When the snow starts to fly, you’ll hear lots of backcountry skiers on the Colorado Front Range talking about heading up to Berthoud or Jones Pass, while many others will spend their time sitting in I-70 traffic on their way to and from the resorts. But there’s a quieter way to experience some of the finest skiing Colorado has to offer—and you won’t have to spend hours on the interstate to get there.
The Estes Park area, including one of America’s most recognizable national parks, is a winter wonderland for backcountry skiers of all stripes. From experienced ski mountaineers to those just putting on skins and testing out touring bindings for the first time, Estes Park and its surroundings make for excellent off-piste skiing.
The season ramps up quickly once the snow starts to fly—you’ll often see folks heading to Hidden Valley by Thanksgiving. But before starting out, you’ll need to bone up on your avalanche awareness. Ideally, this means taking a Level 1 course, which will teach you essential skills like companion rescue and terrain management. The Colorado Mountain School and the Kent Mountain Adventure Center offers numerous courses and awareness classes throughout the season.
You’ll also need some specialized gear. Backcountry touring skis are similar to the skis you may have used in-bounds, but the bindings are different—they’re either telemark bindings or alpine touring (AT) bindings, which free the heel so you can walk uphill. Then there are mohair or synthetic skins, which attach to the bottom of the ski to provide traction, and more flexible boots that allow for uphill walking. Finally, you’ll need avalanche rescue gear, including a beacon, probe, and shovel, and the knowledge to use it. The Mountain Shop offers rentals of all that backcountry touring gear.
Once your crew has boned up and geared up and you’ve checked up on the avalanche conditions, it’s time to hit the skin track. Here’s where to go.
When it comes to winter touring, Hidden Valley is an absolute wonderland. It’s one of the most beloved areas in the Front Range; in fact, it was once a ski area, though it closed in 1991. Today, there’s plenty of breathing room. Several low-angle, easily accessible runs, including the Lower T-Bar area and what’s often called Ptarmigan, are great for beginners. There are also a few longer tours in the area, and you’ll delight in the chance to duck into the trees every now and then.
Pro tip: Head to Hidden Valley for a weekday pre-work dawn patrol, when you’ll also have your breath taken away by the Rocky Mountain National Park sunrise.
Ready for a bigger tour after your foray at Hidden Valley? The route to skin up Flattop is just over a mile and a half, and it offers a variety of descent options for skiers comfortable with intermediate runs. The climb begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead, which Colorado Mountain School’s Simon Montgomery describes as “a whole different type of beauty” in the snowy months. The Bear Lake and Fern Lake Trails provide sweeping views of Lumpy Ridge and Glacier Gorge, and from the top, you can head back down the pure-fun Flattop Glades or Banana Bowl.
St. Vrain Mountain
This local favorite is outside the national park and offers backcountry skiers a glimpse into the past—it’s a long-defunct ski area, but it still gets tons of snow, and by springtime, the Ski Road in Allenspark is primed and ready to go. “You can follow the trails all the way up for an off-the-beaten-path adventure with almost no avalanche danger,” says Dustin Dyer, director of the Kent Mountain Adventure Center. You’ll also catch views of Wild Basin, and you can ski up to 1,000 vertical feet from the top.
Trail Ridge Road
For easy access to some serious backcountry terrain, look no further than Trail Ridge Road, one of the park’s most scenic drives. It’s typically closed to motorized traffic until at least Memorial Day, but during the spring skiing and early summer months, Trail Ridge is the place to be. The wide snowfield on the north face of Sundance Mountain is a favorite, and lower down, access off Rainbow Curve will get you to Hidden Valley.
After your big day on the slopes, you’ll be ready to hit the Estes Park après-ski scene. Warm up with a coffee or hot chocolate at Kind Coffee, then head to Bird & Jim and some of the best hot drinks in town, not to mention a local, seasonally rotating menu. Time your visit right and you can also check out Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company during its taproom’s limited hours.
Once it’s time to turn in for the evening, Estes Park has options to suit every budget and taste—even during the winter. The CMS Adventure Hostel is a great, economical option, and will give you a chance to meet other ski buffs. For a full-service experience, the alpine-style Sonnenhof Bed and Breakfast won’t disappoint; it’s next to Mary’s Lake and just minutes from the park. If you want a place all to yourself, head to the Solitude Cabins, on the outskirts of town, where you’ll enjoy a private deck and cozy fireplace.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park.