If you haven’t yet discovered Southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, it is time. The San Juans in the winter offer the perfect combination of terrific powder snow and bluebird sunny days, and the mountains are by far the state’s most beautiful. The jagged, high elevation peaks are the jewel of the Rockies and are the setting of many commercials and movies, including this year’s filming of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful 8. But you’re not here to rub elbows with celebrities, you’re here for adventure. So these are our top 3 picks:
Cat Skiing with Silverton Powdercats
If you are spending the money to ski or snowboard powder, then you might as well get untracked virgin snow. The best, safest, and most affordable option is Silverton Powdercats. The backcountry terrain is unparalleled in Silverton, but the volume of snow and the percentage of sunny days also make for high avalanche danger—better to go with Powdercats, where day trips include a guide, lunch, avalanche beacon, and ten runs that are accessed by a warm and comfortable ride up in a snowcat. Save your legs for the skiing and boarding, and enjoy some once-in-a-lifetime powder turns with no liftlines, no hiking, and the safety of a backcountry guide. Powdercats is pure pleasure, and Silverton is one of the quintessential small mountain towns that make Colorado special.
The Beta: Individuals ski/board for $350/day, but you and nine of your friends can get the whole deal for $3,350. Reservations online or at 970-385-7288. Custom trips are also available. Trips include guide, lunch, beacon.
Ice Climbing in Ouray
The Ouray Ice Park is the biggest manmade ice climbing park in the country, and it’s one of the most impressive things you will probably ever see. During the winter, the gorge is encrusted with ice that is carefully wrought from a water pipe that runs the perimeter. The result is an otherworldly winterscape that would make Elsa from Frozen jealous. It has more than 200 ice and mixed climbing routes, all a 15-minute walk from the park entrance, and all free to use. January is the Ouray Ice Climbing Festival, where you can watch the best ice climbers in the world compete, and try out free gear, or get lessons and take advantage of clinics.
The Beta: It’s free to use the park, but it’s good karma to become a member and support the work that goes into it. There are great novice routes in the “School Room” and you can rent gear and get assistance from the San Juan Mountain Guides. Don’t forget to include a soak in the local hot springs or enjoy the vapor caves at the Wiesbaden Hotel, which has day rates for non-guests.
Here’s a video of the park:
Ouray Ice Park: Behind the Ice from Outside Adventure Media on Vimeo.
Snowshoeing and Nordic Skiing at Lizard Head
The Lizard Head Wilderness Area on Lizard Head Pass is named for the rock feature that looks like, you guessed it, the head of a lizard. And despite the incredible snow on the pass the lizard (and you) stay happy all winter with the copious sunshine. It’s one of those places you can get sweaty enough to strip down to your base layer and feel like you’re at the beach while you romp around on the trails and through the pristine, quiet forest areas. If you’re lucky, you might even find the igloo that gets built in a new secret spot every year. Guided snowshoe trips are available with Wild Hare Snowshoe Tours, and you can rent Nordic gear at the Nordic Center in Telluride Town Park.
The Beta: Book your Wild Hare Snowshoe Tour at 970-728-5465 or 1-800-294-9269. Half day trips are $95 per person, full days are $140 and both include lunch, snowshoes, and poles. Moonlight tours are also offered. The two main areas for Nordic skiing (skate and classic) are at Priest Lake near the Matterhorn cabin and Trout Lake—the best things about these two well-groomed and maintained areas are that the skiing/parking is free and you can take your dog. Other Nordic ski trails in the area don’t allow dogs, so be prepared to meet lots of friendly and tired pooches on the trail. You can get maps and rent gear for $24/day at Telluride Nordic Center, 970-728-1144.
If you’re flying into the region, the two closest airports are in Durango and Montrose. Both airports offer vehicle rentals and great access to the San Juan Skyway loop, a high-elevation highway renowned for its scenic beauty. Make sure you rent a vehicle that’s safe for snow and the winter weather conditions, and make the drive to all 3 of these great stops en route.