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Playgrounds: Colorado’s Best Backcountry Skiing Base Camp

Over a century ago, prospectors came to the Rocky Mountain National Park area looking for gold and silver. These days, a new kind of prospector comes to the mountains in search of solitude and deep snow. Visit Estes Park photo.

Colorado has long been famous for its mountains. Whether it’s the 54 famed 14ers, or the countless (slightly) smaller peaks in between, there’s truly something for everyone. Many readers can perhaps relate to this sentiment: when I first moved to the Front Range fresh out of high school, I was enthralled by the prospect of exploring these peaks, and quickly fell in with a crowd that showed me around and taught me how to properly move through the hills. I did exactly what everyone else around me seemed to be doing and loved it. Unfortunately, many of Colorado’s mountains might have been getting a little bit too much love lately. However, having seen the development boom that has held the Front Range in its clutches, it’s refreshing to see that a certain town and its surrounding peaks have been much less affected and still harbor a rustic mountain vibe that will keep me coming back for years to come.

While Summit County and Berthoud Pass may have turned into a bit of a zoo in the last decade, travel slightly off the beaten path and there is still solitude to be found. Forget the mess of I-70, and instead head North from Denver towards Estes Park. Nestled in a valley at 7,500 feet, surrounded on three sides by the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, the small but bustling town has proven itself time and again as a worthy basecamp for all things mountain: rock climbing, ski touring, splitboarding, ski mountaineering, and just having a plain old good time no matter the season.

Like much of Colorado, prospectors first came to mountains in the area looking for gold and silver in the mid 19th Century. While the mining boom soon faded, these days, a new kind of prospector travels to these hills in search of something completely different. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the best backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Colorado. We’re talking big mountains here, so bring your A-game when it comes to avalanche safety and proper tools, mountaineering skills, fitness, and a good map. Whether you are looking for a mellow walk to ski some bottomless powder, steep couloirs with virtually no approach, or to repeat classic big-mountain descents talked about in the history books, there is something for everyone. So, pack the car, slap on those skins, and start walking!

Ski Touring Basics

While it’s the big high-alpine lines that typically get the glory, the majority of the good skiing in the Park actually lies well below treeline. Thanks to some unique topography and atmospheric patterns, Colorado’s weather usually involves lots and lots of wind. While the sun will shine many days in the winter, those lulls in the snowfall often involve hurricane force winds. That might not be good for skiing up high, but it’s great news for skiing in the trees. All that fluffy powder gets blown off the ridgelines only to be deposited down low.

Ski touring in the Hidden Valley area is a surefire bet for deep powder, and a great place to get comfortable in the backcountry. Visit Estes Park/Joe Pyle photo.

Luckily, the Park offers a lifetime’s worth of ski potential that’s only a short walk from the road and doesn’t go anywhere near the high alpine. For those looking for a great introduction to backcountry skiing, some favorites include Hidden Valley (a lift-served ski area until 1991) and the zone immediately surrounding the Bear Lake. Hidden Valley offers open tree cuts and the ability to lap zones until your legs give out. Bear Lake and its surroundings offer up a bit more adventure for those who want to huck cliffs and venture into steeper shots through the trees. Again, the name of the game here is lapping runs until your legs give out. Well established skintracks make that an easy task.

Flattop Mountain, also accessible from the Bear Lake parking lot, offers some mellow high alpine terrain in the Banana Bowls, perfect for those sunny days where avalanche danger might be too high to venture onto steep terrain.

The short trek into Hallett Gorge above Bear Lake is well worth it for those looking to venture into steeper terrain and above treeline. Visit Estes Park/Joe Pyle photo.

Speaking of snow safety, if you are looking to start or continue your backcountry education, the Estes Park-based Colorado Mountain School teaches most of its classes in exactly those zones. Whether it’s an AIARE Level 1 and Companion Rescue Class or a higher-level course, their knowledge and expertise gained through decades of guiding and teaching in the area is second to none. As always with backcountry skiing and snowboarding, evaluate conditions before you go, and make sure you have proper equipment and knowledge on how to use it.

RELATED: Check out Colorado Mountain School’s Full Course Offering

A Ski Mountaineer’s Paradise

Powder skiing low-hanging fruit is always nice, but the true gems of RMNP are there for those who work for them. While the massive couloirs visible from the Bear Lake parking lot might look epic (they are in fact epic, and they’re easy to access), it’s well worth eating a few extra Wheaties and venturing deeper into the numerous valleys close by. Any local skier will tell you about the classics surrounding Flattop Mountain: Dragon’s Tail Couloir, Dead Elk Couloir, the Ptarmigan Fingers and Notchtop Couloir, all an easy day mission from the parking lot, but there’s in fact much more to see.

Adventurous skiers have long been looking past these classics at some seriously gnarly descents. A few miles to the south, Longs Peak towers over the surrounding area with its 14,259-foot summit and imposing East Face and the Diamond, which is home to some of the most famous climbing routes in North America, like the aptly-named Casual Route or the classic Kiener’s Route. However, hidden in the cracks lie some of the most demanding ski mountaineering lines in the Colorado, like the heady Notch Couloir or the never-ending Keplinger’s Couloir. Bring some pointy bits and a rope.

