Editor's Note: Safety is always the number one concern for all backcountry exploring. Before heading into the backcountry, be certain of conditions. Always contact the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

IN THE COLORADO BACKCOUNTRY —  Not all epic skiing travelogues involve long waits at airports, helidrops and food poisoning from mystery meat. Backcountry stashes offer the opportunity to know a not-so-far-away off-piste space intimately and intensely. To do so, you can build a cognitive map of the place, learning through experience and mishap, from the relatively more easily accessed out-of-your-comfort zones closer to home.

Michael Whitfield makes a solo descent in fresh powder down Loveland Pass while thousands of skiers and snowboarders crowd the slopes of Arapahoe Basin
Michael Whitfield makes a solo descent in fresh powder down Loveland Pass while thousands of skiers and snowboarders crowd the slopes of Arapahoe Basin just five minutes away. (Dominique Taylor, Special to The Denver Post)

Colorado has no shortage of these, most of which can be found along Front Range mountain passes. We're so spoiled with ski resorts that we sometimes fail to appreciate the turns they provide, let alone the turns they don't.

The state has accessible powder turns somewhere almost all the time. You just have to be willing to find them and put in the work to get there. With a bit of planning, solid backcountry education and equipment and a commitment to following avalanche forecasts and storm cycles, your epic backcountry ski experience could be just off the next interstate exit.

Joel Gratz, the meteorologist behind OpenSnow.com, says the key to finding good, safe skiing is timing.

"Every pass in Colorado has the opportunity to offer a lot of snow. It's about timing the snow, access to the pass, and the kind of terrain you want to ski and ski safely from an avalanche standpoint."

As backcountry skiing becomes more mainstream, Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, warns that road passes put winter enthusiasts in avalanche danger quickly and often unknowingly.

Michael Whitfield drops in on his line at Loveland Pass.
Michael Whitfield drops in on his line at Loveland Pass. (Dominique Taylor, Special to The Denver Post)

"Pass skiing has a mix of people who are unaware of the risks they are taking, and people who really know what they are doing," he says. "Just because it's right there and lots of people are doing it, doesn't mean it's safe."

"You are in the backcountry," he adds. "Despite the highway control work that might be going on, don't mistake that for avalanche mitigation. No one is controlling backcountry conditions. All of these passes in the Front Range see quite a bit of traffic, and have seen quite a bit of accidents over the years, including this year."

Lazar says that U.S. 550 from Ridgeway to Durango, going over Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank Passes, has more than 120 avalanche paths that hit the road, and even more that affect backcountry travelers. The combination of continental snowpack, which is prone to instability, the size of the terrain in the San Juans and the sheer concentration of avalanche paths make this region especially dicey.

That's not to say that Berthoud Pass, Lazar adds, which isn't as big, could be any less deadly under the right — or wrong — conditions.

Which spots get the most consistent snow? Gratz is wary to discuss generalities in weather, but names Wolf Creek and Buff Passes as the two snowiest in the state.

Wolf Creek, in the southern San Juans, is at the top of the list because it's situated where winds from the southwest bring moisture from the Pacific Ocean. As a result, it also has a marginally heavier snowpack than the rest of Colorado, although that does depend on the individual storm. "I would say they get a ton of storms because they have a direct line from moisture from the Pacific and get the full force of moisture and wind," Gratz says.

In the northwestern corner of the state, Buff Pass, like Wolf Creek, is first in line for moisture as a storm passes over Colorado.

"There's not a whole lot to the west (of Buff Pass) until you get to the bigger mountains in Utah," says Gratz. "That's how come Tahoe can get 10 feet of snow in one storm. In Colorado, you want to be first in line for that moisture. Buff gets that from northwest. It's why also when you move toward the interior and eastern part of the state, there's on average less snowfall, because more mountains are eating up moisture."

MacKenzie Ryan is a freelance writer and boardercross coach for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. She resides in the Vail Valley.

Berthoud Pass: Something for everyone, plus powder

Remember, safety is paramount. Always check with Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us) before heading into the backcountry.

BERTHOUD PASS — Berthoud Pass has a following like Bruce Campbell from the 1990s "Evil Dead" movies. There are diehards who know every line, and there are people who are experimenting — they barely know anything, but know that what little they've seen is life-alteringly amazing. And then there's everyone in-between.

It has a dramatic story as the site of a bankrupt ski resort with a history of questionable finances and sordid relationships with the U.S. Forest Service. The west side of the pass has Russell Peak, formerly the venue for the Berthoud Bad-(Ass) Championships.

