By Lee Foster
Colorado skiing boasts an extraordinary number of virtues, starting with the snow. There’s plenty of the white stuff, almost 400 inches a year at Loveland, for example. Moreover, Colorado snow is particularly dry and fluffy. By comparison, the mountains around Lake Tahoe in California receive a much wetter snow. Skiing in dry champagne powder is a special Colorado treat.
The state also experiences bright winter sun and fairly dependable good weather. Sunscreen and sunglasses or goggles are essential. Good weather isn’t always the case in other venues, by comparison. Alyeska in Alaska would be a much more attractive ski destination if its weather were more inviting.
Colorado has the mountains, of course, including 54 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. The extent of the Colorado mountain ranges is awesome. There are 25 major resorts in the Colorado Ski Country Association, stretching from Winter Park near Denver to Telluride, way out in the western part of the state. That leaves a lot of peaks in between, including the highest lift-served terrain in the U.S. The honor falls to Arapahoe Basin’s Upper East Wall, at 13,050 feet.
Add to these factors the fortunate reality that Colorado lies in a central U.S. location with easy air access, which is one reason why 60 percent of Americans said in one poll that Colorado is the first place they think of when the word ski is mentioned. Denver is the fly-in hub, but several airlines and outlying resorts have direct flights also. For example, you can fly direct from Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles into Steamboat Springs. Most of the Colorado ski towns have free local shuttle services, so renting a car is usually not necessary.
BUSY SKI RESORTS
Colorado hosts the busiest ski resorts in the country. Breckenridge and Vail are #1 and #2, with around 1.5 million skier days each. Vail presents some remarkable skiing, including the state’s longest ski run, fully 4.5 miles from Flapjack to Riva Ridge. When it comes to superlatives, Vail captures many awards. Vail is the largest, with huge powder bowls and reknowned slope diversity. Vail also offers a unified ticket system and transporation linking it with Breckenridge, Keystone, and Beaver Creek. However, in recent years Breckenridge narrowly edged out Vail as the most popular resort.
Coloradans themselves are some of the ski resorts’ most avid customers. Thirty percent of Colorado’s Front Range population (from Fort Collins to Pueblo) does some skiing or snowboarding. The overall national percentage of skiers hovers around three percent of the population.
The first ski area in Colorado was Howelsen Hill, which hosted skiing as early as 1915. It is said that skiing in Colorado dates back to the 1860s when Norwegian miners used skis to go to work and postal carriers delivered the mail on skis. The Colorado Ski Museum at Vail tells the story, including the personalities and ski technology innovations that occurred in Colorado.
Each of the Colorado Ski Country’s 25 resorts has its own website, all accesible alphabetically from www.skicolorado.org. You can learn much about each resort online.
The Colorado resorts also sponsor many winter events that you might want to become aware of and coordinate a visit to include.
During Aspen’s 24 Hours of Aspen charity event participants literally ski around the clock. The celebration acknowledges the fact that night skiing is possible at Aspen.
In January Telluride hosts the World Snowboard Championships. Over 400 of the world’s top professional riders from over 30 countries compete in four disciplines understood by snowboarders but not by laymen–half pipe, boardercross, GS, and Dual.
Cuchara Mountain hosts the U.S. Amateur Snowboard Association Contest Series each January.
Breckenridge offers a special winter festival honoring Ull, the Norse god of winter. The late-January Ullr Fest includes a parade down the town’s historic main street.
Vail attracts some of the biggest names in skiing to its annual Freeskiing Open. Around 120 top athletes compete in slopestyle, big air, skiercross, and half-pipe events. Each year many of the current celebrities of skiing participate, such as Jonny Mosley, Patty-Sherman Kauf, Noel Lyons, J. P. Auclair, and Darian Boyle.
Part of the spring skiing hijinks at Copper Mountain is the annual Eenie Weenie Bikini skiing contest.
If you want to create your own major event, as in marriage, the man to talk to in Colorado is Buck Allen, “the marrying judge” of Vail Valley. Each season Buck performs about 40 exchanges of vows on skis. His suggested romantic location for marriage is Sun-up Bowl at Vail.
Colorado skiing also means cross-country. Your author has personally enjoyed the 24 km of trails and the fine back-country cross-country possible at Keystone in the Arapahoe National Forest. At Beaver Creek, your author has ridden up the lifts and then savored the 32 km of McCoy Park cross-country at the top of the mountain. Beaver Creek allows an incomparable end-of-the-day cross-country run six km down the mountain. All but three of the 25 Colorado ski resorts maintain groomed cross-country terrain.
But what if you snowboard, or want to learn snowboarding? Will Colorado welcome you? By all means. In fact, roughly 16 percent of the ski lift tickets sold in Colorado last year went to snowboarders. Every resort’s financial officer loves snowboarders, a major growth aspect of skiing.
Each of the Colorado resorts presents special features that might entice you to visit. Here are a few examples:
Steamboat Springs happens to be home for a large number of U.S. Olympic participants–43 in all after the Nagano Olympics. On many days at Steamboat anyone in the public can actually ski at 1 p.m. from the top of the mountain with Olympic Champion Billy Kidd, who will be wearing his trademark cowboy hat, suggesting the authentic cowtown hospitality of the area. Billy Kidd has worked to promote Steamboat since 1970.
