Hidden Valley Backcountry Skiing (March 9, 2021)

Intro

Backcountry Skiing comes chock full of benefits and risks, almost in equal measure. It is a discipline that rewards methodical and purposeful learning with a deeper connection to nature. It can also be very dangerous for the uninitiated and seasoned veterans alike; avalanches don’t pick favorites. However, by arming yourself with the right gear and planning knowledge, backcountry skiing can satisfy the outdoor itch for multiple lifetimes.

This article details a few runs at Hidden Valley, an abandoned ski area in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because of its ease of access and well laid out ascent lines, Hidden Valley has become a local favorite for a casual backcountry outing. Adding to its allure is an upper portion above treeline and a slope angle that stays consistently between 25-30 degrees, which means lower avalanche risk than neighboring areas. Hidden Valley is best skied from March-May. Anytime before that increases avalanche risk due to lack of snow consolidation. Once Trail Ridge Road opens, usually around Memorial Day, it bisects the area, essentially cutting your longest runs into two pieces and limiting your fun.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Gear

Before we begin, let’s lay out some quick backcountry gear knowledge (for a more comprehensive guide, check out this article I wrote, Backcountry Gear: Essentials for Human Powered Skiing). The list below is crucial, don’t skimp on gear when avalanches are in play.

  • Skis/Helmet/Gloves
  • Winter Clothing: waterproof shells, thick ski socks, layers, puffy, beanie, hand warmers, etc.
  • Skins
  • AT Bindings (Frame or Tech)
  • Avalanche Mitigation Equipment: Beacon, Shovel, Probe, and Radio
  • Backcountry ski pack
  • Food/Water/First-Aid Kit
  • For multi-day adventures: 4-season tent, winter rated sleeping bag, avalanche airbag, orienteering equipment, batteries/rechargeable batteries 

Remember, it isn’t enough to simply own gear; take the time to figure out how to use it before heading out. Speed is key, especially in a backcountry avalanche rescue. Visit Backcountry Gear: Essential for Human Powered Skiing to get comfortable with the necessary gear and how to use it.

Backcountry Planning

Once you have the gear and know-how to use it, it’s time to start planning. I’ll briefly break down the central components below, but check out the Guide to Planning a Backcountry Ski Adventure for an in-depth analysis of the planning process. A good plan can separate success from disaster. No outdoor activity is worth your life.

  • 1) Pre-Planning
    • Learn how to Ski at an EXPERT level before heading outside ski resort boundaries. Find a squad. Start backcountry gear research. Hone your craft. Get in shape.
  • 2) Long-Term Planning
    • Geographic reduction: where are you skiing? Start big, get small.
    • Weather and snowpack research.
    • Research ski lines using books, online resources, and forums. Key data:
      • Total distance, total climb, and descent, slope angle
      • Local Emergency contacts
      • Unique factors: trees, cornices, couloirs, avalanche history
      • Get into the maps and apps, know the area like the back of your hand.
  • 3) Short-Term Planning
    • Managing Expectations
      • Constantly check weather updates until the morning you leave.
      • Popularity.
      • Tell people where you’re going and who to call if things go wrong.
      • Have a back-up plan.
      • Who’s got the medical training?
      • Go over the plan in detail with your squad. CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING.
    • Packing
      • Make sure everything fits, and you can access your avalanche gear quickly. Time is critical in a burial situation.
  • 4) On-site Planning
    • What do you see when you get there?
      • Watch out for tree-wells, wind-loaded slopes, cornices, bergschrunds, and other topographical considerations.
    • Timing and snow surface i.e. environmental factors. Not all snow skis the same.
  • 5) Post-Planning
    • Analyze
      • What worked well? What didn’t?
    • Ease into the harder stuff.

            The steps listed above are only a skeleton outline; see my Guide to Planning a Backcountry Ski Adventure to iron out the critical details. Remember, you can always take an avalanche safety course through AIARE; it can absolutely save lives.

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The Weather

Because Hidden Valley is in a National Park, there are many options for weather forecasting. During the planning phase of any backcountry ski trip, it’s important to check the weather using multiple sources. The forecast for Estes Park is a good starting point. Estes sits right outside the eastern park boundary, only twenty minutes from Hidden Valley. There is also a forecasting station at the Alpine Center off of Trail Ridge. Between the forecasts for Estes and the Alpine center, you can usually lock in a good spectrum of possible weather factors. In addition, the mountain weather forecast for Mt. Chiquita is beneficial. Mt. Chiquita is just north of Hidden Valley, and the mountain forecast is chock full of weather details reported from two different elevation gradients.

