The 10 Best Places for Out-of-Bounds Backcountry Skiing in the USPublished on 06/19/2023 · 14 min readSki Expert Will Dobrowski goes over his favorite resorts with sidecountry options in the U.S. and shares a couple of recommended tours!
Photo by Will Dobrowski
I’ll admit it…I used to be one of “those people.” The people that think if you didn’t earn your turns, you might as well have been skiing in the resort. Don’t get me wrong, I love skiing inbounds too, but the sidecountry never really had the same appeal as backcountry skiing to me!
However, after being shown the light by some of my less pompous friends, I realized you can fit a lot more backcountry fun in one day if you let the lifts take care of some of the effort. With a little sweat, and sometimes tears, you can find terrain you thought only existed in Warren Miller movies. Following are some of my favorite sidecountry options in the US, in no particular order, with a couple of recommended tour options to get you started!
Remember! The “sidecountry” is the backcountry. Out-of-bounds areas are not patrolled, not monitored, and have no avalanche mitigation. Your safety is your responsibility. Know before you go! Check out avalanche.org for up-to-date forecasts and snow conditions for all these areas.
Perched in the upper reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon, both of these resorts offer stellar access to some of the best backcountry skiing in the Lower 48. With the abundance of expert terrain inside the resort, not much changes once you get outside the ropes, with unbelievable bowl skiing, as well as plenty of options for steep and deep chutes.
Incredibly easy access from Salt Lake City means you can be on the slopes 45 minutes after landing in SLC.
Be aware that Utah typically sits within a Continental snowpack, meaning these lines can be unstable and avalanche-prone well into the season. Check with the Utah Avalanche Center for current avalanche conditions!
From Snowbird, skip the long hike from the White Pine trailhead to reach this area’s glorious bowls and steep chutes. Instead, using the Tiger Tail area, hike a short way to access Temptation Ridge, where a myriad of line options wait to be skied. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, use the Twin Fork Peaks bootpack, near the top of the Little Cloud Lift, to access the apex of Snowbird, Mary Ellen Gulch, and the White Pine area!
The top of Atla also proves amazing access to areas off of Sugarloaf Mountain and Point Supreme. Be advised that the hike back from dropping off the back of these mountains can put you into Snowbird, so be prepared! These areas are commonly explored by the Snowbird Cat Skiing outfits, so there are some real gems back in the American Fork Drainage.
If you like getting into technical terrain, Little Cottonwood Canyon is about as good as it gets. Pair that with the legendary lightweight snow of Utah, and you have a perfect combo for some steep and deep shredding.
I will say that options can be somewhat limited depending on how far you’re willing to hike, and getting back into resorts after you duck the ropes can be a little tricky (useful to have a local friend here!). But if you get tired of the snow inside the resort getting tracked out in 15 minutes, great options lie in wait just outside the boundaries.
2. Jackson Hole, WY
Every article that talks about the backcountry in Jackson starts with some sentence like, “There isn’t anything I could say about Jackson that hasn’t already been said.” And yes, it’s somewhat true. The legends of steeps, snow, and skiers that have graced the outer reaches of the Jackson Hole resort are enough to make you read it twice. What I will say is this, one ride up the big red tram, one trip into Cody Bowl, and one ride down will get you closer to quitting your day job and living in a minibus than anywhere else in the country.
There are really two main areas that Jackson gives unparalleled access to, Cody Bowl and Granite Canyon. From the top of “Big Red,” traverse along the top of Rendezvous Bowl to the uppermost gate into Cody Bowl. Keep skiing (rip some of the side hits!) until you run out of steam, throw the skis on the pack, and start a bootpack up what I would describe as “exciting” terrain. From here, your wildest dreams come true, with insane big mountain lines at your choosing.
Another option lies on the other side of the mountain, with a myriad of gate options from the top of the Teton lift giving access into the tight and steep chutes of Granite Canyon. These north-facing shots hold some of the best snow, so when it gets all mashed-potatoes on the front, dip into the shade for some preserved powder. The traverse back into the resort from Granite Canyon is pretty brutal and a great left leg workout, so snowboarders beware or be prepared with a set of poles.
Jackson’s sidecountry is really not to be missed. The resort could be three green runs, and it would still be a world-class destination simply because of the backcountry access.
