Untracked powder at ski resorts has become as elusive as the $5 lunch, the $50 lift ticket or free parking right by the chairlift. You can put the blame on crowds, high-speed quad chairs and climate change. But there’s one guaranteed way to experience the pure joy of skiing virgin snow, making effortless turns in powder so soft and light it flies in your face with every move: a snowcat tour.
A snowcat is a tracked vehicle with an enclosed cab, typically seating 10 to 14 people. To step out of one high on a mountainside into a sea of untracked powder, click or strap in, then plunge down prime terrain is a sublime experience.
As ski and snowboard gear has evolved to make skiing powder a pleasure instead of a chore, numerous companies have emerged, each obtaining special permits to use these vehicles to take skiers deep into the backcountry for a bucket-list skiing experience. In many cases, the guiding company has exclusive access to the area, so untouched snow is guaranteed.
A few ski areas offer free snowcat rides to save skiers a bit of hiking to off-piste terrain. Wolf Creek has a snowcat to Horseshoe Bowl. Loveland offers the Ridge Snowcat to access some of its more remote terrain. Aspen Highlands has a snowcat to take some of the pain off hiking to Highlands Bowl. But these operate sporadically based on weather and snow conditions.
For that guaranteed powder, you’ll need to shell out some big bucks. But think of it this way: You could spend $200 on a lift ticket and maybe find some untracked snow on the side of a run or pay more and have one of the best ski days of your life. This is your guide to doing just that.
Leave behind the famed slopes of Aspen for a wilderness experience in the gorgeous Elk Mountains. A typical day averages 10,000 vertical feet in a playground of open bowls, meadows and glades. A day up here is so in-demand a lottery is sometimes used for reservations.
Price: $625 per person or $5,800 for the entire snowcat.
Ski Cooper is a small, family-friendly ski area, with mostly gentle terrain. Then there’s Chicago Ridge. Towering above the Arkansas Valley, it’s a wonderland of bowls, chutes and meadows, all well above timberline. One used to have to pay for a full day on a snowcat to play here, but last winter the ski area began offering a deal: $59 for two runs. The snowcat operates Friday-Sunday, weather and snow conditions permitting. For first dibs after a storm, you’ll want to be on the chair right at 9 a.m. then race to the bottom of the Piney Basin lift, as seats on these snowcats are first-come, first-served.
Price: $59 for two runs (with a lift ticket or pass)
There’s something special about Irwin, an alpine basin near the famed ski town of Crested Butte. Something about its location invites huge dumps, often three times what the Crested Butte ski area gets in average snowfall. Most of the runs begin high on a ridge with amazing views of the Elk Mountains, but you’ll be too busy laughing and choking on powder to notice.
Price: $850 per person or $8,500 for the entire snowcat
Just a 45-minute drive from Denver, high in Arapahoe National Forest, the area around Jones Pass is a winter fantasyland of classic Rocky Mountain terrain. In winter, when storms have been favoring northern Colorado, it’s a powder lover’s paradise. The snowcat will take you as high as 12,800 feet, in north-facing terrain where the snow stays light and fluffy. The big city may be close but it will seem far, far away.
Price: $650 per person or $6,500 for the entire snowcat
Get above the fray at busy Keystone on a snowcat. Many skiers hike or skin up to access the Outback Bowls, but a snowcat preserves your legs for the downhill. And you’ll need it, with seemingly endless powder opportunities in these high-alpine bowls. You need to ride some lifts to get to the snowcat, so the price includes a lift ticket. If you’re already at Keystone and just want a lift to the back bowls, you can hitch a ride for $10 and go off on your own.
Price: $285 per person or $3,135 for the entire snowcat. Skiers at Keystone can also catch a ride to the Outback Bowls gate for $10 per ride.
New for the 2022-23 season, Loveland Ski Area will offer snowcat rides to the previously inaccessible terrain known as Dry Gulch (which will most certainly not be dry in winter). The snowcat will take you to 580 acres of open bowls and trees that skiers at Loveland have been ogling for decades. Snowcats will run on weekends January through April.
Price: $395 per person or $4,500 for the entire snowcat
If you’re a powder lover and you’ve skied Monarch Mountain, you’ve probably done the grueling hike to Mirkwood Basin. Maybe you’ve been passed by a snowcat full of happy-looking people. The snowcat tour takes you beyond the ropes to a series of ridges with steep drops and gentle trees and no chairlift in sight, just 1,635 acres of fun on both sides of the Continental Divide.
Price: $575 per person or $5,500 for the entire snowcat
This snowcat operation out of Purgatory Ski Resort offers access to a truly huge amount of terrain — 35,000 acres — in the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains, making it Colorado’s largest backcountry operation. So even if it hasn’t snowed in a while, you can expect fresh tracks and solitude up here.
Price: $500 per person
Silverton, deep in the San Juan Mountains, is the kind of place skiers speak of in hushed tones. Known as “the American Alps,” these mountains are jagged and forbidding, known for violent storms in summer and huge dumps in winter. Only the brave venture out on their own. Fortunately you can snag a seat in a snowcat, which will shuttle you around 6,000 acres of terrain on Molas Pass.
Price: $550 per person or $5,000 for an entire snowcat
Steamboat is where they coined the phrase “champagne powder,” for the light, fluffy snow that falls in northern Colorado. Leave the mega-resort behind and take a snowcat tour on Buffalo Pass and you’ll truly understand why local snow got this name. This long-operating snowcat service has put together a network of named runs in numerous areas to guide you to the best snow. Consequences are high up here, so save the champagne for later when you’re celebrating the day.
Price: $850 per person or $8,500 for the entire snowcat
Vail Pass is one of the most popular backcountry areas in Colorado. Right off Interstate 70, it is enjoyed by hordes of snowmobilers and backcountry skiers visiting some of the many 10th Mountain Division huts in the area. The only permitted guiding outfit here, Vail Powder Guides will take you to 4,000 acres of terrain. Most of the runs start in open bowls above timberline and end in dense pine forests.
Price: $850 per person or $6,800 for the entire snowcat
Snowcat skiing: what to expect
– Guides who know the terrain and where to find the best snow
– Avalanche safety gear is typically provided
– Challenging terrain and conditions, recommended for strong intermediate and expert skiers only
– A lunch is usually provided
– If you don’t have wide powder skis, most companies offer rentals
– Snow conditions can be variable, and some companies will allow cancellations if it’s been too warm or hasn’t snowed in too long