An article about my favorite Colorado winter activity…SKIING!!!!
Since living in Colorado, I have become an avid backcountry skiier.
I was once a snowshoer, but thanks in large part to my friend Wendy, I have come to enjoy skiing more.
Ski touring is the backcountry cousin of traditional cross-country skiing. With no groomed trails, you use wider skis and full metal edges for basic turns. It is a great way to explore the backcountry during winter.
Less crowded, less expensive and more of a wilderness experience than area (resort) skiing, and less of an adrenalin rush (and accident prone!) than typical “big bowl” telemark skiing.
Ski touring is essentially hiking on skis: A more relaxed, meditative and genteel way to explore the backcountry in winter than other winter outdoor pursuits.
Touring is also a bit more elegant than snowshoeing; there is something almost magical about gliding along the fresh powder with clear skies and the sun shining.
It is no surprise that people who enjoy ski touring also tend to enjoy long hikes. Like hiking, ski touring is more about the journey than the adrenalin rush. If you enjoy walking long distances, then you’ll enjoy ski touring. Ski touring also makes use of many of the same assets of long distance hiking: Good cardio, great endurance and strength. If you are klutz like me, it is also less dangerous than other types of skiing!
If you can walk, you can learn the basics of ski touring. If I can do it, anyone can. 🙂
I’ve listed some favorite tours below. I admit these tours play to my personal strengths as a skiier (excellent cardio, endurance and strength) and depend less on technical ability (which is intermediate for me). No surprise, my suggestions tend to be longer and less technical than what others may suggest. The beauty of the Colorado outdoors – so many options!
If you want more technical skiing and love gliding on powder, consider doing more of the “yo-yo” telemark bowl skiing.
If you strictly want adrenalin, then shell out a few hundred dollars for a pass, ride the lift, experience something more like Disney World than wilderness and get stuck in traffic on I-70 . I’m biased: Alpine skiing may be outdoors, but it is not an Outdoors activity to me. 😉
If you want to learn more about ski touring, the best guide I’ve seen was for FREE at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. This ~30 page handout goes over the basics of technique, clothing, waxing vs. skins vs. fish scales and other important parts of ski touring in a concise, informative and easy to read format. Did I mention is it free, too?
If you find yourself in Boulder, stop on in the store. Not only can you probably pick up the free guide, but you get to check out one of the premier mountaineering stores in North America. There is also mountaineering museum of sorts in displays scattered throughout the store.
If making it to Boulder is not in the cards, this book is great. Much like similar books from Falcon guides, it is a humorous and concise guide.
I also wrote and Introduction to Snowshoeing Basics guide. Nominally about snowshoeing, about 80%+ of this doc applies to any backcountry winter activity.
When I ski, I use “heavy touring gear” myself. Light tele skis and bindings with leather touring boots.
This link says it best:
Esp this part:
“ I think these skis are ideally suited for experienced backcountry travelers who are interested in pushing deep into the winter woods with a reasonably equipped day pack or overnight pack. In my opinion, these skis are camping skis first and foremost so I think they’re best matched with skiers who have a camping or long distance hiking mindset.”
As always, this little doc is just an overview. Esp in winter, you must be aware of how to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors before going into the backcountry.
Enough info…on to the tours!
Total Length: ~11 miles
Brainard Lakes Recreation Area is perhaps the most well known winter area in the Boulder area. Classic ski tour trails, lots of snowshoe trails and rather nice scenery towards the Continental Divide. With Brainard Lake Cabin open during most weekend days with its welcome hot cocoa and tea, it is a great place to experience the fun of winter.
Brainard Lake really is a great ski area. One I never get tired of.
Alas, it can be a very crowded place. The trick is just to find trails that are somewhat off the beaten path and arrive a little early (before 9am). I also noticed the Skier Only trails tend to be less crowded than the ones that are meant for snowshoeing.
One of my favorite tours is indeed off the beaten path a bit. Once past the parking lot, you can feel immersed in the backcountry and really enjoy winter.
The loop starts at the Red Rock Trailhead. In my opinion, the trailhead area is often the worse part of skiing at Brainard Lake. Besides the sheer amount of people, the wind can often be fierce in the exposed parking area. You really understand why this areas is sometimes called the Windian Peaks!
From the Red Rock trailhead, go south and west up and along FS 104. After about a mile turn west and north on the skier only Little Raven Trail. You will now be in the trees. Enjoy the forest and snow as you glide along.
After a bit on the Little Raven Trail, ski along the Brainard Lake Road until you connect to the South St. Vrain Trail. As you pass Brainard Lake, there is a good chance you will encounter some cold wind at the 10k plus foot elevation. But, you can at least enjoy the views towards the Continental Divide.
