This fall, we asked our readers what spots offered the best winter experiences in Colorado. We queried you on everything from the best powder stashes to the best party to the best end-of-day soak. Your answers represent what the people who actually live here think are the top experiences in the state. There are some obvious winners here… as well as some surprises. So dig in to the results of our Best Colorado Experience reader poll, get out there and enjoy it all.
BEST POWDER STASHES IN AREA
Mirkwood Basin, Monarch Mountain
While the latest Hobbit movie may have pissed off purists, you won’t find any powder traditionalists complaining about this Mirkwood. The magical 130 acres of hike-to terrain used to be snowcat territory. Now, all it takes is a fairly easy 15-minute hike to reach about 1,000 feet of soft stuff, including a wide-open bowl as well as shots in the trees and natural features to play on. The hike filters out schralpers who scrape away the goods and means that you can find stashes out here even after a powder day. Plus, Monarch benefits from being far from the I-70 debacle (though still not far from Denver)—you won’t find crowds here.
Runner Up: Crested Butte. The Butte’s Third Bowl feels far from the maddening resort. There’s always a bit of untracked to be found in its 75 acres of hike-to terrain.
BEST SNOWBOARDERS’ MOUNTAIN
Snowboarders and skiers can certainly all get along but the truth is that they see and ride the mountain differently. Breck’s got everything a multi-talented boarder could want—new big mountain terrain on Peak 6, screaming groomers with no long, uphill cat tracks to get back to the lift and, most importantly, five terrain parks with a massive range of jumps and other elements. All that variety means that pros can practice here, novice boarders can start to learn tricks in safety and experts can push themselves to go bigger and push their limits. Add in major events like the Dew Tour and you have a mountain that seems as if it were made specifically for boarders.
Runner Up: Copper. There’s no better mountain to work on the acrobatics of park-and-pipe boarding thanks to the foam pits and pro coaches at Woodward at Copper where you can train yearlong.
BEST PLACE FOR A DREAM SECOND HOME
The locals might groan when they read that their town won this award. After all, the best thing about the Butte is that it has been able to hold on to its authenticity, despite its fame. But, come now, it’s a good thing when everyone wants to live in your town. CB has arguably the best system of mountain bike trails anywhere, a ski and snowboard mountain dedicated to extremes and a Nordic center that allows dogs. If you can’t find that dream home in town, there’s always options down the road in Crested Butte South and even in Gunnison.
Runner Up: Telluride. The living in Telluride is so good that many of the locals skip town when the famed Bluegrass Festival arrives. You can make the seven-hour drive from Denver much more bearable if you throw down for a second home here.
BEST BUMP LINES
No surprise here. The voting was not even close. Winter Park/Mary Jane is one place that is damn proud of its bumps (does anyone call them moguls anymore?). And if you are a connoisseur of the art of zipper lining, you will appreciate an area where like-minded folks set the line—because, after all, bumps are made by skiers, and those who know how to ski them put down better lines. And before you powder snobs get too snarky, get out and go top to bottom on MJ. If you honestly don’t have the chops, Winter Park is the best place to learn since the resort’s ski school has lessons that focus on teaching you to navigate those big nasty things.
Runner Up: No. Just, no. As in the Elevation Outdoors readers who don’t like the bumps at Mary Jane simply don’t like skiing bumps at all.
BEST TREE SKIING
Here’s another winner that does not come as a huge surprise. Steamboat prides itself on two things—snow and tree skiing. And those two go perfect together since all the lovely, gladed trees
here hold snow even days after a big dump. In fact, all the tree skiing here makes the area effectively larger and opens up the possibility for tons of creativity when it comes to picking a line in the aspens. Christmas Tree Bowl is the spot for the best steep, consistent tree lines, though you can find little secrets all over the mountain.
Runner Up: Monarch. Tree skiing runs the gamut here, from gullies like Pinball where the kids can learn and play to epic lines in Mirkwood Basin.
BEST NORDIC CENTER
Devil’s Thumb Ranch
Devil’s Thumb has managed to make the very Euro sport of Nordic skiing feel distinctly like it belongs in the American West. And it’s a place where any level of skier can get out and feel the joy of the glide. With over 100K of varied trails, skaters can taste speed, classic skiers get their kicks, complete novices will simply enjoy cruising around the meadows; aspiring racers can learn from the staff, and anyone can get out and challenge themselves on big, long loops. And you can finish off with a gourmet meal.
Runner Up: YMCA of the Rockies, Snow Mountain Ranch. Over 100K of classic and skate skiing, lessons, races and even biathlon.
