10 Entry Level Backcountry Zones in Colorado Close to Denver

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is growing every year for lots of reason: more powder, fewer crowds, more exercise, better connection with nature, no crowds, not a Disneyland resort, getting out with friends, and the list could go on and on.  With an endless amount of terrain in Colorado for backcountry riding, it can be a daunting task figuring out which zones are best to start out.

We’ve compiled a list of 10 “beginner” backcountry zones that offer easy access from Denver with lots of low angle terrain.  We’ve even identified a few boot pack routes that are great for beginners who haven’t yet invested in AT, tele, or splitboard as well as a couple zones geared toward snowmobile-access backcountry riding.

We are a little cautious to call any backcountry zone an “entry level” or even “beginner” zone because backcountry riding has a lot of safety implications that anyone entering into the backcountry should be aware of. The obvious is avalanche safety.  Even if a slope is low-angle, it could be connected to an avalanche path, have spots along the run approaching above 30 degrees, or be part of a runoff zone. Even a small avalanche is enough to sweep someone off a cliff or into some trees, so it is important to have the right knowledge and judgment before heading out. A second safety risk is first aid. In the backcountry, any injury must be handled by yourself and within your group, unless you are lucky enough to have service and others around.

While this list is catered toward “entry level” backcountry enthusiasts, it is great for experienced backcountry riders who are looking to find beta on low angle terrain options for those days of considerable avalanche danger or just needing a Plan B if a more intense Plan A is unwarranted.

  1. Powder Project
  2. Backcountry Recon
  3. Roots Rated
  4. Google

Guidebooks are a great resource as well.  While most of the guidebooks are geared to more experienced riders, most of them offer some entry level/beginner routes.  A few that we highly recommend are:

  1. Lost Ski Resorts of Colorado
  2. Fritz Sperry books
  3. CMS books
  4. Lou Dawson’s

Not interested in internet or guidebook resources? Or, are you old school and actually want some human interaction? That’s what Plan C is for. We strongly recommend going into your local mountaineering shop like Bent Gate in Golden, Neptune in Boulder, or Wilderness Sports in Dillon to get some beta and even check out their selection of maps and guidebooks.

SAFETY DISCLAIMER: With these new adventures comes the need for safety and awareness. Before heading into the “out of bounds,” it’s important to get the gear and get the knowledge. Your pack list should include a beacon, shovel, and probe at the very least. Knowledge of backcountry safety can be drawn from AIARE courses and updates on avalanche safety through the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The expansive backcountry opportunities that Colorado has to offer is unparalleled and to many the risks are worth it. Get the gear, get the safety knowledge, get a buddy, and hit the mountains!

This list is not intended to be a guidebook with routes, trailheads, maps, etc. Instead, this Top 10 list is intended to provide an introduction to Colorado zones. We will do our best to offer links to more resources to find out exact routes. Part of the fun of backcountry riding is route planning.  Finding new zones, trying out new lines, reading weather, etc. This list will just get you started in the right direction. The following sites are can help you finish off the plan:

1) Loveland Pass

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation Range: 11,991 ft

Ascent Range: 0-500 ft

Descent Range: -300-1500 ft

Trail types: Boot Pack, Skin Tracks

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Hitchhike

Loveland Pass is one of the hotspots for backcountry access near the Front Range. For many, this zone is one of the first true backcountry experiences for skiers and riders. You will often find people looking to hitch a ride up the pass at the switch-backs. With close proximity to I-70, this area draws in the Denverites looking for an early morning or afternoon cruise or those not wanting to pay the astronomical lift prices.  You can drop off straight off the road from the summit parking lot or hike to more challenging terrain. Hikes can range anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours.

The great thing about Loveland Pass is that the ridges get so windblown that most of the hikes can be done on foot without AT, tele, or splitboard setup.  Additionally, with the frequent foot traffic, you may be lucky enough to have your path already set on the ridges. It’s actually pretty rare to see anyone skinning at Loveland Pass except to access Borland Foley and SFB on the outside reaches of the zone.

Route Suggestion #1: Drop off the summit parking lot or cut hard skiers left and get to the Ironing Board.  These runs all funnel back to the switchback where you can easily hitch hike to the summit.

