Top Spring Routes for Alpine Tours in Aspen

Aspen abounds with options for world-class alpine skiing.
Aspen abounds with options for world-class alpine skiing. Jonathan Fox
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Aspen provides accessibility to a wealth of world-class alpine-touring options, ranging from gentle valley floors and technical backcountry routes to moderately steep to very steep inbounds ascents. For those unfamiliar with skinning or alpine terminology, it's the act of placing sticky, fibrous "skins" to the base of an alpine ski mounted with a touring set-up. To the untrained eye, an alpine touring (AT) set-up would look much like a telemark set-up, but the major difference is that skiers with AT gear clamp down the heel piece when it's time to descend. Depending on who you talk to, the sport might be called randonee or skimo, short for "ski mountaineering."

A recent refresh on winter conditions should help sustain Aspen's springtime conditions for both inbounds and out-of-bounds touring missions throughout April and even into May. To help you sort out factors like where to go and how to get there, plus gear and other considerations, here's a rundown of the top spring routes for alpine tours in Aspen, targeting your style of skiing. Happy trails.

For the Inbound Uphillers:

All of Aspen Snowmass 's "Power of Four" resorts provide excellent touring experiences. Aspen Mountain is quite steep and challenging to ascend, much like it is descending on skis or a snowboard. Aspen Highlands has both forgiving and steep sections, depending on how far up you go. Snowmass is relatively moderate as well. Buttermilk's Tiehack area—the eastern-most part of the resort—is the most heavily used for its convenient parking and breathtaking views of the 14,000-foot Pyramid Peak. Catching a sunset falling behind Mount Sopris from the top of Tiehack is an unforgettable sight.

An evening skin up Buttermilk's Tiehack area often provides spectacular sunsets.
An evening skin up Buttermilk's Tiehack area often provides spectacular sunsets. Amanda Boyle

Producing the individual and team SkiMo National Champions, Aspen is quickly becoming the North American mecca for uphilling. In Aspen, it's not just for the ultra athletes. Many evenings after business hours—especially during March, April and May—you'll see throngs of locals skinning up Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. Aspen Snowmass even hosts a SkiMo Town Series Race throughout the winter—that's how many Aspenites are into this athletic winter sport.

For the Winter-Road Cruisers:

If you're just getting into touring or looking to acclimate yourself to Aspen's high elevation without kicking your own butt out of the gate, take advantage of Aspen's many scenic winter roads. Maroon Creek, Castle Creek Road, and even Independence Pass all serve as excellent venues for this sort of touring.

From T Lazy 7 Ranch parking area on Maroon Creek Road, it's possible to tour all the way to world-famous Maroon Bells. The 12-mile roundtrip may sound aggressive, but keep in mind that you're on just a slight uphill for six miles before turning around at the Bells for a six-mile descent.

Fitness-inclined tourers will enjoy the 12-mile moderately grade tour to the Maroon Bells from T Lazy 7 Ranch. | Photo: Stephen Farris
Fitness-inclined tourers will enjoy the 12-mile moderately grade tour to the Maroon Bells from T Lazy 7 Ranch. | Photo: Stephen Farris Stephen Farris

From Ashcroft Nordic Ski Area on Castle Creek Road, it's possible to tour or cross-country ski along the 5.5-mile Express Creek Road or the many groomed tracks. You'll enjoy beautiful Elk Mountain views and glimpses of Ashcroft's mining-era ghost town. From Ashcroft, it's also possible to tour to the Markley, Lindley, Tagert, and Green Wilson Braun and Friends Huts , which are a sub-section of Colorado's 10th Mountain Division Hut System.

Express Creek Road and the Ashcroft paved Nordic trails offer beginner alpine tourers a great place to test out their skills. 
Express Creek Road and the Ashcroft paved Nordic trails offer beginner alpine tourers a great place to test out their skills.  Jim Kravitz

Depending on snowfall and how late it is in the spring, Highway 82 is an excellent venue for easy, breezy touring. Highway 82, heading east over Independence Pass , is closed from early November to late May most years, but the road is still used for many winter activities including snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, alpine touring, winter hiking, and fat biking. You'll want to drive toward Independence Pass on Highway 82 and park at the winter snowgate and start your skin right from your car.

Snowfall depending, Highway 82 east towards Independence Pass provides an ideal, moderately graded road for touring. 
Snowfall depending, Highway 82 east towards Independence Pass provides an ideal, moderately graded road for touring.  Jordan Curet

Hunter Creek Road , which is one of Aspen's most popular summer hiking and biking areas, is another top-of-mind choice for those seeking a moderate tour. Drive to the upper access parking lot on Red Mountain and begin your skin from there. You can ascend for several miles to Van Horn Park and turn around and ski down the same way. Depending on snowfall and temperatures, you may need to hike a bit up the 4x4 dirt road until you reach snow.

For the Backcountry Adventurer:

Colorado's unstable Continental snowpack makes many of Aspen's popular backcountry zones a dangerous choice for a mid-winter visit. Springtime's cyclical thaw and freeze is when the snowpack become a bit more stable, according to Aspen Alpine Guides ' managing partner and guide Stephen Szoradi. Regardless of snowpack conditions, however, hiring a guide when venturing into unfamiliar backcountry, especially if you or your partners have limited backcountry knowledge, is of the utmost importance.

"What might be safe to ski at 8 am on Tuesday morning might not be safe to ski at noon, or depending on weather for the day, might not be safe to ski the following day at the same time," Szoradi says.

So we'll say it one more time: Hiring a guide for Colorado backcountry routes is highly recommended. Leave it to them to determine what, when, and where it's safe to tour to and descend, and just focus on enjoying the glory that is being on your skis in spring.

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