BEST PARKING LOT VIBE
Ski or ride in Colorado long enough and you begin to judge a mountain on its parking. There’s a lot to be said about the places where you pull up, let your dog run around a little bit, maybe chill out with a beer on the tailgate and make some new friends afterward. And no area has perfected that art better than the obvious winner here. The Beach is an institution, and rightly so as it’s not just a place to grill and party—you can lap the Pali chair with stops between to check in and grab refreshments. It elevates the art of social skiing. The spots on the beach are mostly first-come-first-served, though there are 10 spots that you can reserve. Do so early.
Runner Up: Monarch. No fancy hotels or multi-million-dollar real estate combined with hulking and expensive parking structures. Just pull up, ski, and maybe share a beer at the end with the locals.
BEST FOR KIDS
YMCA of the Rockies, Snow Mountain Ranch
Snow Mountain Ranch ran away with this category, and no wonder. Unlike many resorts where you need to schlep your brood all over to find ways to entertain them beyond the slopes, this place has more than enough to keep them engaged. First the Nordic skiing, complete with a wide range of kids’ programs and rentals, will make children of all ages giddy. Bored with that? This is a YMCA facility so there’s a heated indoor pool, sauna, archery, roller skating, basketball, volleyball, ping pong, foosball, a climbing wall, yoga… and the Craft Shop features everything from leather working to tie-dying. Multiple-family size cabins that allow dogs make it an ideal place for kids to go in conjunction with their friends’ families. A cafeteria makes meals easy.
Runner Up: Sunlight. This non-pretentious resort focuses on family with deals like Ski, Swim, Stay that starts at $99. Kids 12 and under ski free!
The competition was fierce in this category, but, in the end, readers came down on the side of the mountain that was created for expert skiers only. The guided terrain is enough to get you as puckered as you want to be. But even better has been the addition of heli-skiing. Don’t have $999 to pony up for a full day? Single ride tickets cost just $159.
Runner Up: Crested Butte. You can get yourself in trouble fast on all the double-diamonds here, or you can stand back and watch the huckers seeking glory in the Freeskiing Extremes contests.
The X-Games ran away with this category, which begged the philosophical question: did the X-Games come to Aspen because it’s the best party spot on the planet or were the X-Games the tipping point that made Aspen party central? We are on the side of the first answer. After all, Aspen was the haunt of Hunter S. Thompson and a whole host of coke-snorting, hot-dogging seminal ski bums in the 1970s, long before legions of new schoolers brought their steeze and stank to the ski hill. But don’t be scared off by that dubious history. You could certainly land yourself in jail if you head out during the games. But you could also have the time of your life (legally). What’s not to like about beautiful young athletes? Plus, with freeskiing a part of the Olympics for the first time in Sochi, the competion should be fierce.
Runner Up: Brewpubs Festival, A-Basin. You can still ski A-Basin on Memorial Day most years. You can also drink a lot of beer at the 13th annual iteration of this sampling of suds from across Colorado.
BEST SNOWCAT OPERATION
There are so many amazing cat skiing operations in Colorado, it seems unfair to single out just one as the best. After all, it’s cat skiing, how can you complain about what is sure to be one of the best days of your winter? But Monarch ran away with the readers’ votes. That may be because Monarch Snowcats serves up more than untracked powder turns all day long—this operation has some serious soul. It accesses some of the steepest terrain you will sink your teeth into on a cat ski day. The 50-degree Dog Chutes are just not the typical terrain you are allowed to hit on your usual cat excursion. But the real selling point is the guides. You feel as if you are skiing with your buddies instead of your babysitters here, though that’s not to say they aren’t some of the best trained and safety-conscious guides around. It’s just that they are so good at guiding that they make you feel at ease as much as they keep a keen eye on avalanche conditions.
Runner Up: Irwin Cat Skiing at Eleven. Irwin is more than just a haul-you-up cat operation. It’s a full adventure lodge in the Crested Butte backcountry that prides itself on powder in a luxury experience.
BEST END-OF-DAY SOAK
Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort
Mt. Princeton won out with readers thanks in a big part to an experience that includes everything from relaxing in therapeutic waters to wining and dining after you are sufficiently pruney to onsite lodging. It’s one of the few places in the state where you can combine developed soaking in one of the warm developed pools and natural bathing down in the rock pots on the banks of Chalk Creek. Or try the Relaxation Pool, where you can regroup after thrashing your legs with a full day cat skiing down the road at Monarch.
Runner Up: Strawberry Hot Springs Steamboat’s favorite spot to soak is a crowd pleaser after a full-on day of tree skiing at the resort. Be sure to stay in the caboose.