Downhill skiing at fancy resorts is great, but it often comes with parking hassles, crowds and lift lines. Cross country skiing at Nordic centers is wonderful and relaxing, but it’s still a controlled environment that doesn’t really give you the feeling of recreating in wilderness.
If the controlled environment is what you want or need, by all means enjoy it. You have plenty of world-class options in Colorado. But if you really want to get away and enjoy nature in winter, backcountry skiing or snowshoeing is the best. It’s almost always free of charge, too.
If you’ve always wanted to try backcountry touring but didn’t know where to start, we’ve got a short list of tours near Denver that would make fine introductory experiences. The ones we’ve chosen will take you through exceptionally beautiful scenery, but they’re not intimidating in terms of steepness or length, and they don’t require advanced avalanche training.
If you don’t have backcountry touring skis or snoeshoes, you can rent them at REI. While you’re there, consider buying a guidebook that describes the route you have chosen. You also probably ought to buy a topo map or download one to your phone through a trail app.
One more caution: You should probably avoid these tours if the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is rating the current avalanche danger as considerable or extreme. These tours don’t occur on terrain that could slide, but if the danger in the area is rated high, something could release from above you. You can find out what you need to know by going to the CAIC website.
“We don’t want to scare people away from doing cool things where 99.9% of the time, it’s going to be fine,” said Mike Cooperstein, a CAIC forecaster. “When avalanche danger is low to moderate, that’s probably really safe. I would push people to look at the web page, know what the danger levels mean. There’s (backcountry) travel advice connected to each of the dangers. If the avalanche danger is considerable, I’d be really, really careful going under avalanche paths.”
Here, then, are four great places to try backcountry touring:
Vail Pass to Shrine Pass
This exquisite landscape west and north of Vail Pass is a great place for novice backcountry skiers and snowshoers because it involves a mostly gentle climb of 630 feet over 2.5 miles to Shrine Pass without navigating any potential avalanche terrain. The route follows what is a summer dirt road to Red Cliff. You can ski on the road, which is usually snowpacked by snowmobile and skier traffic, or take a parallel ski trail to the left of the road that may require you to break trail if there has been recent snowfall. Along the way there are beautiful views of Copper Mountain and towering Jacque Peak looming beside it, 4-5 miles to the southwest, as well as the Tenmile Range beyond that and the elegant Wingle Ridge to your left as you climb. You can go another 1.5 miles to visit an overlook with a beautiful view of the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s most famous and distinctive fourteeners, which would make for about an 8-mile round trip. There is a fee of $10 to use the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area. Park by the guard shack, not the Vail Pass Rest Area lot, and pick up a map of the area when you pay the fee at the trailhead.
This is one of the most beautiful settings of any day trip from Denver and it’s ideal for novices. A climb of 500 feet or so over a mile and a half will take you to an abandoned cabin in a natural amphitheater created by a serrated ridge line on a mountain with beautiful pinnacles that looms just to the southeast. Because you’re skiing in a southeasterly direction with a mountain rising ahead of you, this is a great late afternoon ski when the setting sun creates creeping shadows on the ridge, and it also makes for a wonderful moonlight ski. To get there, take Interstate 70 to Copper Mountain (exit 195), then drive south 5.3 miles on Colorado Highway 91 toward Leadville. Watch for the parking lot and trail head on the east side of the highway.
Boreas Pass Road
This is another route that is a dirt road for automobiles until the snow flies, and it follows what was a narrow-gauge railroad line from Como to Breckenridge from 1872 to 1938. As a result, the ascent is very gradual (just 3%) and steady, making it a good family trail for cross country skiing or snowshoeing. About 3 miles up the trail you will see a water tank that was used by the railroad. If you keep going, you will get to the Continental Divide at about 6.6 miles and an elevation of 11,499 feet, meaning this can be an easy day (if you turn around at the water tank) or a strenuous 13-mile round trip. And because it’s so gentle, it’s an ideal moonlight ski tour that rewards you with a view of the lights of Breckenridge below as you near the trailhead on your return. To get there, take Boreas Pass Road (County Road 10) and follow it about 3.5 miles to the trailhead. The trailhead is at 10,346 feet and the water tank is at 10,860 feet.
Deer Creek Road
This is a delightful tour with great views in the backcountry east of Keystone Resort, which you access via Montezuma Road. From U.S. 6, driving 7 miles to the trailhead takes you through the town of Montezuma, a former mining camp that was founded in 1865 after silver was discovered nearby. Continuing about a half mile past town, park at the trailhead at 10,569 feet. The first 1.3-mile stretch of the tour passes through a wide valley that becomes a little steeper as the valley narrows. The trail passes through trees before opening up again in a huge valley at about the 2-mile mark (elevation 11,400 feet), enclosed by beautiful snowcapped ridges. It’s an otherworldly spot, well worth the exertion it takes to get there.