A Guide to Skiing in National Parks: Pt. One - The Mountain West
Ski Expert Hunter R. breaks down everything you'll need to know about skiing in five of the national parks of the Mountain West region!
National parks house some of the nation's most incredible landscapes. So it’s no surprise that if you’re an avid skier, you get a bit excited at the thought of being able to ski somewhere as beautiful and unique as a national park. And while cross country skiing can be commonly found in most national parks across the country during wintertime, downhill skiing is a bit harder to find. There are only three ski resorts actually in national parks.
That means if you are interested in skiing within the boundaries of our national parks, you’re going to have to go by foot, and by that, I mean backcountry skiing. But that’s ok because there are quite a few national parks with backcountry skiing access, some of which guides are available for hire to give you an even better experience.
Before you make plans to hit the slopes, ensure you have called the Visitor Center to check conditions since some of these areas can’t be accessed on low snow years. If you are planning on camping in any of these national parks, ask what kind of backcountry camping permits you need as well. And as always, before traveling into avalanche terrain of any kind, make sure you always check the avalanche forecast for that area and come prepared with your backcountry safety equipment.
Glacier National Park
Located on the border of Montana and Canada, Glacier National Park is the perfect place for those looking to ski within park boundaries. It has a dramatic mountainous landscape and is known for its record-breaking amounts of snow. Skiable from late November to early May, Glacier has a few options to think about when planning your ski vacation.
On the west side of the park, there are quite a few beginner-friendly options including Lake McDonald-Avalanche Lake, Apgar Lookout, and the most popular ski trail, Going-to-the-Sun Road. Going-to-the-Sun Road is driveable in the summer months and connects the west and east sides of the park, but is usually closed off in the winter months. It’s a popular trail for beginners and offers incredible sights along miles and miles of relatively easy skiing.
On the east side of the park, there are a few beginner-friendly options such as Two Medicine, but it’s mostly home to more of the expert areas found in the park.
One thing that makes Glacier so great for backcountry skiing is the multitude of guided ski options. There are a few guide companies, such as Glacier Adventure Guides, that offer the option to hire a certified guide to take you on a day or overnight ski trip. They know where all the best conditions are, can cater to your skiing ability, and have multiple certifications such as outdoor emergency medicine, backcountry travel and rescue, avalanche awareness, etc. There are also several outfitters from which you can rent skis, boots, poles, and avalanche survival gear if you don’t have your own.
Expert Opinion: Great place to start if you are looking to ski in a national park. You can hire a guide to stay safe, and you can rent your gear so if you are looking to just try out backcountry skiing, this is a great place to go that will leave you stoked about the sport. One thing that I will note is that even the beginner trails in Glacier tend to be a bit longer than normal beginner trails, so be prepared for those longer routes! Also, it has some really steep, challenging lines for experts. The park is close enough to the towns of Whitefish and Kalispell which provide you options for lodging and dinner at the end of the day if you don’t decide to camp or stay at one of the few lodges in the park.
Yellowstone National Park
On Montana’s southern border lies their second national park, Yellowstone. Shared with Idaho and Wyoming, this national park is also awesome for skiing. There are some similarities to Glacier in that you can find plenty of options for guides to hire and there are trails for many different skill levels, but the trails here will be a bit more mellow than anything you’ll come across in Glacier.
The main guide service in the area, Yellowstone Ski Tours, offers trips ranging in length from a single day to a week, with the ability to rent winter camping equipment. They also offer several avalanche education and safety classes throughout the season if you are looking to further your education as a backcountry traveler. You’ll find it to be a bit more crowded than Glacier—though not as crowded as the next resort on this list—but it offers a lot more options for lodging and dining.
Expert Opinion: Yellowstone is a good choice for anyone looking to have guided ski tours that are a bit less intense than the ones in Glacier. It is also awesome that they offer avalanche education courses. This is further away from resorts than other options so if backcountry skiing in a national park is just a one-day activity for you on your otherwise ski-oriented trip, this is not the park for you. There also aren’t as many options of areas to tour as some of the other parks, so the more popular routes tend to get pretty crowded in peak season.
Grand Teton National Park
In addition to Yellowstone, Wyoming is also home to Grand Teton National Park. This is probably the busiest of the national parks when it comes to skiing, and for good reason.
