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Ski the Back Bowls of Vail: GearJunkie’s Guide to Shredding the Legendary Powder

The Back Bowls of Vail command a legendary status as some of the best in-bounds skiing in the world. Here's a guide to navigating them, and how to ski safely when you're exploring back there.

Back Bowls of Vail(Photo/Vail)
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It was a March day in 1957 when 10th Mountain Division veteran Pete Siebert crested the summit of Vail Mountain with local rancher Earl Eaton. After 7 hours of hiking on long wooden skis, wearing wool caps, wool sweaters, and leather ski boots, they’d reached their goal: the Back Bowls.

The two men stared out over White River and San Isabelle National Forests toward Mount of the Holy Cross — observing the terrain before them. Siebert and Eaton saw those bowls for what they were: Some of the best skiing in the world. And the two WWII veterans developed a plan to build a ski resort around them.

Back Bowls of Vail
Pete Siebert and Earl Eaton still gazing up at the slopes of Vail from the base of Gondola #1; (photo/Will Brendza)

Today, Vail’s Back Bowls command a “legendary” reputation — one that’s well-earned. The wide-faced mountain basins catch sunlight almost all day long. One rolls into the next, creating a 2,785-acre playground smattered with meadows, boulders, cornices, and cliffs; dominated by huge open alpine fields full of snow and incredible views of the central Rockies.

Some of the terrain back there is wicked steep and technical — Windows, Dragon’s Teeth, and Rasputin’s Revenge come to mind. But not all of it is. In fact, much of what Vail’s Back Bowls offer is extremely skiable for most people.

“People have this image in their head that the Back Bowls are mostly black terrain. But there are such huge pieces of it that everybody can enjoy,” Chris “Mongo” Reeder, the director of Vail Ski Patrol told GearJunkie. “I think there’s a lot for everybody to enjoy there.”

Vail’s patrollers and mountain operations teams work hard to make sure that the Back Bowls are safe to ski and accessible for guests of different skill levels. Their work makes it possible for tens of thousands of people to enjoy the bowls Siebert and Eaton fell in love with almost 70 years ago, every season.

‘Something for Everybody’

Back Bowls of Vail

In total, Vail has seven Back Bowls and each one of them has a distinct personality. Starting in the West, there is Sun Down Bowl, Sun Up Bowl, Tea Cup Bowl, China Bowl, Siberia Bowl, Inner Mongolia Bowl, and in the far eastern reaches, Outer Mongolia Bowl.

The amount of space and terrain offered across all of the Back Bowls can be hard to wrap your head around. Every single one could be its own small resort. And scattered throughout them are access gates to sidecountry zones that are technically “out of bounds.”

Kate Schifani, the head of mountain operations at Vail, has gotten over 100 days on the resort every year for a decade. And she still finds nooks and crannies of the Back Bowls she’s never skied before.

“I think that’s rare for one ski area, but it’s super rare for just one portion of a ski area,” Schifani says. “There’s a little bit of something for everybody. If you want to go huck a cliff, we’ve got plenty of chances for you to do that. If you want to just ski a well-managed, steep groomer, we’ve got plenty of those to offer, too, and everything between.”

Schifani oversees all of the snowmaking, grooming, and trail maintenance operations at Vail. She and her team decide what to groom, when, and how often. Mostly, when it comes to the Back Bowls, her job is to make sure they’re accessible.

“We think about our grooming as a tool to help people get to the whole mountain,” Schifani said. “We have a humongous mountain, and not everybody can ski un-groomed terrain.”

Some of the outer bowls never get groomed. Most of the others, however, have meticulously groomed portions. Some, like China Bowl, are groomed almost every day through the season, making them very approachable.

You just have to know which ones to visit to find the terrain you’re looking for. That goes for beginners and experts alike. Knowing the bowls and their individual personalities is important to navigating them smoothly and having a good time skiing in them.

Knowing Vail’s Back Bowls

Back Bowls of Vail

Sun Down Bowl

Lifts: High Noon Express (#5), Sun Down Express (#17)

Frontside access via lifts #3, #4, #7, #11

Vail’s Sun Down Bowl has beautiful skiing all day long. But when the sun is low and the afternoon starts creeping toward après time, that’s when Sun Down Bowl really starts to glow. The terrain in Sun Down is among the steeper and more complicated of the seven Back Bowls. But often, mountain ops groom Rickie’s Ridge right down the belly of the bowl, and sometimes Morningside Ridge as well.

