An Expert Guide to Ski and Snowboard Resorts in Colorado
Colorado is full of great places to ski and snowboard, so it can be hard to figure out which one is right for your trip. Snowboard expert Bobby Chadderton breaks it down.
Growing up on the east coast of Canada, I thought I had learned everything about winter. After all, I was familiar with frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall that lasted long past the accepted definition of “Winter” (often dealing with consistent snowfall from late September to early May). Fast forward to my first Colorado visit in 2016 when I realized I, like Jon Snow, know nothing.
Whether you’re just getting into the sport or you’re a seasoned winter sports enthusiast, your first visit to Colorado can be a transcendent experience. After spending a late-season powder day at Keystone and heading back to Denver for 70-degree patio beers at night, I knew I wanted to live here permanently. Everybody talks about Denver as the “Mile-High City,” but nobody talks about the ridiculous average mountain elevation of 11,398 ft.
The varying elevation created by the Rocky Mountains is really what gives Colorado some of the best ski resorts in North America. It can also be a detriment to your visit if you’re coming from sea-level. Altitude sickness is sometimes unavoidable, no matter your fitness level or age. The safest way to prepare for your first visit is to plan on spending your first night at the lowest elevation possible, which is typically Denver (about an hour and a half from Summit County and the majority of resorts). This allows your body 24 hours to acclimate somewhat before heading into the mountains. From the moment you land, do your best to stay hydrated while avoiding alcohol and strenuous activity as your body adapts to the change in elevation.
Heading into the Mountains
There’s probably a good reason why you’re considering visiting Colorado in the winter. It’s truly a skiing and snowboarding paradise. With widespread backcountry access, 219 total lifts accessing over 30,000 acres of skiable terrain, Colorado has inspiring terrain for everyone from the first-time skier to the backcountry professional. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when visiting Colorado, no matter your skill level.
- The ski season is much longer: Often the first to open in North America, Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Area can have their lifts spinning as early as mid-October. Altitude gives Colorado resorts an early-season edge over the rest of the country. You can expect consistent snowfall and great riding conditions all the way through May, with many resorts having lift access open through July. If you’re interested in really earning your turns, you can continue shredding snow-covered slopes year-round with a backcountry touring setup.
- Colorado has some of the largest resorts in the country: If you’re heading here to experience the biggest lifts and longest lines, you’ll wanna check out some of the mega-resorts created by the Rocky Mountains. Vail spans an enormous 7-miles, offering 5,289 acres of terrain with 31 lifts. Keystone covers three peaks with 3,148 acres and 20 lifts. Aspen Snowmass features 3,132 acres of rideable terrain with 21 lifts.
Keep in mind that you can spend multiple days at any of these resorts without lapping the same run twice - and that’s not even the best part. The majority of resorts in Colorado are clustered close together and remain accessible for day trips with a short morning drive from wherever you choose to stay.
- Bigger isn’t always better: Colorado locals and natives tend to favor the smaller, less-frequented resorts. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds and lift lines, consider checking out Arapahoe Basin or Copper Mountain.
- There’s something for the whole family: Ski towns thrive throughout the winter season, offering activities ranging from horse-drawn sleigh rides at Steamboat Springs to ice skating on a frozen pond at Beaver Creek Resort. Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, and Beaver Creek have gorgeous, bustling towns If you’re looking to stretch those sore legs at the end of the day with a bit of retail therapy.
Being face-to-face with 14,000 foot peaks can be intimidating even for the most experienced skiers. It’s important to have a well-planned itinerary and a reliable form of 4x4 transportation for navigating mountain roads through unpredictable weather conditions. To make your trip as enjoyable as possible, here’s a walkthrough of the 10 best Colorado ski resorts.
Breckenridge Ski Resort - Best for Apres-Ski
Likely the most popular resort in Colorado, Breckenridge is beautiful and features a vibrant yet laid back ski town that’s equally as entertaining as the mountain itself.
- Easily accessible town with a huge public transportation system for a car-less vacation
- Diverse lodging possibilities from affordable to lavishly high-end.
- Vibrant nightlife on the weekends makes Breckenridge perfect for an all-adult group
- High base elevation and very high peak elevation can induce altitude sickness
- 35 lifts, 187 trails
Denver Intl. Airport - 104 mi (2.5 hour drive)
After living in Colorado for two seasons, I can confidently say that Breckenridge is the only resort where I can deal with crowds. The atmosphere, albeit crowded, is much more laid-back than Vail and you’ll feel much more like a local here than a tourist. Breck has incredibly well organized lesson programs for the beginners, and professional guided programs for those looking to truly push the limits.
Vail Ski Resort - The Biggest Resort in the U.S!
The biggest and the baddest, Vail is hands down the largest resort in the state with endless food, retail, and apres-ski drink options.