Only a 30-minute drive from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and only an hour from Grand Targhee Resort, backcountry skiing in this national park is a popular decision for those who are already on a ski vacation and mostly want to ski the resort, with a few backcountry adventure days peppered in.
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides offers ski guiding through the park with a certified guide as well as a few different avalanche education courses for those who are looking to get away from guided trips at some point and start exploring on their own. The rugged peaks of the Tetons offer some incredible and well-known ski lines for experts, such as the Grand Teton, and easier tours for those who just want to get out and see the park in a new way. The ski season here starts in November (compared to other parks, Jackson Hole has an early snowfall, creating a longer winter) and generally lasts through April.
Grand Teton National Park is also very close to the city of Jackson Hole, which has no shortage of fancy hotels and restaurants and is a bustling town in the winter months.
Expert Opinion: Grand Tetons has some classic backcountry lines. An incredible place to go backcountry skiing no matter your experience level and they offer some great guided backcountry tour options. This park is going to be more crowded than other places, but the town has a lot going on for those who like a more lively mountain town scene on their ski trips.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Out of Colorado’s four national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the only one that is skiable. RMNP is also pretty busy for skiing which comes as no surprise given that the whole park is a mountainous landscape with heavy snowfall. Pretty much anything you could want to ski, RMNP has to offer. There are mellow, low-angle lines, steeper, classic lines, summits, couloirs, you name it and RMNP has an option for it.
One of the most unique areas to backcountry ski here is Hidden Valley, an old ski resort that opened in 1955 and closed in the ’90s. Though the lifts have been removed, there’s a lot of terrain you’d expect to find at a ski resort, such as open, treeless runs, making it a fun and interesting spot to backcountry ski.
RMNP also allows snowmobiles in many areas, which is uncommon for a national park, but a nice way to shave some distance off your uphill walk in so you can get in more skiing.
The town of Estes Park on the border of RMNP is an hour and a half from Denver and a bustling city with many options for lodging and dining. There are a few options here for guided ski tours as well, with the most recommended being Colorado Mountain School. Though this park is popular, it doesn’t feel as crowded as Grand Teton just because of its wider array of options for places to ski.
It is worth noting that due to its geography, RMNP experiences rapid and severe weather changes, more so than any other park, so be sure to plan ahead and call the visitor center day of to ask about the weather.
Closest Resort: Winter Park Ski Resort (50-90 miles depending on road closures and which side of the park you exit from.)
Expert Opinion: One of the more popular national parks to backcountry ski in and for good reason. RMNP is a bit more central compared to some others and in close proximity to so many ski resorts and towns that it makes it easy to pop over for a few days if you are already planning on skiing or snowboarding in the area. Estes Park is also a fun town with a lot of options of things to do without feeling as crowded as Jackson Hole.
Great Basin National Park
Nevada’s Great Basin National Park (GBNP) is one of the least talked about skiable parks and offers trails for every level of ski ability.
There are about six trails that would be great for skill levels ranging from novice to intermediate. Some are on unplowed roads marked with tape—making them extra easy for those who are just starting out. Some routes are hilly loops that have minimal avalanche danger but will be a fun challenge to your orienteering skills and are great for those who aren’t beginners but aren’t trying to have huge days in the mountains either. For those more in the expert skill level range, there are plenty of steep faces and chutes as well. The most popular is Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in the park which has a few skiable lines and is a 6,000 ft. climb from the parking lot—over 12 miles! It has awesome views and is skiable until late spring most years.
14 miles from the Utah border, GBNP is a bit more isolated than other parks. Because of this, they don’t have the infrastructure that you’d find at other parks. They don’t offer any guided ski tours or ski rentals, and while there are options for winter camping inside the park and a few nearby hotels in the city of Baker, there are no close major cities, making options for lodging limited.
Expert Opinion: GBNP is a little harder to get to and a lot more secluded, but is a great place to go skiing no matter your skill level if you are looking for a true backcountry experience with minimal human contact and a wide range of trails. They also have free snowshoe rentals and offer cave tours year-round so there are some other fun things to do here besides just skiing.
There you have it—a guide to skiing in Mountain West national parks. Have fun, good luck, and stay safe!
Questions on these areas? Not sure what gear to bring on your big winter trip? Hit up a Ski Expert on Curated and we can help you find the perfect ski gear to get you shredding in some of America's most incredible landscapes!