A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
Sure, you can learn to ski in hundreds of ski areas from the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest to the snowy confines of Maine. Now what? Go West young (or any age) man or woman. West to Colorado where the resorts are as big as the great outdoors and so-called "champagne powder" falls from the skies. Where the iconic mountain towns never let you down at night.
Yes, this is Colorado skiing and riding. There’s no way to say it any other way. This is as good as it gets.
You can choose from among 32 ski areas — many of the “big name” variety that roll off every skier or rider’s tongues. But, there are hidden “gems” scattered in every corner of the state that are smaller, more contained and just as much fun. And just as much of that powder.
Here’s a selection of choices in the Centennial State, big destinations first, then some smaller and far less intimidating. But, you’ll love them all. We virtually can promise you that.
Aspen-Snowmass: If a visit to this world famous resort isn’t at the very top of your bucket list, tear it up and make a new one. This Pitkin Country “ski area” is actually four ski resorts:
Aspen Mountain (locals know it as Ajax) towers over what may be the best ski town anywhere and is filled with black diamonds among the rare greens and blues. There’s a reason World Cup races are often held here; Buttermilk is the perfect place for beginners or learners to play, but it has a split personality as freestylers love it too as it hosts the annual X-Games; Highlands is the locals favorite with spectacular views of the Maroon Bells. Everyone can ski it, but experts revel on the uncrowded slopes; Snowmass is a village and huge mountain of its own and is the most family-friendly of them all. There are more than 150 miles of trails over 3,132 acres to explore here. It is an intermediates paradise.
Don’t be put off by Aspen’s star-studded celebrity image. It’s still John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High.
Vail: This iconic resort was created from scratch by returning veterans of World War II’s famed 10th Mountain Division in the early 1960s. Today it is an exquisite mountain resort with a Bavarian vibe. It’s upscale in every way, but not in the manner that puts off visitors of all sorts who come from around the world.
Vail is the largest ski area in the state covering 5,317 skiable acres. Some 31 lifts take you to 193 trails with an impressive color combo of green, blue and black. To top it off, strong skiers and riders can drop into the incredible back bowls for the ski experience you’ll never forget.
Should you get bored (you’ won’t, so this is a figment of speech), just head 20 minutes or so down the road to Vail’s sister — Beaver Creek. Here, you’ll find a self-contained high-end, classy base area with a manageable mountain for the whole family, including the Birds of Prey runs, where World Cup skiers love to race.
Breckenridge: Just 90 minutes from Denver is the historic mining town of Breckenridge, with gorgeous vistas and more diverse terrain than you can handle in a week, for sure. “Breck,” as its known, covers 2,908 acres. Part of the Rocky Mountain's Ten Mile Range, Breck is comprised of Peaks 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, spanning from North to South.
There’s tons of challenge at Breck, but it is also a favorite mountain for families. Peak 9 is the best area to learn how to ski. There are Family Leaning Zones at both Peaks 8 and 9 where you can learn without the distraction of faster skiers or riders.
Telluride: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid loved it here. Butch's first heist was the San Miguel Bank. We don’t recommend that. This is a world-class snow destination in a box canyon. A free gondola from downtown to the ski village, a town all itself. The mountains are huge here. Choose from runs spread over 2,000 skiable acres. A favorite run for experts and gutty intermediates is the Plunge dropping you 3,155 vertical feet. Many believe it is one of the nation's most challenging runs.
There are certainly plenty of beginner and intermediate trails but, by and large, Telluride is best-known for its steep and challenging terrain with stunning vertical drops that can reach more than 4,000 feet. Some 148 trails span 2,000 acres, served by 19 lifts.
Steamboat: This is the real wild west and the skiing covers an entire mountain range above the classic Western town. There are more than 3,000 acres to ski and ride with half serving beginners and intermediates and the other half experts. There are three terrain parks and a 450-foot alpine coaster, too.
Steamboat copyrighted the name "champagne powder," but it really is drier and fluffier here due to the lower water content. You won’t have to battle with the powder. Another plus for visiting the ‘Boat is it resides at a lower altitude than many of the other destinations, so those first nights of “rocky mountain splitters” may pass you by. Howelson Hill in town is a legendary ski area — the first in Colorado — and is best known for producing more than 70 Olympians. Night skiing, too.
