The 10 Ski Resorts with the Best Backcountry Skiing Access in the USPublished on 06/19/2023 · 13 min readThe energy it would take to find all these spots without a list would leave you too tired to actually snowboard. Do yourself a favor—conserve energy and read on!
Photo by Oliver Dickerson
When I first started thinking about this list, I was concerned that I’d have to leave out too many of my favorite spots. Then it clicked that a solid handful of those favorites were north of the border and, like Kanye at Taylor Swift's birthday party, they are not welcome here! I realized it was going to be harder than I’d thought actually coming up with a proper top 10 list. That is certainly not due to the lack of resorts with world-class backcountry access in this fine land we call home. However, it is my aim with this piece to provide first-hand accounts of riding at these locations and I don’t want to be telling you where to go and what it’s like there if I haven't personally been myself.
After a deep dive into the memories of powder days past, it was no sweat coming up with a solid ten, but I knew it was missing some important pieces. I wasn't quite well-rounded enough to give my very own list a confident and honest stamp of approval.
Yes, over the years I’ve tasted a wide array of chairlift-assisted backcountry snacks and I have feasted upon some of the finest out-of-bounds offerings imaginable—true five Michelin star type of feasts, with not so much as a table scrap left behind.
Yet after a careful curation of my ten selections, I realized just how west-centric my list indeed was. I had to ask myself if I had been stuck California- and Cascade-dreaming for all these years? In an effort to wake up and expand my palate I had to cross off a few ski areas I was more familiar with and head east to really round this list off properly.
Now when I say head east, I do not mean East with a capital E. We will just be going a little bit to the east and not to the actual East Coast. I would like to make it clear that I am not saying there isn’t an East Coast resort worthy of this list, but I am saying that I haven’t seen one. I am aware there are amazing backcountry turns to be had just off the ski areas of the East Coast and, with the exception of Mad River Glen (I was told it was “too challenging” for snowboarders), I’d like to go explore some of them for myself one day. It is a struggle for me to picture how even the most choice slopes back east could somehow stand up to what is on tap out west. This ain’t the rap game boys and girls, it’s not a question of who’s flow is the illest. Pac or Biggie? I’ve got mad respect for all the eastern-boarders out there but let’s just be real, when it comes to which coast has the access that’s best, you need to bow down to the wild, wild west.
Regardless of which side you reside in, we are all privileged as mountain goers here in the States. We have, among other obvious advantages, some world-class resorts with both convenient access and mind-blowing terrain.
This list is not ranked in any specific order, and I haven’t received any compensation from any of the ski areas listed for inclusion in this article. For general inquiries or if you are with a ski area and you would like to compensate me for the addition of your resort to such an article please feel free to contact me directly at (707) 749-5422!
Starting off in Northwest Montana, we head south on a digital road trip into the frozen mind of a mad man. Our imagination is our only limitation as we drift a massive donut, 180 degrees down through the Rockies, across to the Sierra, and back north again ending in the Cascades. Buckle up! Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, and, most important of all, don’t go venturing out of any ski area without a partner and always make sure that both you and your partner have a beacon, shovel, and probe.
This is the place that is probably the nearest and dearest to my heart over anywhere else in the world. The first place I ever strapped on a snowboard, where I took my first turns, cracked my first ollie, and rolled out into the backcountry for the very first time. Looking back, I realize now just how lucky I was to learn to ride in Whitefish, especially during the ’90s. Yes, the crowds have 10X’d a time or two since then but the mountain has also done an amazing job at keeping up with the impressive uptick in skier visits. Some really well-placed chairlifts over the last decade have greatly helped the flow of the mountain and made getting to the plethora of backcountry lines that much easier.
Whitefish was my first love and after all these years still has my heart. Aside from the consistency of the snow quality, what makes Whitefish so unique is how well the terrain lends itself to someone just starting out in the backcountry. It was the perfect spot to grow up and get introduced to the backcountry and is a great place to visit whether a backcountry vet or you’re relatively new to backcountry riding.
A true local’s mountain, Bridger Bowl is still managed as a non-profit, and all operations decisions are made by members of the Bridger Bowl Association. For $25 in membership dues, you can join and be a part of the actual managing body of the ski area. Pretty cool right? Another thing that is pretty cool about Bridger is the very hikable backcountry access. A short hike from the top and you’re on a ridge—far down below and visible off the backside of this ridge is Bozeman. It is not advised to ever ride off this side of the mountain. However with careful examination from down below, inside the ski area, you can find many great runs, with exits leading back into the resort, that you may be comfortable with.
Schlasman’s Chair, pronounced “Slushman’s”, will be celebrating its 13th year running this season and is a backcountry skier training ground. Instead of getting your ticket scanned before they allow you on this chair, you have to check your avalanche beacon instead. This mandatory beacon check to load the chair just goes to show how serious this place is.
Jackson Hole epitomizes not only extravagance but also what it means to offer world-class backcountry access. You may want to keep that splitboard handy though, just in case you don’t want to pay for parking. The free lot is about four miles away from the base, and if you happen to be colorblind and miss the big red shuttle, you may just want to start warming up those legs early and get touring from here.
What can be said about Jackson Hole that hasn’t already been stated? The place is legendary and absolutely insane, if the inbound offerings aren’t enough to satiate that gorilla-sized appetite, there are a lifetime of classic lines waiting beyond. I was overjoyed to check this off the list last winter. Ticket prices for Jackson Hole Mountain resort are up to $180, which is a lot, especially if you’re planning on spending most of the time off the resort. It is definitely worth it, but don’t go selling a kidney to pay for it because the way your blood will be pumping up there you are going to need it. Plus, there are far less financially damaging options on tap, including nearby Teton Pass and Grand Targhee Ski Area. Oh, and the hot springs! Don’t forget the hot springs.
