December 1, 1995
People who live in the Rocky Mountains are blessed with some of the finest backcountry skiing in the world. The snow conditions are frequently excellent and there’s a variety of terrain, including tracks, trails, backcountry roads and sparsely timbered telemark slopes. Colorado is particularly excellent because the access is outstanding, with dozens of trails and tours within a few hours of most major towns and cities.
But before you get too excited and dust off your skis for an early season jaunt, heed a few words of advice. Don’t expect mid-winter snow conditions until it really is mid-winter. November, December and January are the driest months of the season by far. That says a lot when the climate is semi-arid to start with. When the first snows do come, they are frequently cold, dry storms out of the north. The snowpack doesn’t set up well because there isn’t enough moisture or accumulation to compact the layers underneath. Consequently, early season snow can be light and fluffy right down to the rocks.
If you’re like me and just can’t wait to strap on the skis, pick a trail or tour that is relatively high in elevation, preferably near timberline. Try a gentle trail or backcountry road tour before you go off-trail or onto steep terrain. Stick to slopes that are north-facing and relatively sheltered from the wind. If you heed these suggestions, you’ll more likely to have a great time, instead of cringing as rocks gouge the base of your new skis.
One very good early-season ski tour is Mayflower Gulch in north-central Colorado between Copper Mountain and Leadville. This beautiful little valley has all the right ingredients for a pleasant half-day tour. It starts with a short, relatively moderate climb and ends in a huge snow-filled bowl below two spectacular peaks. There are several interesting old mining shacks and buildings left over from the gold rush era before the turn of the century. The snow conditions are always good because the tour starts at almost 11,000 feet and keeps to the shaded, north-facing side of the valley most of the way.
To reach the trailhead, take I-70 from Denver to the Copper Mountain exit, then proceed south toward Leadville on Colo. 91 for approximately 6 miles to a turnoff with a small plowed parking area on the left (southeast) side of the road. The tour starts by following a road up the right side of Mayflower Gulch for about 2 miles. The road then breaks out into the open just below the old Boston Mine site. There is a cluster of old buildings here. Several efforts have been made over the years to restore the buildings to provide overnight shelter. Unfortunately, they are now in a state of disrepair and not worth more than a quick glance inside.
Above the building site, the bowl open into a huge white expanse, a great place to take pictures and soak up the afternoon sun. The slopes above the building site are sparsely wooded and excellent for short downhill telemark runs in fresh powder. Check the snow conditions first to make sure there are no unstable layers that could slide. The return trip back to the trailhead is lively and surprisingly quick.