- Largest resort in Colorado with 5,289 acres of skiable terrain, 195 trails, and 31 lifts
- Luxurious skiing, infrastructure, accomodations
- Bustling, high-end ski town
Eagle County Regional Airport - 34 mi (50 minute drive) Denver Intl. Airport - 120 mi (2.5 hour drive)
The Disney World equivalent of ski resorts, Vail is truly incredible if you can visit during non-holiday weekdays when the crowds subside. Even three full days of snowboarding haven’t been enough for me to come close to covering the whole mountain. Plus, the town of Vail is beautiful, and you can spend a day exploring if your legs need a rest. The seven back bowls of Vail stretch over six miles - if you can get to them after a storm you’ll undoubtedly experience some of the best tracks of your life.
Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort - Best for Ski-in/Ski-out Lodging
Aspen boasts four individual ski areas all available on one ticket, in one incredible town.
- Upscale resort with high-end dining and retail
- Lower base elevation brings less risk of altitude sickness
- Numerous ski-in, ski-out lodging accommodations
- A wide variety of terrain options and numerous off-piste activities for the family
- 21 lifts, 91 trails
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport - 8 mi (15 minute drive) Denver Intl. Airport - 220 mi (4 hour drive)
Aspen is perfect if you’re looking for an all-inclusive-like family vacation with four different mountains and package-deal accommodations. A stay here will run the budget up, but it provides a huge number of options for everybody. You can spend a couple days just riding Snowmass, or check out Aspen Highlands for aggressive intermediate-advanced runs. If you’re a beginner or a seasoned park-rat, check out X-Games host mountain Buttermilk.
Keystone Resort - Best for Families and Ski Lessons
Keystone is widely regarded as the most family-friendly location in Colorado, with “Kidtopia” and numerous family-friendly programs. It also features one of the best terrain parks in the world and is located extremely close to Breckendridge and Arapahoe Basin.
- Beginner runs and lessons at both the bottom and top of the mountain
- Night skiing opportunities
- Easily accessible resort - a quick 90 minute drive from Denver close to Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin
- High base elevation and very high peak elevation can induce altitude sickness
- 20 lifts, 135 trails
Denver Intl. Airport - 90 mi (2 hour drive)
Of the more popular Summit County resorts, Keystone is my most frequently visited location. If you can put up with crowds on the weekends, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better mountain for the whole family. Advanced boarders and skiers can take a $10.00 cat-ride that traverses the ridge of the back-bowls for extremely cheap cat-skiing. Park-rats can lap the Area 51 chair all day while riding the incredible terrain parks that many professional riders call home.
Steamboat Ski Resort - Best for Couples
Steamboat Springs offers 2,965 acres of skiable terrain and an authentic western town without the crowds of more accessible resorts, perfect for those looking for a true getaway.
- Numerous hot springs to kick back in after a long day on the mountain
- An extremely friendly and intimate year round town, often referred to as “Ski Town USA”
- Similar infrastructure and size as larger resorts, but without the crowds
- The ability to snobbishly brag to your buddies about experiencing “champagne powder”
- Harder to access than other mountains in the area, being 3.5 hours away from Denver
- 18 lifts, 165 trails
Yampa Valley Regional Airport - 28 mi (40 minute drive) Denver Intl. Airport - 180 mi (3.5 hour drive)
Steamboat Springs is a bit out of the way for me as a Denver local, but that’s exactly the appeal for me. If you’re looking for a true getaway and an authentic western experience, Steamboat Springs is your ticket to relaxation. No need to hunt for lodging with a hot tub - I recommend checking out Old Town for fewer crowds and a wider variety of hot springs versus the more popular Strawberry Hot Springs.
Telluride Ski Resort - Best for a Truly Western Getaway
For advanced skiers and snowboarders looking for a true getaway far out from the rest of the world, Telluride is highly remote. It features breathtaking hikeable terrain and a historic, wild west town.
- 41% of the mountain consists of black or double black diamonds that are not for the faint of heart
- Likely the most well laid out and easily navigated mountain in Colorado
- A beautiful, historic western town with incredible views of the mountain and endless shops to explore
- A free gondola runs regularly between the town of Telluride and the family-friendly Mountain Village, with spectacular views
- The only routes into town from the mountain are double black diamonds
- 17 lifts, 148 trails
Telluride Regional Airport - 8 mi (20 minute drive) Montrose Regional Airport - 70 mi (1.5 hour drive) Durango La-Plata Regional Airport - 124 miles (2.5 hour drive)
Telluride is really in a world of its own considering the remoteness and jaw-droppingly steep chutes. If you’re an advanced-expert level skier planning a trip to Telluride, you should be willing to hike for the best experience. Palmyra Peak is about an hour and a half of hiking from Prospect Express, standing at an incredible 13,320 ft with over 2,000 feet of vertical skiing. For bragging rights, hit Bushwacker-Bailout on your way back to town. From my experience, flying into Durango is often the cheapest and most convenient option if you’ll be renting a car.
