If you’re like many who frequent Summit County’s ski areas, you enjoy skiing soft snow more than hard snow. You enjoy getting away from the throngs to a quiet mountain nook, ideally somewhere in the high alpine, where you can take a minute to appreciate the view and not be rushed before dropping in. You enjoy feeling your legs burn on an ascent, knowing that the burn will return a sensation far more satisfying and blissful.
All of these elements are part of hiking for inbounds turns, a practice that can seem antithetical to some (“Hike? When there’s a chairlift?!”) but for others comprises the best part of any ski day. If you identify with the latter group, you’re in luck. Summit’s four resorts, as well as Loveland just over the county line, reserve some of their best terrain for those willing to work for it. Many of these runs (typically for experts only) are found above tree line and thus carry a hefty caloric price, but not all. Some are simply escapes. No matter what you’re looking for, this insider’s guide to each resort’s best hike-to runs will steer you straight to human-powered heaven.
Few resorts in the country offer as much hike-to skiing as Breckenridge—most of which sits above 12,000 feet and feels as wide open as the view. Hikers have three main zones to choose from, each distinct in character. Not all runs are pucker worthy, but a lot of them are.
It’s called the Back 9—a series of steep, north-facing alleys tucked away from the well-manicured frontside of Breck’s classically inviting downtown peak. The 10- to 15-minute hike starts just above the Mercury chair and meanders up a groomed Forest Service road to a high point of 11,700 feet. There are multiple entry points along the way, where you can drop in to the upper Windows and weave your way through fluffy openings in the forest. If you stay high and traverse far skier’s left from the top of the hike, you’ll reach Broadway and the Twin Chutes. These runs aren’t very long or gnarly, but the snow is almost always soft and cold. And you feel like you’ve left the hubbub behind for a slice of backcountry bliss, even though you’re still within the controlled confines of the resort. Don’t be afraid to poke around in search of a fresh line; exploratory instincts are rewarded here more than many places.
A note of caution about the egress back to E Chair, known as Rick’s Runout: the gully gets a bit tight and fast and can be sketchy until it fills in, so be sure to manage your speed and take your time.
Think of this zone as Breck’s original hike-to gangsta. Before the Imperial Express SuperChair debuted in 2005, adventurous souls had to start hoofing it from the top of the T-bar. It took up to 45 minutes to reach the 12,998-foot summit, but the snow quality reflected the lack of traffic. When Imperial Express arrived, that 45-minute hike was replaced by a 3-minute lift ride then a short, 150-foot tromp to the top. Suddenly, what had been a rare treat turned into a lap you could do four times in an hour.
The cream of this crop remains the Lake Chutes—a wide, rocky cirque that collects wind-loaded snow by the foot and drops away from a teetering cornice at pitches up to 55 degrees. Not into quaking before you take the plunge? Head for Easy Street, the friendliest—and earliest as you’re skiing down the ridge, which affords great vertical value—entry point. You’ll have to navigate a few rock bands, but barring the dreaded milk-jug effect on low-visibility days, you can easily spot and avoid them.
Continuing south down the ridge takes you past a handful of noteworthy lines. Crazy Ivan’s 1 and 2 are daunting but doable once you’re in the snowy throat. Be sure of your first turn if you enter there. The same can be said, with a bit more emphasis, of the drop-in to Vertical Cornice, an aptly named ramp that threads a couple of rocky needles and leaves my heart pounding every time when I reach the bottom and stare back up at the run. Zoot Chute is the widest and most popular option in the cirque, with a manageable entry feeding a cavernous couloir flanked by a wall known as the Elevator Shaft. Continuing south around the corner brings you to Wacky’s, another intimidating but thrilling inbounds couloir that holds stellar snow.
Farther south still, Snow White was added to the menu in 2007, offering 150 acres of advanced terrain that sees few visitors due to its remoteness. The south-facing aspect can make it harder to score perfect snow (it’s often crusty), but when conditions line up it can become a sleeper zone with surprisingly long powder runs. The only downside is you can’t traverse back to the Imperial chair like you can from the Lake Chutes; you have to take 6 Chair first, which adds at least 15 minutes to the lap.
