Overview of Colorado Ski Resorts
Written by Jack Lee • Last updated Sep 20, 2017
Colorado truly is ski country, with the Southern Rocky Mountains covering huge swathes of the Centennial State. 54 peaks top out at over 14,000 feet here, and there are dozens of amazing places to ride the white stuff. When combined together, Colorado’s ski resorts serve up over 1,800 trails across almost 30,000 acres of skiable terrain – all enjoying 300 days of sunshine a year!
So how does Colorado stack up against other ski regions in the United States? It’s quite far down the list when it comes to sheer quantity of snow, with ski resorts in Utah, California, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska all clocking up a higher average annual snowfall than the snowiest resort in Colorado. Where Colorado stands out is in its snow quality, unbeatable elevation and the highest concentration of world famous ski resorts.
Thanks for its largely arid climate the white stuff is light and fluffy, champagne powder is how the locals like to put it! (Steamboat even trade-marked the term!) Precisely the opposite to what you’ll find around Lake Tahoe, where the wet, hard snow has its own nickname, Sierra cement!
If we talk elevation, the highest summit is 14,440 feet courtesy of Mount Elbert. Simply put, Colorado is one of the tallest states in the US! It’s also one of the coldest, with temperatures plummeting early in the season. Colorado resorts take full advantage of these perfect snowmaking conditions and start cranking out the white stuff as early as October. Combine this with a record for big storms and snowfall in December, and you can rely on Colorado for an excellent Christmas ski vacation.
A Primer on Colorado Resorts
Colorado is also home to all the big household names as well as a number of hidden gems which are often overlooked. We’ve already done a write up on what we think the top resorts in Colorado are, but here’s a quick and dirty rundown of your options:
The Big Brand Names
If it’s your first time in Colorado and you want to ski all the big names you’ve read about in ski magazines or marketing brochures, then Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge is your ticket. These are large resorts with strong brands and are very popular with destination skiers. The mountains are nothing to scoff at, and you can expect top notch amenities, activities and après ski options in town. It goes without saying though, this also means that most things (food, lodging, lift tickets) come at a premium and a good chance of crowds.
That’s not to say you can’t get any good deals or find good value restaurants, especially if you’re willing to compromise on mountain accessibility. In general, Breck is the cheapest out of the three, followed by Vail and Aspen. With Vail, there are more options for lodging – if you’ve got a hire car, you can always stay at the nearby and cheaper towns of Frisco or Silverthorne. With Aspen, you’re kind of stuck at the base villages.
These resorts have a good balance of what locals are interested in: variety in terrain, cheap lift tickets and tranquil mountains. Loveland, Steamboat and Winter Park tick these boxes and has the locals coming back every season (Arapahoe basin gets a shout out here but we’ll get to that next).
They are more low-key than other Colorado resorts and often overlooked by destination skiers, so are able to maintain a more relaxed atmosphere. The trade-off is that the amenities are a bit lacking and if you’re an international destination skier, there is a good chance your friends won’t register the resort when you tell them about the crazy tree runs at Steamboat or the amazing bumps at Winter Park.
All about the Mountain
If you’re here to throw down against the mountain and want to take on terrain that’s worthy of your attention and skill – then Arapahoe Basin and Telluride fits the bill. Our writers who have braved these mountains attest to the challenge. The off-piste at these resorts can be plain scary with the elevation and snowfall to match.
Telluride is a six and a half hour drive out from Denver, located in the bottom left quadrant of Colorado. If you make the trip, definitely stick around – it has a fun village and the mountain can keep you going for days. A-Basin is a lot closer, just down the road from Keystone but offers very limited amenities with no real village or lodging. This is more of a day trip kind of resort, for when you wake up and just want to jump off some gnarly chutes or steep bowls.
Aspen Highlands gets an honorary mention here! It has awesome hike-to terrain on Highlands Peak that is a signature experience for any good skier.
Beaver Creek and Copper Mountain are two resorts which do a bit of everything and do it well. They are both reasonably close to Denver, have vibrant base villages, diverse variety of terrain and are spared from crowds. It’s hard to find fault with these resorts – the only thing that comes to mind is that Copper Mountain suffers from I-70 issues (but then again, most resorts do) and has a small village. Beaver on the other hand is often overshadowed by Vail which is down the road but that just means a more intimate experience!
This list is nowhere close to exhaustive – we haven’t even mentioned Crested Butte, Silverton Mountain, Wolf Creek or even some of the closest resorts to Denver! But hopefully this gives you a starting point to do more research on what Colorado has on offer.
Driving Down the I-70
Unless you’re driving down to a resort next to Denver like Echoland, get familiar with the I-70. What looks on the map to be a smooth ride can turn into an absolute nightmare when it’s snowing. This only gets worse during the holiday season when weekend warriors and tourists all clamor to reach the popular ski areas, causing the traffic to back up for miles!
The crawl can start from Eisenhower Tunnel, the gateway to many popular resorts. Venturing through the tunnel connects you to major mountain passes which can be blocked up by bad weather. If this is your first time in Colorado, don’t be fooled by Googlemaps suggesting you slip through Loveland Pass Road to bypass the tunnel and save a few minutes to Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. It’s a treacherous drive 12,000 feet in the air and prone to closure. Even in perfect weather, Hazmat trucks which are forced to take the route blocks off traffic – you’re better off going through the tunnel unless you want to take in the views.
If the drive terrifies you, then consider avoiding the I-70 altogether by flying out to a small regional airport. Aspen-Pitkin County Airport gets you to Aspen, Eagle County Regional Airport puts you 40 minutes’ drive from Vail and Telluride Regional Airport is just 15 minutes’ drive from Telluride slopes! As your last fallback, you can always opt to go to Salt Lake City instead.