5 best ski trails to hike to in Colorado

Newsroom Summer Mountain Getaways 5 best ski trails to hike to in Colorado

Colorado offers some of the best inbounds “hike-to” skiing in North America. Whether you’re after a good workout, stunning views, steeps, pristine powder or just bragging rights, then you’ll find it in Colorado. The following five Colorado ski resort “hike-to” areas will help fill your need for adventure, yet with the peace of mind that ski patrol isn’t far away.

With that said, however, before heading out and hiking your favorite peak, bowl or knife-edge ridge, heed the advice of Mac Smith, a 50-year Aspen Highlands ski patroller: “There are inherent risks in the snow that we try to mitigate, but the needle is never at zero.” At the end of this article you’ll find some safety tips from ski patrollers.

1. East Wall, Arapahoe Basin

Comprised of multiple hiking routes, 2 bootpacking routes and extra-spicy lines, Arapahoe Basin’s East Wall can keep skiers busy for days  exploring the 500 to 600 foot, 40-degree chutes that fan out onto wide-open aprons. The East Wall of A-Basin soars majestically over the skier’s right front side of the resort, bookending a giant basin. Few places give you access to such terrain with just two, short lift rides from the base area.

With a season at Arapahoe Basin 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. The gate is open until 2:45 p.m. every day depending on weather and conditions.

“It’s a 20-minute hike in the alpine that starts on a groomed bootpack leading you to the summit of Little Lenawee Mountain at 13,050 feet,” says Tony Cammarata, A-Basin mountain operations director. From there you can traverse on the south side of the ridgeline to access 1st Notch, 2nd Notch, Narrow and North Pole proper. Do not hike above the traverse except via designated bootpacking routes (Willi’s Wide, Tree Chutes).

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.

The hike along the ridge is at the very high altitude of over 13,000 feet. The chutes are marked trails with signs at the entrance to the runs, but not necessarily on the trail map. The runs marked on the trail map are: North Pole, Willy’s Wide, Corner Chute and Tree Chutes.

A-Basin East Wall
You’ll have to hike to A-Basin’s East Wall with breathtaking views. ©Arapahoe Basin

2. Highland Bowl, Aspen Highlands

Revered by skiers for its one-of-a-kind terrain, stunning scenery and spectacular steeps, Highland Bowl is the crowning glory of Aspen Highlands. It has become a rite of passage for Colorado’s serious skiers and riders. Highland Bowl is 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 above sea level, and the hike can take anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour, depending on the trail, your level of fitness, and your body’s reaction to high-altitude conditions.

The bootpack is established by ski patrol and locals early in the season, so you won’t be breaking trail, but you will have to navigate tight steps carved out by ski boots where balance is essential. A slip could send you sliding a few feet down. Experienced hikers bring a pack to attach skis/boards, or purchase a Highland Bowl branded strap from ski patrol.

The hike is accessed from the top of Loge Peak lift (where the Deep Temerity lift tops out as well). Skiers can gain access to approximately 1,500 vertical feet of skiing from the summit of the bowl down to the traverse out. A snowcat ride cuts some hiking time along the bootpack, which is established daily by patrol. The Highland Bowl snowcat operates when conditions permit. However, the snowcat does not transport skiers to the top of the bowl, but rather brings skiers up to the first access gate. Skiers will have to hike from this point. 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 Mac Smith, who recently stepped down as Ski Patrol Director after nearly half a century. “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. Many skiers often walk right by some of its best terrain. Just a few minutes from the main access gate is Filip’s Leap, one of the toughest runs at any Aspen resort, characterized by sparsely spaced trees and steep jump turns. Adjacent runs Whip’s Veneration and Ballroom also offer deep powder.

Highlands Bowl
Pack those skis and hike to ski Aspen Highlands Bowl. ©Aspen/Snowmass

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 stunner, The 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 its 12,162 foot summit. The Peak is accessed from the top of the High Lift T-bar, where a bootpack ascends the summit ridge over a 20- to 30-minute hike. From the summit, the classic peaks of the Elk Mountain Range, including Whetstone, Emmons, Gothic and the Anthracites, are visible on clear days .

“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, OutsidePR senior account manager. “The Peak offers approximately 400 feet of vertical descent, but can be easily 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 rest your legs again.

Crested Butte
You can ski almost 3,000 vertical feet at Crested Butte with a bit of hiking. ©Trinity LeBlanc

4. Rope Dee Dope Bowl, Silverton Mountain

Nestled in the rugged San Juan Mountain range, near the historic mining town of Silverton, in southwest Colorado, Silverton Mountain 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 features guided skiing and riding with a short window of unguided access—though avalanche safety equipment is required, which can be rented from Silverton. Daily skier and rider numbers are capped, with Silverton Mountain typically open Thursday through Sunday.

Nearly every trail includes some amount of hiking, and the uber-fit guides punch in quick bootpacks 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 winds 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.

You’ll have to hike to ski off 13,000 foot Billboard Peak at Silverton. ©Courtney Walton/Silverton Mountain

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 Telluride Ski Resort at the apex of the Gold Hill and Prospect ridges. The Peak is accessed from the top of the Prospect Lift, or lift 12.

Skiers and riders have multiple options off the bootpack 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 60 to 90 minutes 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 Scott Pittenger, director of Mountain Operations at Telluride Ski and Golf Resort.

Along with the stunning views, 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.

Telluride peak
The descent from Telluride’s Palmyra Peak is steep and wide. ©Telluride Ski Resort

Here’s a compilation of good advice from veteran patrollers concerning the inherent risk of skiing steep terrain and off-piste conditions.

10 Safety Tips

  1. Go with a partner.
  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.

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