Bluebird Backcountry, ski area without lifts, adds huts for guests

Jill Davis has been a skier since she was a child. She and her fiancé have skied on Epic and Ikon passes in recent years, but they’ve just about had it with increasingly crowded slopes and Interstate 70 traffic jams.

That prompted them last month to try Bluebird Backcountry, a ski area without chairlifts near Rabbit Ears Pass that gives skiers and snowboarders a feel for the backcountry experience in a controlled environment.

A ski area without lifts, after all, is a ski area without lift lines.

“We heard about Bluebird, getting away from crowds, exploring new territory, so we signed up,” said Davis, 43, who lives in Littleton. “It was awesome. It was intimate.”

They took an introductory class in which they were taught how to use backcountry gear and some basic avalanche awareness. They learned to “skin,” skiing uphill with removable climbing “skins” fastened to their skis for traction.

Davis is planning another trip to Bluebird later this month.

“The instructor was incredibly informative and laid back,” Davis said. “It was a great experience.”

In its third season, Bluebird is designed to offer backcountry training in a non-threatening, user-friendly environment where guests can rent gear, take lessons and practice what they have learned without the hazards of uncontrolled slopes.

Located 29 miles north of Kremmling, 32 miles south of Walden and 27 miles east of Steamboat Springs, Bluebird lacked lodging options until this season with the introduction of several small, two-person cabins ($109 per night), a larger “hostel” cabin that sleeps five with a common kitchen area ($59 per person), and glam-camping domes ($229 for up to five people).

They also allow camping in their parking lot ($25) with shared kitchen space available.

“We’re fairly far from the Front Range, two and a half hours without traffic,” said co-founder Jeff Woodward. “A lot of our guests live in Denver, Fort Collins or Colorado Springs. We just wanted to give people a place to stay that’s close by.”

They also wanted to give guests a sense of what backcountry hut skiing is like.

“Hut trips are an amazing part of backcountry skiing,” Woodward said. “Many of them are pretty far to skin (to), and hard to get reservations. We wanted to make hut trips more accessible. All of our lodging is hut-level amenities.”

The two-person cabins opened this week, and the skin-to domes are due to open in the next few days. The opening date for the hostel is still to be determined.

“All of them have heat that’s either wood stove or propane heaters,” Woodward said. “They have pretty basic cooking facilities. There’s no running water, so it’s melt-water from snow. We’ve got solar-powered lights in some, but there’s no internet. You can’t power a computer, and the restrooms are outhouses. When we asked our guests what they wanted, they wanted simple and rustic, so that’s what we’re providing.”

Bluebird is set in a gorgeous location 2 miles from the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass with panoramic views and rolling hills that currently are blanketed with deep snow. The property includes Bear Mountain, a 9,845-foot peak that straddles the Continental Divide.

Bluebird has some steeps for advanced skiers on Bear Mountain, and there is an adjacent bowl with some mellow tree skiing in an aspen grove. A “skin track” with a gentle ascent angle leads to both, not to mention a warming tent in an area called The Perch where guests can treat themselves to bacon slices hot off the grill.

Bluebird offers a variety of classes, including:

  • Backcountry 1: Introduction to backcountry, $80 for a half-day.
  • Backcountry 2: Moving through the backcountry, $110 for full day
  • Backcountry 3: Backcountry navigation and avalanche prep, $110 for full day
  • Ski mountaineering: How to climb and descend steeper slopes, $110 for full day
  • Women’s Clinics: Affords students the opportunity to learn, build camaraderie and ask questions in a women-only environment, $110 for half day
  • Skiing with your dog, $80 for a half day
  • Wilderness first aid: Teaches students to “prevent, assess, and treat ailments common to winter backcountry recreation,” $350 for two-day lesson
  • Hut Trip 101: Teaches the basics in hut skiing including cooking, etiquette and safety considerations, $220, includes overnight stay

Bluebird also offers avalanche-safety certification courses through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

Tony Derron of Denver, 30, decided to check out Bluebird this year after becoming “addicted to powder” on a heli-skiing trip last year in Canada.

“I had never skied like that before, so I started looking into how you get powder without having to pay an exorbitant amount of money,” Derron said. “It was backcountry skiing. I decided if I wanted to keep skiing powder, I needed to learn how to skin and use a split board and get comfortable in the backcountry. I really enjoyed the physical activity and the workout of it, too, so I was like, ‘Let’s go check out Bluebird.’ Without knowing anything about skinning or backcountry skiing, I bought a season pass and decided I was going to go all in this year.”

He turned his first Bluebird trip into a 30th birthday party with friends and treated himself to a full alpine touring set-up. He plans to take an avalanche certification course soon.

Davis said she and her fiancé probably will invest in backcountry gear next season.

“Right now we’re just renting and experiencing (Bluebird) because it’s so relaxing and we’re not having to wake up at 4:30 in the morning on a Saturday to fight traffic to get to Winter Park or Vail,” Davis said. “What we’ve found is that the whole ambience there, and the fact that it’s a controlled environment, is really what gives us peace.”

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