Outdoors

Get Outside: Ten Colorado Backcountry Ski Areas for Beginners

The author approaching the Quandary Peak summit.
The author approaching the Quandary Peak summit. Abigail Bliss
This season, you’ll find several new, exciting amenities at Colorado ski resorts. But these and other perks come at a hefty price — never mind the cost of gas and gear (though you can score some great deals at local secondhand outdoor shops). And regardless of costs, resorts can’t compete with the sense of adventure and pride you have when you earn your turns in backcountry skiing. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, note that an avalanche class and safety gear come highly recommended. Discover both bootpack and remote routes on this guide to ten Colorado backcountry ski areas for beginners.

Quandary Peak
Breckenridge
Quandary Peak is one of Colorado’s most popular fourteeners, regardless of season. Even in winter, the East Ridge approach is frequently traveled and is the best route for beginner backcountry skiing, as it’s less technical and poses fewer avalanche risks. Get your start early, as sunlight will likely cause post-holing — when you sink into the snow — by mid-morning. Novices to the sport will want to take the Quandary Peak Northeast Bowls back to the parking lot. Be sure to keep an eye out for mountain goats at the summit!

Bluebird Backcountry
Kremmling
Last year, Bluebird Backcountry became Colorado’s newest ski area. Unlike other ski resorts, Bluebird has zero chairlifts, but it does have avalanche patrol and designated runs, allowing for a safer introduction to backcountry skiing. Centered around Bear Mountain, it includes more than 1,200 acres of ungroomed terrain. Roughly half of the 28 trails are suitable for beginners. On-site cabins and ski-to domes make Bluebird Backcountry a great weekend getaway, as does nearby Steamboat Springs, where you’ll find some of the state’s best hot springs.
Backcountry skiers approaching the old miner cabins at Mayflower Gulch.
Unsplash / Holly Mandarich
Mayflower Gulch
Frisco
Backcountry skiers and riders have already been checking into Mayflower Gulch this season. Located just south of Copper Mountain, the popular area includes bootpack up the former mining road. The wide, easy approach only requires skins past the old log cabins, which add to the picturesque scenery. Beginners will enjoy making laps through the gentle glades accessible via the 0.4-mile Gold Hill approach.

Loveland Pass
Silver Plume to Keystone
Want to experience the backcountry with minimal effort? So does much of Denver, which is why Loveland Pass ranked as the top free skiing around. This area is best experienced with a group, allowing you to take turns driving up the pass. Park at one of the few spaces near the elevation sign, then ski directly down the North-Northeast Glades, or hike out just a bit to the North-Northwest Bowl or Loveland Ridge. Follow these runs to the wide hairpin turnout, where your buddy can re-park, collect the group and head back up for another lap.

Vail Pass Recreation Area
Vail
Despite its popularity, it’s easy to find solitude within Vail Pass Recreation Area, as it encompasses a massive 55,000 acres. However, you’ll still want to arrive early, as the parking lots fill up quickly, especially with large snowmobile trailers. This backcountry paradise is open to motorized and non-motorized uses, great for those seeking bootpack. Shrine Pass Road is an ideal pick for beginners without skins or splitboards. If you have the gear, the adjacent, non-motorized Shrine Pass Ski Trail is another solid choice. See the USDA Forest Service guide for more route suggestions, and keep in mind that a $10 day pass is required.
Snowy views on the trail to Dream Lake.
Unsplash / Andrew Gloor


Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park
It’s no longer peak season in Rocky Mountain National Park, meaning far fewer tourists and plenty of deep powder. Though the vast park is beloved by experts for its steep couloirs and chutes, beginners will find suitable spots here, too, including Hidden Valley. This area was once a ski resort and includes gentle slopes on runs such as Aspen, Juniper and Lower T-Bar. For bootpack areas, look to some of the more popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, such as Bear Lake and Dream Lake.

Monarch Pass
Salida to Sargents
Monarch Mountain offers one of the best season-pass deals among Colorado ski resorts, but nothing beats free. Although your options are limited along Monarch Pass, this underrated, uncrowded area is all about quality over quantity. Beginners will discover backcountry fun via Old Monarch Pass, a wide, snowed-over 4x4 road. The 0.3-mile Pass Bowl Skin Track is another excellent approach, perfect for making laps on Crest Bowl or dropping into Snow Stake, which provides access to the western slopes.
click to enlarge
The western side of Berthoud Pass.
Abigail Bliss
Berthoud Pass
Empire to Winter Park
From 1937 to 2001, Berthoud Pass had a fully operating ski resort, but the lodges and lifts were removed in 2005. However, a wide variety of terrain remains, complete with beginner-friendly areas. For some of the easiest access, park at the main lot and take the Mines Peak approach. If you don’t have skins, you can head east up the service road switchbacks. You’re likely to find a solid bootpack here and on other, more trafficked routes, such as the Mainland approach on the lesser-developed western side of Berthoud Pass.

Deadhorse Creek Trail

Fraser

A medium-easy, low-avalanche-risk, 7.1-mile round-trip trek that will take about three to four hours, Deadhorse Creek sports a sweet downhill reward after the slow but steady slog up. Other payoffs include intermittent forest and a glorious view from the top. The trailhead sits just off County Road 73, about ten minutes from U.S. 40 in Fraser — close to Winter Park, but worlds away in cost and crowds. Bonus: No snowmobiles are allowed here.


Indian Peaks Wilderness
Various areas
Avoid I-70 traffic with a backcountry excursion in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This recreational haven extends west of Boulder and south of Rocky Mountain National Park; needless to say, it’s incredibly scenic. Beginners will find several places to explore, though a vehicle is required to travel from one to the next. Recommendations include Lost Lake near Eldora Mountain, the Long Lake approach down South Saint Vrain Creek near Ward, and the Forest Lakes approach, a great early-season pick near the Moffat Tunnel in Rollinsville.

St. Mary’s Glacier
Idaho Springs
St. Mary’s Glacier is one of Colorado’s best alpine lake hikes, making it a popular destination year-round. In fact, the area is even known for summertime skiing, though conditions are far better with a few inches of fresh snow. The 1.3-mile approach follows the same hikers’ and snowshoers’ trail, granting a solid bootpack. Find the route down adjacent to the path, with stunning views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains. Note that a $5 parking permit is required at the trailhead.
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