Route Suggestion #2: If you are looking to take a few quick laps in the afternoon, you can approach the Corner Pocket terrain by hiking from the summit parking lot. Drop in either just below the cornice, or head further up for a longer more sustained run including Shockleys 2 and 3. The Corner Pocket area consists of upper alpine tundra and funnels into an easy-going above tree line exit toward the switch back. It’s a convenient spot having road access at both the top and bottom. Once ridden, hitch a ride back from the east bound traffic heading back from Abasin and Keystone.

Locals Tip: #1 If you’re planning on hitch-hiking throughout the day. Ride the east side of the pass in the morning. Go for a hike around lunch time as there is a lull in traffic. Then ride the west side in the afternoon when everyone is heading back from Keystone and A-Basin.  

Locals Tip #2: Pick up the hitch-hikers any chance you get and invest in your Karma 401(k). It will pay dividends when it's your turn to use the thump pass.

Safety Tip: There have been many avalanche deaths on Loveland Pass. To avoid most of the avalanche prone terrain, don’t hike. Drop off into the Mainline from the summit parking lot to minimize your risk of avalanche terrain. Always best to ride with avy gear, a partner, and snowpack knowledge. While there are a lot of people that don’t ride with gear, don’t be a lemming.

2) Berthoud Pass

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 11,306 ft

Ascent Range: 0-500 ft

Descent Range: -300-1000 ft

Trail types: Boot Pack/Skin

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Hitch Hike

Beloved by the Colorado locals, Berthoud Pass is the go-to for a weekend backcountry session due its vast terrain. Once a fully functioning ski resort from 1937 to 2001, the now backcountry terrain has been stripped of chairlifts, lodges, and returned to its primitive state. There is no shortage of technical runs and powder to be had in these parts.  The glades are known to be a haven for backcountry aficionados on powder days. With 500 inches of fresh snow annually, it’s fair to say there are many clean canvas days.

Similar to Loveland Pass, Berthoud Pass is frequented so much by non free-heelers with out AT, teles, splits, or snowshoes, that there are quite a few boot packs from the summit that allow access to nearly half of the terrain available. With no mandatory investment in new skis or splitboards, it’s a great place to build your backcountry experience. But please be mindful not to bootpack on a fresh/soft skin track (if its frozen in, go for it).

Route Suggestion #1: If you are new to the backcountry, there are some runs on the east and west sides perfect to get a handle on the landscape. Just below the former lift lines, straight forward runs await at relatively low angle.

Route Suggestion #2: For the days of lethargy, you can drop straight from the summit parking lot into Hells Half Acre toward Winter Park or ride Half Pipe on the Empire side without hiking.

Locals Tip #1: If you’re riding Berthoud on the weekend, get there early as the parking lots fill up fast. Even though the summit parking lot may be at capacity with weekend shredders, you can park at most of the turn off’s and either hitch hike to the summit or start skinning from the turn offs.

Locals Tip #2: Berthoud Pass offers great access to free vertical when you hitch hike from the switchbacks. Just time your runs and rides based on traffic to and from Winter Park / Grand Lake. You don’t want to get stuck, it is a dangerous road to try and walk.

Safety Tip: With frequent snowfall and high winds, Berthoud Pass is easily susceptible to changing snowpack. Therefore, it’s always good to conduct a snowpack test to validate your decisions before descending a line. As with good route planning practice, simply knowing which aspects / elevations / slope angles you will want to ride before even showing up will go a very long way in avoiding an accident.  

3) Vail Pass Recreation Area

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 10,662 ft

Ascent Range: 1,518 ft

Descent Range: -435 ft

Trail types: Boot Pack / Skin Tracks / Snowcat Groomed Roads / Single Track Snowmobile Roads

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: No, but Black Lakes is pretty darn close and if there is a sled track into the restroom then you won't need skins to get back. Taking Uneva will definitely require a skin back, so plan accordingly.

If you are really looking to etch your signature into some fresh powder this season, Vail Pass is the place to do it. Vail Pass is an extremely popular spot for the weekend warriors with snowmobiles since the South Side of the pass is open to motorized vehicles and has snowmobile accessed backcountry skiing. The North Side toward Uneva peak, however, is non-motorized access and frequent to backcountry enthusiasts. On either side of I-70, Vail Pass has a vast amount of terrain in low 20-degree to 30-degree range that are relatively safe zones for new backcountry skiers and riders. To top it all off, there are three 10th Mountain Division huts in the Vail Pass Recreation Area as well.