Veteran ski journalist Tom Winter calls Russell Peak a "classic descent" with eastern exposure lines, with mandatory airs and a frozen waterfall. The east side's Mine Peak accesses tighter, more technical terrain, everything from short, quick laps to committed tours, Winter adds. Hitchhiking and car shuttling allow you to lap Floral Park and Hell's Half Acre on the east side. Part of Berthoud's appeal is that it contains so many different aspects that, although it's easy to walk right into avalanche danger, it's difficult once you've read forecasts not to find something that should be safe.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center ( avalanche.state.co.us) is a good place to start for those forecasts in planning which face to ski. Friends of Berthoud Pass ( berthoudpass.org) offers avalanche education, trip reports, maps, and a skier forum, and the old maps of Berthoud Pass Ski Resort ( berthoudpass.org/resources/maps-2) are a good guiding tool, although you should still have topographical maps to determine aspects and grades.

Powder Addiction snowcat guides ( powderaddiction.com) will bring the pow hungry to the lesser-traveled Jones Pass, a more-challenging-to-access destination past the Henderson Mine in the hamlet of Berthoud Falls.

Get there: Take Interstate 70 west to exit 232. Follow U.S. 40 west for 17.8 miles to Berthoud Pass Ditch (parking lot at the top of the pass).

Access: It's best to use skins to climb the east side, and ski down to get a car shuttle up the west side. Floral Park on the east side can be road-lapped with a car shuttle and a short hike.

Best time to go: This pass has aspects facing every direction, providing optimal snow conditions throughout winter and into the spring.

Best line: This is a tough region in which to determine a "best line" because it's so massive. On the east side of the pass, Floral Park has some intermediate terrain (Bonanza, Powder Line). The west side has Sun Bowl, Meadows 1-4, Placer Basin, and Trappers Glade below Russell Peak. Famous expert chutes include Nitro and Rush on the west side; the Fingers, The Knuckle, The Choke on the east side in Hell's Half Acre.

Loveland Pass: Best worst-kept secret in the backcountry

Remember, safety is paramount. Always check with Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us) before heading into the backcountry.

LOVELAND PASS  —It's a colder-than-average Tuesday afternoon. The wind, typically a fierce, breathing sigh across the Continental Divide, is uncharacteristically still. It makes the cold more bearable.

We dance a serpentine path from ridgeline to ridgeline. The freshly applied duct tape on my three-year-old gloves is peeling off, causing me to stop periodically to readjust.

I had pulled a fast escape, taking the afternoon off to find powder turns on Loveland Pass with an Australian doctor-ski instructor friend. He wears pink to be ironic.

Like East Vail chutes, Loveland Pass is one of the best worst-kept secrets in backcountry skiing. It has the sort of exotic, alpine scenery that should be in an action movie. Sixty miles from Denver and straddled between two classic, above-treeline resorts, it's a quick bootpack to powder turns and a hitchhike or car shuttle to do it again. Skinning makes entry to the far side of the western bowl more efficient, but it's possible to skip them entirely. On cold Tuesday, we huffed it in our boots with minimal postholing.

We chose a moderately steep line skier's right of a 20-foot, windblown cornice and settle on a roller to meet up on after we each drop. As my friend drops in, making half of a figure 8, I ask the snowboarder sans beacon, probe, shovel and backpack who is climbing above me if he'd like to drop with us. He refuses. I drop, shaking my head, and enjoy knee-deep, untouched snow. People without appropriate backcountry equipment are a sadly common sight at Loveland Pass, despite its long history of slides.

Easy access aside, Loveland Pass offers an introduction to big-mountain riding, with lines, cornices and chutes for those willing to work their way to the western bowl and beyond it. Line decisions are fun and critical, because certain parts so steep you can't see where you're going. That's not to say there isn't something for everyone — low-angle terrain can be accessed by dropping in closer to the road on north side, or by taking a south-southeastern line on the west side of the road.

Car shuttles are the most efficient way to manage this pass. You don't need to worry about thumbing your way up to the top and the waiting that inevitably goes with it. Single-car visitors should pack the bribe of their choice and park at the lower lot on the north side for laps there, or from Arapahoe Basin for south-side laps. Weekends will be busy with people who don't want to pay for turns, or people avoiding the crowds at A-Basin and Loveland. There are also great off-piste laps from either resort. Weekdays will be less busy, so the waiting for a shuttle may be longer.