Another former backcountry zone that was added to Breck’s trail map in 2013, Peak 6 offers the full gamut of hike-to terrain—from precipitous, exposed steeps to long, mellow powder fields. Start by hiking 270 feet up a sustained bootpack from the top of the six-person Kensho SuperChair. It feels like the climb is three times as long as it actually is, especially if you’re fresh from sea level, but eventually you arrive at the 12,573-foot summit. Then the fun begins.
Heading north off the summit takes you to Beyond Bowl. Though an overhanging cornice guards much of this terrain, the run itself is no steeper than an intermediate groomer. Ski patrol often chops away the cornice in a few places to allow for an easier entry. You’ll have a full view of what lies below you, so just find a welcoming spot to drop in and commence the floaty descent. Hugging the rope line in Breathless is usually a safe bet for virgin turns.
Heading south from the summit takes you toward steeper adventures. In Serenity Bowl, vast acres of leeward goodness have a tendency to end your traverse early and suck you downhill like a magnet. Sublime and Irie are the primary options here, though Rapture, farther skier’s right, delivers its own version of euphoria, albeit with a few more rocks to navigate.
If the aforementioned runs are where you take a friend who likes adventure but doesn’t ski all the time, the Six Senses are where you take your wild uncle who lives in Jackson Hole. The mainstay line is E.S.P., a wide concavity that faces directly north and has the cold, grippy snow to prove it. Trending skier’s left, Contact and Savor offer open if slightly more complex fall lines, while Whiff might be the most intimidating drop-in in Summit County. Epiphany, plunging east from what is known as Peak 6 1/2, as well as the South Col—a shorter but often empty zone far skier’s right—round out the menu.
Oh, A-Basin. How our lungs and legs adore thee! With five unique hikes, including two “hike-backs” that start from the bottom of their respective zones and take you back to a chairlift, it’s no surprise that this modest-size ski area on the Continental Divide has been attracting Type 2 fun seekers for decades. The hardest question is where to start.
From the top of the Lenawee, Beavers, or Montezuma lifts, skate over to the North Pole gate and shoulder your skis or board for a 10-minute jaunt to the top of a windy ridge. Traverse east and take your pick of real-deal runs that drop to the north like water slides. First Notch, a deep cleft in the mountain, is always hard to pass up, but it can be peppered with rocks partway down. Second Notch isn’t quite as walled-in, but the entry is spicier and includes a fixed rope for balance. Narrow North Pole tends to hold the chalkiest snow, even on warm spring days, while North Pole proper requires the farthest journey yet delivers the longest run if the coverage is good.
Skier’s right of North Pole on A-Basin’s vaunted East Wall, a stairway to heaven beckons. Open your pant and jacket vents, because hiking straight up for 20 minutes can get sweaty. (Fret not; the grime is worth it, of course.) When you reach Borgy Rock at the top of the bootpack, take a minute to admire the view. Then either drop in to Willy’s Wide or keep hiking. Assuming the Snorkel Door—a portal that delivers you onto the wall’s best terrain—is open, hit Snorkel Nose or Booger Ramp (not to be confused with Booger Snot skier’s right of the ramp) and enjoy a thrilling fall-line run in bona fide alpine terrain. If you’re feeling extra frisky, keep traversing north until you reach Corner Chute, the longest run on the wall (unless it’s a huge snow year, in which case a longer line can fill in above Borgy Rock).
Though less frequented due to the long traverse it takes to reach this hike on the northern end of the East Wall, the Tree Chutes deliver their own brand of magic. They’re not the steepest or deepest, and the vertical bang for your buck isn’t as good as elsewhere at the Basin. Still, as long as it’s cold enough to prevent the west aspect from crusting over in the sun, you can have a grand time here. There are eight chutes in all, named 1–8 from north to south. The first is the shortest; the eighth is the longest and most open. You can also venture farther skier’s left from the top of the staircase and plumb the more intense and committing North and South Y Chutes. The best part? Because of the layout, you don’t have to ride a lift at the bottom; you can simply hike back up and do it again.
