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Ever driven over an empty mountain pass and thought the skiing looked pretty good? You were probably right.
The idea of car-accessed backcountry skiing might sound like an oxymoron — or just plain stupid. After all, isn’t the whole point of venturing into the backcountry to get away from everything, especially the various cultural blights — strip malls, road rage, urban sprawl — born of the automobile? Well, though it is true that your average interstate — say, the New Jersey Turnpike — isn’t overflowing with epic ski descents, there are plenty of roads, particularly those that travel over Western mountain passes, that roll right past unbelievable backcountry terrain. When they’re plowed, that is, which might not be till spring.
A few caveats: If you’re interested in one of the following roadside attractions, pick up the guidebook listed here, and then inquire about professional guide services — or, at the very least, the level of avalanche hazard — at a mountaineering shop near the particular descent. Don’t venture into the backcountry if you’re unsure about the snowpack, your abilities, or both. And please don’t lock your keys in the damn car.
TIOGA PASS, CALIFORNIA
Where:On California120, at the eastern edge of Toulomne Meadows and Yosemite National Park, less than two hours from Mammoth Mountain Resort.
Why:The Sierra is corn-skiing nirvana. Descents, peaks, vertiginous couloirs, and multiday spring tours all can be had from Tioga Pass, which is normally plowed by Memorial Day weekend.
How:Backcountry Skiing in the High Sierra by John Moynier
LOVELAND PASS, COLORADO
Where:Ten minutes from Arapahoe Basin and Loveland ski areas, 20 from Keystone on U.S. 6 (near I-70) in Colorado’s Front Range.
Why:Probably more skiers have been introduced to the vagaries of off-piste skiing here than anywhere else. High-altitude runs drop off both the south and north flanks of the pass. It’s a bit overrun these days, so it’s best left for weekdays.
How:Skiing Colorado’s Backcountry: Northern Mountain Trails and Tours by Brian Litz and Kurt Lankford
LITTLE AND BIG COTTONWOOD CANYONS, UTAH
Where:These canyons are home to Utah state highways 210 and 190 respectively — as well as Alta and Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude.
Why:Okay, these are dead-end box canyons rather than mountain passes, but they deserve mention for their access to untold numbers of superb ski tours and descents. Granted, you have to climb to reach the goods, but it’s well worth the sweat.
How:Wasatch Tours, Volume Two: The Northern Wasatch by David Hanscom and Alexis Kelner
SNOQUALMIE PASS, WASHINGTON
Where:60 minutes east of Seattle on I-90.
Why:The Pacific Northwest’s notoriously wet climate translates into a freakishly deep snowpack. This pass boasts more snow than probably any other. You’ll encounter all types of terrain, and Snoqualmie Pass is a jumping off point for very serious wilderness and glacier tours.
How:Backcountry Ski! Washington: The Best Trails and Descents for Free-Heelers and Snowboarders by Seabury Blair, Jr.
TETON PASS, WYOMING
Where:West of Jackson Hole and Wilson, Wyoming, and east of Victor, Idaho, on Idaho 33 and Wyoming 22.
Why:How good is the skiing on Teton Pass? Good enough that for roughly one and a half seasons, it had a backcountry-skiing newspaper devoted to it (R.I.P. The Pass). If there is a mecca for backcountry pilgrims, this is it. What was once a hangout for locals has now become a magnet for rabid skiers and boarders from across the country.
How:Teton Skiing: A History and Guide to the Teton Range by Thomas Turiano