An Insider's Guide to Vail's Legendary Back Bowls
Anyone who’s had the good fortune to ski them often has a deep, complex relationship with Vail Mountain’s Back Bowls. Morning or afternoon, early season or late, sunny skies or blizzard, possibilities abound within the seemingly limitless boundaries of this vast array of natural basins, each with its own distinct character, pleasures, and challenges.
The true bliss of bottomless powder on Ricky’s Ridge, the utter joy of spring corn snow on Yonder, and the thrill of Rasputin’s Revenge in any conditions are just a few of my fondest memories. What follows is a brief introduction to getting the most out of these legendary acres of unadulterated skiing fun.
When confronted with the roughly six-mile band of boundless snow from Sun Down Bowl’s Ptarmigan Ridge east to the farthest reaches of Outer Mongolia Bowl, it’s easy to see how a newcomer could get overwhelmed by the prospect of Vail’s Back Bowls. Not visible from any populated place (including the Town of Vail) or Vail Mountain’s massive Front Side, the Back Bowls comprise more skiable acres—3,017—than most entire ski resorts in North America. Nearby giants such as Steamboat and Breckenridge,
for example, offer 2,939 and 2,353 skiable acres, respectively.
Vail’s Back Bowls aren’t just vast; they pack in the vertical, too, with one trail, Forever in Sun Down Bowl, descending a thigh-chattering 1,850 feet. (The closest comparison is probably the 1,818-foot-tall Raven Ridge at Beaver Creek.) And these hills are steep, with runs marked with black diamonds for experts dominating the landscape. Frankly, beginners don’t belong back here; not one trail is marked with a green circle, and only one run, Poppyfields (down the middle of China Bowl), is marked blue for intermediates. Even the cat tracks—Sleepytime, which links Sun Up, Tea Cup, and China Bowls; Silk Road, which links Mongolia, Siberia, and China Bowls; and Cloud 9 in Pete’s Bowl—are designated blue, not green as with most other roads.
As many times as I’ve skied the terrain here, I’ve been caught more often than I’d like to admit with my bibs down, so to speak, scraping, bashing, and cursing bombproof, icy crud. The Back Bowls are wild. Scarcely will you see a groomed track here, unlike the Front Side—which is exactly why so many of us love them.
SKIING’S BIG 10
Officially, Vail’s Back Bowls are seven in number: Sun Down Bowl, Sun Up Bowl, Tea Cup Bowl, China Bowl, Siberia Bowl, and Inner and Outer Mongolia Bowls. Some people would add Game Creek Bowl as an eighth, and locals who’ve skied Vail since Blue Sky Basin opened a decade ago regard Earl’s and Pete’s Bowls as part of the Back Bowl system as well.
In fact, Blue Sky Basin’s typically excellent snow is some of the best in Vail. If you’re an expert skier or rider with only limited days to explore the Back Bowls, head for Pete’s Bowl first, where Lover’s Leap, Steep & Deep, and Resolution rarely disappoint. (Take note: even experts should heed the patrollers’ advice and ski with a partner in this backcountry-like setting.) Locals may be willing to direct you to still more thrilling chutes, but don’t bet on it. After all, I’m writing this and I hesitate to reveal exact coordinates for my own secret stash: a sheltered, steep, powdery place I like to call Woody’s Glade.
OH, SAY, CAN YOU SEE?
One factor to be taken very seriously before skiing the Back Bowls is visibility. Over their vast stretches of open snow without any trees, the light can go completely “flat,” making it nearly impossible to detect any definition at all in the terrain. The south-facing orientation of most of the bowls means the angle of the sun often is straight on, providing few or no shadows to enhance detail, especially on cloudy days.
Be prepared with eyewear that’s designed for such conditions, with rose-, orange-, or yellow-tinted lenses being best for flat light; polarized lenses can also make a big difference. If you’re still having trouble making out the contours, head for the glades.
In general, the Back Bowls face south, which means they pick up increasing sun throughout the day. But conditions can vary widely from bowl to bowl, or even from one side of a bowl to the other. In the morning, for example, the snow on east-facing trails like Sun Down Bowl’s Ricky Ridge or The Slot in Sun Up Bowl see the sun earlier than their west-facing counterparts, which softens things up for early turns.
As the day wears on, things typically change dramatically to favor terrain that faces west and the setting sun. If you find yourself above Sun Up Bowl, head for afternoon fun and frolic on one of Vail’s most renowned slopes, Forever, or through the gates to lesser-known but equally beloved trails aptly named Windows and Wow. More afternoon delight—and stunning sunsets—can be found at Yonder and Over Yonder in Sun Up Bowl and the vast, forested, off-camber Shangri-La in China Bowl.
The temperature and the wind can also have a profound impact on snow conditions, turning fluffy powder across many of those vast, treeless spaces into something resembling buffed-out styrofoam. High winds, which generally come from the west, can carry powder away from exposed windward slopes and deposit it into nearby groves of trees. After wind events like that, avoid places up high such as Forever, Emperor’s Choice, and Chopstix; head instead for lower, more obscure destinations such as Seldom and Never ... or even Over Yonder.
High winds in a snowstorm, meanwhile, can result in leeward slopes being “wind-loaded” with deep powder. (Chest-high snow is a reality here.) Some runs famous for their prodigious powder after windy storms from the west include Seldom and Never in Sun Down Bowl, Milt’s Face and Cow’s Face in Sun Up Bowl, Morning Thunder in Tea Cup Bowl, Jade Glade and Genghis Khan in China Bowl, and Red Square and Gorky Park in Siberia Bowl.
ONE FINE DAY
In my dozen years or so of skiing Vail, I’ve developed a tour that includes all of the Back Bowls, including Game Creek Bowl and Pete’s and Earl’s Bowls, without necessarily riding the same chairlift twice. I start out at the oft-overlooked skier portal at Cascade Village, in West Vail, where there’s a ticket office, restrooms, and lockers just steps from the bus stop on Vail’s free bus system and a parking garage run by the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa. A short ride up the Cascade Village Lift, then a quick transfer to the Pride Express Lift, and I’m at Eagle’s Nest. From there, it’s just an easy ski into Game Creek Bowl.
From Wildwood, I like to head for Ricky’s Ridge—or even further out to the sheltering trees of Widge’s Ridge, Seldom, or Never—on my way to the new High Noon Express Lift. Typically, a second venture in Sun Down Bowl is in order, the perfect excuse for Forever, the longest, most consistently steep trail in the Back Bowls. Another ride up Chair 5, and it’s time for Sun Up Bowl. I’m a big fan of Milt’s Face, Campbell’s, or Headwall on my way to the Sun Up Lift, or Chair 17.
From there, it’s Emperor’s Choice to Marmot Valley, descending straight to the Skyline Express Lift for the spectacular ride to Belle’s Camp and the thrill of Lover’s Leap (or Heavy Metal) to Pete’s Express Lift, from which I can explore the many options Vail founder Pete Seibert had in mind when he first espied this place. No wonder he called it “Resolution.”
Then it’s back to China Bowl on Silk Road to the Orient Express Lift for ventures into Siberia Bowl, where Red Square can be true bliss. (Boarders, take note: the traverse out on Silk Road is a calf-blaster; only the slickest wax will do here.) I’ll take a late lunch at Two Elk Lodge, then head for Vail Village, where the Cascade Village shuttle waits to take me back to where my Back Bowls adventure began.