If you’re like many skiers, you dream about taking a different kind of ski vacation. And not “different” as in visiting a different ski resort, but something exciting that will be fodder for après-ski conversations for years to come. Well dream no more, as we’ve compiled a few of the most off-the-beaten-path ski vacations that you can make a reality. Keep reading for our round-up of those unique off-piste skiing adventures away from the ski resorts.
7 off-piste skiing experiences around North America
Darwin Ranch: Off-piste and off the grid
The family-operated Darwin Ranch is located on an inholding (privately owned land within a protected area) in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. At 8,200 feet, amidst Bighorn Sheep territory, it’s one of the highest elevation guest ranches, and one of the most remote guest ranches in the lower 48 states. Dating back to the early 1900s, Darwin Ranch is named for a fur trapper and trader named Fred Dorwin, whose name was misspelled on a document and the name just stuck. The ranch was home to one of the first guest ranches in the West in the 1920s, hosting people from around the country. Darwin Ranch continues to host guests for horseback riding and other guest ranch experiences, while its newest experience caters to backcountry skiers looking for something really different.
Darwin Ranch’s new winter experience is available only in February and March, but it’s worth it. Upon arriving (the nearest airport is Jackson Hole), visitors reach the ranch via a 25-mile snowmobile trek catching breathtaking views of the Wind River Range along the way. The skiing includes a mix of backcountry tours (on your own and snowmobile access) and a small, groomed cross-country and snowshoe trail system.
Here’s how Darwin Ranch describe your ski day: “In the morning, wake up to fresh snow and a hearty breakfast. Your guides will check the weather and snowfall to decide with you what to ski. Pack lunch and a Thermos of coffee and tour from the ranch or hop on the snowmobiles for the day’s adventure. Climb peaks to ski steep terrain, tour around for a look at wildlife, or go far in search of the deepest powder turns—the choice is yours.So much territory in all that you’ll be plenty hungry by dinner time.”
Darwin Ranch’s food is made from scratch, vegetable-forward, varied, and casual, while its cooks are experienced, imaginative, and inspired by chefs and traditions from around the world. The majority of the meat and vegetables come from Darwin’s sister ranch, Ishawooa Mesa Ranch, located outside of Cody, Wyoming, where it’s flown to Darwin via small plane.
Darwin Ranch’s lodge is the hub of the ranch, featuring the kitchen, dining room, a cozy piano bar, a spacious living room, a light-filled lounge, and a porch overlooking the river. Accommodations are elegant, yet rustic, where modern style blends into 100-year-old log cabin structures with wood burning stoves and other rustic charms. Trips are a minimum of four nights. Make it a week in Wyoming by adding a couple of days at Jackson Hole.
“I’ve skied widely in the Alps, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Kashmir, and the Darwin is one-of-a-kind. There’s a wonderful mix of backcountry alpine touring, and backcountry Nordic touring, plus a short loop of groomed trail for Nordic near the Ranch, all in a spectacular wilderness mountain setting,” says Nancy Leon, founder of the Jackson Hole Nordic Alliance.
Riding those cats to ski at Baldface Lodge
Baldface Lodge‘s 32,000 acres has every type of terrain imaginable, from scenic cruisers in open bowls to heart-pounding steeps in the trees. However, you won’t be driving or taking a lift to Baldface Lodge. Rather, you’ll take a helicopter from nearby Nelson, and then a snowcat to access Baldface’s incredible terrain. Note that Baldface Lodge is only for intermediate and advanced-level powder skiers and snowboarders.
The mission of Baldface Lodge is to provide skiers and snowboarders with a fun, exciting, challenging and safe backcountry experience. Off the mountain, a breakfast buffet, abundant lunches, hearty soups and appetizers, après, and filling dinners crafted from locally-sourced sustainable farms await skiers and riders. Lodging at a timber frame chalet or main lodge is included in your rate. Other perks include a wood-burning sauna and massage appointments with certified therapists that are available after skiing.
“Turn after turn became pure joy. Snow continued to fall all day and pile up everywhere, causing the smiles to get bigger and bigger. The entire trip was an amazing experience filled with excitement, joy, and hoots and hollers,” writes snowboarder Jeff Silgalis in his Local Freshies blog. Some people say they want to go to Disneyland after accomplishing a great feat, but I’d rather say, ‘I’m going to Baldface.’”
Three- to four-day trips run between mid-December and mid-April.
Hut to Hut cross-country skiing in Maine
Maine Huts & Trails, a membership organization, offers Nordic and backcountry skiing experiences in the Northeast for a semi-moderate adventure along more than 50 miles of linear, groomed cross-country ski trails. The huts are ideal destinations for a day trip, or a perfect adventure getaway for a more ambitious multi-hut expedition. While this is groomed cross-country skiing, it’s still backcountry, so be prepared. Guides are also available for hire.
Most of the ski routes have a variety of elevation changes, which means you’ll need to have some descending skills. The trails from the airport trailhead to Poplar Hut and Route 27 trailhead to Stratton Brook Hut feature a significant climb for the last mile that inexperienced skiers may find challenging. Therefore choose a route that matches your ability.
Cross-country ski equipment and snowshoes are available for rent at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center. The Outdoor Center is a great resource for area trail information, ski tuning, waxing, supplies, lessons and more.