Vail Pass is unique in the sense that the terrain is strictly managed by the Forest Service and for good reason-to divvy up the terrain that’s best for snowmobiling, skinning, and snowmobile assisted riding. Take a close look at the USFS provided trail map and you will see that you terrain is effectively separated, offering all users ample terrain. Arguably the most well maintained and managed backcountry area in the world, $6 per day user fee and a low-budget $40 season pass beats any resort charge.

Vail Pass is probably best done by motorized access. However, there are plenty of areas that are accessed very easily by human power.  The South Side of the pass has a snowcat that plows the road and can be pretty easily boot packed for those with out free heel skis or splitboards.

Route Suggestion #1: If you have a snowmobile or want to skin/hike the 2-3 miles to the Ptarmigan hill there are seemingly endless amounts of low angle terrain such as Machine Gun Ridge, Barbeque, Queen Bee, and Boss Basin.

Route Suggestion #2: Vail Pass also comprises some amazing pillows, cliff drops, and natural features such as the those on Black Lake Cliffs, Cup Cakes and Little Debbies. The Black Lake Cliffs can be seen just west of the summit from i-70 ending at the lakes with a quick 10 minute hike back to the parking lot.

Locals Tip #1: Show up early on the weekends as the parking lot gets loaded up quickly with all the snowmobilers’ trailers.  You can park just above the rest stop as well. If you do get a late start, then it is advised to drive up to Camp Hale on the backside from Copper Mountain or through Minturn.

Locals Tip #2: Always help a fellow snowmobiler get unstuck and pay into that Karma mutual fund. It will pay dividends.

Locals Tip #3: Don’t forget to pay your park fees at the Ranger station and CARRY YOUR RECEIPT WITH YOU. Rangers do patrol and will check to see if you’ve paid your fees.

Safety Tip: There are a lot of wind loaded areas of Ptarmigan Hill that slide quite often, so be advised. And, stay away from the cornices as well, which can be a prominent danger.

4) Hidden Valley, RMNP

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 9,240-11,500 ft

Ascent Range: 2,000 ft

Descent Range: -500 ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes

Following the Hidden Valley Resort shutting down after 36 years of operation, an open powder field remains for backcountry riding. Just west of Estes Park in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Hidden Valley consists of 1,200 skiable acres. The most popular areas for newcomers are below tree line and have slope angles between 20-30 degrees, which are generally safe from avalanche danger.

Hidden Valley is a great option for those wanting to avoid the I-70 corridor during the weekends. Only 30-40 minutes outside of Boulder, RNMP offers an endless amount of beginner zones and butt puckering ski-mountaineering routes.  

Route Suggestion #1: Lower T-Bar, Aspen, and Juniper runs are great introductions to the backcountry with low slope angle and wide terrain. These runs are north facing and typically carry better snow due to less sunlight hitting these north facing slopes.

Route Suggestion #2: Traverse into the east facing upper bowls for more challenging terrain. But be prepared with the right knowledge and gear, as the slope angle is greater as is the avalanche risk.

Locals Tip: Hidden Valley can get pretty crowded during the weekends. Check out Bear Lake and Dream Lake as alternative zones.

Safety Tip: Hidden Valley includes some tree line and bowls greater than 30 degrees so be knowledgeable of snowpack and avalanche risk using sources like the CAIC.

5) Geneva Basin

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 10,500-11,750 ft

Ascent Range: 1,993 ft

Descent Range:  -38 ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks / Un-groomed Single Track Snowmobile Road

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes/Cross the empty parking lot

If you’re trying to avoid I-70 and going through the PRB (People’s Republic of Boulder), Geneva Basin is the backcountry zone for you! On the backside of Guanella Pass, the now abandoned ski resort features a ski patrol hut at the base where you can find old trail maps. Geneva Basin is an oasis for low-angle powder turns. There is a ton of terrain to be tracked here.

Geneva Basin is accessed from Highway 285.  It is not well marked and can be easily overlooked so be sure to lock in your destination into Google Maps before you get out of service. However, more recently the road closure has been moved further out making it a solid 4-6 mile skin to reach the resort.

Route Suggestion: Follow the access road to the lookers left.  There is another road to the lookers right, but it is private road that accesses some cabins and homes.  Although the lady down this road is super nice and will likely offer you some beta and tea instead of pulling a shotgun screaming “git-off-me-land”, its best not to go this route as the approach to the top of the resort on this route is much more difficult.

