ONE OF THE BIGGEST DRAWS TO BACKCOUNTRY SKIING (link) and riding is the sense of exploration and adventure. It’s the freedom to wonder, “What’s on the other side of that ridge?” And then go and find out for yourself. Once you learn the necessary skills to stay safe (link), how to make informed decisions, and acquire the right gear (link), backcountry skiing can be practiced in any corner of the world. Each mountain range has its own intricacies to learn, but that’s part of the adventure. The United States has an abundance of mountain ranges and ski areas that hold snow in the winter (and beyond). From the east to the west, this country offers up a supermarket-size variety when it comes to terrain, snow, and overall riding experiences. And, compared to traveling internationally, staying in the U.S. is not only cheaper but easier to explore and really get to know an area. We spoke with Mountain Hardwear athlete Luke Smithwick to get his short-but-sweet list of backcountry areas that are his go-to spots (without spoiling some of the hidden gems). You can purchase guidebooks and find online forums and resources that provide the proper beta for all these backcountry skiing areas, but hopefully the following suggestions get the gears turning in your head. When you’re researching for your next skiing road trip, these spots, categorized by snow quality, access, gnarliest terrain, and remoteness, should be at the top of your list.
As any seasoned skier or snowboarder knows, all beers aren’t created equally, and neither is snow. There are different kinds, all affected by geographic location, weather patterns, temperature gradients, wind, elevation, and more (link). From the “Cascade Concrete” of Washington and Oregon to the often-icy slopes of Vermont and New Hampshire, snow is never just snow. Perhaps you’ve experienced snow that causes your jaw to drop, leaving you wondering if you’ve achieved nirvana. It’s cold and ultra-light, and it gets deep. Deep to the point that your face shots come at a low price and your smile seems like it might never fade.
The clear front runner in this category is the Wasatch mountain range located in north central Utah, home to some of the country’s best resorts of Snowbird, Alta, and Powder Mountain. Year after year, the Wasatch receives some of the most snow out of any resort in the United States. According to National Geographic, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, and Brighton resorts are listed among the top 10 ski resorts with the highest average snowfall totals in the United States. But it’s not the depth of their snow that matters. Utah’s fluffy, white goodness stacks up, enticing any fair-weather skier or salty local to get out of bed. After all, the state trademarked the term “The Greatest Snow on Earth” for a reason. And they’re not wrong. Combined with steep and “get as gnarly as you want” terrain, the cold and loaded (lake effect from the nearby Great Salt Lake) storms that hammer the Wasatch provide light, effortless powder throughout the 160-mile-long mountain range. Even “smaller” storms that deliver only six inches of snow feel like more because of the low-density snow, which has less overall water content, and, as a result, is colder, lighter and easier to turn in.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, located in the heart of the Wasatch, is iconic in the world of backcountry skiing for its easy access—go from any Salt Lake City driveway to the top of a dreamy, 1,000-foot line in less than two hours (ultralight guys (link) and girls (link) might be able to do them in an hour). Check out Grizzly Gulch, Emma’s Ridge, and Mt. Superior, located directly across the road from Snowbird and Alta resorts. This 2,300-foot line is no more than a two-hour skin from the road and offers some of the most gorgeous sunrises and skiing in the Wasatch.
Often time is of the essence when you’re backcountry skiing. Like when work demands that you be there from 9 to 5, or your kids’ soccer schedule eats up most daylight hours. Or maybe you are working up to the stamina required (link) for a 14-hour adventure and need a shorter approach in your early days of training. You’ll be happy to know that there are indeed world-class backcountry areas that are forgiving on both your body and your time.
Note: The Wasatch would fall under this category for proximity to the roads, but we want to provide you with a variety of options, so it’s not listed here.