Copper Mountain is another of the large, popular resorts on Colorado’s I-70 — the straight (sort of) shot up the hill from Denver about 1.5 hours. Copper is also family-friendly and there’s plenty of diversity over its 2,490 skiable acreage on more than 140 trails. This Summit County resort is usually one of the first to open each winter.
Copper is ideal for first time ski-week vacationers as its ski school is one of the best in the state, especially for children. There are three peaks with nearly 360-degree skiing and riding on Union Peak, Copper Mountain and Tucker Mountain. Woodward Copper is a popular indoor adventure center located here. Copper is close enough to Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail when you want to sample one or the other big destinations for a day.
Winter Park: Denver’s mountain “hometown” on the “other side” of Berthoud Pass is a 1.5 hour drive from the Big City. This resort is a favorite of front range locals for its wide range of trails from which to choose.
The Winter Park side of the mountain is ideal for beginners and intermediates. But the Mary Jane side is better for those who want steeper terrain and challenge. There are 143 trails and 3 terrain parks. The iconic Amtrak Winter Park Express runs from Denver to Winter Park each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from January through the end of the season in April, so you can leave the “driving” to them.
Keystone is a charming resort that surprises by actually having more skiable terrain than Breckenridge, its popular neighbor. A comfortable village and plenty of night skiing add to the 3,148 acres of terrain and 128 trails on three mountains. The cluster of ski resorts in Summit County make for a great vacation. The lift system is well-developed and very efficient plus you’ll find some of the best terrain parks in which to play.
Crested Butte: It may be a bit farther from Denver (5 hours), but it’s worth the extra time to get there. The ski town is as laid back and authentic as it can be. The mountain itself is butte-shaped at the peak. The 121 trails over 1,547 acres of varied terrain are certainly enticing. The resort happens to be surrounded by 1.7 million acres of National Forest. This wilderness at its best.
Echo Mountain: This is a perfect place for intermediate skiers (not so much beginners) who have a day (or night) free in Denver on whatever kind of trip you are on. It’s only 36 miles away. There are 16 runs, a terrain park, and 85 acres of skiable terrain, mostly for intermediates. Echo is a great ski area to build up your skills.
Eldora Mountain: Another local fave in Northern Colorado, Eldora includes a diverse 680 acres of skiable terrain, 57 runs, and 3 terrain parks. The terrain is 100 percent groomed to float away down the hill on a wonderful powder day. It’s low-key and very family-oriented. Eldora is located just outside of the little mountain town of Nederland, about 20 miles west of Boulder and less than 50 miles from Denver.
Loveland: The ski area sits high atop I-70 before Vail Pass and is always welcoming for a visit, but it’s really special and famed for its mass wedding ceremonies on the mountain Valentine’s Day. Loveland is always among the first few mountains to open the season across the country, sometimes as early as October. There are more than 1,800 acres of variable terrain for all tastes, along with 94 runs and a whopping average snowfall of 422 inches each year.
Wolf Creek: This is a place to howl like a wolf. Located just 30 minutes from Pagosa Springs, this Southern Colorado ski destination might just have the most snow in the state — an average of 430 natural inches of snow each year. That makes playing along the 77 trails over 1,600 acres even more fun and powdery. There’s a good mix of terrain, too.
You know how anxious you'll be to get from the airport to the slopes that first day? How you're so-ready to party hearty that first night. Well, here's a tip that will get you off to a good start. Don't follow it at your own peril. SLOW DOWN. If there's still slope time that first day, just take a few warm-up and don't head to Colorado's famous 12,000-foot summits. Whatever you do, temper your partying to a drink or two at the most. Ignore this advice and you'd better bring some glue for the famed Rocky Mountain splitter you are bound to get.
There are 26 ski resorts in Colorado. You can see the names of all the resorts below.
