Got the itch? There are more powder stashes and corn-covered peaks along the I-70 corridor than you could ski/snowboard in a lifetime—all within a short drive of downtown Denver. Local legend and guidebook author Brian Litz runs down three favorite spots to get it on.
A few years ago, I slipped out of the office for a mid-week morning ski tour with a buddy of mine. Our destination? Herman Gulch. Just east of Loveland Ski area and a 30-40 minute drive from the Denver suburbs, Herman Gulch has long been a very popular summer hiking trail. Yet in the winter it is one that that barely registers on the radar of the vast majority of skiers hurtling along I-70 towards destinations farther west. In winter, the Herman Gulch trail is deserted, with rarely more than a handful of skiers and snowshoers to be seen even on weekends. My ski partner and I thought it would be a great place to get out, stretch the legs and work the lungs.
We skinned away from the parking area, immediately skinning into the blue-shadowed lodgepole forest. It was one of those rare, blessed Front Range days—utterly windless, the sky unbroken by even the slightest hint of a cloud. The previous evening, a potent upslope storm had rolled through, leaving in its wake a seamless, undisturbed shroud of deep, light, frigid snow. The kind of snow that hisses quietly by, offering no resistance as it parts smoothly around your boots and lower legs.
The short-yet-steep initial south-facing climb above the parking area passed quickly. On the lookout for possible slides from the avalanche paths on both sides of the trail, we climbed steadily in and out of open meadows and stands of spruce and fir. Finally away from the asphalt interstate, we entered the silent wonderland of the upper valley. Though only a mere forty minutes from downtown Denver, we felt a world away. The head of the valley, ringed by a massive, glacially carved stone rampart connecting Citadel Peak to Pettingell Peak, was drenched in new snow. Every ledge, every boulder, every irregularity seemed to support a beautiful fluting of snow. It felt more like some unknown cirque in the Peruvian Andes than our backyard Rockies.
We stopped at a lunch spot amongst bonsai-like groupings of wind-formed krumholtz and flag trees on a high pass east of Pettingell Peak. With Canada Jays flitting about, we enjoyed tea, cheese and bread.
Yes, the ski down was memorable, epic even, but for some reason it was this moment before we took off our skins that really stuck with me. It hit me how lucky we are to live on the Front Range. You won’t find many major metro areas lying so close to such beautiful alpine topography. After 30-plus years of skiing off-piste in Colorado, and after penning three separate ski-touring guidebooks to the state, it never ceases to amaze me how I continue to find unexplored tours, undiscovered, powdery nooks and crannies, and how even on terrain I have enjoyed and have returned to over and over, I still find brand new moments of pure joy and exhilaration.
In that spirit, I wanted to share these three lesser known tours along, or very near, the I-70 corridor.
3 miles round-trip • 1,525 foot elevation gain
WHAT IT IS
The oddly named Coon Hill is the craggy-sloped peak you can see just above you and to the northwest of the Johnson Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial tunnel coming from the west. A readily accessed, alpine summit, Coon Hill is a wonderful, short tour for those with limited time and/or who want to introduce a friend to the joys of high altitude peak-bagging on skis or split board.
Coon Hill serves up a panoramic view of the Gore Range to the west and of all of the other peaks around Loveland Pass and Summit County. Remember, though, that Coon Hill is a true alpine summit, so you need to play heads-up ball when making this ascent.
Park immediately west of the tunnel, near the west end of the large semi parking/pull-off area. Note that to return east after your tour, you can drive back east (past the little office house) up and over the actual tunnel building to get back onto the east-bound lanes. When coming from the west, you can exit and drive up and over to get to the same parking area.
The route up Coon Hill is mostly straightforward though you may need to make adjustments and check current avy conditions. Leave the car, walk back toward the office, then skin straight north up the flat valley. Once beyond the lower, rocky slopes of the false south summit of the peak, begin following the path of least resistance west. Ascend up steeper terrain aiming for the saddle between the south summit and the main peak. Turn north again, and skin up the south ridge to the summit. For the trip down, choose a line down the steeper, exposed east face. Once in the valley bottom, glide easily south back to the cars.
9.6 miles round-trip • 3,600 foot elevation gain
WHAT IT IS
Dwarfed by the surrounding rockier and more vertiginous Gore Range peaks, Bald Mountain is a smallish, outlier peak located directly to the north across from Vail Resort. It’s also one of the absolute best day ski tours accessed directly from I-70. Save this tour for a cold, clear day after a nice powder dump and you’ll enjoy not only the best in Colorado backcountry skiing but also top-shelf views of Vail, the Vail Valley and the central Gore Range.
Drive to the main Vail exit. Park either in the lower forest service lot (immediately on the left) or drive to the top of the road (past the mansions) and park at the plowed road’s end, near the small summer stables.
The first 1.8 miles follow the Spraddle Creek Road/Eiseman Hut trail through open aspens before climbing steeply into the woods. Continue climbing east/northeast on the road past the Eiseman Hut trail turnoff. Before the creek/drainage narrows and bends north to become the bowl southwest of the summit, strike off directly north and break trail staying west of the creek, following the path of least resistance. Gaining altitude quickly, you’ll climb up through meadows and lovely stands of aspen.
At the head of the drainage/basin, climb up through the sheltered safety of spruce woods aiming for the lower stretches of the treeless west ridge. Once on the treeless ridge, turn east and skin up the safe, wide, spectacular, wind-scoured ridge crest to the summit. There are many possible routes down, but all begin by skiing back down the ridge. Depending on conditions, you can either ski the open bowls or follow the trees used for the ascent to get off the upper ridge.
VAIL PASS TO FRISCO
8.6 miles one-way • 1,320 feet up • 2,800 down
WHAT IT IS
This fine high altitude traverse is surprisingly moderate, quick and safe. It travels through serious alpine terrain but is mostly comprised of intermediate level skiing. Since this is a “Point A to Point B” tour, you need to arrange a car shuttle.
Drop the shuttle car off at the second (heading west) Frisco exit at North Tenmile Creek. Next drive up to Vail Pass and park. Remember that Vail Pass is now a fee use area; you will need to pay a per-head fee.
Walk across the overpass and enter the woods. Follow the popular Corral Creek Nordic trail, emblazoned with blue diamonds, which veers sharply north. In short order, the trail gains the top of a low, round ridge that runs straight north and divides the Corral Creek drainage from the I-70 corridor. Follow this mostly flattish, scenic ridge north until it begins to blend into the much higher alpine ridge to the north/northeast—the ridge separates all of the Vail Pass area from the North Tenmile Creek/Summit County side to the east.
When the low, flat ridge merges into the higher alpine ridge, change course and begin switchbacking up the steep west flank of the ridge. Climb first through small clearings and stands of spruce and fir trees. As you near the top, you’ll break out into the open and pass through krumholtz.
The route I generally follow gains the top of the ridge just west and slightly above the pass west of Uneva Peak. You can also blaze a more direct path up the southern slopes of the pass.
The pass itself is a great lunch spot and the place to decide whether to commit to the crossing. Assuming you do, ski down the safe, open north slopes of the pass, paying attention to potential avy hazard on the surrounding peaks. Excellent moderate powder skiing takes you down over rolling terrain. Follow a bobsled-like creek drainage north until it spits you out into the meadows around main North Tenmile Creek.
From here it’s mostly a trail slog out to the shuttle car. Upper North Tenmile sees little traffic so you should prepare to break trail and do some minor route finding. Mostly the trail stays north of the creek. I’ve easily knocked this tour out in around 3.5 hours. •
Brian Litz is the author of Colorado Hut to Hut.