What can be better than starting your tour from 8,000 feet and having seemingly infinite powder-skiing potential? Teton Pass is the backyard skiing area for Jackson residents, and connects western Wyoming with southeastern Idaho. Situated at 8,432 feet, the pass is extremely accessible and chock-full of short approaches and terrain options. From the top of the pass, you can bootpack (without putting on your skins) your way up Mt. Glory, which sits at 10,033 feet. Unless it’s a storm day and you’re the first one out (which is doubtful in the obsessive Teton skiing community), you can be fairly confident that somebody has already set up the booter—a track with footsteps created by so many people hiking in the same spot—making the approach 45 minutes to one hour, gaining about 1,700 vertical feet from your parked car. Your legs will be burning, sure, but from the top of Glory, your options open up. From the long and epic runs to be had on the north side to the shorter shots on the southeast side, there is skiing on all aspects. You can even access more terrain if you do an up-and-over tour to the southwest. Many people will ski back toward the road, then hitchhike back up the pass to bootpack another lap or hop in their car to make it to work on time.
Reminder: Because you are touring above and around the mountain pass, roads, cars, and other people are directly below you. You must assume an increased amount of responsibility, and always consider the proximity to others with your decision-making.
Not all of us who ski and ride are looking to push the limits of physics or our own personal potential. But some of us live for it—to get our hearts beating out of our chests, to walk the line between comfort and fear, and to really feel alive. For those of us that prefer the latter, we don’t have to travel halfway around the world to do so. There are steep, cliff-covered, and generally crazy big mountain lines right here at home.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Keeping with the Wyoming theme of this article, we focus our gaze a short distance away from Teton Pass, toward Grand Teton National Park. Home to the iconic peaks overlooking Jackson and made famous by countless photographs, magazines, and all the major ski films, this national park is one of a kind. You can get as gnarly as you want. Options range from mellow, tree-covered tours up to no-fall-zone lines those that, in the case of a fall, could mean certain death. One peak in particular that has tested some of the world’s best ski mountaineers is none other than the Grand Teton. There are a few different ski descents on the Grand Teton: the Ford-Stettner Couloir route being the most popular, along with less-traveled descents like Otter Body and the Direct North Face. But no matter which way you go up and ski down, know that you’d be embarking on a minimum 16-mile round-trip tour from the parking lot. It’s a massive day that can take anywhere from five hours (good luck) to 18 hours (that’s more like it), and gains and loses nearly 6,300 feet of elevation. The route-finding, climbing, skiing, and keeping your fear in check are all serious factors. That’s not to mention the abrupt changes in weather and snow conditions characteristic to the Tetons. Make it to the top of the Grand and back down again, and take pride in knowing that you’re part of an exclusive club.
If all you care about is getting out there—and we do mean out there—away from people and into the heart of the mountains, remoteness is the name of the game. Just make sure you have the fitness for it! (link)
Turnagain Pass, outside of Anchorage, is a really special area. Unlike a lot of popular mountain passes that are good for backcountry skiing, this pass lies at a mere 900 feet above sea level. Despite the low elevation, this is Alaska, known as “America’s Last Frontier” with an expansive wilderness that has been spared from development and exploitation. Alaska is about as wild as it gets, but, Turnagain Pass has quick and accessible tours. Most people who ski in this area stay close to the road, but you can get out there. Like really out there. With a dash of effort and a sprinkling of imagination, you can get into territory that goes on for as long as you can walk...and then some. Here you will find a maritime snowpack, one that is deep, warm, dense, and typically found in mountain ranges that are close to the ocean. This area of Alaska offers enough skiable terrain that would take a lifetime to scratch the surface.
We didn’t want to limit Smithwick to only four of his favorite backcountry ski areas, so here are two more areas that he felt deserved some justice.
Tuckerman Ravine, New Hampshire
This classic East Coast backcountry area has easy access and surprisingly steep terrain. Head out there in the spring and you’ll be met with plenty of friendly debauchery: beers, BBQs, and dozens of stoked skiers celebrating the long season.
Located in northern Washington, the Mt. Baker Wilderness is a Pacific Northwest staple. The nearby resort, Mt. Baker Ski Area, routinely ranks among the highest snow accumulation totals in the world. The ski area averages about 690 inches of snowfall a year and holds the world record of 1,140 inches of snowfall during the 1998-99 ski season. From Heather Meadows parking lot you can get as gnarly (or as mellow) as you want. The easy access to the Mt. Baker backcountry is magnetic, giving you access to areas like Herman Peak where you can ski open bowls, glades, chutes, and cliffs that range from little to gigantic. This area is a great access point for multi-day trips.