Skiing + Snowboarding

How to Get a Taste of the Backcountry on Vail Mountain

Two powder-filled itineraries to sample on Vail Mountain.

By Kirsten Dobroth Photography by Zach Mahone November 12, 2018 Published in the Holiday 2018/2019 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Hoofing it to the top of Ptarmigan Ridge.

Image: Zach Mahone

Ptarmigan Ridge & The Minturn Mile

Overlooking Sun Down Bowl, Ptarmigan Ridge is a mound of hike-to terrain that’s a rarity at Vail and makes for a quick but thrilling drop into inbounds dream lines like “Never,” “Seldom,” “Ricky’s,” and “Widge’s.” You can hoof it to the top to add a few extra turns to your downhill run to Chair 5 (High Noon Express Lift), or use the Ridge (a historic landmark where resort founders Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton first looked into the Back Bowls before the mountain even had a name) as a gateway to the Minturn Mile. If contemplating leaving the resort to attempt “The Mile,” understand that you’ll be entering a well-traveled but unpatrolled backcountry zone that briefly skirts a steep powder field before plunging into a long luge-like narrow trail that corkscrews through tight trees as it follows the serpentine course of Game Creek, ending with an even longer walk into the town of Minturn (in ski or snowboard boots) to catch a public bus or hitch a ride back to Vail. Before you take the plunge, make sure you have the requisite skills (e.g., you’re comfortable skiing trees in icy conditions), enough light left in the day, and preferably a fully charged cell phone and a headlamp, and know that if you get lost or have an emergency, you’re on your own. That said, when the snow is just right, The Mile is a challenge many find worth taking, and it’s a rite of passage for local skiers, who celebrate with pints at the Minturn Saloon (which has a page devoted to the run on its website and is a good source for information about the latest trail conditions; 970-827-5954,

Find it: From the top of Chair 7 (Game Creek Express Lift), head skier’s right and follow the sign to Sun Down Bowl, but instead of traversing the ridge and dropping into the bowl like other skiers, click out of your bindings and head uphill (skier’s right) to Ptarmigan Ridge and the Minturn Mile backcountry gate.


Vail officially brought WFO inbounds a few seasons back—much to the chagrin of locals, many of whom would argue that WFO was a secret oasis despite it often being tracked out by noon on a powder day. Others would counter that being within bounds makes WFO a bit safer (thanks to the presence of ski patrol), since its terrain includes (lots of) hazards like trees, stumps, and a small cliff band near the exit of the trail that’s often scraped bare of snow. Still, slashing through WFO can be heavenly on a powder day; just remember to head right as you near the bottom so you connect with Chair 5 (High Noon Express Lift) to take another ride.

Find it: Follow the Sleepytime Road Catwalk from the tops of Chairs 4, 5, and 11 (Mountaintop Express Lift, High Noon Express Lift, and Northwoods Express Lift) to a junction where the trail forks to Blue Sky Basin, then look for the WFO gate.

Vail Mountain’s rock stars: the avy dogs at Ski Patrol Headquarters.

Image: Zach Mahone

SOS on Vail Mountain

Ski Patrol Headquarters (PHQ) is located at the confluence of Chairs 4 (Mountaintop Express Lift), 5 (High Noon Express Lift), and 11 (Northwoods Express Lift) near Buffalo’s Lodge. Aside from the white cross, look for the kids hanging around the front door, hoping to love on the pack of avy dogs that call this base their winter home. Other patrol stations are located at the mountaintop sprawl of Eagle’s Nest, next to Belle’s Camp in Blue Sky Basin, the lodges at Two Elk and Wildwood, and atop the Golden Peak terrain park. If you find yourself elsewhere on the mountain and in need of assistance, flag down a mountain host, another skier, or call 970-754-4610.


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