Independence Pass runs 37 miles from Twin Lakes to Aspen, Colorado, dancing with the contours of the Roaring Fork River and crossing the Continental Divide at 12,095 feet in elevation. The road closes each November due to heavy snowfall throughout the winter, only to open again—following bulldozing of upwards of 25 feet of snow and intense avalanche mitigation from the Colorado Department of Transportation—each Memorial Day Weekend.
With the pass open, backcountry skiers of all ability levels—from those eager to arch big turns into low angle bowls to those looking to summit giant peaks and ski challenging couloirs and faces—are provided easy access to a high-alpine playground not found in many places in the Centennial State.
When through travel is finally possible, mobs of Aspen-based skiers—as well as those from other locales on the east side of the pass—race up Highway 82 to ransack a winter’s worth of untouched ski lines that stretch for miles in every direction. While other highly-trafficked Colorado mountain roads like Berthoud, Loveland and Vail passes stay open year-round, attracting backcountry skiers throughout the winter, those looking to earn turns on Independence Pass must have patience. As a result, in the weeks leading up to the opening of the pass and those following mid-April closing of the four Aspen Snowmass resorts, an eager buzz lingers throughout the town of Aspen. While many backcountry skiers have been trudging down dirt roads for miles on long approaches to the big peaks of the Elk Range, the accessibility to world-class backcountry lines is about to become that much easier.
“The community definitely rallies when the pass opens. The first few weekends up there are like a mid-winter powder day on Aspen Mountain, you see all the regulars, and everyone is stoked,” says Sam Coffey, lifelong Aspen resident. “And even if people have gotten their mountain bike or kayak out, they are still keen to get some morning skiing in on the pass before an afternoon ride or paddle. I think the scene up there speaks to the love that the Aspen community has for skiing.”
In the ski-crazed community of Aspen, residents will go to extreme lengths to extend their ski seasons, whether hoofing it up Maroon Creek road to access the iconic 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks of the Elks or driving down valley to Mt. Sopris or Marble. But those objectives can lie on the extreme side of things. With all of the backcountry possibilities accessible from Aspen, the opening of Independence Pass turns an already fruitful backcountry skiing region into a galaxy of backcountry skiing possibilities for every ability level and skier type.
“When the pass opens, it expands the backcountry possibilities around Aspen exponentially. It opens up so many options for different levels of skiers,” Coffey explains. “You can get to huge peaks like Grizzly, New York and La Plata or you can hit car laps on Fourth of July Bowl. There is literally a run for everyone, ‘Indy Pass’ is unique because it appeals to skiers beyond core backcountry users.”
The fact that the Aspen community doesn’t squander its opportunity to continue skiing once the pass opens bolsters the communal bond that skiing provides for the majority of yearlong residents. “I think [the opening of the pass] really highlights the love for skiing from the Aspen community as a whole,” explains Whit Boucher, Aspen local and marketing director for Strafe Outerwear. “It’s incredible to see the excitement and stoke for skiing that is generated by our community here. It’s inspiring and also reassuring to know that the love for skiing here in Aspen is strong. It’s what binds our community.”
Liz Rovira, Aspen resident and Public Relations Assistant Manager for Aspen Snowmass, sees spirits soaring from locals, but also from visitors taking advantage of the detour Independence Pass provides en route to Aspen. “The energy level is always high on the pass, whether it’s from people driving over, skiing, walking their dogs or just passing through,” she says. “You always see smiles, pictures being taken, dogs running around and it feels good. The skiing is an added bonus during the late spring and early summer months for people to keep the ski stoke alive—and all that together is what makes it unique.”
With snow still holding on high up in the alpine, you can expect the skiing on Independence Pass to be worth the effort throughout the month of June. As always, take care when venturing into the backcountry this spring and early summer. While it may look like open season, with countless skier tracks carved into the canvases of the peaks dotting the pass, the skiers who “frequent the pass,” according to Boucher, “are taking daily weather, temperature and snow conditions into great consideration when deciding what to ski.”
So, do your homework and remember that Highway 82 is in prime condition when extending your season this year.