4. Brighton, UT
“The topography here is crazy. All the resorts in this area are connected, but for whatever reason Brighton has the highest concentration of jumps and cliffs and pillows. You can go over the backside of Brighton and be in Park City and there’s nothing but groomers and hard pack. Brighton always had the best snow, the earliest snow, and the most natural stuff. Plus, you can hike out of bounds and not get in trouble, and you can’t do that at other resorts. You can do all sorts of short hikes and hit all kinds of terrain. And it all funnels back down to the base.”
For a couple of years in a row, as a kid, I got to go to Telluride for USASA Nationals. Any time I had between the events I was exploring the mountain and I remember being blown away by the place. It was the first time I had seen such a seamless transition from the ski area to alpine, and actually the first place I’d ever eaten sushi too, oddly enough! I definitely didn’t head out into the alpine here as a youth, but I did find a pretty crazy untouched tree run that spit you out all the way down in town.
I haven’t been back to Telluride since, however, I did visit Ouray, CO as an adult “The Switzerland of America” they call it, and I’d have to say it has been aptly named. After connecting the dots in my head, I realized Telluride and Ouray are just ten miles across the mountains from each other. I explored off of Red Mountain Pass a bit, and having lift access into these mountains could be the closest we have to the Alps here at home.
Heading west, the temps and vibes start heating up a bit, but we’ll stay cool as a woolly mammoth's toenail. Mammoth, and nearly the entire Eastern Sierras, are a backcountry rider's dream come true. Huge vertical, a long riding season, endless possibilities, and more hot springs! The resort has something for everyone—arguably more known for its top-notch parks and pipes than its backcountry access. For me, stepping off that upper gondola for the first time, I may have well been walking out onto the moon. Not a place to sleep on if you’re looking for some short approaches to some killer terrain and like mixing it up with long resort and park laps.
This is a spot where I was a passholder for several years and highly recommend for great resort days and some long backcountry descents. Sugar Bowl is at the top of Donner Pass outside of Truckee, CA. Two things come to mind when I think of Donner Pass—white meat and white untouched lines. This pass already offers some of the best backcountry access for the effort, a little assistance from the lifts at Sugar Bowl really opens things up.
When I lived in Truckee, one of my favorite memories is riding off the top of the resort down to Donner Lake far below just outside of town. We’d shuttle each other back up to the resort and do it all again, or when I had friends visiting and wanted to show off a little, maybe I’d stop and call a cab before dropping and would have our very own resort shuttle. I like to call it poor man’s cat boarding, and it really adds a unique element to the backcountry experience.
8. Alpental, WA
This is sort of my new home mountain and the only place I’m a regular season’s pass holder—interpret that how you will. A little bit of a sleeper compared to some of the “bigger” ski areas in the area, located on Snoqualmie Pass, it offers a very different riding experience than the other spots on the summit. Alpental provides access to some of the greatest hot laps on this side of the equator. Not necessarily the “hottest” laps, but when conditions align, it’s really just a hop, skip, and a jump (maybe a leg-burning traverse or two) to the goods. For me, this gem provides the perfect balance of playful and technical terrain. The coastal snowpack here cakes boulders, trees, and vertical rock walls leaving most every surface rideable when the snow is right.
My first season filming with Absinthe, we had a whole crew staying on the mountain in a ski patrol cabin at the base of the lifts. We spent the nights slopeside and the days out on cowboy, taking the biggest drops we could find and still line up good transitions in the landing. The terrain, snowpack, and access here were a winning combination for us to add a few A-grade clips to the part. We’d be set up for shots though, really taking our time getting back down to the resort, and the local riders were getting in their reps. You can get in so many runs so quickly, and a short steep hike up or a stroll back up along the highway can get you far enough away from the crowds to find yourself a stash.
10. Mt. Baker, WA
For myself and many others, this is sort of the holy grail of resort riding and resort-accessed backcountry. The absolute ridiculous amounts of snow received here and the big, open, sub-alpine terrain that is right in front of your face, makes it feel like it was built with the backcountry enthusiast in mind. An easy half-hour hike from the resort boundary can put you on top of the same style of run that people are paying thousands to access with a heli-skiing operation.
I remember my first time riding off of the Shuksan arm and thinking to myself that this is what riding in Alaska must be like. Now after dozens of AK heli days under my belt, I can say with confidence that yes, not even a helicopter can assure you better riding conditions than can be found at Mt. Baker.
This place offers everything from kicker spots, that are right off the resort to a full-on ski mountaineering experience on the ominous Mt. Shuksan, and any style of backcountry riding in between.
Okay, we made it happen! I hope you’re not too dizzy and that you have a couple of new ideas on spots worth checking out. I’d like to close with a friendly reminder that any time you leave a ski area and enter the backcountry it is completely at your own risk and that a general set of rules apply in order to stay safe. Whenever you enter a backcountry situation, you should always be riding with a partner and at your ability levels. You and your partner or group members should all have a beacon, shovel, and probe, and you should all know how to use them effectively. Practice using the avalanche rescue gear with burial and rescue drills. Do beacon checks often, making sure beacons are turned on, set to transmit before ever leaving a ski area boundary. Educate yourself on the snowpack, local weather, and the conditions.
If you have any questions or want to plan for an upcoming trip, reach out to a Winter Sports Expert here on Curated! Thank you for reading, have fun and be safe out there!