By Randy Yagi
Although it’s certainly not for everyone, backcountry skiing has been rising in popularity amongst winter sports, particularly in North America. Also known as off-piste skiing or off the trail, without groomed snow in the outer reaches of ski resorts or mountainous hidden treasures, backcountry skiing can be as exhilarating as it is potentially dangerous. While many skiers at the expert level with the knowledge and training with avalanche skills might not require the use of a guided tour service, it is strongly recommended that these type of services be considered for most other skiers. The payoff, of course, is to experience a vast winter wonderland like no other in the backcountry of North America.
Alta Ski Area
Alta, UT 84092
Named Utah’s Best Overall Ski Resort by Powderhounds, Alta is one of the oldest ski resorts in the country, having first opened during the 1938-1939 winter season. Also Utah’s first resort to install a lift and one of just a few remaining in the U.S. that’s completely snowboard free, Alta Ski Area features two base camps, has a peak elevation of 10,550 feet, 2,200 acres of skiable area, more than 115 trails and an exceptionally challenging off piste terrain. Backcountry Adventure packages are available, such as guided backcountry skiing with Alta Snowcat Skiing and helicopter skiing for individuals, private groups and private charters available through Powderbird Helicopter Skiing, with departures from Snowbird and Park City. Avalanche conditions should be reviewed in advance through the Utah Avalanche Center. There are five lodges available at Alta Ski Area and includes Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge and Alta Peruvian Lodge, considered the Area’s best ski-in/ski-out mountain lodge.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
3395 Cody Lane
Teton Village, WY 83025
Consistently among the most acclaimed ski resorts in the U.S., Jackson Hole is well known for having some of the most challenging terrain for backcountry skiing. Featuring the longest continuous vertical rise (4,139 feet) of any ski area in the country, this multi-award winning resort with a top elevation of 10,450 feet features 2,500 acres of skiable area and 3,000 more acres in its backcountry region, which opened in 1999. While the backcountry is best suited for advanced skiers and snowboarders, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort also offers private guides and 4-day Backcountry Camps, with upcoming dates in January and February. Certain backcountry equipment is required to attend these classes and includes a backpack, shovel, probe and transceiver in addition to suggested equipment like wicking long underwear, lightweight down coat, headband, water bottle or hydration system and an ABS Avalanche Airbag Pack. Reservations for private backcountry guides are required and all backcountry skiers and snowboarders are strongly advised to check the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Hazard and Weather Forecast through the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center. Smart choices for lodging options include Hotel Terra Jackson Hole and Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa.
Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows
1960 Squaw Valley Road
Olympic Valley, CA 96146
Recently named the Best Ski Resort in North America for three consecutive years by USA Today, Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows features more than 6,000 skiable acres. The merged resorts of Squaw Valley, the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics and Alpine Meadows are collectively known as the spring skiing capital of Lake Tahoe, possessing the longest ski and snowboard season in the area. Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows in conjunction with the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS), has a Backcountry Access Program, allowing access to the backcountry terrain and passage between the KT-22 lift in Squaw Valley and named the best on the continent and the top of Summit Chair at Alpine Meadows. Anyone interested in visiting the backcountry area must be aware of the resort’s Mountain Safety Policies, obey all posted signs and warnings and know that the off-piste skiing/riding is intended for experts only. Additionally, anyone entering the backcountry area are advised to ski or ride with a partner, consider alpine tour or telemark equipment and climbing skis, know how to use and carry an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, and know that there will be no cell phone coverage. Recommended backcountry tours of Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows are available through Alpenglow Expeditions. Among the exceptional lodging available at this captivating resort are PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn and the Village at Squaw Valley.
Telluride Ski Resort
565 Mountain Village Blvd.
Telluride, CO 81435
Telluride is just one of a wealth of outstanding destinations in Colorado, by far the best state in the country for skiing. As the top choice by Condé Nast Traveler as the No. 1 Ski Resort in North America for four of the last five years, Telluride features more than 2,000 acres of skiable area and is also world renowned for its backcountry skiing, with recommended services provided by professional guides, Snowcat and helicopter. For those interested in staying overnight, the San Juan Hut System within the San Juan Mountains offers backcountry ski huts that links a ski route between Telluride and Ouray. Additionally, Backcountry Education Courses are taught at the San Juan Field School in the adjacent city of Telluride. Visitors have a variety of lodging choices including hotels like Peaks Resort and Spa, Mountain Lodge and the venerable Franz Klammer Lodge, as well as condos, townhomes and private homes.
4545 Blackcomb Way
Whistler, British Columbia V0N 1B4, Canada
By far the largest ski resort in North America, Whistler-Blackcomb has a combined skiable area of more than 8,000 acres. Named after the two mountains that are connected by the famous 2 Peak Gondola, Whistler-Blackcomb has its own set of distinguished awards including being named the No. 1 Overall Ski Resort in North America and Best Terrain Variety by SKI Magazine, as well as among the Top 5 for lodging, après, lifts, dining and terrain challenge. Backcountry tickets are available through the resort and proper gear is required, such as an avalanche receiver, probe, shovel and cell phone. Among the available backcountry services are avalanche skills training and/or backcountry adventures by Extremely Canadian, with guided backcountry options for skiing, snowboarding or telemarking and helicopter trips with Whistler Heli-Skiing. Whistler-Blackcomb has a wealth of lodging options, including recommended spots like the ski-in/ski-out Fairmont Chateau Whistler and the Four Seasons Whistler in the Upper Village.
Related: Best Ski Lodges In The U.S.