Snow Seeking in the Colorado Rocky Mountains
Are you planning a snow trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado? Do you want to explore as many world-class resorts as you can in a relatively close area? Then consider visiting Summit and Eagle Counties, which lie approx. 1-2 hours west of Denver.
For the 2015-16 season, we were lucky enough to spend December-April in Frisco, Colorado. Frisco offered an ideal location as many snow resorts are within an hour’s drive away. A while back our guest blogger, Dan Smith, wrote about the benefits of staying in Frisco.
These are the closest ski resorts to Denver (with the exception of Winter Park) and to give you an idea on just how central Frisco is, driving times to these amazing Colorado resorts are:
- Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin) – 20 mins
- Beaver Creek – 50 mins
- Breckenridge – 15 mins
- Copper Mountain – 15 mins
- Keystone – 15 mins
- Loveland – 20 mins
- Ski Cooper – 45 min
- Vail – 40 mins
That’s a serious amount of awesome resorts and all within 1 hour’s drive – try finding that anywhere else in the world!
Get The Epic Pass!
No, seriously get the Epic Pass. Early bird passes are available for less than $800 or $869 until mid-Nov. It might seem expensive as a one-off hit but when you consider a daily lift pass at Vail is $165 at peak time, and with many of the other resorts close to that figure, it only takes you 5 days to pay it off. Apart from the potential saving, another advantage of owning an Epic Pass is that it can be used at any other Vail resort around the world (and they do own quite a few now, including Park City, Whistler and Perisher). Additionally, you won’t be waiting in ticket lines on powder days to purchase your daily pass and Epic Pass holders get 10% off at Epic Mountain Gear stores. Seriously consider the Epic Pass if you plan to spend more than 5 days on the slopes – it just makes sense.
Which resorts will the Epic Pass cover around Frisco?
- Arapahoe Basin (not a Vail resort but they have a contra deal so Epic Pass holders ride for free)
- Beaver Creek
- Park City / Canyons, Utah (not in Colorado but well worth a visit if you’re planning a road trip like we did)
What Are The Colorado Resorts Like?
The advantage of spending an entire season living in a snow town is that you really get to explore what each mountain has to offer. Sharing our experience at each mountain should definitely help you get the most out of your visit to each Colorado resort. Whether you’re visiting for a while or even just a few days, we hope you find the following information helpful!
Although Arapahoe Basin (or A-Basin to the locals) is a non-Vail resort, Epic Pass holders get free access at A-Basin. It has a club and local feel and not overly commercial. You can even bring your own lunch and eat it in the day lodge! There are no lockers and people just leave their backpacks scattered around the day lodge. Free parking is available at the base but can fill quickly so get there early on a powder day. Flow-over parking is available and it’s not too far away.
A-basin has one Express lift, with the rest non-express. There’s plenty of challenging terrain available, especially over to lookers right. You really need fresh snow to enjoy these areas but if there is new snow, it’s very steep and fun. Our favourite area at A-basin was the the back side (Montezuma Bowl) - with fresh snow it is very good, with good steeps and the terrain vast.
Beaver Creek feels very upmarket, with its quaint European village. The upmarket feel doesn't translate to elevated food prices, with food costing about the same as other Vail resorts. Unless you lunch at the Ritz-Carlton - be prepared to drop some cash there! Our favourite place to eat was the self BBQ restaurant on top of the mountain, Mamie’s Mountain Grill. It’s such as great location on a bluebird day. Grab the burger and cook it yourself and then eat outside in the sun. It’s located at the top of Bachelor Gulch Express (the Ritz is at the bottom).
There’s a lot of terrain at Beaver Creek and traversing from the main village over to Arrowhead takes some planning.
Around 3:00pm every day, it’s Cookie Time! What’s that you ask? Well, in the main village they give away delicious freshly baked cookies. They are so tasty, especially after a hard day of riding.
Undercover parking is available at the village for $25 per day. It’s very convenient and close to the lifts. The majority of the time we utilised the free parking at the base and caught the free regular shuttle. As always, arrive early to avoid missing out on the parking.
Our best runs At Beaver Creek
Cinch Express. You’ll find fun and open runs on a non-powder day but generally it’s not steep enough when there’s pow around.
Golden Eagle. This is very challenging, with its super steeps. It would be a blast on a pow day but just make sure you pick good conditions. We made the mistake of riding down when it was a little icy and it wasn’t much fun…
Larkspur. Fun, wide runs with plenty of terrain to play on.
Breckenridge is a very pretty mountain town with a great vibe and plenty of excellent restaurants, cafés, bars and accommodation options. The mountain is huge, with 4 separate peaks and excellent, varied terrain. Most of the mountain can be accessed via high-speed lifts. There’s magnificent, easily accessible in-bounds off-piste riding, which really opens up the resort. Combine that with great tree runs and fast, smooth wide-open groomers, the vast terrain seldom makes it feel busy, even during peak season.