Locals Tip #1: Geneva Basin is an awesome spot during the mid season, but due to its lower elevation it does melt out quickly in the spring. Be prepared for frequent transitions on the skin up, as the skin track parallel to the road is often barren from snow melt.

Locals Tip #2:  There have been snowmobiles that get up to the old ski patrol shack. While not certain if snowmobiling is legal on this land, usually the service roads are treated like 4x4 roads. Just stay on the road and you will should be fine.

6) Indian Peaks Wilderness

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: ~10,528-11,131ft

Ascent Range: 603ft

Descent Range: 0ft

Trail types: Boot Pack / Skin Tracks / Snowcat Groomed Roads / Single Track Snowmobile Roads

Another great area to avoid the I-70 traffic nightmare on the weekends, the Indian Peaks Wilderness features terrain for all levels of backcountry enthusiasts. If you are just starting out, check out Caribou Glades Descent. Only an hour outside of Boulder, Indian Peaks offers some awesome Front Range backcountry riding. One of the hotspots in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area is East Portal of Moffat Tunnel. Check out Roots Rated for detailed information on directions, skin track, etc. Make sure to check the snow report and avalanche risk before your skin as this area’s snow conditions can fluctuate frequently.

Route Suggestion 1: For the newest backcountry riders there are a few quick skin up lines that can be found in the Indian Peaks wilderness area. These include Lost Lake Gully. Lost Lake Gully can be accessed from the Lost Lake Gully descent or from the Moose Glades run gate at Eldora Ski Area.

Route Suggestion 2: In the Indian Peaks Wilderness, you can take the Caribou Approach to the Bald Mountain: East Line. This is a great ski line with quick access to make a few laps.

Local’s Tip: Due to the elevation of the terrain in Indian Peaks Wilderness, the best time to head out is in the Spring since it less susceptible to high wind gusts and variable conditions.

7) Butler’s Gulch

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 10,488 - 11,702 ft

Ascent Range: 1,216 ft

Descent Range: - 3 ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks / Snowcat Groomed Roads / Single Track Snowmobile Roads

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes, couple short scooches but don’t have to slap the skins back on.

One of the closest backcountry access points from Denver, Butler’s Gulch is are a great spot for new introductions to the backcountry that require a little more route planning than some of the zones off Berthoud Pass.

This zone is just past the infamous Henderson Mine that mines for molybdenum, which is used in semi-conductors like your cell phone, cars electronics, and computers. So while not exactly the most pleasant scene to see at the trailhead, this zone does offer a tremendous amount of terrain.  Butler Gulch and Jones Pass share a trailhead and while Jones Pass does have some low angle terrain to offer as well, it is surrounded by some complex terrain management and best left alone until you have a little more experience.

The great thing about Butler Gulch is you can mostly ride back to the car with very minimal uphill.

Route Suggestion #1: Butler Gulch Bowl is one of the best starter zones with an open area and low angle aspect. If you are on a time crunch, this is the place to get a few turns in the early morning and afternoon. There are three face options to ski from the top of the skin track to descend and lap a few times. See Powder Project’s maps to find your lines and always check the CAIC website for avalanche risk as this area is often prone to considerable conditions.

Locals Tip #1: If the parking lot is full, there is overflow parking just outside Henderson Mine.

Safety Tip: Remember, the upper portions of this route still travel into areas that pass 30 degrees and take you into more obvious avalanche terrain.

8) Mayflower Gulch

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

Elevation: 10,968 - 11,499 ft

Ascent Range: 531 ft

Descent Range: -1 ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks / Snowcat Groomed Roads / Single Track Snowmobile Roads

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes!

With beautiful terrain and located right off highway 91 just past Copper Mountain, Mayflower Gulch is great for weekend touring of all levels. Not to mention short skin up tracks making it perfect for afternoon laps or early morning cruisers.  

Mayflower Gulch has some breathtaking cirques and has a few old mining cabins and remnants that make it especially scenic and iconic of Colorado’s true backcountry history. A little known fact, former mining roads served as the initial infrastructure for making access to Colorado’s  backcountry terrain easy.

