There’s a place where the mountains meet the heavens, and, if you can get there, you actually feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Literally. It’s that spectacularly scenic, and the famous 782-foot vertical hike is real doozy. Depending on fitness level, the march to the pinnacle takes 20 to 50 minutes. But, as every local and visitor standing beneath the prayer flags at the 12,392-foot summit will tell: it’s worth it. And, if the views alone are of high merit, than the 1,800-vertical-foot slope below makes it a life-defining experience. Aspen Highlands’ Highland Bowl has some of the steepest inbounds terrain in Colorado (up to 48 degrees) and more than satisfies skiers and riders always on the hunt for an adventure.
While Highland Bowl might be viewable from the Ski.com office, we decided to go even closer to the source. We tapped the crew at Strafe Outerwear for the locals’ low down on how do Highland Bowl right, since they’re headquartered right at the base of Aspen Highlands. Not only do these guys and girls hike the Bowl on an almost daily basis, but their highly technical, breathable products were born and are continually tested on sweaty hikes and steep slopes of the Bowl.
Ski.com: How long have you been skiing/riding the bowl?
Pete Gaston (Co-owner/President): I was 9. My first bowl ski was with ski school, and my first hike to the summit was with my brother and Dad in 2001.
Note: The terrain to the Highland Bowl summit first opened in 2001, and, in 2002, the entire expanse of the bowl, from north to south, was opened. In 2005, the Deep Temerity lift opened, which eliminated the long traverse and added 180 additional acres of terrain.
Whit Boucher (Dir. Of Marketing): Since the 6th grade.
Zach Hayes (Customer Service Manager): Since I was a kid.
Pia Halloran (Product Designer): Since 2002—15 years this season!
Ski.com: Any gear recommendations or things to know before one goes?
Carl Walker (Chief Operating Officer): Boots that walk smoothly are invaluable to this terrain and allow you to open up your stride in the boot pack immensely. In the world of compromises we live in, modern AT boots shine in the bowl where the delicate balance between uphill efficiency and downhill rapture is unparalleled.
Pia Halloran: I carry my snowboard and use it as a shield on windy days—works great!
Note: Many people, including the author of this post, prefer to use what is known as “bowl strap” or a backpack to carry skis while hiking Highland Bowl. She has an old, pesky shoulder injury which makes “shouldering” skis uncomfortable.
Ski.com: Okay. It’s time to start hiking. Any tips?
Carl Walker: If you’re motivated and efficient, you will always beat the snowcat to the drop off, so start walking. A quick transition at the cat road sets the stage for success. Click out of your skis; boot buckles open; goggles up top; sunglasses in place; vents open; look for your friends and get to steppin’.
Note: A complimentary snowcat transports hikers about a third of the way up the hike. This is recommended for first-time hikers.
Ski.com: Bowl-hiking etiquette is important among locals. What’s yours?
Whit Boucher: Don’t stop in front of people on the hike, and if someone faster is coming up behind you, get out of the way!
Carl Walker: If you need to stop in the boot pack “STEP OUT!” Otherwise someone will be hollering at you from behind. Just kidding. That’s not necessarily something that happens to strangers, more of a fun razzing between friends. Unless your names are Pete or John Gaston, check your six from time to time and be courteous to anyone moving faster than you. You’ll appreciate the moment of clarity that comes from that extra breath of thin air anyway.
For me, it’s important to say hello to everyone I pass and encourage anyone who looks like they’re staring into the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel like that some days, too, and remind myself it’s probably not actually God calling me to my lost friends and relatives, I may actually be experiencing rolling brown outs in the “stairway to heaven” section of the hike.
Take an extra moment to thank patrollers for keeping this place open for us, it’s dangerous and hard work and sometimes it’s cold and windy as heck, but sometimes when I look in Spayd’s—an awesome ski patroller—eyes up on top, the reflection of the Elk mountains and prayer flags are shining back at me through his smile, I know he loves this place as much as I do.
Zach Hayes: It’s ok to hike at your own pace. It is courteous to allow people to pass you. The wind can be strong; hang on to your belongings! Don’t forget to take in the view!
