Go high if you’re looking for skiable snow

Sam Painter skis across a narrow footbridge on the way to Ski Lake on the east side of the Teton Range. (Jerry Painter photo)

Current conditions for cross-country skiers and skate skiers are leaning toward the crappy side.

But we can hope for a good storm to roll in this weekend. Cross your fingers, hold your mouth just right, put a raisin in your shoe — whatever it takes. Whenever the snow looks poor down low, go high. One of the better bets is Ski Lake. At above 7,000 feet, this trail gets snow before most others in the region. The trail starts off the Philips Canyon Road on the east side of Teton Pass. My son Sam reported the trail to be in fair shape this past Saturday.

A word to the wise: This is not necessarily a beginner’s trail. Expect ups and downs and challenging terrain. I rarely have managed to get a beginner all the way to the lake. Another challenge with this trail is that it is not well marked. Combine that with its popularity with snowmobiles, and it can be a challenge finding your way to the lake. But no matter, the lake in winter is just a flat area at the bottom of a large bowl. The real fun is skiing up and down the beautiful slopes off of Philips Canyon Road. This area is often above the temperature inversions that occur in the nearby valleys.

Keep this area in mind during the summer for some sweet mountain biking trails.

The best place to start this ski is by parking at a plowed pullout about 150 yards down the highway from the sign for Phillips Canyon Road. From here, you ski back uphill alongside the Teton Pass highway road until you arrive at Phillips Canyon Road.

There is a kiosk near the entrance that has a detailed map of the area. There’s also a doggy poop bag dispenser here. (It seems skiers don’t like skiing over dog messes in the trail.) If you bring your dog, it’s a good idea to keep him on a leash while crossing the highway from the plowed parking area.

Ski up the Phillips Canyon Road about a half-mile to a sign announcing the Ski Lake Trail. From here, you can ski about another half mile to a huge meadow. You’ll know you’re there by the flat area about the size of a few football fields. At the north end of the meadow there should be a trail heading up to the base of the mountains. This is where things can get tricky. Snowmobile tracks often add a confusing mess of trails in all directions. The basic direction to Ski Lake is north-northwest to an obvious divide in the peaks. If you don’t find it, don’t worry, just have fun. I enjoy skiing the slopes high above the trail and eventually making my way back to the road. If the lake is your goal, expect the last quarter of a mile to be uphill. Expect to traverse back and forth to get up the steeper sections unless you put on climbing skins.

Round trip distance to the lake is about 4.5 miles. Take time to zip down a few slopes.

Backcountry skiers often start out at Teton Pass and ski down the east side of the range down to the trail to Philips Road and back to the highway. From here, you can have a shuttle vehicle or hitchhike back to the pass. Skiers who drop down the west side of the range from Teton Pass and Glory Mountain will find themselves in the Coal Creek drainage.

For more information on this and other ski trails, refer to the guidebook “Eastern Idaho Sweet Spots.”