Forget all that crunchy green commie stuff about eating locally—here in Colorado, we play locally. Living a stone’s throw from world-class winter resorts cuts down on travel and ramps up your slope vertical. So we thought, what better way to make the most of it than finding out where the true locals ride, drink and partake in secret stashes.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Quick tips on how to tame the wild beast known as I-70
The real question for Front Range skiers and boarders isn’t which ski pass to buy. The crucial consideration is how to maximize your time on the slopes and minimize time on I-70. With a pass, the resorts here are practically free—you buy a season pass to five resorts for $439 (Vail Resorts “Colorado Pass”), or two resorts for $399 (Intrawest’s Rocky Mountain Super Pass for Winter Park and Copper). But every other schlub in the Front Range has one too, meaning you’re sharing that bedeviled strip of asphalt with 30,000 other snow-addicted weekend warriors.
There are options. If your “real” job treats you “real good,” splurge on a ski condo (Winter Park and Granby are closer to Denver and significantly cheaper than Summit County real estate). If you’re a dirtbag and don’t mind sharing mattresses with strangers and regularly tossing $5 in an old coffee can for dish soap, toilet paper and weed, rent a ski house in Dillon or Frisco (check craigslist.com).
If you don’t fall into either category, take a page from my playbook, but be warned, it takes discipline and faith. Get out of bed Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m. and adhere to a strict regimen designed to clothe and feed you in 30 minutes or less. And when your driveway is bone dry and the mountain’s snow report hasn’t yet been updated? Screw it. Just go.
You will beat the traffic, so long as you leave before 6 a.m. Delay a half hour, though, and you’ll be sucking fumes in a traffic jam somewhere around Idaho Springs. Speaking of which, if homemade food and pre-dawn departures don’t mix, forego breakfast, and add this phone number to your contacts: 303-567-2439. Then download the breakfast menu from www.twobrothersdeli.com and call this Idaho Springs watering hole as you begin to climb Floyd Hill. Your reward? A massive, steaming breakfast burrito bigger than a puppy that you don’t have to wait in line for.
Now, where to ski? Loveland and Arapahoe Basin battle to open first each season, which means their man-made snow is well-packed and relatively copious, so go there before January when other resorts are not yet fully open. Hell, if you don’t like driving, go there all season long. For face shots, throw in laps (wearing a beacon and carrying avalanche gear) on Loveland Pass.
Here’s some advice for the rest of the I-70 corridor: Keystone has steep open bowls you can hike to and, for $225, the mountain’s top notch cat skiing operation delivers the goods then plies you with a delicious, hot lunch in a backcountry yurt. Breckenridge is huge, so commit to staying on one peak for several hours so you don’t squander time traversing. Start with Peak 7, which you access from the BreckConnect gondola.
Park on the frontage road for free outside the Vail Parking lot (they can’t ban it when the lot’s full). Headed to the Back Bowls? Think again. Unless there are more than eight inches of fresh, stick to the Highline lift or the Northwoods Express for fast, crowd-free side runs. On a powder day, go directly to Blue Sky Basin—it’s steeper than the Back Bowls. At Beaver Creek, the Talons will be empty, save for you and your pals. Seriously, drive the extra 15 minutes—it is nice to be “not exactly roughing it” (the resort’s ad slogan).
Beyond big season passes thnk about 4-packs to Loveland and Keystone/A-Basin. If you’re in college, grab a friend, head to Wells Fargo with your ID, open a checking account and get two RMSPs for the price of one (collegeskideal.com).
The most important thing to remember? The weekends are busy on I-70, and most of your sick days at work run out by the end of the year. If it helps, consider them “mental health days” and don’t feel guilty for heading west mid-week during a storm.
We asked ski + snowboard rock stars to let us in on the secrets of their home hills. Eat it up!
