Ski from Nederland to Winter Park…and Back.
By car, Winter Park, Colorado is a serpentine 70 miles from our little
hamlet of Nederland. However, by skis Winter Park is a much more direct 20
miles away, and while it will probably take longer to ski there than drive,
the views and experience surpass those gained sitting in traffic on I-70 or
battling crazed drivers on Berthoud Pass in a snowstorm.
Skiing to Winter Park was one of those adventures friends and I would
discuss, but never work out the details to make it happen. That changed a
few weeks ago when my wife and I decided to give it a go. We opted to make
the trip an overnight affair, with a stay in a dog friendly hotel in Winter
Park. There are tales of people who go over-and-back in one day, with a
stop in Winter Park for lunch, but that sounded like a lot of work. I
figure if you’re going to ski over the Continental Divide, you might as
well enjoy a yummy meal and a good night’s sleep on the other side before
There are two routes we considered for the trip: Rollins Pass and Rogers
Pass. Rollins Pass is probably the better known, and if you hit it
correctly it can be exceptionally direct. Unfortunately we did not hit it
anything close to directly – more on that later. Probably the most
efficient way to do the Rollins Pass route would be to leave from just
outside the Eldora Ski Area gate and follow the Jenny Creek Trail to the
Arestua Hut. From there, a skier could link to Rollins Pass Road past the
Needle Eye Tunnel, head up and over the top, and then drop down the other
side towards Riflesight Notch. From Riflesight Notch, there are a
cornucopia of snowmobile trails that drop straight into Winter Park and
allow the skier to avoid the winding, twenty mile, three percent grade that
makes up the west side of Rollins Pass Road. Simple as pie, no?
Alas, we did not take this route. The reason we booked a dog friendly hotel
was because, well, we wanted to take our dog, a hyper active Alaskan Husky
who lives for big ski days and rips up our garbage when she doesn’t get
enough of them. Unfortunately, Eldora ski area has a strict no-dogs policy,
even for accessing the Jenny Lind Trail, so we instead chose the Rogers
Pass route that left from East Portal. The route we took headed up to
Rogers Pass Lake, before somehow crossing the divide and then, even more
ambiguously, dropping down to the Jim Creek Trail that leads straight to
Winter Park ski area.
Being the early risers that we are, we left the trailhead at the crack of
10 am, donned with the following gear: ski cap, sunglasses, wool long
johns, wool sweater, light ski pants, wool socks, leather gloves, gobs of
sunscreen and lightweight alpine touring ski gear. In our packs we each
brought a lightweight down coat, windproof shell, extra gloves, goggles,
extra pair of socks, tennis shoes, snack food, water, tea, avalanche
beacon, shovel, probe, dinner for the dog, a headlamp, GPS, map and a
East Portal may indeed be the least aesthetically pleasing trailhead on the
planet, especially when the wind is howling and the weird air-blowing thing
that dispels train exhaust into the atmosphere is going full effect, as it
was on our departure. To add to the industrial feel of the place, a garbage
bag or something had blown across the tracks which triggered a motion
censored loudspeaker voice, announcing in a booming English, German,
Russian, Spanish and Japanese voices that “You have entered a restricted
area, authorities have been notified, please leave immediately.” Sweet. It
felt more like shipping off to Iraq then the departure for a leisurely ski
into the mountains.
If you can survive the initial “thrill” of East Portal, the rewards are
great. Soon the exhaust blower and intimidating loud speakers are left
behind, and you are left with sweet, serene Wilderness. The trail climbs
casually at first, before steepening in the second half. The going was
smooth, the weather impeccable and spirits high. We found a snow cave on
the way up and I made a mental note of it in case something went wrong and
we ended up needing it on the way back.
