By Eli Helmuth
Those backcountry travelers who have visited Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in the wintertime will understand why locals refer to it as the Patagonia Training Center or Windy Mountain N.P. Although this area is known for its outstanding summer and autumn alpine climbing, along with a few winter ice and mixed testpieces, only in recent years has the backcountry skiing of RMNP been truly realized.
Spring and early summer are typically the best seasons for ski mountaineering in RMNP, with countless couloirs and open slopes dropping off the Continental Divide. During midwinter, when the snowpack is less stable for above-treeline skiing and the wind often prohibitive, the key to a fun powder day in the Front Range is knowing where the snow lands once grabbed by the wind—areas like the Terrain Park are the sweet spots of RMNP.
The Terrain Park describes the area at and below treeline between the Loch Vale drainage to the south and Tyndall Gorge to the north, encompassing the Glacier Knobs and a variety of relatively steep terrain (25–50° degree) on the east ridges of Otis and Hallett Peaks. Estes Park locals have known for a while that this is the lee “catch” where wind loading can double or quadruple snow depths—and that’s necessary to completely cover the bouldery terrain that defines Rocky. So far this year, the snow hasn’t filled in quite enough for good skiing in the Terrain Park, but one good storm is all it will take.
Although these are relatively short runs (300′-500′ vertical), the deep powder, wind protection, and interesting terrain make this a fun spot. Be aware that, despite all the trees, the Terrain Park can be prone to soft slab avalanches due to wind loading and above-average angles (upper 30s), and trees and cliffs create hazardous terrain traps.
Access to the Terrain Park is quick, with all runs accessible within an hour of the trailhead. Skiers typically run many laps on the best runs or do a loop that encompasses different runs. The Bear Lake Trailhead (9,520′) is the standard starting point, and with a little creativity and map-reading skills, there are numerous possibilities for linking a big powder day away from the crazy winds of RMNP.
Internationally certified mountain guide Eli Helmuth is the founder of ClimbingLife Guides, based on Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Click here for much more info about the Terrain Park and other backcountry skiing in RMNP.