Mayflower Gulch also has very advanced couloirs adjacent to beginner hills which make it great for gradually stepping up your difficulty level. It also has a lot of “Plan B” options for when conditions are just changing too much for lines to be safe.

Route Suggestion #1: The Gold Hill and Mayflower Hill area are best for prospects just getting into the backcountry.  Mayflower Hill is located lookers left from the parking lot. While not very steep, it is pretty much free of avalanche terrain.  Gold Hill is further up the road to the lookers right of the cirque. Just watch out for the massive cornice that builds up. There are lots of options through the trees back into the road.

Local’s Tip: Mayflower Gulch is a popular spot not just for backcountry riding, but also snowshoeing and cross-country skiers. So, plan accordingly for weekend excursions and get to the gulch early for parking. The Gold Hill portion offers some great low angle access, but don't be tempted to hit the larger chutes nearby until you are much more confident in your ability to read avalanche terrain.

9) Trelease/Dry Gulch

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 10,700-12,304 ft

Ascent Range: 942ft

Descent Range: 0ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks / Snowcat Groomed Roads / Single Track Snowmobile Roads

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes!

Part of the Loveland Ski Area, Mount Trelease can be accessed from the gate off of Chair 8. Plans are currently in the works to make this area suited for guided backcountry ski and snowcat touring. And, it is a great place to introduce novice backcountry riders to the “out of bound.” With Dry Gulch adjacent to Trelease, the pair make for a great day of easy access backcountry riding.  

Aside from the gate access off of Lift 8, there is also access from the Dry Gulch Trailhead. Take the 216 Loveland Pass exit from I-70 and park in the roadside parking lot.

Route Suggestion #1: Right off the 216 exit you can pull into the parking lot and hike up to the forest towards Pat’s Knob. During the spring there is often a skin track to follow, but you can also follow up through the glades to right above treeline. Pat’s Knob will be visible and you can either climb directly up to the knob or approach from the left side (the easier path).

Route Suggestion #2: Trelease Bowl is a frequented by Colorado locals for a its access. To start, park at the same parking lot of Pat’s Knob trailhead, exit 216 from I-70. The best route is to take Dry Gulch trailhead. Follow the road parallel to I-70 heading northeast until you reach a gate. Through the gate, you will ascend a mile up to Tubes trail. Continue on up Tubes run and passing treeline you will reach Trelease Bowl.

Local’s Tip: With some slope angles over 30, as you ascend, check the snowpack using your pole. Also, this area is susceptible to frequent avalanches in the winter, so the best time to take advantage of this ski area is during the spring months.  

10) Quandary  Peak

Experience Level: Beginner, Intermediate

Elevation: 10,868 - 14,024 ft

Ascent Range: 3,156 ft

Descent Range: -85 ft

Trail types: Skin Tracks / Boot Pack

Ride Straight Back to Parking Lot: Yes!

While skiing 14ers can be pretty intimidating, Quandary Peak is probably the only 14er that you can ride off the summit any time of year because the east bowl offers low angle turns that are pretty free of avalanche risk. The East Ridge and Northeast Bowls are the best for new backcountry entrants. These faces are at or below 30 degrees making them safer than other sections. Hiking a 14er let alone skinning up one can be a bit tough in the beginning, but that makes the descent all the much better.

Route Suggestion #1: Take Blue Lakes Road off of Route 9 and park at the East Ridge trailhead. From here make the 3.1 mile skin track to the summit. Be prepared with plenty of energy as this is a longer hike and the ascent is about 3,156 ft. The track can become steep at points and if icy it may be best suited to boot pack. From this East Ridge trail you can access both the NE terrain and many low angle runs on the East Bowl.

Route Suggestion #2: Cristo’s Couloir is a popular couloir for backcountry riders just beginning to shift from open face to narrower terrain. This terrain is over 30 degrees so it is very important to check the snow report and CAIC before riding out the terrain.

Locals Tip: As a 14er, Quandary Peak can be susceptible to frequent weather changes, especially when it comes to wind and mixed snow conditions. Generally speaking, mornings offer more ideal conditions to summit the peak so we recommend to go in the early morning with any 14er skiing.

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Looking for hitch hiker lines other than Loveland pass. I would rather ride the west side. Not into riding up the road on the east side anymore.

John Nick

Thanks for sharing the stoke. Great local resource guide. Thanks Weston!!! Live free, ride free!!!

Robert Hamblin

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