We reached the lake in a couple hours. Above us, the Continental Divide
erupted in a white splendor that only a traveler into the winter high
country can understand. Places that are magical in the summer are even more
so in the winter, albeit in a wilder, harsher sort of way. We saw a thin
line of the Rogers Pass Trail switchback up a ridge to the divide, and made
our way to the top. We had to cross some steep, bulletproof snow in this
section, and there were a few minutes where I was wishing we had packed
along crampons for added security. It was no problem though, and we soon
found ourselves standing on top of the Continental Divide.
Getting from the divide to the Jim Creek Trail is the crux of this route. A
steep slope divides the ridge and trail and there is no obvious path
connecting the two. There are a lot of options but since you can’t see all
the way down it’s hard to know where to go. On top of that, these slopes
absolutely could avalanche, rendering solid backcountry route finding
skills and avalanche knowledge important for this trip. We ended up
following the Rogers Pass Trail for a mile or so before dropping down a
chute that consistently got steeper and narrower near the bottom.
The skiing down this was simply wretched – breakable crust that humbled the
mind, angered the soul and turns a solid skier into a bumbling beginner. We
“skied ” our way down and both agreed at the bottom that – despite our
success – this was NOT the way to go. We crossed the creek and found the
trail. The ski out was very mellow and fast, and looking back from where we
came, we discovered if we had gone west a bit more we would have found a
much more pleasant and safe way from the ridge to the creek. This would be
the route I’d recommend for would-be Rogers Pass travelers.
We rocketed down the trail and before we knew it were at the turnoff for
Winter Park ski area. Alas, our hotel for the night – the $60 for two
Valley Hi Hotel – was in Winter Park town, about three miles down the road.
Since we had our dog with us, we couldn’t ride the shuttle bus, so we ended
up gliding down the surprisingly pleasant Fraser River bike path into town.
If you’re going to ski to Winter Park I highly recommend enjoying one of
the finest dining options in all of the Rocky Mountains: Hernando’s Pizza.
You’ve earned it. I don’t know if it’s because every time I go to this
place it’s after a big day playing in the hills, or if their pizza is
really that good. Whatever it is, Elaine and I downed a 14-inch pizza in
about four minutes flat that night. It’s a good feeling – stomach full,
showered, full of endorphins, with a good roof over your head – knowing you
skied over the Continental Divide.
Of course, the next day we had to go back, and that turned out to be much
tougher. In retrospect, I would have returned the same way we came, but for
some reason we decided we’d take Rollins Pass home. Simply put, the west
side of Rollins Pass is less than pleasant travel for a ski adventurer. The
roads are confusing and unmapped, there are snowmobilers by the hundreds
and the views are mundane. The exceptionally serpentine Rollins Pass Road,
which we cut off a lot, leads to a very long day. Case in point – it took
us five hours to get to Winter Park, and more than nine to return home.
This route is sketchy in places too. The train bench on the east side of
Rollins Pass is chalk full of long thousand-foot-drop ravines where losing
your footing would be bad news. Crossing the avalanche chute above Yankee
Doodle Lake – the exact location where Joe Despres of DoJoe fame lost his
life a decade ago – brought chills to my spine. We popped off the road at
Forest Lakes and were fortunate to find a well-trodden path that allowed us
to ski down an icy luge run and arrive back at our car – and the most
heinous trailhead on planet earth – minutes before the sky turned pitch
Despite the tribulations on the way home, I highly recommend skiing to
Winter Park and back via the Rogers Pass route…when avalanche conditions
permit. I suspect the route up Jenny Lind Trail would also work, but as I
have not skied it I cannot give a ringing endorsement. I would recommend
travelers bring, in addition to the normal backcountry essentials, a light
pair of crampons and/or a lightweight ice axe for the area above Rogers
Pass Lake. This is a good time of year to do it – our snowpack is
stabilizing, the days are longer and there is still enough snow on the
lower sections of the trail that it’s still much more of a ski than a hike.
Skiing to Winter Park and back is an advanced trip for sure, but very
doable for a party with solid navigation and avalanche skills, good
endurance and a strong sense of adventure. It’s a good capper to the season
and provides solid bragging rights in the pub post-ski.