As a bonus, the lines in Cody Bowl are easily viewed from inside the resort, so everyone else gets to see you rip it up! Everywhere you go seems to funnel somewhat nicely back into the resort, and if you somehow get bored inside the boundary, go knock your socks off on some barely skiable steeps. The tram line gets long, so be up bright and early if you want fresh tracks.
For the backcountry, it’s also crowded compared to some other places, so solitude isn’t something you’ll find here. And don’t ask too many questions to the indifferent locals (instead, ask a Ski Expert here!). But with unlimited options for big-mountain skiers, the sky really is the limit in Wyoming.
3. Crystal Mountain, WA
One of the premier Cascade resorts, Crystal offers unbelievable skiing both inside and outside of the resort boundary. Commonly seeing multi-foot dumps, everything here gets caked in wintery goodness, leaving skiers with a blank canvas to let their creativity run wild. The amount of options here for backcountry exploration is truly mind-boggling. Trees, pillows, cliffs–it’s all here and it’s all deep. With Mount Rainier watching overhead, it’s beautiful as well.
Crystal is a fantastic option for those looking to dip their toes into resort-accessed backcountry. While there are certainly some longer tours out there for the dedicated, Crystal makes getting a backcountry experience super simple with easy-to-follow runs to get back to the lifts and semi-patrolled areas. Don’t let this fool you though, these areas also contain some serious terrain for those looking to get loosey-goosey in the deep stuff. And you’re in the Cascades, there’s a lifetime of touring within 30 minutes for any skill level and in any terrain.
With the new Northway lift, Crystal essentially took what used to be backcountry and made it lift-accessible, so don’t expect all-day untouched snow and silence. But for those looking for the best of both worlds, or those just wanting to see what the backcountry is all about, Crystal is a great location for it.
4. Silverton, CO
“Resort” is a funny word to use for Silverton. With one lift and a trail map that could have been made in Microsoft Paint, can it really be considered a resort? None of that matters, however, because Silverton offers some of the best steep skiing in Colorado, and honestly, holds up anywhere in the Lower 48.
This is a true big mountain skier’s paradise, with huge bowls and so many steep and tight chutes that they ran out of names for them. Huge glades cover the space between the chutes, providing opportunities to get lost in the trees. Be aware, you are required to show a beacon, probe, and shovel before heading up the lift at Silverton (rentals are available on a limited basis), this place is no joke.
Silverton is truly a special place for those with the experience and know-how to get the most out of a trip. This is not really a place to learn how to backcountry ski, and with so much hike-to terrain, I recommend that you be in pretty good shape before you head out there. However, Silverton also offers guided skiing and heli drops anywhere in the resort if you’re not feeling the whole bootpack thing. Open terrain can be hit or miss, especially with the notoriously unstable Colorado snowpack. For those with the drive for a big mountain experience without shelling out for Alaska, Silverton is about as close as you’ll get.
Sitting up high in Big Cottonwood Canyon, these resorts lay just across the ridgeline from Snowbird and Alta. While the inbound terrain may not get as rowdy as some of the Little Cottonwood resorts, outside of the gates you’re right back into the fantastic steep chutes and bowls that make the Wasatch a premier ski destination. Both short hikes and longer tours drop you into a world of unlimited possibility. Again, check out the Utah Avalanche Center for current conditions!
One of the easiest, and best, sidecountry tour options in the Wasatch lies just a short hike outside the Highway to Heaven gate at the top of Solitude. Wolverine cirque, along with its unbelievable views, offers truly puckering chutes along with open powder fields for anyone who loves having fun in some steeper terrain.
Other options outside of the gates here include Grizzly Gulch, a nice drainage back into Little Cottonwood Canyon, which contains some super playful and creative terrain.
Outside of Brighton, the options truly become endless. Play around in the trees of Hidden Canyon, one of the most easily accessed backcountry zones in the Wasatch. Play in the cold smoke of Lackawaxen. Remember to be prepared with a plan to get back into the resort one way or another, as route finding here can be a bit tricky!
Big Cottonwood Canyon offers up some of the most diverse terrain in the Wasatch, and accessing it from Solitude or Brighton serves it up on a silver platter. These are great areas for a traditional backcountry experience with a little more convenience. As always, the Wasatch can be a little crowded, but these resorts seem to suffer less than their Little Cottonwood counterparts.