Ski Tuckerman Ravine’s glacial cirque
Every skier who has grown up within a snowball’s throw of New England has heard the tales and exaggerated bar talk from friends and family about New Hampshire’s most famous lure, Tuckerman Ravine. Springtime is traditionally the best time to give Tuckerman a try because that’s when this massive glacial cirque piles in an enormous amount of snow that gathers over the winter months. Some say it’s “like Old Man Winter’s own catcher’s mitt.“ It sits at 4,430 feet above sea level in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and is roughly 800 feet of sheer vertical. This a true rite of passage for any East Coast skier.
The siren song begins in March, and truly rocks through April as hordes of adventurer-seeking enthusiasts (as many as 3,000 on a spring weekend) bring skis, poles, boots, snowboards, and food to tackle the uphill grunt to Tuckerman’s Lip. Skiing any of the 10 major routes on pitches between 40 and 55 degrees that line Tuckerman’s major bowl, and the seven routes along neighboring Hillman’s Highway, will get your heart pounding. The access trail takes about two hours and is a moderately easy trail that provides access to Tuckerman’s Ravine via the Hermit Lake Shelters and Hojo’s. The trail is well kept and can be skinned in the winter, but in late season you may need to hike it.
“I have probably skied 50, 60 runs in total in the Ravine, and each one is different and exciting,” Vaughn Harring of Massachusetts, told the New England Ski Journal. “I’ve skied through fog, wind, snow and sun, and in fresh powder, bulletproof ice and old, heavy corn snow. I look forward to the trip each year to recharge my psyche.”
Heli-Skiing in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains
Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains offer some of the most diverse and exciting heli-skiing and snowboarding terrain in the world, home to more than 1.2 million acres of terrain and 600 inches of snow each season. Runs top out at 7,500 feet and end at 2,000 feet with panoramic views of Denali and volcanic summits, while the heavily glaciated Alaska Range offers endless terrain options to keep skiers challenged. The Tordrillo Mountains also offer more stable weather than many other Alaskan spots.
You’ll stay at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a luxury retreat featuring two separate wilderness lodges, co-owned by 1994 Olympic downhill skiing champion Tommy Moe. Tordrillo packages include transportation from Anchorage International Airport to Hotel Captain Cook for the evening prior to your reservation. Then it’s a round trip flight between Anchorage and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge or Winterlake Lodge, followed by 7 days of skiing, 7 nights lodging, gourmet meals, and more.
“At Tordrillo Mountain Lodge,” says Moe on the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge website, “we have terrain to match everyone’s capabilities. If you like big open cruisers down glacier bowls, we have a lot of variations of terrain in our backyard.”
Three Sisters go Hut to Hut in Oregon
The Three Sisters Hut to Hut Traverse is a self-guided 22-mile route that rolls along the eastern boundary of Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, roughly following the historic Metolius Windigo Trail at an average of 6,500 feet. The best route moves from Dutchman Flat near Mt. Bachelor to the Three Creeks Sno-park near Sisters. You’ll ski through old growth Hemlock forests, burnt pines and hidden meadows.
This is not alpine skiing, but rather a point-to-point high-country traverse. The terrain is ungroomed and rolling with gentle slopes, while the recommended route avoids avalanche terrain. Snow conditions will vary day to day, ranging from deep fresh powder to icy and firm. As such, you’ll need to be in good physical shape since you might need to break trail.
Three Sisters Backcountry recommends metal edge skis with scales or lightweight telemark skis with skins, since traditional alpine touring and telemark gear may be too heavy. Each hut is stocked with food, wood stoves, propane cook stoves, and full kitchen supplies, while every bunk has a mattress and sleeping bag. You are required to bring your own sleeping bag liner.
“The Three Sisters Backcountry is super well run. The hut system is a traverse over three days in two different huts and is best done as a xc ski traverse since it is relatively flat. It runs from south to north. The huts have food provided and makes most sense for a traverse,” writes Cherlyn, an engineer and outdoor photographer in her Alpine Wanderlust blog. “All we had to bring were our own sleeping bags and food for the first day before reaching the hut. Pretty awesome set-up!”
Ski, Snowshoe and Mush in Boundary Waters
Ski, snowshoe and learn to dog sled with Outward Bound in the remote wilderness of the Boundary Waters in way northern Minnesota. Guests develop outdoor skills, greater self-reliance and increased self-confidence, all while learning to dog sled, cross-country ski, camp during the winter, care for sled dogs, and more. Students take turns mushing the dog sleds and skiing or snowshoeing throughout the course. Guests learn to care for a dog team as they work together with the dogs to move the expedition gear from camp to camp.
No winter experience? No problem. Outward Bound Instructors and energetic sled dogs provide all of the training you will need. Expeditions are available for ages 18+, 30+ or 45+ in groups of up to 14 adults. The trips all start and end in Duluth.
If you want to go more of your own way, Boundary Waters is home to miles of cross-country skiing trails. The Banadad Ski Trail is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’ longest tracked cross-country ski trail, at nearly 30 km, along the eastern edge of Boundary Waters. It is centrally located along the 200-kilometer Gunflint Nordic Trails.