If you want to park right at the base of the chairs or gondola, it’s going to cost you. The best value paid parking is at the base of the gondola. It’ll cost $12 during peak times (weekends and holidays) or $5 Mon-Thurs. Arrive after 12:00pm on a non-pow day, and you’ll sneak in for free. You’re unlikely to get street parking and it only lasts for 3 hours. Other areas, e.g. at the base of Peak 9, are more expensive. Season parking passes are available.
There is free parking available and it’s a 10-min bus ride from the gondy. With just a little planning, park in the satellite lot, north of Breckenridge on Airport Rd and then catch the free Red Route Bus. If we were turning up early on a pow day, this was our preferred option.
Our BEst runs At Breckenridge
Chair 6 (not to be confused with Peak 6!). Accessed via Peak 8. You need to get there early on a pow day as the slow twin lift quickly causes long lines to form.
Peak 6 - accessed via a high speed 6 seater lift, the Kensho Super Chair. Great terrain on-piste but a little hiking rewards the rider with some awesome bowls. Go lookers right to Beyond Bowl or left into Serenity Bowl. Make the short hike to the top of the ridge to maximise the ride down. You’ll also appreciate the awesome views, with the backside looking over to Copper Mountain. Oh, and Delirium and Euphoria (lookers left) are so much fun with lots of gullies and trees! And if you want to get from Peak 7 to Peak 6 and not go via Zendo Chair, try Wanderlust for a bit of a challenge. A fun way to get to Peak 6 but it just might take you a few goes to get it right - it certainly did with us! A bit of advice - just stay as high as possible.
Peak 10 - steep, fast and wide open. The Falcon Super Chair is often not crowded on a busy day.
Whale’s Tail - between Peak 8 and 7. Drop in from Imperial Super Chair. Wow, on a pow day this bowl is amazing as it’s so wide open with good steeps - just watch for the rocks!
This non-Vail resort is a favourite with the locals. Copper Mountain is a cute little ski town, with a nice atmosphere in the village. Tickets are slightly cheaper than the Vail resorts and if you buy them online you'll get up to 54% off! Well worth a little planning and you only have to buy 1 day in advance.
The uniqueness of Copper Mountain is the naturally divided terrain, i.e. there are essentially 3 areas, with lookers right predominantly green, the centre blue and off to the left, black. Apart from the large amount of varied terrain (2490 acres), it has an excellent freestyle program (in association with Woodward – read about my Woodward experience here).
Paid parking is available at a reasonable price (compared to Vail), starting from $10 per day in some locations. In 2015/16 Copper Mountain had an affiliation with Subaru, offering Subaru owners free parking. Limited spots were available, so you need to get in early to secure the free spots. For non-Subaru owners, free parking is available but you’ll need to take the free shuttle from the carpark to the village.
This cute little ski village has the best Après Ski Irish Coffee in Co. at Inkspot ($3). A big call I know, but we couldn’t find a better deal in the 5 months we were there! The on-mountain food options are limited but there are some good places at the base (in the River Run Village). Keystone is the only resort around Frisco to offer night skiing (on Friday and Saturday nights) and it’s quite a decent area too. There’s plenty of challenging terrain, especially if you head out to North Peak (Outback Post) and Wapiti Peak. Keystone also has one of my favourite terrain parks, A51 (Area 51). Very progressive, accessed via its own chair and has something for everyone with XS, S, M, L and XL features.
Free parking is available, within easy walking distance to the lifts. Just get there early, especially on pow days and weekends. You can pay for parking too if you like, from $5-15, but really with a little planning it’s not necessary. Park at the River Run Village (the main village, to access the gondola – best for powder days) or Mountain House (to access the Peru Express lift to get to A51).
Our best runs At Keystone
- Drop Porcupine or Bighorn before it gets too tracked on pow days.
- Access the North and South Bowls easily via a 10-25 min walk straight up from The Outback chair (up towards the peak of Wapiti). If you don’t fancy the hike, you can catch the cat for $10. Bring cash and wait your turn. We’ve spent many a day up there and still managed to get freshies at midday. Plenty of tree and gully runs. The bottom run out can get a little tiresome as it flattens off a fair bit towards the chair.
Frenchman and Irishman. Nice wide groomers on the front side and often on pow days will offer untracked runs for a couple of hours as everyone else heads Outback.
The Windows. We wanted to ride The Windows but never got the opportunity. Some of the locals we spoke to said it’s some great riding, but you need good coverage. We’re saving that for our return visit!
This older style resort has free parking right at the base. Loveland is one of the closest resorts to Denver but doesn’t really get overly busy. It has large and varied terrain but the lifts are old-style, non-express. This has its pros and cons - the pro is that on a powder day you're still skiing fresh in the afternoon.
One of the ultra-cool things about Loveland is they offer free cat skiing! Just make sure you get your cat skiing pass at the day lodge before you head up the mountain.
The lift tickets are cheap compared to the Vail resorts and often you can get 2-4-1 passes if you shop at the Silverthorne Outlet centre (min spend required).
