Ski Trails: The Big Ten

The Top Ten “Must Ski” Trails in the USA

A Note about the Trails on this List… This is not a list of the longest, the hardest, the most scenic, or anything of that nature. Indeed, many of these are very difficult, many are extremely scenic, and the lengths vary. There are many that are more difficult, arguably more scenic, etc. But for a variety of reasons, these are the trails that are known by name before you first ski at the area. People ask: “Have you skied…” — and they usually mention one of these. These are the trails you positively can’t pass on; the legends. Your resume is incomplete until you’ve made tracks on:

The Nose Dive • Stowe, VT Here’s the history of U.S. skiing in one trail. Imagine a day when you hiked to the summit, then skied a steep narrow chute snaking down the face of a mountain. Eventually the Nose Dive was tamed, widened, and lift accessible. It’s no longer the terror it once was, but it remains the trail. You’ll also want to ski Stowe’s “front four” (National, Goat, Starr, Lift Line) but only Nose Dive and National have their original names, and none follow their original route exactly. While all are legendary, the Nose Dive is the one you must ski.

KT-22 • Squaw Valley, CA Perhaps the most legendary trail in the nation. KT-22 would be first, but wasn’t a named “run” until the mid-1940s, so it has to settle for second. Squaw Valley’s Sandy Poulsen (wife of the founder) hiked to the summit, then counted 22 kick-turns to reach the valley. Since then this peak has represented the ultimate combination of cliffs, bowls, chutes, glades, you name it. KT-22 isn’t one specific run, rather an entire mountain; you just have to find your way down. Definitely gut-check time. Hey, if all else fails, you can try 22 kick turns.

Al’s Run • Taos Ski Valley, NM As you approach the mountain, this straight slash stares at you. Is it a trail, or just the liftline? As you get closer, you see that it is a series of hills…wait, those are moguls. When you pull up to the parking area, a sign says “Don’t worry, we have easy terrain too!” or something to that effect. This is it, nirvana for bump skiers, and the lift riders overhead offer appropriate applause or derision. “Al” was a Taos instructor who suffered a heart attack and skied with an oxygen tank. Ski or board down his namesake trail, and you may need one too.

Exhibition • Sun Valley, ID Another trail that dates to the 1930s, and like Nose Dive, has been tamed and re-routed a bit. It may not be the nightmarish drop it once was, but we think today’s massive moguls more than make up for the kinder route. It has the scenery, it has the name, it has more than enough challenge. And if you can ski this and not look like a piker, you’re in some fine and historic company.

Corbet’s Couloir • Jackson Hole, WY Here’s another that would be higher on the list, but since it only became a trail in 1960, it has to defer to those above. In difficulty and sheer panic, however, Corbet’s defers to none.* It begins with a 20+ foot cliff drop, followed by a 50° slope. Yikes. Most of us just look in and head elsewhere. Although there are a lot of trails with showtime-type cliffs where onlookers wait and cheer on the daring; this one is the grand-daddy. When Barry Corbet first dropped down this elevator shaft he pretty much pioneered extreme skiing. Many Corbet’s survivors ski it once, which is more than most of us will ever do.

* Jackson Hole does have one tougher “run,” called S & S Couloir, but it requires special patrol permission to access.

Ruthie’s Run • Aspen, CO Whatever. This one is on the list because it has always been on the list, and no other reason comes to mind. So we’ll put it smack in the middle of this list. It’s an average run as Ajax goes, nothing too difficult, nothing great. Andy Williams and Claudine Longet and James Garner and Elvis and Jill St. John and musicians and race drivers and countless other stars and socialites have all taken a turn on Ruthie’s and raved about it. Lindsey Vonn crashed on it. If you go to Aspen, people will ask you if you skied Ruthie’s — even if they’ve never been in Colorado. It’s just one of those things you have to do, kind of like the dopey elephant ride at Disney World.