There are 625 skiable acres in Sun Down Bowl alone. Venture out along its western rim to Ptarmigan Ridge and Never, less frequently trafficked runs that look east, back at all seven of the Back Bowls. Or, hit Windows for some tight trees, bumps, small cliffs, and a prime view of Mount of the Holy Cross, before the basin of the bowl opens up for some wide, unobstructed turns.

Back Bowls of Vail

Sun Up Bowl

Lifts: Sun Up Express (#17)

Frontside access via lifts #4, #11

From the top of Vail Mountain, Sun Up Bowl is the first Back Bowl guests get a good view of. It’s the one Siebert and Eaton first crested and where the seeds of the resort were first planted. And it was the first official Back Bowl within bounds at Vail.

Sun Up Bowl has 475 skiable acres. It catches direct morning sunlight and holds it well into the afternoon. That makes it one of the first bowls to soften up on cold days when conditions are choppy or frozen. The Slot is always groomed, and sometimes Vail’s mountain ops team will groom Yonder and Yonder Gully.

The eastern slopes, like Milt’s Face, Campbell’s, and Cow Face are steep and usually covered with moguls. Après Vous drops steeply into aspens and Chicken Yard is a beautiful glade. (Though both runs drop below Sun Up Express (#9) and will funnel you back to High Noon Express (#5) in Sun Down Bowl.)

Skiers in the Back Bowls of Vail

Tea Cup Bowl

Lifts: Tea Cup Express (#36)

Frontside access via lifts #4, #11 (then via Sleepytime Catwalk)

Tea Cup Bowl is one of the smaller Back Bowls at just 277 acres. It’s also the most tucked away, hidden between the much larger Sun Up and China Bowls. Every run in Tea Cup Bowl (Emperor’s Choice, Sleepytime, Red Zinger, and Morning Thunder) is aptly named after Celestial Seasonings tea flavors.

Vail’s Morning Thunder and Emperor’s Choice offer some steeper skiing and spread-out trees. Tea Cup Glades offer remote and not highly trafficked aspen skiing — a perfect place for powder day excursions. Then, Red Zinger is a wide blue run right in the middle of Tea Cup Bowl that’s always groomed.

Tea Cup Express is also the lift that most people skiing in Blue Sky Basin use at the end of the day. So, it can feature some impressive lines if you catch it on a busy day in the late afternoon.

China Bowl

China Bowl

Lifts: Orient Express #21

Frontside access via lift #14, or #4, #11 (then via Sleepytime catwalk)

Probably the mellowest of Vail’s Back Bowls, China Bowl is 601 acres. It’s home to Poppyfields East and West and Chopstix, three runs that Vail keeps groomed throughout the season. This is a great place for beginners and intermediate skiers to experience the Back Bowls. Its wide largely bald face stays sunny most of the day.

But it isn’t all sunshine and poppy fields in China Bowl. Dragon’s Teeth is a great place to find cliffs and go big if you’re feeling sendy. Or, hit the renowned Ghengis Kahn cornice and shred the steep pitch below. Jade’s Glade and Ghengis Kahn also feature their own decent-sized boulders, rollers, and cliffs to play on.

If you’re looking for tree skiing and glades, Sweet N Sour and Shangri La have well-gapped trees and gladed terrain that’s easy, mellow, and a ton of fun.

Back Bowls of Vail
(Photo/Will Brendza)

Siberia Bowl

Lifts: Mongolia Poma Lift (#22)

Frontside access: None

Once you venture west past China Bowl you won’t find any more groomers or blue runs. Siberia Bowl is one of the most remote of Vail’s Back Bowls. It’s 326 acres that’s only accessible via the Silk Road catwalk from China Bowl. Its remoteness makes it a great place to head when the powder is piling up.

But it takes a while to get to this area of the resort from anywhere. No matter where you start, if you’re headed for Siberia (or beyond) you have a long journey and a lot of traversing ahead.