If the wind is a bit fierce for you, and you need a break, take the short side trip to Brainard Cabin. It is not marked on the TI maps, but is roughly located where the snowshoe symbol is just off the Waldrop Ski Trail. The access for trail for the cabin is just before the South St. Vrain Trail access.
At the cabin, pay your one dollar day use fee, enjoy a hot beverage and warm up by the fire.
After warming up, ski out make your way to the South St. Vrain Trail. While skiing up to the South St. Vrail trail, you may enjoy a great winter scene of the falling snow and the cascading creek.
The South St. Vrain Trail portion is my favorite part of the ski tour. A nice downhill that is really exhilarating. This portion of Brainard Lake is used less than the rest of the area, but it is mixed snowshoeing and skiing. Look out for any snowshoers parked in the middle of th trail. 🙂
After two miles or so of this fun skiing, you come to the Sourdough Trail junction. Make your way up the trail by heading south on the trail. You will come back to the Red Rocks trailhead and the completion of this journey.
Apres Ski: After this calorie burning trip, a great place to refuel is in the funky mountain town of Nederland (“Ned” to locals). Some great Indian/Nepali food is found at the Kathmandu restaurant. What better place to eat this kind of food than at 8200 plus feet and in the shadow of the Continental Divide? If you are tired, the bottomless cups of chai will get you going again and warm you up!
Total Length: ~13 miles
Another classic tour: a point to point tour on the Sourdough Trail.
This one way tour is best done going northbound. You gain a high point on a ridge with dramatic views to the East. From there, is it is (mainly) a gradual downhill. The whole tour is mainly in the trees, so the powder tends to be good throughout. It is a tour I look forward to every year! With i
This tour does involve a point-to-point shuttle. One car needs to be stashed at Camp Dick in Peaceful Valley.
From the start of this trail, you gradually make your way up some switchbacks through a coniferous forest.
After a while, you make your about 2.5 miles and down a bit to the Peace Memorial Bridge. After the bridge, you start a gradual ascent again up to the ridge and along undulating trail. Finally, you reach the high point of the tour. On a clear, winter day, the views to the high plains are remarkable.
Take a break, enjoy the view and ski down the trail to Brainard Lake Rd.
You will probably get to Brainard Lake as the high point of the crowds. Considering how few people you’ve seen up until this point, you may find all the cars…interesting!
Quickly cross the road and continue on the Sourdough Trail.
After some continued skiing in the woods, you’ll come to the only really windblown part of the trip near Beaver Reservoir. The snow may not be the best, but the views towards the Continental Divide are always nice.
Make your way back into the trees (and the better snow) and you’ll come to a final descent down some switchbacks. The tour is almost done. Enjoy the gradual descent down the gentle and often quiet trail in the aptly named Peaceful Valley.
You will soon arrive at your vehicle. Pick up the other one a short drive down the highway. And make your way back to “civilization”
Apres Ski: As before, it is really hard for me to pass up the Kathmandu restaurant. After a day of skiing, the tasty saag, delicious naan and bottomless cups of chai are just the ticket!
Total Length: ~5 miles (from the winter trailhead)
Skiing by the light of the full moon is one of the most magical backcountry experiences you can do. Period.
This trip is a perennial favorite of mine. One I do every year. I love full moon activities and perhaps love full moon skiing best of all.
The snow glows silver. The stars are shining above. The mountains and the lake are illuminated by a very bright winter full moon. And you get to enjoy it all while sipping some hot cider and rum. What could be better?
I will say that because you have to park at the winter trailhead just at the edge of the small town of Eldora (it is at the road mentioned in Protrails link. In winter, the road is gated), the route is slightly longer in winter versus the summer. The elevation gain difference is negligible as you are skiing along a road.
Due to the switchbacks coming down from Lost Lake, this is not a good beginner ski. On the way up, I find climbing skins are much easier to use than fish scales or wax if is the snow is not fresh. The snow can often get icy and wind blown in this area.
Finally, this trip is also a good mixed snowshoe/skiier trip IF the snowshoers are in good aerobic shape. Otherwise, it is a long climb up, a long descent down..and a much later trip than everyone probably wants. 🙂
Go out. Enjoy the light of the full moon. And revel in one of the glories of winter.
Note: While dogs are technically allowed, you may want to rethink bringing a dog. Night skiing and dogs can be a bad combo! 🙂
Apres Ski: The full moon is almost always during a week. As such, the apres ski places may be limited later at night. One place that has a limited late night menu, in addition to happy hour beers, is the Mountain Sun in downtown Boulder on Pearl St. Have a bowl of black bean chili washed down with some Java Porter. Mmmmm….