Crested Butte boasts a number of elegant restaurants in the historic buildings of this 116-year-old mining town. The mountain is also extraordinary, both for its soft cruising slopes and for extreme skiing. The annual U.S. Extreme Skiing and Snowboarding Championships take place here. Crested Butte claims to have the most lift-accessed, ungroomed, double-black-diamond terrain in the country–fully 550 acres.
Howelson Hill offers the largest and most complete natural ski jumping complex in Colorado. Howelson has been the training ground for 35 Olympians.
Sunlight Resort, only 10 miles from Glenwood Springs, specializes in ski-and-swim packages at large hot spring pools, an ideal place to soothe legs after a day of skiing.
Winter Park is an easily-accessed ski area near Denver. You can get there on the Winter Park Ski Train, a 14-car, 750-passenger affair that takes you over the continental divide, through 22 tunnels, and drops you 50 yards from the ski lifts.
Are you traveling with kids, who may or may not ski? Be assured that every resort now knows how important such travelers are, including those with infants, and especially the single parent traveling with children. Expect to find full daycare facilities and programs for infants through teens, plus ski schools for kids three and up. Typical of all the resorts is this info on Copper Mountain: “Day care, 2 months to 4 years. Youth group lessons, skiing 4-12 years, snowboarding 8-12 years. Kids 5 and under ski free. A weekly ‘Kid’s Night Out’ program is available for children ages 2 months to 10 years. Call 800/458-8386 for details.”
Are you traveling with your dog? Stranger questions have been asked. Colorado Ski Country has 18 dog-friendly hotels, including Antlers Hotel (Vail), Rabbit Ears Hotel (Steamboat), and the Vintage Hotel (Winter Park).
What if you’re traveling with a non-skier or if you want to take a day off from skiing? Well, Colorado offers arguably the richest non-ski environment in the west. You can do ski-tubing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, and sleigh riding. No area of the country has more historic small towns to explore, which is a legacy of the gold and silver era. Breckenridge has one of the state’s largest historic silver mining districts, with 250 authentically maintained structures. But Colorado is also modern.
The Spa at the Peaks in Telluride is one of the outstanding spas in the country and the largest spa in Colorado, at 42,000 square feet. A non-skier might enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery of the Silverton-Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad, near Purgatory. Aspen offers a superlative number of restaurants, boutiques, and galleries. The evening sleigh ride to dinner at Beano’s Cabin, a midmountain locale, is popular at Beaver Creek and has been savored by your author. The Aplenpglow Stube at Keystone claims to be the highest four-star restaurant in North America, at 11,444 feet. The Krabloonik dogsled team at Snowmass takes you out for an evening mush prior to a haute cuisine dinner. No other U.S. ski region offers the non-skier or post-skier so many activities.
To remain competitive, each of the Colorado resorts continues to improve its facilities. Typical of all was the shakedown in recent years of a new cluster of amenities at Keystone. One of Keystone’s three mountains, North Peak, saw access improve with a new “Santiago” high-speed quad chairlift. A new beginner trail was established at River Run. A new non-skiing activity center opened near the top of the River Run gondola, emphasizing ski tubing. Keystone claims to have the largest single-mountain night skiing operation in North America. Most of the resorts continue to renew themselves with similar investments.
Many people who come to Colorado for the skiing return in summer for an entirely different mountain aesthic. Hiking, river-rafting, and ballooning are popular. If you had to choose one Colorado mountain scenic area for a summer hike, Maroon Bells near Aspen would be a contender.
Some skiers also enjoy lingering for a day or two in Denver to absorb the dynamism of this mountain city. Denver boasts some extraodinary hotels, such as the Brown Palace. The city has a lively restaurant and brew pub scene, epitomized by the Wynkoop Brewing Company. Denver’s decaying downtown has been entirely transformed to an urban village, with loft housing and boutique shops in high demand. The LoDo or lower downtown area has enough art galleries, coffee houses, bookstores, and evening entertainment to encourage a skier to pause here and get acclimated to the altitude. The Denver Art Museum has an outstanding 17,000-piece American Indian exhibit. A sea-level visitor will lose about 30 percent of aerobic capacity at 9,000 feet, the height for much Colorado skiing. Pausing for a day of rest in the Mile High City, as Denver is often known, makes sense.
Colorado’s ski opportunities are so extensive and diverse that even the most discriminating ski fan will find a pleasing ski experience.
COLORADO SKIING: IF YOU GO
The information source for Colorado skiing is Colorado Ski Country USA, 1560 Broadway, Suite 2000, Denver, CO 80202; 303/837-0793; www.skicolorado.org.
The tourism information source for Denver is the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1555 California St., Suite 300, Denver, CO 80202-4264; 800/393-8559 or 303/892-1112; www.denver.org.
For an all-year Colorado tourism book, call 800/265-6723, www.colorado.org.