Colorado Escapist: Poor man’s heli-skiing with cat-skiing at Keystone, Copper and Keystone | SummitDaily.com

Colorado Escapist: Poor man’s heli-skiing with cat-skiing at Keystone, Copper and Keystone

Want more from Colorado Escapist Shawna Henderson? Follow her as she goes winter biking on the slopes, trails and snow-packed concrete.

Have you ever told yourself: I'd love to go helicopter skiing but it is just too expensive?

What if I told you there is another option, known as "poor man's helicopter skiing," and it is free or cheap? What if this budget option gave you access to backcountry terrain and also helped you escape the crowds, without an expensive alpine touring kit?

Welcome to cat skiing, the best way to escape spring break lift lines and get powder turns days (or sometimes weeks) after the resorts have been tracked out, all without hours of hiking and route-finding.

Often overlooked, cat skiing at Summit County resorts gives you a backcountry experience with little to no avalanche danger and quick access to après beers. Even locals occasionally shrug off the cat skiing experience in favor of their familiar secret stashes, but the cat-accessed terrain can satisfy your powder addiction days after a storm.

This spring, break out of your shell and reach the top of your skiing potential with an adventure you won't soon forget with the Colorado Escapist's ultimate guide to Summit County cat skiing at Loveland, Copper Mountain and Keystone.

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Loveland Ski Area

Are you ready to fall in love? Loveland resort operates just a little differently than the rest. Not only will you pay a fraction of the price for a lift ticket to Loveland, but in my opinion, it brings skiing back to the true fundamentals of what a ski resort should be: raw and unspoiled. You'll hardly ever wait in a lift line at Loveland, and yet they still receive the gold star for a local cat-skiing adventure. Seriously — we arrived days after a snowstorm and rode untracked powder terrain on phenomenally wide-open terrain all day long.

Loveland's cat-skiing operation, dubbed The Ridge Cat, takes you from the top of Chair 9 on a ride along the Continental Divide to the top of Golden Bear Mountain. On a clear, sunny day, expect jaw-dropping, panoramic views of vast mountains in every direction.

The heated cat seats up to 18 people in the back, but Cole, the driver, let me join him in the front seat. There are many reasons to ski Loveland — cheaper lift tickets, on-mountain ski huts for personal barbecues, steep and deep turns in the high alpine — but cat skiing on The Ridge opens a new world. It also places Loveland on top of my personal favorites to ride.

Ready to go? Just sign a wavier and receive your access pass to the cat, no fee required. The cat takes skiers and snowboarders to wild, challenging terrain, but don't feel left out if you aren't ready for the serious stuff. You can still ski down the groomed snow left by the cat. No matter what, the views and experience are stunning.

Elevation: 13,000 feet

Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. depending on weather

Copper Mountain

Just about everyone loves the laid-back vibe at Copper, whether you're hanging out at Copper Alley or dancing your tush off at Jack's.

Copper takes the silver for the cat adventures in Summit because you get to access all the epic terrain you've been dreaming about without hours of hiking. Copper's cat-skiing operation runs Friday through Sunday and takes backcountry junkies to the saddle between Tucker Mountain and Copper Bowl. Don't be fooled — you will still have to work a little for your turns — but a cat ride gives you quick access to backcountry-style steeps, cliffs and chutes.

The back bowls at Copper give you access to face shots in a high-alpine environment with more than 273 acres to tantalize your taste buds. The cat ride is free, similar to Loveland, but it does not bring you all the way to the top of the saddle. You'll have to boot-pack a little from there. The lines on Tucker are north facing and will not disappoint, even if Copper Bowl is sunbaked, meaning you can still get some of the best turns in just 10 or 15 minutes

Elevation: 12,300 feet

Hours: Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. depending on weather

Keystone Resort

Keystone is always a delight, with long, groomed runs and amazing dining establishments. But what if you want to get away from the crowds? Simple: head to the top of the Outback for a ride with the Keystone Outback Shuttle, a cat-skiing operation that accesses the same hike-to terrain people love in North Bowl and South Bowl. Access low-angle runs, beautiful glades and terrain above tree line. The area is home to about 800 acres of terrain, available for a $10 fee, paid in cash when you board the cat.

After a one-mile ride of about 15 minutes, the cat drops you off at the top of Bushy Rump Peak, where you have multiple descent options. All funnel back to cat tracks on either side of the Outback, and then return to the Outback Express.

I'm sure you can find powder worthy of a face-shot Facebook selfie, but on the day I went, snow conditions were less than desirable. The snow here can get rock hard thanks to excessive winds and limited protection from the elements, which places Keystone in the bronze position for Summit County cat skiing. If there hasn't been a powder storm in the past two or three days, I could pass on this one.

If you have a full day (and full wallet), try Keystone Adventure Tours. This cat-skiing operation runs $275 per day, but it's worth every cent with guided backcountry skiing at Independence Bowl, Bergman Bowl and Erikson Bowl. Those areas are also technically hike-to terrain, but they don't see nearly as much traffic as the Outback. Call ahead to reserve a trip that includes lunch at a backcountry yurt.

Elevation: 12,400 feet, with 400 feet of elevation gain on a one-mile cat ride

Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. depending on weather

Even though these three cat-skiing operations bring you to some of the most challenging terrain in Summit County, you always have the option to ride up, take in the views, and then come back down on the cat. It's all about access: Cat-skiing takes resort skiing to the next level, with easy access to the steeps, trees and chutes you can see from the chairlift but rarely get to ride. Once you've had a taste of cat skiing, you will never want to get back in a lift line again.

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