Vail's Back Bowls

Everything You Need to Know About the Back Bowls

A guide for newbies and experts alike

By Bevin Wallace December 15, 2020 Published in the Winter/Spring 2020–2021 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Some of the Bowls’ more remote open powder fields feel more like backcountry runs than inbounds terrain.

“The best thing about the Back Bowls is they are generally south-facing, so the runs get a lot of southern exposure,” says Pete Seibert Jr., son of Vail’s founder and a lifelong Vail resident. “When we get into a time between storms, you can still always find soft snow if you know where to look.”

For the softest snow, most experts will tell you it’s generally best to start your day skiing the east-facing slopes as the morning sun warms and softens the snow. “In the spring, when you learn to follow the sun, the slightest difference on a subtle ridge on the west wall of China Bowl puts you in perfect softness when your friend only yards away gets sucked into overbaked mank,” says Lance Wellbaum, senior manager of adult programs at Vail’s ski school and a 33-year local. By a happy coincidence, the east-facing slopes are also usually the leeward slopes. “The prevailing winds are generally from east to west,” Wellbaum explains. “Often, when we report inches of snow overnight, the leeward faces fill in with feet.” Later in the day, when the sun is starting to set, hit the now-warming west-facing slopes.


Starting in Lionshead Village, take the Born Free Express (Lift 8), which is right next to the gondola. At the top of Born Free, take a left and ride Avanti Express (Chair 2) to Game Creek Bowl. To get there from the Cascade Village base area (which has parking and full facilities), take the Cascade Village lift (Chair 20) to the Pride Express (Chair 26), then approach Game Creek via the Game Trail catwalk.

Game Creek is a great place to take a warm-up run (and do powder day laps while waiting for Ski Patrol to open the gates to Sun Down Bowl near the top of the lift). Not an actual Back Bowl, Game Creek is like a small ski area in and of itself, containing green, blue, and black runs—all within a neat, easy-to-navigate basin. From the top of Chair 2, try Ouzo, which is steep and almost always groomed. If there’s fresh snow, Ouzo can be one of your best runs of the day: a carpet of powder over smooth, groomed rollers.

Sun Down at Dawn

After riding the Game Creek Express (Chair 7), you’re ready to enter the Back Bowls. First up is Sun Down Bowl, where the views and the skiing are equally outstanding. Don’t be intimidated by the signs warning you of danger and unmarked obstacles; while Sun Down Bowl is known for its steeps and extreme terrain, there are (relatively) easy ways down. Follow the tracks heading southeast below Ptarmigan Ridge. Snowboarders usually cut in on one of the first few runs that beckon below the ridge, and Ricky’s Ridge, with its sustained pitch and east-facing aspect, is a great early-morning option.

But if you pass on those and take the traverse all the way out, you can ski Seldom, Never, or O.S., three of the least “resortlike” runs at Vail. A locals’ favorite, Seldom starts out friendly enough, with some open trees and a moderate pitch, but then becomes one broad cliff band, which can be a modest, pillowy drop or a hairy commitment depending on the snow conditions. (You can avoid the cliffs altogether by heading skier’s left, where there’s a steep but small mogul field to maneuver instead.) The steep trees on Never and the open powder fields of O.S. don’t get much traffic and therefore can still have untracked snow days after a storm.

According to Seibert, these runs got their names back in the 1960s, when they could be accessed only via a very long traverse from the top of Chair 5. “That’s how often they got skied: seldom and never,” he said. As for O.S., the name refers to what people would say if they missed the catwalk back to the lift and had to hike back up: “Oh, S**t!” This mistake is nearly impossible to make nowadays, thanks to obvious signage and a rope. Whatever route you take, you’ll end up on the Sundown Catwalk to the High Noon Express (Chair 5), which takes you to the top of the mountain.

After a prolific storm, powder skiing in the Back Bowls almost requires a snorkel.


