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Five great backcountry ski and ride areas


Most backcountry enthusiasts won’t give up their secret powder stashes.

Colorado Mountain School ski guide Andrew Councell says he’d gladly share some of his — it’s just tough to tell skiers where to turn right at that one funny tree.

Instead, Councell offers five accessible spots that aren’t too tough to find. You’ll find fellow skiers at these areas, but they’re great places to start seeking out backcountry fun.

Note: Always check conditions reports at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before heading into the backcountry at avalanche.state.co.us; or call the Boulder office for a daily report on the Front Range at 303-499-9650. Councell writes conditions reports for Rocky Mountain National Park at totalclimbing.com.

And remember: Carrying and knowing how to use a beacon, shovel and probe are non-negotiable for backcountry travel, as are educating yourself about avalanches, weather and terrain.

1 Hidden Valley

Rocky Mountain National Park used to have a ski area; it closed in 1991. Now, Hidden Valley is a mellow backcountry spot with lower-angle terrain that’s generally (but not entirely) avalanche-free.

There’s good skiing in the trees below the road, says Councell, and starting there is a good way to access much bigger terrain off the closed section of Trail Ridge Road.

Get there: From RMNP’s Beaver Meadow Visitor Center, follow Trail Ridge Road into the park to signs for Hidden Valley Picnic Area at 6.8 miles. Info: nps.gov/romo

2 Banana Bowls

The northeast side of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Flattop Mountain, dubbed the Banana Bowls (on a map they’re shaped like a banana), offer fun trees and alleys on relatively open slopes up to about 30 degrees. Also check out the short but fun runs on the east face of Flattop. Councell says this area can be raked by wind, but it’s usually a good place to head on high avy-danger days.

Get there: Start from the Bear Lake Trailhead in RMNP. Follow the trail signs for Odessa Lake for about 1.7 miles until you come out of thick forest into open slopes.

Info: nps.gov/romo

3 Tyndall Gorge

Head up Rocky Mountain National Park’s Tyndall Gorge to seek out the park’s more aggressive terrain, specifically the classic Dragon’s Tail Couloirs above Emerald Lake. The main couloir — “That’s the cherry line in the gorge,” Councell says — hits 50 degrees at it’s steepest.

Also up the gorge, check out the steep tree skiing above Dream Lake, or the Ho Hum/Terrain Park areas off of the Lake Haiyaha trail.

Get there: Start from the Bear Lake Trailhead in RMNP. The winter ski trail skirts the left (south) side of Bear Lake to head toward Dream and Emerald lakes. The Dragon’s Tails are above Emerald Lake, on the south side of Flattop Mountain. Info: nps.gov/romo

4 East Portal of Moffat Tunnel

When it’s scary to ski elsewhere, the trees east of Rollins Pass — skied to from the trailhead at the Moffatt Tunnel — are usually safe. It’s low angle, but there are good shots with drops and cliffs. The ski out is like a luge, says Councell.

“You’re bombing down this track through the trees — it’s fun!”

Get there: From Rollinsville (about 5 miles south of Nederland), take East Portal Road west 8 miles to the trailhead near the tunnel. Follow the trail signs for Rollins Pass for about 4 miles to the glades.

Info: fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/recreation/wilderness/indianpeaks

5 Butler Gulch

This is bigger terrain, good freeskiing, so a stable snowpack is required to ski the 35-degree (and greater!), east-facing slopes in the Berthoud Pass area. But when conditions are right, skiers can head up a ridge and come right down a face, Councell says.

And don’t be alarmed by congestion at the trailhead with snowmobilers — they’re not allowed where you’ll ski.

Get there: From Empire, take U.S. 40 west to the first switchback up to Berthoud Pass, then head straight on Henderson Mine Road to a parking area on the right near the mine entrance. Skin up Jones Pass Road for .25 mile to Butler Gulch Trail.

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