Alf’s High Rustler • Alta, UT Named after one of the founding fathers of Alta, which in skiing circles, entitles Alf to something like Mt. Rushmore status. In this case, getting there is half the battle…traversing a narrow ridgeline, rounding the mountain top…and finally, a fabulous run with few skiers on the trail. Oh there will be plenty on hand, they mill about the top and try to figure out if they have the guts to do it. The “High Boy” is steep, powder is usually deep, and the views can’t be beat.

Riva Ridge • Vail, CO Vail’s Prima has its own instructor pin and a tougher reputation, but Riva Ridge/Tourist Trap is the one you need to put on your resume. Riva has a pretty cool history. It’s named for part of a mountain in Italy (Mount Belvedere) that was key ground in World War II. It was held by the Nazis into 1945 and the idea of a direct attack up the 1500′ side cliff was unthinkable. The 10th Mountain Division did a surprise night assault and prevailed on Riva Ridge. A few years later 10th Mountain Division veteran Peter Siebert built Vail. He had help and investors, one being fellow 10th Mountain vet John Tweedy. Naturally, a trail was named Riva Ridge. The story continues…John Tweedy married Penny Chenery, whose family was in the horse business. Penny Tweedy named one of her horses after the trail. Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby in 1972.

Pallavicini • Arapahoe Basin, CO Not exactly a run, although the Pally Face is certainly the signature route down this “section” of A-Basin. It is easily one of the biggest headwalls marked as a trail at a ski area. In terms of difficulty it is your last step before advancing to “extreme” skiing, which is to say, the rest of Pally. Millions of monster moguls and trees on the side of a cliff. People ride the Pally lift for the first time look down and say, “that isn’t really a trail, is it?” You can either ski it, or you can’t. You know, a lot of skiers think they have conquered some tough stuff at their home area, and they are fond of saying “If you can ski ____________ then you can ski anywhere!” (fill in the blank with the name of some small area with a notably steep slope) Problem is, they haven’t seen Pallavicini. I don’t care how good you are at Sunday River, Mad River, Sugarbush or Sugarloaf…until you ski Pally, it doesn’t mean a thing.

Tuckerman Ravine • Mt. Washington, NH The Tuckerman headwall was first skied by US Olympians John Carleton and Charley Proctor on April 11, 1931, making repeated jump turns in breakable crust. Don’t try it. In the 1930s the summit-to-valley Inferno race began. Hollis Philips won the first in 1933, and Dick Durrance won the second event with a record time of 12:35 in 1934. The third Inferno was not held until 1939. That race witnessed what is easily the most legendary run ever made in the Western Hemisphere. Austrian Toni Matt, age 19, erred in his calculated turns and made the blunder of skiing straight over the lip of the headwall with a 60 mph wind at his back. Matt skied down the headwall like a rocket sled on rails, shot through the ravine, and on down the mountain. His time of 6:29 slashed the record. Today thousands of people hike to Tuckerman each spring, bashing down on tire tubes, snowboards, skis, and various contraptions. Rather than tarnish Matt’s accomplishment and the Tuckerman legend, it simply grows. And by the way, the State of New Hampshire and the U.S. Forest Service still haven’t installed a high speed quad, so bring your hiking boots and gaitors.

And a few more…

Too many trails, too few spots. Here are others that could easily be slotted in the top ten. Some of these are admittedly much better ski runs, but again, this list accounts for factors other than the trail itself…history, cachet, reputation, legend. If you’ve skied the ten above, you already know — deep down inside — you’ll need to add these to your resume…

Outer Limits • Killington, VT Since the oldest legendary run in the east started the first ten, it’s only appropriate that we start the second ten with the newest. When the Beast of the East made its second major expansion and developed Bear Peak in the late 1970s, this was designed to be the east’s ultimate hot drop for hotshots. Designed in the 1970s for 1980 Olympic slalom training, Outer Limits was simply too steep to be practical for its intended purpose. It caused quite a sensation; word quickly spread through the entire ski community that Killington had a trail too tough to tame. It was left open and became a darker, nastier version of Superstar, Killington’s showcase mogul run. Today it is usually half corduroy/half mogul; the corduroy is where most ski but by itself wouldn’t make this list. Westerners who pooh-pooh the northeast are considerably quieter after skiing the rude awakening known as Outer Limits.

