Vail Passes: Berthoud Pass is backcountry haven |

Vail Passes: Berthoud Pass is backcountry haven

Rick SpitzerVail, CO Colorado
Rick Spitzer/Special to the Vail DailyVail travel: A Union Pacific coal train emerges from the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel.

Edward L. Berthoud’s native Swiss countrymen pronounce his name “bare-too,” but both Berthoud Pass and the town of Berthoud, Colorado, which were named after him, are pronounced locally as “burr-thud.”Every year, thousands of skiers and snowboarders cross Berthoud Pass on their way to Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. Located on US 40 about 55 miles west of Denver, the summit of the pass is at 11,315 feet. Reaching it requires negotiating a steep grade with many switchbacks. The pass rewards drivers with many sweeping views of the Colorado Rockies. Outdoor adventurers seek out Berthoud Pass for its backcountry skiing access and Continental Divide Trail trailhead.

The Colorado Central Railroad Company facilitated the discovery of Berthoud Pass when they were looking for routes over the Rockies. When the company’s secretary and chief engineer, Captain Edward L. Berthoud, attempted a route over the pass in 1861, he determined that it would be suitable for a wagon road, but not a railroad. A wagon road was built over the pass in 1874, and by the 1920s automobiles could drive the road. The state bought the road in 1931. When they paved it in 1938, US 40 became the first paved highway in Colorado to cross the Continental Divide. US 40 opened up many towns in Middle Park to tourists, and it’s still the best way to access Winter Park and Steamboat Springs.

The Berthoud Pass Ski Area, which opened in 1937, was one of the first major ski areas in Colorado. The original permit for the ski area, granted by the U.S. Forest Service, included more than 37,000 acres on both sides of the pass and encompassed parts of the current Winter Park Resort. In 1947, they installed the first double chairlift in Colorado, only a year after the world’s first double chairlift was installed in Oregon’s Hoodoo Ski Area. According to a 1938 U.S. Forest Service booklet, an estimated one-third of all Colorado skiers frequented Berthoud Pass in those early years. Later, Berthoud Pass became the first Colorado ski area to allow snowboarders full access to lifts and terrain. The competition of larger ski areas eventually forced Berthoud Pass Ski Area to close on March 10, 2003. Its forest service permit required that all remaining structures be removed, and in the summer of 2005 the lodge and other buildings were torn down. In 2008, a new warming hut was opened at the summit. This eco-friendly hut accommodates up to 80 people and is heated with passive solar and radiant heat. It includes minimal restrooms equipped with composting toilets. Parking for Berthoud Pass was expanded at the time of construction; the new lot can accommodate 120 cars.Now that Berthoud Pass Ski Area is closed, skiers use the area in the same fashion that they did before it originally opened. Before 1937, skiers drove cars to the top of the 11,315-foot pass and skied down to the bottom, where they loaded into cars to head back to the top. They also hiked up the mountains above the top parking lot to reach areas above treeline. Today, Berthoud is once again a popular destination for backcountry skiers.

Berthoud Pass hosts the Mines Peak Electronic Site, an important transcontinental communication link. Inaugurated in 1959, the site now includes many towers for electronic data and phone transmissions. AT&T and Qwest are two of the companies that have towers here. A dirt road provides access to the structures from US 40. Maintenance personnel must rely on snowmobiles and snowcats for winter access. The high elevation of this site-it sits above the pass at 12,493 feet-is desirable because the signal must travel in a straight line for up to 40 miles to reach towers located on other high peaks. By placing the towers on a peak, the physical height of the towers can be minimized while maximizing the distance between towers.

Those not wishing to drive their cars over Berthoud can take the Ski Train. The Ski Train began its regular, scheduled trips to Winter Park Resort in 1940. The trip continues to be very popular, partly because the train stops less than 100 yards from Winter Park’s ski lifts. Today, the train uses 14 passenger cars to transport 750 passengers at a time, the largest capacity of any scheduled passenger train in the United States. After leaving Denver and traveling past the towns of Pinecliff and Rollinsville, the route climbs about 4,000 feet and passes through 29 tunnels.The total travel time for the 57-mile ride is a little over two hours – about the same amount of time it would take to make the trip from Denver to Winter Park by car, given good driving conditions. A trip on the Ski Train is rewarded by convenience, camaraderie and beautiful scenery. Returning at night to Denver’s sparkling city lights is especially remarkable, and there are no sloppy roads or traffic to contend with after a long day on the slopes. The Ski Train doesn’t pass over the Continental Divide – it drives under it! Skiers riding on the train often make bets on the amount of time to the nearest second it will take the train to pass through the historic, 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel. In the event that you are in the pool, it takes an average of 12 minutes!E-mail comments about this article to or visit

Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

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