Two years ago, one of the rowdiest backcountry zones in the county opened for inbounds skiing. The Steep Gullies comprise the most challenging terrain at the Basin, with deep couloirs swallowing expert skiers and snowboarders at the top of a rocky face and spitting them out 1,500 feet below. If you catch this area on a midweek powder day, you might never want to ski another resort again. Everyone has their preference for a particular gully, but you can’t really go wrong from the First to the Fifth. Be mindful of early-season shark teeth, which can knock you off your feet where you don’t want to be off your feet (especially in the Second Gully). Once you reach the bottom, hop on the Grand Portage traverse to Rendezvous Point and commence the 20-minute hike back to the Pallavicini Lift. As an alternative to the Gullies, you can also drop in to Janitors Only below Gauthier or the Bald Spot below the Beavers Lift; both require an abbreviated hike back.
It’s almost an afterthought most days due to all the other options available, but the hike-back from the bottom of Zuma can provide a nice sanctuary on a crowded day. There are a few ways to get there, including Black Forest and the Crags, but Lower Elephant’s Trunk gives you the best value for your effort. Follow the Zuma Cornice ridgeline all the way to its westward end and drop in to Elephant’s Trunk. Dart through the gate to the Lower Trunk, which takes you to the start of the hike-back.
There isn’t a ton of inbounds hiking at Loveland, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Getting to the hikes is simple: Take Chair 9 to 12,700 feet, then head north or south. Going south, or to your left at the top of the lift, brings you to Gate 2, just above the Ptarmigan Lift. From there it’s a short (95 vertical feet) climb to the top of a snowy knob, where you can access Super Bowl, Porcupine Saddle, and Wild Child—the best fall-line run off “The Ridge,” with entries as spicy as you want. (Super Bowl and Porcupine are less taxing.)
The most overlooked hike-to hub in the county, Keystone offers a menu that lacks the steep, committing runs found at other resorts but delivers sprawling variety across multiple zones. You can hike for almost four miles to reach a run here, guaranteeing your escape from the masses.
From the top of the Outback at 11,980 feet, hike east toward 12,354-foot Wapiti Peak, about a mile away. Drop in to North Bowl, whose prizes include the Victory Chutes and Conquest. You can also wrap around to the more southwest-facing (and longer) Christmas Tree and Corral runs. In South Bowl, check out Puma from the top, or if you have ample time and really want to escape, traverse all the way around the bowl to the short but sweet—and north-facing—glades known as Wombat Chutes and Tele Trees.
There are endless hike-to options from the top of North Peak—you could easily spend your entire day hiking to faraway runs then taking a lift or two back to the top to do it again. Start by heading east until you crest the ridge between Bergman and Erickson bowls. In Bergman, choice north-facing lines include 8 Iron and P.B., while Black Rock and Alhambra provide worthy south-facing options. In Erickson, if you’re strapped for time, drop in to Cornucopia halfway up the hike. Otherwise, continue up to Tommyknocker, a long, mellow run down the gut.
Still got ample energy? Head northeast into Independence Bowl. It’s primarily used by Keystone’s guided cat-skiing operation, but every run is open to hikers too. Liberty, Liberty Trees, or Midnight Ride gives you the best shot at finding virgin, sheltered snow. If you want the longest run at the resort, continue all the way around the rim of the bowl (a distance of 3.75 miles from the top of North Peak) and drop in to Two if by Sea. From there, unfortunately, your only way out is to trudge back uphill once more. This is why the bowl sees so few hikers. It’s also why it remains a hidden gem for those willing to sweat for their solitude.
What about Copper?
For decades, Copper Mountain was home to some of Summit’s best hike-to terrain, including the easily accessed Union Peak and the much more remote steeps on Tucker Mountain. But with last year’s addition of the Celebrity Ridge platter and this year’s debut of the Three Bears chairlift, those runs are lift-served now. (You can still hike to the top of Union from the Sierra lift if you want some exercise, but you don’t have to.) Although you’ll have more company, the skiing here remains as awesome as ever.