By R. Scott Rappold
If you’ve skied or snowboarded in Colorado – or plan to this winter – then congratulations. You can check one thing off your “bucket list.”
But hopefully it’s a long list, because there are days on the slopes and then there are days that will live forever in your memory, days you can look back on and think, “I did Colorado right.”
We’ve put together eight quintessential Colorado experiences to put on your list, where to ski and what to put on your apres’ ski schedule. We’re not saying you need to make all these happen this winter, but remember what the late, great ski filmmaker Warren Miller said: “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.”
Many resorts have hike-to terrain, special areas beyond the top of the chairlift where untouched powder lingers long after the lower mountain has been tracked out. At Wolf Creek Ski Area in southern Colorado, a 25-minute hike from the top of Treasure Stoke lift takes you up 11,900-foot Alberta Peak, high on the Continental Divide with 360-degree views of the San Juan Mountains. Strap or click in and let the real fun begin as you plunge down the wide-open alpine tundra, terrain most skiers simply gawk at. If you can still walk after a few runs, get yourself to the Pagosa Hot Springs to soothe sore legs in geothermally-headed water.
Monarch Mountain in central Colorado is one of the state’s great gems, all-natural snow at an affordable price without lift lines. They get tons of snow up here on the Divide yet it’s far enough from the Front Range to rarely feel crowded. And just 20 miles downhill is the charming town of Salida along the Arkansas River. It’s usually dry in town even when it’s dumping on the mountain, so put the skis away and break out the mountain bike for a pedal on the trails around town or nearby Methodist Mountain. Then celebrate a classic Colorado day with a locally-made beer at one of several breweries in the area.
Ski Cooper is known as a family-friendly resort, with low prices and mostly mild terrain at a resort small enough to turn the kids loose without them getting lost. Chicago Ridge is a whole different experience. The snowcat operation, also run by Cooper, takes you high above the ski area into a sea of untouched snow. They won’t run the snowcat if conditions aren’t worth the price of admission, so powder hounds can feel confident booking a trip. A ride on the cat might cost you a few hundred bucks, but balance out the expense by staying in historic Leadville, where rooms are cheap and the vibe is friendly.
Aspen might not be the first place humans learned to ski, but in the U.S. it’s as close to the capital of skiing as you’ll find, a destination for traveling ski bums long before the classic film “Aspen Extreme” introduced it to a new generation. The most famed terrain here is Highland Bowl, legendary terrain that for many locals is the first and only place they ski when the snow is fresh. It’s a hike of 25 minutes to an hour, depending on your fitness level, accessing terrain worthy of the word “extreme.” Locals tend to fly up the trail so make room for them if you’re a little slow, then follow them to ski run. Try not to be distracted by arguably the prettiest views of any resort in America. Splurge on lunch – hey, you earned it – at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on the mountain. You can stay in Aspen without blowing the kids’ college fund, at the Limelight Hotel or the St. Moritz Lodge, which has hostel-style rooms, or stay down the valley in Basalt.
Northern Colorado resort Steamboat is where they coined the phrase “champagne powder,” for the light, fluffy and abundant powder that falls here. And they have some of the best tree-skiing around, from tight pine forests that will challenge your turning ability to gentle, open aspen forests. You could ski the trees all day here and rarely see another soul on the run, especially in Morningside Park, which drops down the backside of the mountain. Wrap up your day with a hot springs soak. Strawberry Park Hot Springs is one of the most beautiful in Colorado, tucked in a forest 7 miles out of town (the drive in winter requires snow tires, four-wheel drive and/or chains.) Or stay in town and soak at the Old Town Hot Springs.
You can’t see it from Interstate 70 or the base area, but high on Summit County resort Copper Mountain is the winter wonderland known as “the back bowls.” This mostly-expert terrain covers a huge playground of wide-open tundra, where you can lay fresh tracks all day as ski patrol opens new areas after a snowstorm. Your jaw may drop at the views of the Tenmile Range. Best of all, reaching the bowls requires very little traversing or hiking, so you can save your energy for the downhill. Ambitious skiers can take the free snowcat up Tucker Mountain for a backcountry experience that will make you feel like you’re in a ski movie. Wipe that perma-grin off your face with an affordable meal at Endo’s Adrenaline Cafe and then drive a few miles east to Frisco to Outer Range Brewing Co., where they only make strong beers like IPAs and Belgians.
You wouldn’t know it from desert around Grand Junction, but the largest mesa in the world – Grand Mesa – has skiing. Powderhorn is a unique skiing experience for its location high on this mesa above the Western Slope, which spreads endlessly before you while you make your turns. They also can get a ton of snow from storms that rumble out of the Great Basin. It’s affordable and family-friendly, with 70 percent beginner or intermediate terrain. It might be hard to believe up there, but you’re also in Colorado wine country, so top off the day by visiting one of the many wineries in nearby Cedaredge or Grand Junction.
Summit County’s Arapahoe Basin has the longest season in North America, from October to June most years (and sometimes July!) thanks to its elevation higher than many resorts. The snow is usually amazing here all winter, but for a truly unique experience come on a sunny day in May or June when the air is warm enough to get some rays on your skin pale from a long winter. It’s a party on snow, a celebration of being lucky enough to still be skiing when most Americans are mowing their lawns. If you come late enough there may even be pond-skimming at the natural lake that forms on the upper mountain. Be sure to stop by the 6th Alley Bar and Grill for one of their famous Bacon Bloody Mary’s, which has been called the best in the ski industry.
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado’s beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott’s stories here.