts open and close and hike within that timeframe.
10. Practice putting your skis/board on your pack or strapped to your back before you start hiking on exposed areas.
Carry those skis on a backpack
The A-frame ski carry is the classic way to carry skis on a backpack. One ski is strapped down by the compression straps on each side of the pack and then a voile strap is used to connect the tips, making an A-frame. The best part: the skis are not right behind your leg while hiking.
Another method is called diagonal ski carry. It’s fast and simple. It requires a loop near the bottom of the pack and another on the upper side of the pack. Strap your skis together with a voile strap or via ski brakes, then thread it through the two loops and start hiking.