Keep in mind there are multiple components to the weather; it’s not just about precipitation. The temperature will dictate what layers to bring, and local weather patterns will help you figure out what’s important. For example, in Rocky Mountain and the larger Front Range in general, make sure to check the wind forecast. The Front Range is notorious for strong, blustery winds, and fighting your way up to a ski line in 50mph gusts is not fun.

There are also Snotel weather station sites scattered throughout the backcountry offering snowpack data. It can be a bit confusing to sort through the site, but here is the interactive map option. Use the menu on the right-hand side to create specific condition queries. The linked map will open with a window to Willow Park, the closest weather station to Hidden Valley. Snowpack data is really important for backcountry skiing; not only will it tell you if there is even enough snow to ski on, but it will also show you whether or not the area is experiencing an average winter. Any significant deviation away from average is noteworthy. Deep winters create more pronounced avalanche conditions, but wimpy winters can as well, especially if a storm overloads weak and unstable snow. Snowpack science should be a critical component of planning.          

As crucial as snowpack data is, the numbers would be incomplete without an avalanche forecast. This forecast is MANDATORY before heading out. In Colorado, we are lucky to have the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center). The information is easy to read, the maps are color-coded, and a flurry of explanations gives depth to the forecast. More specifically, Rocky Mountain is in the Front Range Zone; make sure you are checking the right area for the most accurate information. Do not go into the Colorado backcountry without checking CAIC.

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Rating System

Below you’ll find route descriptions, maps, and ratings as they pertain to the ski lines covered. I’m utilizing a five-tier rating system illustrated as follows:  

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Difficult
  • Very Difficult
  • Extreme

Some areas covered only exhibit a few tiers; others exhibit all of them. Regardless, it is important to understand that each rating does not ONLY correspond to the steepest slope angle skied. Some lower-angle Difficult terrain is simply difficult to access and requires an immense amount of effort to attain, hence the harder rating. Take the ratings seriously as the separation between Difficult and Very Difficult often involves many of the hallmarks of true ski mountaineering, ropes, legitimate ice axes, mountaineering crampons, etc. It is incumbent upon each reader to understand their limits. Always start small.

For Hidden Valley, because of the area’s relatively safe nature, all the runs fit into the Intermediate category. I include a map under the Adventure Details section, the different colors on the map are so you can easily identify where the runs are, not how difficult they are. All runs marked on the map are, again, Intermediate.

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Info Dump

While Hidden Valley has quite a few different lines you could ski (full review article here with Skybluoverland), for most, it’s almost mandatory to take the Columbine ascent up to Trail Ridge, cross it and access the Upper Bowls. What this does is allow for a 2,000-foot descent over two miles, combining the best features of the area: open alpine turns with great views, fantastic intermediate below-treeline skiing, and a runout that brings you right down to the parking lot (depending on coverage).

  • Ascent: From the parking area, proceed past the visitors center and head up the main drainage, keeping the tubing area to your left and a steeper treed slope to your right. The route is obvious as a low-grade, swath of treeless terrain that crosses Hidden Valley Creek a couple of times on its mellow ascent to Trail Ridge. It is NOT the steep T-Bar ascent, visible to the left of your route.
    • Stats:
      • To Trail Ridge: 1.1 miles, 1000 foot ascent
      • To top of Upper Main Bowl: 1.6 miles, 2000 foot ascent
  • Descent: There are three large areas to explore once you get above treeline. First is the Upper Main area, which is essentially a continuation of your lower ascent route. A secondary bowl to climbers left is also easily skiable, and the third area is a steeper treed area called the Windows. All are open for exploration.
    • Stats:
      • Upper Main:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.5 miles, ~1000 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.6 miles, ~2000 vertical feet
      • Windows:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.44 miles, ~950 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.5 miles, ~1950 vertical feet
      • Upper Main 2:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.6 miles, ~1050 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.7 miles, ~2,050 vertical feet
  • Slope Angle:
    • Avg. 25 degrees
    • Max: 33-35 degrees in the Windows, but short and avoidable
  • Rating: All variations are Intermediate
    • Reasoning: You have to skin up two miles to make it a satisfyingly long run, and snow conditions will be variable; there are no snowcats in the backcountry. Evaluate terrain carefully.
  • Best Ski Window: March-May.
    • Before March, snowpack consolidation is not guaranteed, and after Trail Ridge opens (usually around Memorial Day), the area is split into two sections, limiting fun.
  • Good for: Quick half day out, or a longer day with multiple laps.
    • When I went, I accessed Main Bowl 2 within two hours of skinning, and it only took 20-25 minutes of skiing to reach the bottom. The Upper Area is also fun to lap if you want some variety between the three main areas.
  • Accessed via: Trail Ridge.
    • Enter Rocky Mountain National Park from the east on US 34 or 36 and proceed west. Winter closures exist above Hidden Valley. Take a right in the middle of a big left-hand curve in the road, signs should be obvious, and take the short access road to the large parking area. Hidden Valley is 7 miles west of the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on US 36 and 6.7 miles west of the Fall River Visitor Center on US 34.