Dropping into a classic line a bit off the beaten path. Max Ritter photo. 

Even further beyond Longs and its steep skiing lies a world of nearly untouched peaks. These are exactly what draw a select few bold skiers far away from roads or civilization. When Estes Park local Glenn Porzak surveyed the area in 1974 for the National Park Service, he was also the first to summit the 100 highest points that lie within the present-day boundaries of the park. Now, his son Austin Porzak is following in his father’s footsteps and slowly ticking off foot-powered ski descents from the summits of all these peaks, embracing the remoteness and channeling the ideal of a wilderness inherited. It is a notion that we, as users of the park, owe it to generations past and future to use the land to its fullest potential and do so in the most respectful way possible.

A post shared by Ski RMNP (@ski.rmnp) on

Porzak and the SkiRMNP crew are all about getting out and exploring, even spending a few days at a time in the woods to get to know the area beyond the parking lot. There are more lines than anyone can count in the mountains out there, so go for a walk and embrace the vibe of the Rocky Mountains. Who knows what you will find?

Winter Climbing Is for the Hardy

While skiing and snowboarding might be the main draw in the winter, the Longs Peak area has experienced a bit of a Renaissance in recent years for another cold-weather activity: winter alpine climbing. Again, thanks to that unique topography and those weather patterns, the Chasm Lake area (directly under the East Face of Longs) is also home to some world-class ice climbing routes. Come fall, temperatures start dropping to slightly below freezing, beginning the melt-freeze cycle on the water that seeps out of the rock and forming ice flows that seem to defy gravity as they cling to side of the near-vertical cliffs.

RELATED: Video – The First Ascent Of An Ephemeral Colorado Ice Route

While the classics like the Smear of Fear (first climbed by the legendary Jeff Lowe in the 1986), Crazy Train, and Alexander’s Chimney are climbable most years, just this past season two new ice routes were climbed by some patient locals. In early November, Kevin Cooper and Kelly Cordes put up a dizzying WI6/M5 mixed route at the bottom of the East Face, only to be one-upped by Wesley Fowler and Tyler Kempney when they nabbed the first ascent of something arguably even bolder nearby. For climbers, it was a season to remember, as those kinds of conditions only line up once in a blue moon. It’s exactly then when the big kids come out to play.

A post shared by Tyler Kempney (@tkemp315) on

Luckily, keeping with the general theme of the mountains surrounding Estes Park, it’s not just a playground for the elite. All over the greater Longs area, lie stunning winter alpine climbs ranging in difficulty from mellow snow slogs like The Flying Dutchman or Dreamweaver to the classic waterfall ice route on Hidden Falls in Wild Basin. For those without a knack for climbing with pointy things, the hike up to Chasm Lake on a cold and clear day is well worth it and might just be that necessary motivation to step into the vertical world. Or, better yet, hire a CMS guide to show you ropes. I hear they do a phenomenal job teaching you how to climb as well as ski.

Authentic Colorado Mountain Culture

By now, you’ve managed to figure out a great way to have fun in the mountains around Estes Park, but what good is a day in the backcountry if you don’t get to brag about it over beers and some tasty food after? While typically pretty busy in the summer, the town tends to calm down to more stress-free levels in the wintertime. The fact that it’s not a ski resort is (thankfully) immediately noticeable, so avoiding the après crowds is pretty easy.

If you’re looking for some delicious craft beer, there is of course more than one option. Remember, it’s Colorado were talking about here. For a small taproom vibe, check out either Rock Cut Brewing Co. (located directly across from Colorado Mountain School) or Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company, located on the opposite end of town. Both offer a seasonal election of tasty beers brewed locally that pair well with a long day in the mountains. For more of the traditional brewpub experience, stop by Estes Park Brewery and settle in for a beer, some pub food, and the view of that perfect line you just skied.

On the culinary front, Estes Park offers up a great selection of eats spanning from classic mountain-town burger and pizza joints to rustic steakhouses located in a 1920’s-era log cabin. From that long list, a newly-minted local favorite has emerged known for delicious and somewhat experimental fare and cocktails, Bird and Jim, conveniently located right outside the RMNP entrance. Check out a full list of restaurants here.

Thanks to its busy summer season, there are loads of lodging options in the area, but a crop of hotels now specifically caters to the outdoor and backcountry touring crowd. The Ridgeline Hotel, freshly remodeled with a modern-chic flair and located centrally in town, offers an excellent base camp for the adventure minded, with affordable rates ( check here for ongoing winter specials), cozy accommodations, and their on-premise beer tavern the 105 Alehouse. 

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

About The Author

stash member Max Ritter

I manage digital content here at TGR, run our gear testing program, and am stoked to be living the dream in the Tetons.

If you haven’t noticed, Colorado sucks. Go back to New York, geeez you retards are like a plague of destruction.

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Nice article one day enjoy this place and camping

You article is amazing

Looking forward to this a ton!

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I definitely love Colorado’s mountains. I have one of the best skis there in my whole life. Wishing you a safe adventure as always!
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This looks amazing. Never done a backcountry trip…especially on skis. This would be a great experience though. I’ve always thought the Colorado mountains were beautiful. After I retire from being a roofing contractors in Fresno I’ll see about making a trip out there.

So beautiful! Bucket list for sure!
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