The 135-mile drive (to say nothing about the astronomical lodging rates) generally makes Aspen/Snowmass at least an overnight destination for Front Rangers. It’s completely worth it. Not only does the Roaring Fork Valley rank among the state’s most beautiful, the phenomenal skiing and boarding offers four mountains within a 10 mile distance, with terrain that ranges from beginner to extreme and includes a pumpin’ park and pipe scene. We asked local Chris Davenport, extreme skier, author (Colorado’s Fourteeners), record-holder (skied all of the 14ers in one year), and sports commentator (RSN) about his stomping grounds.
“I tend to think of the mountains as a playground, and if you go to a playground with one swing set, that’s not very fun. Aspen/Snowmass has more terrain, variety and better snow quality. With four resorts, there is always somewhere for everyone. At Aspen Highlands you get a lot of steep skiing and hike-to terrain. Highlands is known for its marquee run: Highlands Bowl. You get up into this alpine environment and it feels like you are in the Alps. This is the greatest single run in Colorado. It’s long, always full of powder, and there are different aspects you can ski from north to east.
“Snowmass is huge and has the most vertical drop of anywhere in Colorado. It’s known as a family resort for its incredible beginner and intermediate terrain. The grooming is absolutely spectacular. Few people know about its amazing steeps and backcountry skiing access. Aspen Mountain is small, an in-town mountain where I go when I want to take a few laps quickly. You can bang out 10,000 vertical feet in three runs off the gondola. Buttermilk is the park scene, and those kids out there are killing it.”
Did we mention Aspen’s expensive? Lance Armstrong’s newest adopted home has long catered to the rich and famous, and finding a cheap bed depends on your definition of cheap. The St. Moritz Lodge and Condomoniums (www.stmoritzlodge.com) has shared hostel bunk rooms for $39 to $54, but book your spot as soon as possible. The resort maintains a lodging web page with last minute specials (www.stayaspensnowmass.com). Budget travelers can find even lower rates in nearby Carbondale.
>> MORE INFO // aspensnowmas.com
Long a town of self-labeled pranksters and free spirits, Crested Butte claims to be the plebian mountain town next to Aspen’s patrician glitz (a string of mountains and 12,676-foot pass separate the towns). It’s true the restaurants, bars, and youth hostel retain the down-to-earth vibe, but the real estate prices don’t. You may not find fur or private jets in Crested Butte, but it’s still a resort town—one with some of Colorado’s best steep and extreme riding.
Local snowboarder Sara Madaj moved to CB nine years ago to snowboard for two main reasons: the town’s friendliness, and excellent vertical that requires very little traversing. She should know—she rides about 100 days a year.
“Days after a storm there is always still good powder in the glades off the North Face,” says Madaj. “Most skiers go straight out to Hawk’s Nest, where there is more vertical, which is fine because the trees rarely get tracked up.”
During a storm, Madaj and her friends beeline for Headway and then lap Figure 11s off the Headwall. But generally, she sticks to the trees and is amply rewarded.
“The snow pack can be hit or miss at Crested Butte depending on the season, but by mid-winter the trees are all filled in and there’s almost always good snow.”
After a day of riding, Madaj hits the Brown Lab at the mountain for drink and food specials, like dollar slices of pizza after 4 p.m. In town, she regularly heads to Teocalli Tamales for good cheap eats.
“There’s something really special about Crested Butte,” she says. “Everyone here is nice. Take time to smile at folks. I’m not saying be overly friendly. But be receptive to meeting people on the street or on the mountain. Shoot the breeze with someone on the bus or the chair lift. You never know where it might take you.”
>> MORE INFO // skicb.com
JONATHAN LANTZ >>ELDORA MOUNTAIN RESORT
You won’t read about Eldora in major ski magazines, which is just fine with the small, locally-owned hill located 21 miles west of Boulder on the east side of the Continental Divide. Eldora is the opposite of glam, and the mountain’s claim to fame is that you need not drive I-70 to get here. It can be a wind tunnel, a powder stash, a dawn patrol destination and/or home to your kids’ ski education. In short, it’s a local’s hill, and the locals love it.
“Eldora is truly a family resort,” says Jonathan Lantz, Nederland resident and North American president of La Sportiva. “You get some tourists but it’s nothing like Jackson Hole or Vail.”