Shay’s Revenge • Snowshoe, WV Here’s another that is listed mainly for its reputation, which is best compared to southern cooking. Everybody raves about it, but it really isn’t as great as they make it sound. Shay’s is indeed steep, Snowshoe is an “upside down” ski area (you start at the summit), and it is in good old Dixie. Since this list wouldn’t be complete without one upside-down run, and one opportunity to hear someone say “he done bawt at new shivalay” or “how you lock the Shew?” in the liftline, it’s nice to kill two birds with one stone.** In all seriousness, though, Shay’s is a long, steep diamond with hit-or-miss conditions. It’s tougher than anything else in the southeast, with a healthy vertical as well. It starts off along the arm of the ridge, then well after half way it drops straight into a hollow. This Appalachian hollow isn’t quite in the same league as a Wasatch canyon, but it’s close to it, and your eyes will be wide open on the descent.

** translation: “he purchased that new Chevrolet” and “how do you like it here at Snowshoe?”

Banana Chute • Crested Butte, CO This is one of the toughest runs on the planet that appears on a trail map. 3,000 vertical of avalanche-prone double-black steep that drops right down the face of the promontory that is Crested Butte. At its narrowest, the chute is about 12′ wide. Nothing about this is right for the intermediate or even average expert. And a word of caution: Check with the patrol prior to entering this route. It is usually only skied under fresh powder or in forgiving spring conditions. Crested Butte does have a tougher trail, called Rambo, but it doesn’t have the same front-and-center attitude as Banana.

Mary Jane • WinterPark, CO Not so much a run as an entire mountain; pick one of the tougher bump runs and you’ve got it. The namesake run is a western classic, but fairly tame by today’s standards.

Pay Day • Park City, UT The ultimate intermediate cruiser. One of the trails the U.S. Ski industry was built on.

Palmer • Timberline, OR June, July, or August and the best young skiers in the country put on $4,000 worth of gear and laugh at the rest of us who shuck and schuss down the Palmer Snowfield, a deceptively tough glacier on the ramparts of Mt. Hood. At first glance, it’s not terribly challenging, but varying pitches and wildly varying conditions — not to mention stray igneous boulders — can put even the seasoned pro on crutches. At almost a mile long, cloud cover can create bulletproof ice at the top, while sunshine turns the whole thing to soup at the bottom. The scenery is spectacular, the sunshine great, the skiing mediocre, Timberline Lodge is a treasure, and the kids-in-training are obnoxious. All in all, Palmer is a must-do. Especially for the bragging rights when you get on that chairlift in early December: “I got a few runs in already.”

And a few more toughies…

The Big Burn • Snowmass, CO

Regulator Johnson • Snowbird, UT

The Snowfields • Whiteface, NY

Birds of Prey • Beaver Creek, CO This is the trail you go to so that you can ski like a World Cup skier, which you can’t do. You can ski their course, but you’ll never ski like them. Sorry, nothing I can do.

Red Line • Magic Mountain, VT Do it right, the lift riders hoot and holler. Do it wrong, you get silence and a few muffled guffaws.

Goat • Stowe, VT One of the famous front four mentioned above. Your thigh muscles must be prepared, or meet thy doom.

Lift Tickets at Discount: This is a “clearinghouse” of sorts that many ski areas use to raise cash by selling discount tickets in advance, called Liftopia. If you haven’t used this service, it is important to knowfor certain that you are going on a specific date. The deeply discounted tickets must be purchased in advance; generally up to two days out. The sticking point is that some ski resorts only make a limited number of tickets available to Liftopia for any given day, so they might be sold out if you wait too long…so, as soon as you are absolutely, positively sure that you will be skiing on a certain day, click this link to get deeply discounted tickets. I’ve used this service many times, but again, ONLY when I am absolutely certain I will be skiing on a specific date. You need to have access to a printer to print out your receipt, and you have to take identification with you to the mountain. I’ve knocked a third off the price of some tickets. Not every area participates, but it’s well worth checking if you’ve got a date nailed down.