While snowfall will vary year-to-year, on average, here are the top five ski resorts with the most snowfall:
While all Colorado resorts have some family-friendly and beginner areas and activities, the following are the top rated:
When it comes to skiable acres, you can’t top Vail at 5,289. But Aspen (3,218), Keystone (3,087) and Winter Park (3,081) also boast an impressive amount of acreage.
Tough question as there aren't any that don't qualify. But, head up Aspen Highlands for the views of the gorgeous Maroon Bells some 12 miles away. The Maroon Bells are a series of distinctively bell-shaped, wine-colored peaks towering 14,000 ft.above the pristine, glacial Maroon Creek Valley and they are spectacular when the light is just right. Wolf Creek in in the beautiful southwest part of the state is beautiful when covered with deep powder snow (it usually is). And, of course, there are the vistas that are candy for the eyes in the world-famous Vail Back Bowls.
Remember that many, if not most, Colorado ski resorts are year-round destinations attracting visitors from all over the world. But, so many people who live here permanently ski and snowboard. That means that weekends will be crowded most everywhere you turn, particularly at the Front Range resorts off I-70. The two likely candidates for most-visited resorts are Vail and Aspen-Snowmass. but you can get somewhat away from the weekend hordes by getting up at first chair and then skiing perhaps at nearby Beaver Creek in the Vail Valley or Aspen Highlands or Buttermilk in the Aspen region, or take a detour to Sunlight in Glenwood Springs if you have wheels.
While you might still have to drive a bit, you won’t have to drive as far if you fly into Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE) rather than Denver International Airport (DIA), which is a 40-minute drive to Vail and Beaver Creek. Just a little further is Copper Mountain as well.
For even closer access, fly into Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (Sardy Field) to be within minutes’ drive to Aspen/Snowmass. The same goes if you want to go to Telluride Ski Resort: simply fly into Telluride Regional Airport (TEX).
If you want to stay within the Denver area, these resorts are within an hour/hour-and-a-half drive from the Denver Metro area:
If you’re heading to Rocky Mountain National Park, but still want to partake of some skiing, Echo Mountain and Eldora are going to be the closet. But you can do some backcountry skiing on the old Hidden Valley ski resort runs off of Trail Ridge Road.
While you won’t be able to find hot springs directly on the mountains, many resorts have hot springs near their locations, including:
A wide variety of resorts offer night skiing, including the following:
Most Colorado resorts have some ski-in, ski-out accommodations. For example, Snowmass, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain all have a wide selection of both hotels and vacation rentals from which you can easily access the slopes.
The Rockies could be considered quite mild when comparing “how cold is it” stories. Figure your days in the mid-30s and 40s with lots of sunny days and prodigious amounts of snow and that “champagne powder. To be sure, nights and early mornings are cold, but you’re not on the mountain then, so who cares?
That depends on you, of course. Thanksgiving to just before Christmas is the least crowded. It used to be January that won that honor, but that's changing. Still, crowds are manageable. While the snows usually great, so are the number of families over Presidents' Week snd Spring Break weeks (which vary in February and March). But, then there's spring -- glorious spring -- with fluffy powder days, warmer temperatures (dress in layers so you're not fooled), silly season events (Warren Miller-style Dummy Downhills, pond splashes, etc.). Many Colorado resorts stretch their season past Easter and some well into May. ki or ride earlier in the day to avoid sometimes heavy slush when the temps really rise. Our choice for the best? Late March or early April.
Aspen is indeed a playground for the rich and famous. But, that’s why it’s a legend. You don’t need to be famous to play here, but make sure your credit card balance is low before you arrive. It won't be when you leave. Most everything here is pricey. You can beat it, but Aspen is Aspen. The town was founded as Ute City by miners during the silver boom. It became Aspen in 1880. If you can afford the price tags, Little Nell and the Hotel Jerome will make your stay memorable. You’ll seldom go wrong, if ever, at restaurants. Night life is over the top. If you’re looking for a more sedate family week in the Aspen area, plan to stay down the road in Snowmass.