Get there: Take Interstate 70 west to exit 216 and merge onto U.S. 6 west toward Loveland Pass. Continue 4.7 miles to the upper parking lot. The lower parking lot is located on the third hairpin turn on the lefthand side.

Again, always check with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us)

Access: This is the most hike-friendly pass of all three. Windblown ridges and a nearby parking lot make it ideal for car-laps. Longer tours include the terrain past the West Bowl and dropping over the eastern ridge towards Grays and Torreys.

Best time to go: Due to above-treeline exposure, Loveland Pass has the best conditions midwinter to late spring. There are rare early season storm cycles that cover its very rocky terrain.

Best line: Ski journalist Tom Winter likes the Little Professor because it's a short tour from the top of the pass and then skis down toward Arapahoe Basin (read: There's a bar at the bottom and all the quirkiness of the beach scene). Good for a late-season day in March and April, when the snowpack is starting to solidify. Winter calls it "as good as it gets in Colorado."

Vail Pass: Often overlooked area means untouched turns

Remember, safety is paramount. Always check with Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us) before heading into the backcountry.

VAIL PASS —Splitting through thigh-deep powder trees on Vail Pass, I am awkward. What they don't tell you when you start splitboarding is that you actually need to ski sometimes. Nothing's 100 percent uphill. These moments are reserved for few occasions in my snowboarding life: accidentally seal-sliding a rainbow box, switch nollies, hauling into an unsuspectingly crusty bump field with flat light.

It's humbling. The slightest undulation in terrain strikes a panic reserved in my limbic system for rails, large jumps, cliff drops and the occasional too-close-for-comfort interaction with novice skiers on a catwalk. As I follow my friend Mike Whitfield, a 20-year splitboarding veteran, we traverse northeast through trees. He sort of seamlessly rides down a small roller between a bush and a few evergreens. Images of pizza-wedging tourists in ski lessons flash across my mind, and as I attempt to follow him, my knees wobbling in a wedge, I scorpion into the face.

The people who frequent Vail Pass generally fall into the following categories (in no particular order): cross-country or alpine tourers headed to Shrine Inn (a 10th Mountain Division Hut); splitboarders or alpine tourers hiking to Uneva Peak (north side) or Shrine Ridge and surrounding areas on the south side; and snowmobilers. Many backcountry enthusiasts overlook Vail Pass entirely and session East Vail.

In other words, access isn't as simple as other road-lap-friendly passes or through-the-gate sidecountry. There is, as a result, a lot of untouched turns to be had.

Recommendations: If you don't mind snowmobilers zipping around, get there early and skin out to Shrine Ridge or the west side of the pass that's accessed from the parking lot. If you don't want to hear highway or snowmobiles and your idea of backcountry is silence and few people, head to the north side to climb Uneva or Little Uneva. Very long days riding truly steep terrain can be had getting over Uneva to ski the Gore Range, quite possibly the gnarliest terrain along the I-70 corridor.

Also, Shrine Mountain Inn ( shrinemountaininn.com), a three-hut retreat at 11,209 feet, is less than a three-mile skin from the Vail Pass Rest Area. Cost is $43 per person for upper-level bedding; $30 per person in Chuck's lower level. Because the inn is located on private property, snowmobiles aren't allowed. It provides some relief and a closer trek to longer, south- and northwest-bound tours in the greater Shrine Ridge area.

If you don't want to hike and don't mind paying, Vail Powder Guides ( vailsnowcat.com) provides cat skiing services for $400 per person. They access Ptarmigan Pass and Resolution Bowl, southeast and southwest of the pass, respectively. Expect between 8 and 12 laps per day. High-intermediate to expert skiers and snowboarders only.

Get there: Take Interstate 70 West to the exit for County Road 16/Shrine Pass road. Turn left and cross over the highway. The parking lot is on the right.

Access: It's necessary to skin, snowshoe or bribe a snowmobiler to drop you off where you want to go. The parking lot is located below the Shrine Pass area or across the highway from Uneva Peak.

Best time to go: Spring means the least interaction with snowmobilers. Depending on the snowpack, spring also can bring very stable conditions to the Gore Range and some of the steeper terrain off the south side of Shrine Pass.

Best line: The roughly 2,000-foot climb to the Uneva Peak summit (12,520 feet) provides a variety of terrain choices and total reprieve from Vail Pass' snowmobile traffic. To access, cross the overpass to the trailhead on the north side of the pass. Heading south and west from the summit provides exceptional, often untouched, above-timberline bowl skiing. The north side of Uneva has very steep terrain and accesses the Gore Range.

— MacKenzie Ryan