Beaver Creek Resort - Best for Luxury Accomodations
Just 10 miles from Vail, Beaver Creek offers the same luxurious and unavoidably expensive accommodations as its sister mountain, without the crowds and vast, open terrain. If you’re after a romantic and intimate ski vacation with your significant other, prepare to be pampered by Beaver Creek.
- The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch is a AAA Five-star hotel with a jaw-dropping, underground spa
- Featuring mostly intermediate runs, Beaver Creek has some of the most meticulously groomed trails in Colorado
- Somewhat remote - a three hour drive from Denver
- Likely the most expensive resort in the state
- 16 lifts, 150 trails
Eagle County Regional Airport - 28 mi (30 minute drive) Denver Intl. Airport - 130 mi (3 hour drive)
For me, Beaver Creek was a once and done experience - only because I’m spoiled by the rest of Colorado. If you’re staying at Vail through a weekend, consider heading to Beaver Creek to avoid the crowds. The town is centered around a beautiful ice skating rink with numerous fine-dining and drink options. The mountain receives an awesome annual snowfall average of 323 inches and can be extremely fun on a powder day with great moguls and tree runs. If you’re day tripping here, plan to bring your own lunch or expect to pay top dollar in the village.
Arapahoe Basin Ski & Snowboard Area - Best for Beating the Crowds
A “local’s-only” legend, A-basin serves up some of the hottest terrain with the most relaxed vibe of any mountain in Colorado, making it a haven for many local snowboarders and skiers (like myself).
- Easily accessible, lift-serviced advanced terrain and bowls
- Budget-friendly with fairly-priced lift tickets and ordinary lodge prices
- Often the last resort to close with the longest season - sometimes stretching from October through June
- Lack of
- Lack of accommodations, infrastructure and no surrounding town
- 9 lifts, 145 trails
Denver Intl. Airport - 88 mi (2 hour drive)
As you might expect, I spend the most calendar days shredding Arapahoe Basin. For the skiers and snowboarders with an all-gas-no-brakes mentality, it’s difficult to beat A-Basin if you plan on spending all day logging downhill time. For the best experience, you should plan on spending the majority of your day lapping the Montezuma Bowl. I’ve been riding at Arapahoe Basin for two years now and have yet to get tired of it, but, if you do, go ahead and ride anything off of the Pallavicini chairlift. Steep and cheap is the motto here!
Copper Mountain - Best for Families of All Abilities
Copper Mountain is almost a local’s secret that often misses the large crowds of similarly sized resorts. If you’re planning a family vacation and looking for a resort that offers a mix of everything, Copper is organized into beginner, intermediate, and advanced/expert sections by its natural topography.
- Plenty of kid-friendly activities
- A beautiful village that offers apres-ski options
- Woodward-at-Copper is a world-class training facility for freestyle snowboarders and skiers
- The new Three Bears chairlift is great to get to open bowl access and extreme terrain
- Easily accessible off of I-70, under two hours from Denver
- 23 lifts, 140+ maintained trails
Eagle County Regional Airport - 55 miles (1 hour drive) Denver Intl. Airport - 101 miles (2.5 hour drive)
I try my best to avoid driving into Summit County on the weekends, but Copper Mountain is typically my destination if I do. Copper lacks any singular run that makes it stand out amongst other mountains in the area, but lacks the crowds for the same reason. I have yet to experience a day at Copper that wasn’t an absolute blast. It’s close enough to the bigger resorts that it also makes the perfect bail-out option if lift lines elsewhere get you down.
Winter Park Resort - Most Accessible Skiing and Snowboarding
If you’re planning a family trip to Colorado and want the closest and most easily accessible resort to Denver, you’ll want to check out Winter Park.
- Take the Winter Park Express train from Denver on the weekends to be dropped off less than 100-yards from the lift, without dealing with I-70 traffic and mountain parking
- With 3081 acres of skiable terrain and 54% advanced/expert runs, there are lines for everybody in the family
- Great ski school options and some of the best tubing in the area
- Smaller base area that lacks the vibrancy and nightlife of nearby ski towns
- 23 lifts, 166 designated trails
Denver Intl. Airport - 90 miles (2 hour drive)
With decently priced lift tickets, a plethora of lessons and learning programs, and enough advanced terrain for the average enthusiast, Winter Park is one of the most viable destinations for an affordable family vacation. If you’re heading out for the day on the weekend, the train can get you deep into the mountains when otherwise inaccessible due to weather. That means fewer crowds and more powder if you grab a train ticket early enough.
Passes and Packages
Included on the Epic Pass: Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte
Included on the Ikon Pass: Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain, Aspen Snowmass, Steamboat, Eldora, and Winter Park Resort.