Outdoors: Skiing The Minturn Mile

March 27 2013, 4:55 PM

Why we love it: Amazing powder. Backcountry peacefulness. The challenge. The camaraderie. The cold beer. The nachos. The tradition.

When to go: Shoot for February or March after a big snowfall and when there’s a considerable base. Avoid early and late season. Without the proper coverage, the trail could be a nightmare of exposed rock, logs, and dirt patches. It could be even more hazardous if it’s covered in ice. The Minturn Saloon—your final destination—opens at 3:30 p.m. in the winter, so plan accordingly.

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After a full couple of days lapping Vail’s powder-filled back bowls last weekend, my legs were toast. The storm had dumped a foot-and-a-half of snow on the mountain. It was glorious—and tiring. So as I stood at the backcountry gate that would grant me entry to the infamous Minturn Mile, I was nervous. I’d heard rumors of the “ice luge” and muscle fatigue that was curable only by a pitcher of margaritas at the end. Would my legs hold out? Would I collapse in the middle? Would I careen off the narrow singletrack trail into the woods or—worse—down the embankment into the creek?

You see, the “Mile” isn’t so much one mile as it is several miles—estimates put it between three and four depending on where you measure from. It begins just outside Vail boundaries at a legal backcountry gate—no rope-ducking required—with a lovely, low-angle bowl run that funnels into a drainage by Game Creek. The trail eventually narrows into a path with only enough room for one skier at a time as it rollercoasters along the creek, dipping and turning under branches and around logs. Fair warning: There may be crowds of people on the trail of varying abilities and speeds, and there are few places to turn out or pass. Most people bust out the snowplow stance to control their speed.

After a creek crossing and a long, unforgiving run-out, the trail spits you out into the old mining town of Minturn, where the Minturn Saloon welcomes crowds of Mile skiers with celebratory drinks, a toasty fireplace, and surprisingly tasty eats for a mining town pub.

So, even though I was following experienced Milers who’d done the run before, I started my descent with trepidation. Two turns into the cloudlike powder on the way down, I abandoned my nerves for giddiness. By the time we’d hit the “luge” I was thoroughly enjoying the run. Yes, my legs were burning; and yes, there was one dicey stretch of dirt patches we sidestepped around; and yes, we had to remove our skis and cross the tiny creek on foot (hint: Avoid the slippery log bridge and use the rocks in the water as stepping stones). But all of those things made the mountainous plate of loaded nachos and pitcher of Sunshine Wheat that arrived at our table in the Saloon pretty much the best food I’ve ever consumed. Overall, an experience definitely worthy of the Bucket List. Check.

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Cost: Free—as long as you have the right Vail Resorts season pass. Otherwise, you’ll have to purchase a lift ticket (prices vary, depending on the time of year) to access the terrain.

Tip: Call the Saloon for a rundown on conditions. They’ll likely have good intel from the hordes of Mile skiers who regularly pop in. Knowing to keep an eye out for a muddy patch that requires popping out of your skis and hiking is extremely helpful way to avoid an unexpected face plant.

Safety note: The Minturn Mile is in the backcountry. It is legal, but it is beyond Vail’s patrol and rescue area. You should always be prepared with the proper safety, avalanche, and backcountry gear when skiing beyond resort boundaries.

Getting there:

To Minturn (to drop a shuttle car or pick up skiers): From I-70, take Exit 171 for U.S. 24 East/U.S. 6 East toward Minturn. Continue for 2.1 miles and turn left onto Main Street. The Minturn Saloon is on the left (146 North Main Street, 970-827-5954).

To Vail and the access point: From I-70, take Exit 176 toward Vail. Follow the signs for Vail Road. At the second traffic circle, take the third exit for South Frontage Road East and continue until you reach the public parking garage on your right. To access the Mile, make your way to Game Creek Bowl and ride Chair 7 (Game Creek Express Lift). From the top, follow Lost Boy (green trail) and stay left until you get to Ptarmigan Ridge. It’s a short hike (10 minutes) up the ridge to the backcountry gate at the top of a bowl. You can also access Lost Boy from the top of Chair 3 (Wildwood Express Lift). The bowl funnels down to a drainage along Game Creek and the beginning of your descent through the woods.