Gorky’s Park, Red Square, Rasputin’s Revenge, and Orient Express all offer some more technical terrain and tighter tree skiing. Rasputin’s Revenge in particular accesses some south-facing cliffs and couloirs with steep landings.

You can access Bolshoi Ballroom from the bottom or the top of the Mongolia Poma Lift. It encompasses most of Siberia Bowl’s east-facing slope. It’s got well-spaced tree skiing all the way down to the Silk Road catwalk.

(Photo/Steven Scheffler via Flickr Creative Commons)
(Photo/Steven Scheffler via Flickr Creative Commons)

Inner & Outer Mongolia Bowls

Lifts: None

Frontside access: None

When you want to venture as far away from the crowds as possible, to access the best-preserved powder stashes, the Mongolia Bowls are where you need to go. It takes some work and dedication to get into them, as they can only be accessed by Mongolia Poma Lift (#22), which can only be accessed by Silk Road via Orient Express (#21). So, from the top of the Mongolia Bowls, you need to take two lifts and a catwalk to get back.

But, the terrain offered by Inner and Outer Mongolia Bowls is usually worth the adventure out there. Between the Inner and Outer Mongolia Bowls, there are 470 acres of skiable terrain. And because of their remoteness, the Mongolias will always be less skied out than Vail’s other Back Bowls. They’re rugged, ungroomed, and can be challenging to ski. But the powder stashes back there are what dreams are made of.

Back Bowls of Vail side country gate
(Photo/Will Brendza)

Sidecountry Access Gates

The in-bounds skiing in the Back Bowls of Vail is enough to satiate most skiers. But for the experts and powder hunters out there, there are also sidecountry access gates. These allow people to venture past the ropes and into unmanaged terrain. It’s not quite backcountry, but also not in the resort.

Ski patrol does not mitigate avalanches in these areas, nor will they perform rescues in them. People have died in Vail’s sidecountry. And the gates do not sugarcoat the risk. “You Can Die!” most of them warn in black block letters over bright orange backgrounds.

Vail has three sidecountry access gates in its Back Bowls. There is one at the top of Ptarmigan Ridge between Game Creek Bowl and Sun Down Bowl. Vail has a second access gate at the very base of Tea Cup Glade, which accesses some cliffs, and tight tree skiing. Then, a third at the top of the Mongolia Poma Lift offers hiking access to Vail’s notoriously dangerous and deadly East Chutes.

Some of these gates do not funnel you back in bounds and will require hiking to get back. So, be sure to check the map before blindly diving through any one of these gates. And if you aren’t prepared with avi equipment (beacon, shovel, probe, partner), it’s probably wiser to stay within bounds.

Pro Tips: Avoiding Traffic, Navigating the Bowls

Back Bowls of Vail

Unfortunately, long lift lines and big crowds can also be staples of the Back Bowls. It’s less of an issue during the week, but on weekends Vail’s crowds and lift lines can hamper your skiing.

There are ways to avoid them. But you must know how to navigate the Back Bowls throughout the day. The biggest rushes happen in the morning (when everyone arrives) and in the afternoon (when everyone leaves). All of the bowls close at 3 p.m., so the rush out can sometimes resemble a mob.

The Sun Down lift used to be a trap, as it served both Sun Down and Sun Up Bowls, with only one lift out. In the last few years, the afternoon lines at High Noon Express (#5) have made headlines and viral internet posts. But in 2024, Vail introduced Sun Down Express (#17), a second high-speed lift at the base of Sun Down Bowl, to mitigate overcrowding.


Teacup Express is also renowned for its end-of-day lift lines. Everyone who skis the Blue Sky Basin has to use this lift to get back to the front before 3 p.m. The bottleneck here can be serious, as Blue Sky Basin is one of the most trafficked areas of Vail. Many skiers head to Blue Sky first thing in the morning, and some stay there all day long.

To avoid lift line waits, it’s best to hit Blue Sky Basin and Teacup Bowl in the late morning or early afternoon. That way, you aren’t showing up or leaving with the crowds.

The Orient Express is the only other lift that exits the Back Bowls. Because China Bowl is the most mellow of Vail’s Back Bowls, and because Siberia and Mongolia Bowls feed into it, the Orient Express is consistently busier throughout the day.