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Hidden Valley History

Hidden Valley actually has some unique history. It’s long been known as a ski area, even before the first two ropes were set up in the 1940s. By the ’50s and ’60s it had morphed into a small but successful ski hill with a base lodge and cafeteria. The operation continued until the early ’90s. Due to a string of poor winters and competition from bigger resorts, Hidden Valley finally stopped operating.

Despite its closure, the forest service maintained a tubing hill near the bottom, so the area does get fairly crowded on weekends. As you leave the base area, you can clearly see what’s known as the Lower T-Bar ascent, which is a cut through dense woods where the old T-Bar used to be. That ascent route can be used to access a few different runs, mostly below Trail Ridge. The other main ascent route is Columbine (the name of the original ski run), which follows the path of least resistance up to Trail Ridge. Even when the road is open, it’s not uncommon to see snow hounds ripping turns in the alpine bowls for as long as the snow stays. Personally, I like the continuity of connecting the Upper and Lower slopes, it makes for a longer and more satisfying end to the day. If you have the gas, lapping a few different lines in the Upper Bowl beforehand can really give you the Hidden Valley grand tour.

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Adventure Details (w/ maps and pics)

As always, I recommend weekdays over weekends and early over late, especially in a National Park. Be aware: you will have to pay to enter the Park. Check the park website here to figure out what passes and fees are required. Hidden Valley is easily accessible via major roadways, so tickets are relatively common. Make sure you know what the National Park expects out of visitors before showing up.

Below is a picture of what the area looks like from the parking lot.

Assuming there is enough snow nearby, find a place to slap your skins on and start walking around the visitors center, following the creek drainage as it begins a slow ascent.

Slide the marker to the left to see a labeled version of the Upper runs you can see from the parking lot.

Since I had never been out to Hidden Valley before, I arrived early to give myself the best chance of exploring without the crowds (of course, starting on a Tuesday morning in March helped with that too). I was the only one in the parking lot and didn’t see anyone until I had already begun my descent two hours later. Always nice to slide through the wilderness with just you and the trees to keep ya company.

Map of the area with colored lines. Note, the colors do not corroborate with difficulty, consider all variations at least Intermediate with the Windows variation an Intermediate-Difficult due to tree skiing.
My Subaru, the only car in the lot.
Once around the visitor center, stay to the right of the wooden fence and left of the pines. The path is wide and easy to follow.
Love the quiet, brisk mornings.

After a few minutes, you can look left and see the main tubing hill, along with what remains of the old T-Bar route, now used as an alternative ascent route to access a few different area ski lines. Unless you’re in white-out conditions, it’d be hard to miss the T-Bar ascent. It’s nice to have obvious markers any time you’re in a new area.

After passing the T-Bar ascent, the Columbine path becomes more defined, crosses the tiny Hidden Valley Creek, and begins threading its way higher. Roughly 5-10 minutes into the adventure, another former ski run comes in from the left and intersects with your ascent route.

To access the main bowls, keep to the right.

After the junction, the slope angle increases through a series of steps and runs. Some of the areas are open, some are spread through with young tree growth, but it’s all skiable. In fact, when I was there, I saw many varieties of tracks in the snow: regular footprints, snowshoes, microspikes, and skis, a testament to the popularity of the area. Of course, when I say popularity, I mean in relation to the backcountry around Hidden Valley. Compared to any size-able ski hill, there might as well be no one here. But, for those looking to dip toes into backcountry, it’s hard to think of a better place to hone your craft than Hidden Valley.

As the ascent route increased in elevation, I slowed my pace to match. It was still early, I hadn’t seen or heard anyone, and with only two total miles of climbing, I figured I had plenty of time to go at my own pace. For those reasons, even if the snow isn’t in that ideal spot between hard-pack and slush, I’d rather get up early to get some mountain solitude.

Eventually, as you near Trail Ridge, the ascent route skips to the right up a steeper pitch. As I looked to climb the left margin, I noticed a set of tracks leading back to the bottom of the Hidden Valley Creek drainage, which was still covered in feet upon feet of hard snow. Feeling curious, I made the rest of the climb along the drainage bottom, which was really pleasant actually. After a few minutes of casual climbing I was given the view below.

NOTE: If you’re climbing up the drainage bottom, someone built a jump on Trail Ridge (right above the red line in the photo). I didn’t see anyone fly off it, but you wouldn’t want to be below someone who did, and the drainage bottom is the landing zone.

