Backcountry Beta: Where to Ski in Telluride
Telluride is a backcountry skier’s paradise, that rare combination of ease of access, spectacular scenery, and variety of terrain.
Whether you’re looking for novice slopes or extreme lines, out-the-gate sidecountry or hike all-day in solitude epics, there is something for everyone. Here are the not-to-miss zones in and around Telluride and tips to make it worth your while.
The Marquee Sidecountry: Bear Creek
There’s a reason Bear Creek Basin is Telluride’s classic sidecountry spot. It
encompasses all that backcountry skiing has to offer—from easy and safe (relatively speaking) to extreme and high-consequence. Backcountry gates leading off the ski resort are located at the top of the new Plunge Express (the old Lift 9 was just replaced with a detachable quad), along the Gold Hill ridge, and at the top of Palmyra Peak, creating easy access from the resort. Study the terrain before heading out, out various area maps, and be on your best behavior, because the locals rule this zone. Beware, Lower Bear Creek has many areas that end in large cliff bands, and some of the lines from upper Bear Creek require ropes. (Read: Don’t follow ski tracks if you don’t know where you’re going.) Plan for at least an hour (or two) descent. If you’re a novice to the area, Safe and Sound is a good first run.
When you exit the creek via Bear Creek Trail, be sure to link to the river trail to get back to the base of the gondola. Venture into Oak, the new Fat Alley, for a cold Schlitz and fried okra–it’s the perfect après spot for creek laps.
Bear Creek, as seen from the Jud Wiebe Trail across the valley. Photo by Brett Schreckengost.
The Great Escape: Alta Lakes
Alta Lakes boasts insane views of the Wilson Range and beyond to the La Sal
Mountains in Utah. Luckily, the skiing is as diverse as the vistas. This zone is also
accessible from the Telluride Ski Resort, via the Prospect/Black Iron Bowl ridge and the Bald Mountain backcountry access gate. This area encompasses everything from wide aprons to technical couloirs (The Birthday Chutes, Silver Chute, The Wire), as well as easy access to Gold King Basin, where you will find similar terrain. If you are planning on spending time in this zone, try to spend a night or two at The Observatory at Alta Lakes, a recently remodeled two bedroom cabin located at the base of the Birthday Chutes in the middle of the basin. (Accessible only by skis or snowmobiles, it just might be as spectacular as the skiing.) Over the Moon, off the main street in Telluride, has charcuterie and worldly cheeses to go. We suggest stocking up for an Alta Lakes picnic before heading out the gate.
Alta Lakes Observatory uphill from the old ghost town.
Adventure Central: Ophir and Ophir Pass
The Ophir region is where locals go for early season powder runs, mid-season couloir skiing, and spring epics. Ophir Pass is located between Ophir and Red Mountain Pass/HWY 550 and is accessible from either side, though the 550 approach is more straightforward and faster (you can’t drive up the pass in either direction in the winter so make sure you have skins). The skiing at the top of the pass ranges from open bowls and tree glades to steep chutes and summit descents. The skiing just south of the summit is referred to as Paradise Basin and has long, enjoyable lines that can be enjoyed when the snowpack is safe. If you are heading towards Ophir Pass, be sure to check out Opus Hut and stay a few nights. Opus Hut was built by local Ophir resident Bob Kingsley who meticulously thought about everything from the perfect views to enjoy from morning until night and ease/proximity to great ski lines. Also nearby is the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, a beautiful and relatively new backcountry lodge in the area. If you are a rookie backcountry skier, look into guided skiing with Telluride Mountain
Guides, Mountain Trip or Telluride Helitrax.
Go Big: The Local 14ers
If your skills are perfected and the conditions permit, the San Juans are home to some of the best 14er skiing around. Local favorites include Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak, and Mount Sneffels. If heading into the Wilsons, start from Silver Pick road or Lizard Head Pass and plan for a full day—the Boxcar Couloir off of Mount Wilson and the north face of Wilson Peak are local favorites, but there are many skiing options in the Wilson Range. When headed towards Mount Sneffels, Yankee Boy Basin is the easier starting point and the Snake and Trilogy Couloirs don’t disappoint. The Snake requires a ski rappel from the top, and anchors can be an issue. Don’t mess around with the avy hazards on the big peaks—spring is the time to go, and an alpine start is always required.
When you return to town after an epic all-day adventure, head to Telluride Brewing in Lawson Hill and treat yourself to one of their Rocky Mountain craft brews. We love the Face Down Brown.
Original article published March 2, 2016, updated November 15, 2022.