If you drop into China Bowl and the lift is crowded, bypass it and ski down to Teacup Express instead. Both lifts access China Bowl, although Teacup Express only accesses its advanced terrain.

Staying Safe in the Back Bowls


The Back Bowls of Vail keep ski patrollers very busy. Every single morning when the dawn patrol meets up over early cups of joe, they start assessing avi conditions and weather patterns. They make a plan for what terrain needs to be mitigated, and what to rope off or open up.

Then, throughout the day, they help people across the Back Bowls and throughout Vail. Patrollers respond to injuries and evacuate people from the hill frequently. But, Mongo said that most of what they do day to day is far less dramatic. Many of the calls they respond to in the Back Bowls are for lost skiers, or calls for help with equipment failure or lost skis.

“People are not very good at finding skis when they’re underneath the snow. And there’s some really good tips and ways to cheat,” Mongo said with a wink. “That’s an easy way to be a hero. Show up and find a ski for somebody within five minutes who’s been looking for a half hour.”

Vail’s patrollers also keep a fleet of loaner skis on hand. That way, in case they can’t find a ski or it’s damaged beyond repair, guests can still ski down to the base. It’s just one tool in an arsenal that Vail Patrol employs to make sure people have the best time possible in the Bowls. But, what can people do to accomplish that on their own?

Patroller Mongo’s Safety Tips


“I think the number one piece of guidance that I would give to people that are looking for the safest experience back there is to bring a partner with you,” Mongo said. In the case of an emergency, or even just a tricky situation, having someone else to lend a hand makes a huge difference, he said.

Plus, it’s just fun to share the experience with someone else.

“It’s nice having somebody to help you look for your stuff or pick up the pieces and laugh about the fall that you just had,” Mongo said.

He adds that it’s also important to know your boundaries and the limits of your skills and ski within them. In an area that’s as vast as Vail’s Back Bowls, it’s easy for people to find themselves on terrain they can’t handle. Check the map, pay attention, and ski to your ability level and Mongo says you’ll avoid a lot of trouble.

And, if you do happen to find yourself in a situation where you need help, don’t hesitate to contact Vail Ski Patrol. The number is (970) 754-4610, but they can also be contacted through the Epic Mix app as well.

Midday Après in the Bowls

(Photo/Will Brendza)

If you’re skiing the Back Bowls, you should plan for a full day back there. Not because you have to — it’s totally possible to rip a couple of laps in the bowls and call it good. But they’re also home to some extremely cool lunch and grill spots. These make for perfect midday breaks. Pack a lunch — or even a full picnic — and make your lunch break a party.

Several of Vail’s lunch decks have propane grills so guests can bring brats, burgers, and veggies up for a slope-side BBQ. Or, pack up some cheeses, meats, crackers, and wine for some charcuterie action. Hang out, put your feet up, enjoy the views, and savor the day.

“I love that, that is available for people to go into the back and have that experience,” Mongo said. “It doesn’t always need to be about the skiing. Who’s to say that those folks aren’t having a better time than anybody?”

Shredding the Legendary Back Bowls: Back Bowls of Vail

Back Bowls of Vail

The Back Bowls of Vail aren’t the steepest or the most technical terrain you’ll find at ski resorts in Colorado or elsewhere. They aren’t even the most advanced skiing you’ll find on Vail Mountain. But the experience of skiing them is world-class, nevertheless — just like it was in 1957 when Siebert and Eaton stared down into Sun Up Bowl for the first time. The views, the wide-open terrain, and the vast expansiveness are intoxicating.

It can be intimidating, as well — 2,785 acres is a lot of space to play in. Even for local skiers who were raised on the Back Bowls, their vastness can feel overwhelming at times.

But it also tickles one’s sense of adventure, knowing there’s always more to explore. There’s always another cornice, another gully, another glade, or pow stash hidden somewhere your skis have yet to take you. And it’s all safe and accessible skiing thanks to folks like Mongo and Schifani, and the work they do every single day.

To learn more about the Back Bowls and to purchase ski passes to explore them, check out the Vail Ski Resort website.

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