While there are several backcountry ski touring destinations in Colorado that always make my heart swell with joy, my favorite — and the one that has left me with more vivid memories over the past three decades than any other — is on Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat Springs.
I remember well the first time I skied there under a full moon on a crystal clear night more than 30 years ago. Mountains etched in white glowed faintly in the dark. Meadows shone with a soothing luminescence as we kicked and glided under the moon and stars. It was magical.
A few years later I found myself in Steamboat on an assignment that included covering an evening event. It had been a long day and I was exhausted, but when the event ended around 10 p.m., the moon was full and the sky was clear. Sleep would have to wait, because I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I hustled into my ski clothes, headed up to the pass and skied well past midnight.
Then there was the day when I did the 8-mile Hogan Park ski tour from Rabbit Ears to the Steamboat ski area with 6-8 inches of fresh powder. Halfway there my companion and I had a backpacker’s lunch of summer sausage, cheese, homemade gorp and a tangy Granny Smith apple while wondering what the special of the day was at Hazie’s restaurant in Steamboat’s Thunderhead building.
Whenever winter takes me to Steamboat, I always work in some touring on the pass, which has mostly rolling terrain with a few steeper slopes. To help users stay on trails, blue diamond markers are tacked on trees while poles stuck in the snow mark the route in open areas. About half of the loops up are rated difficult by the U.S. Forest Service, and the rest are moderate. Snowshoers are welcome to use the trails, but they are asked to travel parallel to the ski tracks.
The east side of the pass is intended for snowmobilers while the west side is for non-motorized touring only. In my experience, users respect those boundaries. There is ample parking on either side of U.S. 40 at the West Summit trailhead, which is about 13 miles from Steamboat Springs, at an altitude of 9,400 feet.
For first-time visitors I recommend the West Summit Loop trails (Loop A and Loop B) on the north side of the highway, the South Summit Loop on the opposite side of the highway, and the Fox Curve Loop, which has its own parking area a little east of the West Summit trailhead.
While moonlight skiing on the pass is a spectacular and deeply moving experience, I don’t recommend it unless you are familiar with the terrain or can go with someone who is. It would be easy to ski in circles and get lost up there at night if you’re not careful. You also could stray off trail into some terrain that is too steep for your ability level. Of course a trails app could help you stay out of trouble, too.
The last time I was there, it was late afternoon. Trails were packed for easy skiing, but off trail the snow was deep, and it was the kind of light, dry snow common at Steamboat that long ago picked up the nickname “champagne powder.” Trees were flocked with snow and ice, and the 10,600-foot summit of Walton Peak glistened three miles away while the setting sun cast long shadows over the trail. You never forget scenes like that.