Ex-Extreme: Berthoud’s cliffs once hosted the Colorado Freeriding Championships and still see plenty of action. Photo: Tom Winter/tomwintermedia.com
Berthoud. Its story was a Greek Tragedy: One of the first ski areas to open in Colorado. A historic lodge. A pioneer when it came to snowboarding. More snow than anywhere else in the state. Excellent terrain for veteran skiers and snowboarders. Easy access from Denver. And a series of owners who drove it into bankruptcy and eventual extinction.
The historic lodge has been torn down. The two chairlifts are gone, and the funky old school busses that used to act as additional “lifts” shuttling skiers back up the pass from the bottom of Floral Park and the 80’s and 90’s have probably been sold to scrap. But despite the failings of the resort’s many owners to keep things simple and focus on what the ski area was about—amazing steep and deep skiing with hardly a nod to grooming, beginners or gapers—the terrain and the snow remain, and that’s why the ski area’s old runs and glades still see plenty of tracks. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Start your day with a quick pit stop in nearby Empire. This historic town is home to the original Hard Rock Cafe (303-569-3500), the last best place for coffee as you head to the parking lot at the top of the pass.
On your way up, check out the conditions on Floral Park. These expansive glades tumble down to a switchback on the Empire side of the pass where you’ll hitchhike back to the top or catch a car shuttle driven by the unlucky designated driver.
If it’s nice, you can gear up next to your car, but in blustery conditions you can take advantage of the warming hut that was constructed in part by funds raised by the Friends of Berthoud Pass. This non-profit organization hosts avalanche education classes, knowledge which is highly recommended for Berthoud’s steep, avalanche-prone terrain. In fact, if you are new to the backcountry, you can ski here, but stick to the obvious trails of Powder Line or Main Line, old intermediate runs that are unlikely to slide (but you should still take a class and have the proper gear before you do).
After looping the obvious hike-to terrain on the west side of the pass, including runs like Rush and Plunge, it’s time to rack up more vertical. Rochambeau to see who gets the first round of shuttle driving duty. If conditions are stable, hike to the top of the now vanished Continental Divide lift on the West side of the pass and head for the 80s and 90s and Current Creek. Stay skiers left from the top of the old lift, rather than the obvious lines that lead back to the road. The terrain starts out mellow, but quickly plunges into a series of steep chutes that terminate at a trailhead and parking on the Winter Park side of the pass.
Or, if the weather is good and avalanche conditions stable, skip Current Creek and head for Russell Peak. This 12,240-foot mountain hosted the Colorado Extremes on its rowdy east face back in 2002. One look at the technical lines and mandatory airs and you’ll know why. Go for glory, or ski the shoulder, where the snow drifts in deep and the lines are mellower.
After you’ve finished tearing up the 80’s and 90’s, or punishing yourself on Russell, gather your legs together for one more big hike. The Mines Chutes on the East side of the pass were never part of the ski area, but they offer classic terrain down to a skin track that will take you back up to one of the resort’s old shuttle stops at a switchback on Highway 40 that has plenty of room for parking or thumbing. For the less ambitious, the steep shots of Hell’s Half Acre are easier to get to. Head up from the parking lot and stay to your left along the edge of the old Powder Line run (directly behind the warming hut) before dropping into the rowdy terrain and down onto Highway 40.
Time for one last run. Head for Floral Park. This gladed terrain offers juicy lines through steep trees, and dumps you back out on Highway 40. If you’re lucky one of your group is so crushed from The Mines that they’re happy to act as shuttle driver. Have them meet you at the bottom. From there, you can head back down the pass to the watering holes in nearby Idaho Springs. Or drive a bit farther and kill off the rest of the day at Kermitts (303-567-4113; kermitts.com), a legendary Colorado roadhouse at the junction of Highway 6 and Interstate 70.
Tom Winter is a freelance writer and former Berthoud Pass season pass holder. He was an organizer of the Colorado Freeriding Championships, held at Berthoud Pass in 2000 and 2001.
In the Know
Trail Maps: The best link for trail maps is courtesy of Colorado Ski Authority. These maps will help you get the lay of the land: coloradoskiauthority.com/backcountry/routes/berthoud-pass/
Avalanche Information: Make no mistake about it, Berthoud is prone to avalanches. When operating, the ski area was considered a “Class 3” avalanche area (the most dangerous on the scale) by the U.S. Forest Service. Now that there’s no ski patrol, the backcountry skiing and riding here should be taken even more seriously. Get the current beta on conditions and risk from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: avalanche.state.co.us
History: Want to learn more about the history of Berthoud and the now vanished ski area? Check out the Colorado Ski History website: coloradoskihistory.org