Pia Halloran: Also, on busy days, people hike pretty close together, so try to keep your skis or board in check to avoid hitting the person behind you in the face.
Ski.com: Once you’ve reached the summit (or can go no further), where do you go on a powder day?
Pete Gaston: If it’s storm-day skiing, I go straight to G6. You have a handrail of trees on your right, so you have a point of reference. It’s a bit more open and you can make some big turns. If it’s a really intense storm with low visibility, go to G3. This zone requires more a bit more snow, though, as there are a lot more trees and stumps.
On a bluebird powder day, I normally go towards G6 and G8.
If it’s a “three-inch miracle” scenario, where the resorts are reporting just two to four inches, head to the Bowl, especially if it’s a north or northwest storm. This is one of the best secrets in Aspen. Because of its aspect and elevation, you can get a full face-shot powder day in the Bowl when there’s just a couple inches everywhere else.
Whit Boucher: If there’s good visibility, I like G8/Full Curl. You can open it up and let it rip—GS-turn style. When you get G8 untracked on a bluebird pow day, I’d argue that it’s better than any heli skiing. Seriously.
Carl Walker: It’s usually decided for me while standing under the prayer flags up top. Or by wherever you are standing along the hike when you’re tired of doing the uphill part. You really can’t go wrong.
I don’t ski much of the first half of the bowl because I really like getting to the peak and looking out over our whole backyard.
Pia Hollaran: I like to hike to the top of Highland Bowl, traverse over towards North Woods and drop in to the G-zones. It seems like most people go straight down the gut (Ozone) when the bowl first opens and the G’s stay untracked longer. You get a little bit of trees at the top, then it opens up to a steeper face.
Ski.com: What if it hasn’t snowed in a couple days?
Pete Gaston: Every day of the ski season, you can find good snow on a ski run in Highland Bowl. Particularly, Ozone. When the rest of the mountain is crunchy, it stays nice and chalky.
Whit Boucher: I really enjoy Ozone, which is a straight shot down the gut of the Bowl. When it hasn’t snowed in a while, it gets nice and buffed, so you can do these high-speed slide turns and there’s no bumps or anything.
Carl Walker: Ozone because it’s protected from the sun and the snow stays chalky forever.
Ski.com: Where do you like to go on a spring day?
Pete Gaston: The first four chutes into bowl.
Pia Halloran: Filip’s Leap is one of the first gates in the bowl, and the snow is usually nice and mushy on sunny days, plus, it’s an easy hike.
Ski.com: While we have you, tell us about one of your favorite moments on the Bowl.
Whit Boucher: It was the first time I stomped a big backie (backflip) off of the cornice of Steep N’ Deep. It was a pow day, and there were a lot of people hiking right next to where I went off. I landed and got a lot cheers. I had always wanted to that—to send a big one, land and ski fast all the way down to the run out without stopping.
Carl Walker: Whit always blows me away, or watching John Gaston (Strafe Outerwear CEO) charge it on those balsa-wood rando toothpicks (i.e. randonee skis). That’s inspiring.
Pia Halloran: It had been snowing hard for days, and ski patrol was struggling to keep up with avalanche control in the Bowl. It hadn’t been open for two days, and we were told it wouldn’t open on the third day either. My co-worker, Carl and I decided to take some lunch laps anyway.
We got to the top of the Loge Lift at 1:30 p.m., and lo and behold, right in front of us, ski patrol was dropping the rope to open the Bowl! I looked at Carl and all he said was, “WE GOTTA GO!”
The hike up was probably one of the hardest I can remember. It was so deep; we were hiking in snow up to our thighs. Snow was blowing sideways, and a few times I had no idea where I was. We finally made it to the top, where a small crowd of maybe 20 people were getting ready to drop in to the most epic bowl conditions I’ve ever experienced!
Originally from the icy trails of New Jersey, I moved West to pursue powder and a career in writing and editing. Now in Aspen, Colo. and working for Ski.com managing the website and blog content, I couldn't be happier. You'll find me skiing at Aspen Mountain or Aspen Highlands in the winter and mountain biking at Snowmass in the summer.