6. Stevens Pass, WA
Another fantastic Cascade option, Stevens Pass also offers great terrain within the boundary, and is on the Epic Pass, making it an easy trip for people in the West looking for a change of scenery. A well-laid-out resort means access into the backcountry is easier than ever, with minimal hiking leading to great tree runs and strong steep skiing.
While the resort itself may seem smaller, the location of Stevens Pass means you have so many options to really explore the surrounding backcountry areas. I would recommend this area for those looking to mix their “sidecountry” expeditions with true tours, as this area can offer top options for both in the Northwest. Highway 2 offers some of the easiest access to backcountry touring in the entire Northwest, so traditional touring is really not to be missed on a trip here.
7. Stowe, VT
I had to give the East Coast some love on this list, and although Vermont doesn’t seem like a prime destination for backcountry adventures, if you get the right weather pattern, it really can hold up for some fun in the snow.
Local knowledge can really go a long way for the backcountry here, so do your research and plan well! For all the skiers in the Northeast itching for some backcountry action, choose your days wisely and you can have some real western-style fun.
Obviously, backcountry days outside of Stowe are going to be much more limited than those in the West. And the terrain isn’t quite the same. But if you plan well, and hit it at the right times, the Stowe sidecountry can really inject some extra fluffy stuff into your trips. Maybe not somewhere I’d go out of the way to, but if you’re in the area, don’t think there isn’t anything to do outside of the ropes.
8. Powder Mountain, UT
Powder Mountain is really a place unlike any other. Further removed from the crowds of Salt Lake and the Wasatch, Pow Mow has an insane amount of inbound terrain, and once you add on all the lift-accessed sidecountry, there’s enough skiing here to fill a lifetime. Lots of guided options for both traditional and cat skiing, along with avalanche-controlled, skin-accessed areas, make it a fantastic place to start getting into the bounty of the backcountry.
Powder Mountain is truly one of the places where there’s just too much to even try to list all the sidecountry options. An $18 snowcat ride dumps you at the top of Lightning Ridge, and you can drop anywhere you desire to start playing in the flow!
Skin up a little further from the ridge to ascend James Peak, with great skiing off any aspect. Baldy also provides some incredible options, and you can utilize the free shuttle from the access back to the base of the resort!
Powder Mountain is really an experience anyone who loves the sidecountry should have at least once. The multitude of options paired with the ease of access is unlike any other. Pow Mow has really leaned into all the incredible terrain they offer, making it super easy and low-stress to have some fun outside the boundary.
9. Crested Butte, CO
One of the birthplaces of extreme skiing, Crested Butte gets rowdy inbounds and rowdier out of bounds. If you want to venture further afield, even more world-class backcountry awaits just outside of town, and these areas can sometimes see even bigger snow totals than the resorts.
Many areas that would be traditionally seen as sidecountry in areas like Jackson have simply been added inbounds to the resort providing unlimited access to some crazy lines. Get loose and creative in these areas, and enjoy one of Colorado’s greatest ski towns.
This is one of the places that should be on every skier’s bucket list. Fantastic Colorado champagne mixed with this kind of terrain is like a fantasy land. A lot of the more extreme terrain, while inbounds, requires some hoofing it up ridgelines, so come prepared to earn some turns. This is another great place, like Stevens, to really mix it up with sidecountry and traditional backcountry to really get the full experience.
10. Palisades Tahoe, CA
What sidecountry/backcountry list would be complete without a mention of Squallywood? Lake Tahoe serves up some of the top resort and backcountry terrain in the Lower 48, and Squaw (now Palisades Tahoe) is one of the best places to eat it all up. Once you take in all the crazy terrain inside of Palisades, head out of the gates and let the Tahoe area swallow you up in its galaxy of trees, meadows, and chutes.
While I specifically mention Palisades Tahoe in this list, the entire Tahoe area is a backcountry skiing paradise. Lift access into the backcountry is great from Palisades, but don’t be afraid to strap on the skins and go exploring in some of the more remote parts of the lake. A typically strong snowpack, seeing many mind-boggling dumps means you’ll find whatever you may be looking for at Lake Tahoe.
There you have it—my favorite spots for some sidecountry action here in the Lower 48! No list can be completely exhaustive and accurate, and honestly, we’re pretty spoiled for choice in terms of awesome terrain to be explored. Check in with a Ski Expert here on Curated for more info on these spots or opinions on new spots near you! Happy skiing!