Vail Village brings an entirely different vibe to the cool towns table. It’s equally pricey and high end, but brings a sophistication and elegance with it. You’ll instantly feel you’ve been transported to the Austrian Alps. The architecture is most certainly ersatz Bavarian. But, that nightly scene of the drops dripping off the gaslights makes this one of the most romantic strolls in the ski world. Great restaurants such as the iconic Gastof Gramshammer, established in Vail’s earliest days by the late Austrian ski racing legend Pepi Gramshammer and his wife Sheila, who is still the owner, abound. A second village, Lionshead is contemporary in every way.
Breckenridge is well-known as the “Queen of the Colorado mining towns” and retains much of its Victorian character in terms of weathered saloons and colorful old homes. Breck’s a party place for certain and the town is absolutely loaded with restaurants and nightlife. For all of Aspen’s style and Vail’s sophistication, Breck is all-out fun.
Leadville is where to stay when you want the history vibe. Think Unsinkable Molly Brown. Leadville is the nation's highest city at 10,142-foot elevation, A mining town with loads of history, Leadville epitomizes the "wild west." This is the place to stay when skiing at Cooper (a relaxed uncrowded throwback of a ski area). It’s an amazing ride up Tennessee Pass from Minturn to Leadville and Cooper is on the way. You’ll drive right by Camp Hale where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained. A fun place to stay is the Victorian-like Hamilton Hotel in the heart of Leadville’s historic district. Your credit card likely won’t max out at Ski Cooper or in Leadville.
Crested Butte is wonderful place for strolling, shopping, eating and, for sure, drinking. This is a pedestrian-friendly town that is as welcoming as it gets. If you’re looking for chain stores and restaurants, this is not where you’ll find them. Tip: Head to the Slogar Restaurant for Southern hospitality, and tummy warming skillet-fried chicken dinners. There are four choices for lodging: Gunnison (28 miles away), Almont is a tiny town near Gunnison with a few cabin resorts and lots of sheep by the side of the road. Crested Butte has plenty of colorful B&B’s and lodges and a free shuttle to and from the resort running until midnight. Mt. Crested Butte is a typical ski resort village with tons of slope-side lodging.
Far from it. Denver International Airport is, of course, the hub of all travel into the Rockies. Located on the northeast side of Denver, DIA is the largest air transportation hub in Colorado. You can drive to 10 different ski resorts – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter Park, Copper, Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Eldora Mountain and Echo Mountain from here in less than two hours.
But, here’s the real good news. Regional airports offer more than 8.6 million passenger seats annually. Most of Colorado’s regional airports have more than one airline operating out of it. Most common are United Airlines and American Airlines flights, then Delta Airlines. Boutique Airlines flies from a number of smaller airports. Once you land at one of these airports, there are a variety of transportation options available: rental cars, shuttles.
Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is four miles from town. Delta Connection, American Eagle, and United Express offer flights all winter. Colorado Springs Airport is served by American Airlines, Delta, Frontier Airlines, and United. The Durango-La Plata County Airport provides access to the historic railroad town of Durango (Purgatory Resort) and the Four Corners Region. American and United Airlines operate year round. Situated 36 miles west of Vail and 21 miles west of Beaver Creek, Eagle County Regional Airport delivers you to those two resorts. It’s the second busiest airport in the state during the winter. American, Delta and United airlines combined fly to 14 destinations in the winter.
Located between Craig and Steamboat Springs in Hayden, the Yampa Valley Regional Airport is Northwest Colorado’s only commercial airport. Airlines operating out of HDN include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airline, Jet Blue, and United Airlines.
The Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport is only 30 miles from the ski slopes of Crested Butte. United Airlines and American Airlines operate winter flights. Montrose Regional Airport, one of the busiest on the western slopes, gives skiers and snowboarders access to groomed trails sand black-diamond mogul runs within Montrose’s “circle of Bliss.” Try Telluride, Powderhorn, Silverton Mountain, Crested Butte, Monarch Mountain and Purgatory all within a 2-hour drive.
You won't need any more. The Colorado Rockies arguably offer the most consistent and best skiing and snowboarding the world. The Alps are truly wonderful, mostly at lower altitudes, but so many Europeans and Australians take their ski vacations in Colorado, that they must know something. They do. You can't beat the majestic Colorado peaks and "champagne" powder anywhere.