Not to be confused with Copper Mountain! This out of the way, very old-school ski resort, is definitely very much a local’s hill. They only have fixed (non-express) double and button (Poma) lifts. The lift tickets are cheap and you can bring your own food.
I would describe the terrain as pretty mellow and not particularly steep but the tree runs were tight and technical. We spent quite a bit of time in the trees - you really need to be in the zone or you'll end up collecting a tree or two. Which we did, meaning there were a few bruises as a result! If you’re after more challenging terrain, consider cat skiing Chicago Ridge for $369 per day. The cat leaves from the base of Ski Cooper. Parking is easy and free, right at the base.
Such a beautiful, well-planned village you could swear you’re somewhere in the European Alps! Apart from the village, Vail mountain itself is massive. You could spend weeks here and not see the whole mountain. We’ve ridden Vail close to 10 days and I think we’ve seen maybe 75% of the mountain if we’re lucky. The actual groomed runs, the majority of which are on the front side, are long, wide and varied. But when there’s fresh snow, wow those bowls are something else! I could do a whole season there just for the bowls and not get bored. Access to the front face is from either Vail Village, Lionshead or Cascade Village, interconnected via a free bus. Of course, you can ride to any village from the top.
There are great food options in the village and our favourites are the Green Elephant (for vegetarians and healthy options) and Moe’s Original BBQ for great tasting meals and excellent value (good meal deals) - both are located at Lionshead. On the mountain, we found the tacos to be the best value. The Epic Burger is nice but pricey at $15 with no sides… We found some awesome coffee at Loaded Joe's - in Vail Village, between the carpark/bus station and Gondola One.
There is no denying that Vail is expensive, from daily lift tickets (if you don’t have the Epic Pass) to parking and accommodation. When we stayed in Vail in 2013, we rented a place in West Vail. It was cheaper than Vail Village or Lionshead but you are reliant on the bus service because realistically it's too far to walk to the lifts in your snow gear. Beware of staying somewhere too close to the I-70 as it can get quite noisy.
Unfortunately, parking at Vail is very expensive so expect to pay around $25 per day. You can find live parking information here. There are very limited free parking options and you have to get there at around 08:00-08:30 on a normal day to secure a spot (earlier on pow or high season) and catch the free bus to the lifts. We often parked at the Donovan Pavilion (not available on event days - check here). Catching the bus is easy but it only runs every 30 mins so plan accordingly. Make sure you don’t wait for the bus on Frontage Rd – you need to walk down to the corner of Matterhorn Cir and W Gore Creek Rd. Catch the West Vail Red bus to the lifts and the West Vail Green bus back to the car (red to ‘Shred' and green to ‘Go’ home!). These are loop buses so if you catch the incorrect one no biggie but it just takes you a lot longer. You can also park along the road over in West Vail near City Market and catch the same buses. Parking over there is very limited so get there early.
Our best runs At Vail
Front-side (non-pow days) - Northwoods, Avanti, Born Free, Bwana. Long, wide, rolling and fast – very nice!
Back-side (pow days) – ah, everything! Well, our personal favourites are Blue Sky Basin (just take a packed lunch to get there – it’s the journey, not the destination. Actually, that’s not true but you’re going to enjoy the journey as much as being out there!). Earl’s Bowl. Forever off High Noon Express. But there’s so much more it’s really unfair to just limit it to a few. We need to go back…
OK, for the observant amongst you, Utah is not really in the Colorado Rocky Mountains! However, I thought I'd give it a quick shout-out as we did a road trip to Utah, taking in Moab on the way over to Park City (which now combines Canyons resort). As Park City is on the Epic Pass we thought it would be a great destination to visit.
With Park City and Canyons now joined by the Quicksilver Gondola, it has been quoted as America’s largest snow resort. And we can see why. Each snow resort is massive so trying to ride all the terrain at both resorts in a short period of time is pretty much impossible (we had 2 days there). There’s easy, free parking available at both Park City and Canyons. Be sure to catch the cool stand-up Cabriolet Gondola from the carpark to Canyons Village. Or park at the Park City base area and walk to the main village. We ate in the Sundial Court (Canyons Village) which was pretty nice and reasonably priced.
Our best runs At Park City
At Canyons, we rode mainly Murdoch Peak, Super Condor Express and Condor Woods. Super fun, technical tree and gully runs.
Over at Park City, we had a lot of fun bombing the runs off Bonaza Express (lookers left). It was a non-pow day but the groomers were amazing – fast and smooth.
Neff Land - for a bit of laugh in the terrain park off Eaglet Chair.
we love colorado!
There's just so much to ride in Colorado. Even though we spent 5 months there we still didn't get to ride at places like Aspen/Snowmass, Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride and Winter Park. I guess it just means another trip back!
If you're planning a trip to Lake Tahoe, check out this post from our buddies on snowboarding at Kirkwood. We hope to spend some time in that area soon.
Having a starting point when visiting a snow resort for the first time can really improve your overall experience. We hope that by sharing our knowledge of the places we rode will help if you're planning a trip to Colorado.
If you've ridden in Colorado and would like to share some of your favourite places, please leave a comment below!