Sunny-Side Up

From the top of Chair 5, enter Sun Up Bowl and ski one of its marquee east-facing runs such as Milt’s Face or Campbell’s, then face a moment of indecision: If the snow is great, it’s worth experiencing Forever while your legs are relatively fresh, since its 1,850 feet of vertical make it one of the longest sustained pitches of steep, ungroomed skiing you’ll find anywhere. So you might want to take another run in Sun Down Bowl on Forever—or Wow-Ever, a locals’ favorite that combines the top of Wow and then cuts over to the bottom of Forever—back to Chair 5. But if the snow is crusty or you want to keep moving and cover more ground, you’re better off waiting until the sun warms Forever’s west-facing slopes later in the day. Another cool option when the snow is not pristine is to ski the top of Apres-Vous and then cut left onto Cow’s Face (known as “Apres-Moo” to locals), then over to Campbell’s and down to the Sun Up lift (Chair 9). 

Cup of Plenty

At the top of Chair 9, you’ll have another decision to make, because you’ll have been watching people ripping up Yonder and Yonder Trees just under the lift and will be tempted to make a lap back to 9. Your call; however, this tour skips those for now in favor of dropping into Teacup Bowl, one of Vail’s lesser-known areas. This smaller bowl is easily missed, which is probably why you can often find untracked snow days after a storm on Morning Thunder. (Just watch out for the small cliff and rock formations toward the bottom.) From here, you can drop into Marmot Basin for a few more loopy turns through the gully, or catch the Sleepytime Catwalk (yes, like Morning Thunder and Emperor’s Choice, named for the tea) to the Teacup Express (Chair 36).

At this point, you might be tempted to head up the Skyline Express (Chair 37) into Blue Sky Basin. Not officially part of the Back Bowls, this remote natural woodland is seven miles from the Vail base area. Its 645 acres are mostly glades and meadows—and a few short but notorious steeps—that offer one thing the Back Bowls do not: northern exposure. “That’s the big draw of Blue Sky: It gets hit with less sun,” Anthony says. But like many seasoned locals, Anthony will usually bypass the lift heading into Blue Sky, especially on a powder day, knowing it will still be great later. “It’s the last thing the patrol controls and stuff opens later,” he explains, “plus it holds snow so you can still find hidden stashes three days after a storm.”

Orient Express

Although it’s called Teacup Express, Chair 36 also accesses some of the best runs in China Bowl, including Genghis Khan, named for the very nasty 13th-century Mongol conqueror. Genghis is a favorite among expert skiers at Vail for its cornice entry and steep fall line. As Anthony says, “It’s a leeward slope with maybe the longest sustained pitch, and I think it’s the best run on the mountain.” Another fun option is to take Sweet N Sour to the west wall of China Bowl (the bowl got its name from this wall, which to some early Vail skiers looked like the Great Wall of China); it is steep at the top and usually has fluffy snow due to its east-facing angle.

This time down, take Sleepytime to the Orient Express (Chair 21). It’s time to head to the Far East—where the bowls were aptly named for the most remote stretches of the Asian continent. In Siberia Bowl, you can drop off the ridge onto the steeps of Red Square. Just beyond Red Square is Rasputin’s Revenge, another locals’ favorite, especially on powder days, when deep snow makes the typically forbidding steepness and cliff bands less formidable. When you’re done with that, ride Chair 21 again and then hop on the Mongolia Poma (Lift 22). The terrain out here gets less steep—and even less populated—as you travel east from Siberia Bowl to Inner Mongolia Bowl to Outer Mongolia Bowl. Of all the places in the Back Bowls, this area feels the most isolated. It’s worth the travel time to hit these bowls, because you can often find untracked snow and experience pristine skiing in their wide-open glades even days after a storm. Proceed out the Silk Road above Inner Mongolia Bowl until a line beckons you, and just drop in. Repeat, traveling father out the road to Outer Mongolia Bowl. It’s a fairly long and flat ski out from the bottom, so preserve some speed. After skiing Mongolia for the last time, take the road past Chair 21 back to the Teacup Express.

Whew! You just skied all of the Back Bowls! It might be time to eat lunch, in which case Vail has many options. It’s also a great time to hit Blue Sky Basin or try some of the west-facing slopes you bypassed in the morning. Ski over to the trees just south of Yonder, where fresh snow hides for days, and then take a ride up Chair 5 for your long-awaited run on Forever, which should be sun-softened at this point. If your legs are not already screaming, they will be.

It pays to explore: runs in lesser-known areas can remain untracked for days after a storm.

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