Total Length: ~10 miles (Up to the gate just before Horseshoe Basin)
Total Elevation Gain: ~1000 ft
Maps: Trails Illustrated Map #104 (Idaho Springs/Loveland Pass)
Dogs: Dogs allowed
I really can’t duplicate the description from the Backcountry Snowsport Alliance site:
“The road up along Peru Creek is an early season favorite for moderate touring, with a thick forest on the lower part of the route guarding the snow cover. Later, the valley opens up to a classic Colorado vista, as stands of spruce give way to wide swaths of alpine tundra and craggy peaks high above. “
Once you arrive at the parking lot, you start off on a gentle road in the woods.
You continue to ski in and out of the woods with its views of the divide. You also pass some other side trails and roads along the way. It is rather hard to get lost here, just follow the road.
After about mile four, you break out into basin. Old ruins of the Pennsylvania Mine abound along with remnants of the small township of Decatur.
Another mile or so, you pass an old building and soon come to a gated area that is marked with a road closure sign.
This makes a logical end to this out and back tour. Much pass this point and you are much more avalanche prone terrain.
Enjoy the view, have some hot drinks and continue to have a smile on your face.
After a suitable time, down the gradual downhill ski back.
You have just enjoyed a great tour. Hopefully one of many more to come.
Note: Be aware there is some moderate avalanche danger on this tour. If you go deep into Horseshoe Basin (past an obvious gate), the avalanche danger becomes VERY high, esp. during classic hazardous conditions.
Apres Ski:Depending on how you time the trip, you may run into I70 ski traffic. The tour is just up the road from Keystone after all. No worries. Simply drive to Dam Brewery, enjoy the reasonably price food and suck down a delicious brew. I suggest the Sweet George’s Brown. When you are done, the ski traffic is probably gone. If you time it well, you just may hit happy hour!
When you are in the Dam Brewery, you may notice lots of people wearing their ski passes around their necks. As a backcountry skiier, you may want to where your pass around your neck too:
Total Length: ~10 miles (signs, websites and books differ!)
Total Elevation Gain: ~250 ft gain..but over 1000 ft LOSS!
Maps: TI Maps #108 and 109 (Vail/Frisco/Dillon and Breck/Tenn Pass)
Dogs: Dogs are not allowed on the public transit w/o a carrier
Here is a trip the features mainly rolling terrain for most of the tour. You will see exquisite views of the Continental Divide and the Ten Mile Range. The skiing is moderately technical with a great, big (fun!) drop at the end. It is a great tour when avalanche danger is high in other parts of the high country or if you want to have a fun day. It also makes a good late-season tour.
This is a point-to-point tour that starts at Peaks Trail terminus near Peak 7 in Breckenridge and then traverses to the Peaks Trail terminus in Frisco. With the free transportation in Summit County, it is very easy to park your vehicle at one end, take the bus and gondola to the Breck terminus and ski back. Logistics are super easy!
To get to the Frisco trail head, follow the directions on this site.
Once you park your vehicle, do a quick walk to the bus stop and take the bus to the Breckenridge Gondola (free as well) to Peak 7. Walk down a set of stairs, veer to the left and you will see the Peaks Trail start. Wax up your skis and off you go!
You will follow rolling single track with the traditional blue diamonds and pass by some trails from the Breck Nordic Center. Watch out for the skiers!
After a bit, you will come to a nice open meadow with fantastic views of the Continental Divide. Have some lunch, sip some tea and take in the view.
Enjoy some more rolling single track and an exciting descent here and there.
After a bit, you alas come to some very pine bark beetle damaged woods. In March 2009, the trail was easily lost in the clear-cut that looked new and was (possibly) a fire break. It should be marked better in the future. However, if you have basic map skills, it is easy enough to ski back into the draw where the trail is located.
After some more skiing on mainly flat trail, you will come to a junction. Continue to follow the signs for the Peaks Trail. Eventually the Peaks Trail briefly turns into the Colorado/Continental Divide Trails.
When the CT/CDT veers towards Gold Hill, continue to follow the Peaks Trail. You will now have the really fun part of the day..a nearly 1000′ descent back to Frisco!
Be sure your hat is securely on..or you just may (almost) lose it like I did in the above photo! 🙂
End the fun descent and you’ll be in a meadow with wonderful view of the Ten Mile Range.
Continue to follow the (much more moderately) descending trail. Eventually, you’ll see the end of your day. Hook up to the local bike paths and double pole back to your vehicle. You’ll have some great views of Buffalo Mountain…and the thought that some beer at the Backcountry Brewery is not very far away!
Apres Ski: You end the ski just a few minute drive (and not that far of a walk) from the Backcountry Brewery. Get a Peak One Porter, sit in the warm sun and think that while ski season may be drawing to an end….hiking season is not far away!