The Best U.S. Resorts for Uphill Travel
Want to skin the frontcountry? Try these six spots.
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Jackson, Wyoming, is flush with backcountry skiing opportunities—from the backcountry access gates at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to the famed Teton Pass.
Yet arguably the most popular spot in the valley to earn your turns—if you slap on a pair of skins or huff it up a bootpack—is at 400-acre town hill Snow King Mountain. Hundreds of people ascend the mountain every day in winter because of its convenient location in town, its lack of avalanche danger, and the groomed slopes that make skiing with dogs who might otherwise bog down in deep powder a cinch. “Skinning the King is pretty much a Jackson fitness staple,” says local David Agnello. “There are probably more people skinning Snow King than actually riding the lifts.”
As alpine touring setups have gotten better and less expensive, riders are seeking more places to use them. Resort policies vary. Across the valley from Snow King, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort doesn't permit any uphill activity and has arrested skiers found skinning uphill. Like many more liberal resorts, Snow King allows uphill travel at any time of day, but asks people to stick to designated routes during operational hours for safety. It allows dogs before and after operational hours, but not during. Lots of resorts don't allow them at all.
With the amount of uphill traffic growing every year, however, Snow King has begun to run into issues, including dog owners who don't pick up after their pets. Last year, one uphill skier felt threatened by a teen buzzing downhill and struck him with his ski pole. Worse are issues with people getting too close to snow cats at night and to avalanche control work with dynamite early in the morning, says Resort Manager Ryan Stanley.
To help curb such issues, Snow King will ask uphill users to sign a waiver and make a voluntary donation to the resort. “It's a liability issue for us,” says Stanley. As for the donation, “we think its only fair,” he says. “Because our lifts don't run until 10 a.m., often the slopes we worked all night to groom or control for avalanches are pretty well tracked up by the time we open.”
If you can't make it to Wyoming this season, try one of these five resorts instead.
You wouldn't think the ritziest resort on the list would have one of the most liberal uphill policies, but Aspen has embraced the phenomenon with gusto. “It's become the new office,” says Aspen's Meaghan Lynch, who frequently conducts one-on-one meetings while skinning the mountain. Aspen hosts seven different uphill races on parts of its four separate mountains, Aspen, Buttermilk, Highlands, and Snowmass, including the Power of Four race in late February spanning all four resorts. You can skin for free on all four mountains, though the routes are restricted in the interest of safety and they're subject to redirection by ski patrol.
Skinners are welcome to top out on wide-open Buttermilk at any time of day or night, though during operating hours they should stick to marked uphill routes on Main and Tiehack. The Cliffhouse restaurant has an Uphillers Club with a punch card system—spend $100 in lattes and bagels and whatnot and receive $10 off your next meal. Dogs are allowed before and after the lifts turn, though the Main route is closed to uphill traffic during the X-Games. On Snowmass, there are no restrictions on route or timing, though dogs must be leashed. On Aspen Mountain, the uphill route is Little Nell, Bingo Slot, Spar, Silver Bell to the summit. Uphill traffic must begin descending by 9 a.m. and dogs are not allowed. On Highlands, the preferred route is Jerome Bowl, Park Avenue, Memory Lane to the Merry Go Round. As on Aspen mountain, skiers should be descending by 9 a.m.
Magic Mountain, Vermont
Because Magic is closed Monday through Wednesday except in the event of six inches or more of snowfall, it's an uphiller's paradise. Skiers are free to skin the 195-acre resort on the other days too, 24-7, and to bring dogs, though the pups must be on leash during operating hours. There's never a charge for uphill travel, and the north-facing, 1,700-foot resort features remarkably good skiing. “It's common practice for backcountry skiers to swing by the bar after a run to buy a little something by way of saying thanks,” says Jamie Anderson, who skins Magic for fitness or as a gear shakedown before heading west for a backcountry trip. Even better, skiers and splitboarders can use Magic's trail system to access Timber Ridge, an abandoned ski hill to the east that's now owned by a gregarious gentleman named Tim Walker who allows backcountry skiers free access to the trails.
The Big Cottonwood Canyon resort doesn't promote its uphill policy, but it is the only Wasatch resort that allows people to skin uphill within its boundaries. “We want people to stay off to the side of the runs,” says Brighton's Jared Winkler, “and of course stay off the hill during morning control work.” Uphill travel at Brighton is free, and doesn't require any special permit. What Brighton does promote is the Wasatch Powderkeg randonee racing event in March at Brighton, and a less formal, biweekly evening citizen series that features Wasatch locals tearing up and down Brighton with headlamps. For those just looking for a little exercise, skin up to Brighton's 10,750-foot Clayton Peak and descend under the Great Western lift. Because the watershed supplies drinking water for Salt Lake City, dogs aren't allowed in Big Cottonwood Canyon at all.
Killington debuted its uphill travel policy at both Killington and Pico resorts last year to great fanfare and is expanding its designated routes from two to four this season—a pair at each resort. For both locations, season pass holders can get an uphill travel pass for free, and for everyone else, an uphill-only pass for $20, good all season long. The company sold 650 of those last year.
Uphill travelers must stick to the marked routes at both resorts during and outside of operating hours. At Killington, objectives include Ramshead and Snowdon mountains, and to the summit of nearby Pico via an interconnect trail. You can also get to the summit of Pico directly, from its base area. Pico is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays except on holidays, and therefore can hold powder stashes longer. Locals affectionately refer it to as “Hiko,” says Mike Miller, owner of Basecamp Outfitters. “It's steeper, and has 2,000 feet of skiing.” Dogs aren't allowed on the slopes at either resort.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Like Aspen, Crested Butte is surprisingly friendly to uphill travelers considering it's a big western resort with frequent avalanche control efforts (read: flying dynamite). All uphill travelers must have a day pass, which costs $10, or is free for season pass holders. People are welcome to skin in the morning before the lifts open, but should pick up the day pass the afternoon prior. Skinners must stick to designated routes, which include those for pre-operating hours, during operating hours, and for travelers with dogs.