At 8:30 AM, after an hour of climbing, I crossed a completely snowed over Trail Ridge. Even though this was my first backcountry trip this year (if you don’t count sidecountry runs like the Minturn Mile, which you can read about here) and my pace was undoubtedly slow, I almost couldn’t believe how little overall effort it took to reach the halfway mark. It felt like the right effort to payoff ratio, which is such a rare occurrence in the mountains.

The view back down to the parking lot from a snow-covered Trail Ridge.

After a hydration and snack break, I set my sights on the Upper Bowls. To my right some 50 meters, the main part of the Columbine ascent route met the road and continued across, where three large sticks stood, poking above the snow banks. From there, it was just a straight shot up to reach the main bowl. However, since I was already a little further left, I decided to play around a bit and find the longest stretch of snow I could. It had been about a week and a half since the last measurable snowfall in the park, so I knew conditions were stable, but the snow would be sparse in areas where the sun and wind had either melted or punted it further down the slopes.

So, I turned my sights to the left, sighting the large, rounded, and wooded ridge acting as a natural barrier to exploration. All along it, I noticed what appeared to be old trail cuts and funnels that seemed like fun. The ridge-top above, however, had melted out, so the total length of skiable terrain wasn’t what I wanted. I did take a picture and make a mental note to explore those lines after the next big spring storm.

Interesting ridgeline variations to the left of the main ascent area.

Immediately to the right of the wooded ridge in the picture above was a wide-open bowl tangential to the Upper Main area, so, Upper Main 2? I think the whole area has a ton of different names depending on whether or not your research is coming from text, internet, or old ski maps when the place used to be a lift-serviced ski hill with official trail names. The most traveled line was further to the right before the ridge curled around to the Windows area. I liked the open nature of the terrain, noted the exposed rocks, and made an ascending traverse to where I thought the most snow had accumulated, eventually finding myself in a krummholz forest above the bowl.

The Upper Main 2 Bowl.
Krummholz taking over at the upper margin of the bowl.
Looking to my right, I found the Windows. It seemed as though parts of that slope held snow a little better than the main area. The trees also looked well spaced and fun, I’ll have to give that side a try next time.

Between my position and the Windows lay the main ascent/descent route, or Upper Main. While I could see why it’s the most popular (easily the most straightforward ascent and descent), it seemed like the very top melted out quickly, leaving the overall run shorter than what I was aiming for. After a storm, I think you could stretch the Upper Main Bowl to over 2k, but given the conditions I was working with, I felt better settling on my variation.

Upper Main in relation to me.

I finally reached a point I figured was above 2k and set about removing my skins. The wind got pretty fierce above treeline and made the process harder, but it’s the Front Range, just seems like par for the course. I made sure my gear was properly stowed and prepped for the descent. After taking some great perspective shots of the Mummy Range (the dominant range to the north), I drank water and began to ski.

It only took a few minutes to dispense with the Upper portion, but I managed to connect some 15-20 medium sized turns in alpine bliss. There’s nothing quite like skiing down a mountain you climbed up. Even in the conditions I was given (fairly sparse and hardpacked) the pure joy of sliding through the alpine was enough to plaster a smile across my face.

…all smiles

From Trail Ridge down to the bottom took only another 15 minutes, and only because I kept trying to take pictures and videos. Without stopping and charging through turns, you could ski top to bottom inside of 15 minutes, which is great if you only have a morning or afternoon to get out. It’s a great effort to reward ratio for the time-crunched.

Things to keep in mind if skiing Hidden Valley:

  • You can always lap the Upper Bowls if you have time, between the three alpine areas there is plenty to explore.
  • The main ascent route is also the main descent route, watch for people coming up as you’re skiing down!
  • The Front Range has really nasty wind, check wind forecasts BEFORE heading out. Trust me, fighting your way up to a ski line in 50mph gusts super sucks
  • Because of its low slope angle, Hidden Valley is one of the best places to get a lot of natural powder skiing in. That is NOT a guarantee that things won’t slide and you should never go out in terrible conditions, but generally speaking, most areas in Hidden Valley stay pretty stable. Always check CAIC.

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Final Thoughts

For the more apprehensive backcountry skiers out there, or for those looking to see what all the hubbubs about, Hidden Valley should be on your radar. Despite it’s tame profile, the area is a true backcountry experience, you have to go earn those turns. But once you do, and you see the alpine melt away before you as you ride back to your car, it might just end up being the catalyst for more. Warning: backcountry is highly addictive, don’t let success ruin your risk management. There’s always something to learn from every adventure and the more you analyze your adventures, the more success you’ll experience. Respect your ability, respect the mountains and respect the send. See you out there!

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