That’s because the mountain is small, has significant beginner terrain, and has slow lifts and chilling winds—which isn’t all bad, says Lantz, whose kids cut their teeth skiing at Eldora.
“You have really easy terrain, so you can mix it up with open groomers to fun tree runs,” he says. “It’s very easy to get around and take them into slightly harder terrain. The mountain’s set up to progress the kids really nicely through all different aspects of the sport.”
Plus, the skiing can be excellent. Lantz looks for the goods in tight trees and the steep terrain stashed off the mountain’s backside in the Salto and Bryan glades. Travel through the roped area to the expert terrain and “turn, point ‘em downhill, and pick your way down various chutes up to 1,200 vertical feet.”
Better yet, he says, Eldora is close to home.
“I can ski all day and then be in the hot tub at my house by 4 in the afternoon.”
>> MORE INFO // eldora.com
The box canyon where Telluride sits is 330 miles from Denver. Tucked in the southwest corner of the state it’s one of the more mountainous, adventurous, snow-shrouded locales in Colorado. It’s also a long drive (seven hours), and so remote that if you want to ride here regularly, you should consider relocation. Or follow the advice of Suzy “Chapstick” Chaffee, the former Olympic skier, model and Telluride resident. Though she now considers Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, home, Chaffee lived in Telluride for years and considers the “magical kingdom” both a spiritual home and the base for what she calls her greatest accomplishment: Native Voices. The program between the nearby Navajo reservation and the mountain resort cooperate to teach Native American kids how to ski.
“Not only is Telluride gorgeous,” says Chaffee. “It’s a leader with native rights and creating meaningful experiences for everyone—not just wealthy people—who want to be a part of such a special place. The resort was openhearted to seeing miracles happen there.”
Chaffee subscribes to some New Age ideologies and has endorsed natural beauty products and native healing practices. But she says Telluride draws both locals and tourists because, “when you’re right on the highest peaks, you’re right up there with God.”
Whether or not you’re spiritual, there’s no denying that Palmyra Peak’s jagged skyline and the wide-open Revelation Bowl can provoke (good) out-of-body experiences. In fact, Telluride’s skiing is thigh-burning fun all day long. Whether it’s zipping through a mogul field or hiking Bald Mountain, Telluride delivers a visceral European-like experience—big, sharp mountains surround you in every direction.
Beyond the epic skiing, Telluride also embraces a kooky vibe, similar to Crested Butte’s but with less emphasis on how weird the locals are and more just on living as one sees fit (think of Telluride like Montana, and Crested Butte like Santa Cruz). Chaffee says the free box in town—a communal “recycling” spot that often is loaded with high-quality apparel and gear—testifies to the community’s unique and unpretentious feel.
“People share in Telluride,” says Chaffee. “They’re friendly, and they have a beautiful renegade spirit.”
There’s also a lingering Wild West feel to Telluride (don’t believe us? Check into the recently restored New Sheridan Hotel, www.newsheridan.com, belly up to the saloon, and imagine the place in its former heyday as a brothel). Coming from the pent-up, road rage, big box resorts of the Front Range, that’s refreshing.
>> MORE INFO // tellurideskiresort.com
JEREMY NOBIS >>Alta/Snowbird, Utah
The Promised Land of Utah is just a $100 plane ticket and one-hour flight away from Denver. For the iconic, old-school ski experience, head straight to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Local Jeremy Nobis gets paid to fly around the world to shoot ski film segments, co-owns and guides for a helicopter skiing operation in the Tordrillo Range, Alaska, and competed in the Olympics, yet he says he prefers Little Cottonwood’s Snowbird and Alta.
“These are two resorts that have retained their soul throughout the decades,” says Nobis. “They were started by ski bums and remain homes for the truly passionate skier.”
The resorts share a boundary and skiers can buy a pass good at both mountains (snowboarders aren’t allowed at Alta). Each claim about 500 inches of snowfall a year, and Utah powder is notoriously light, having lost much of its moisture content above the Sierras as storms track east from the ocean.
“Alta is the soul of the canyon and always will be,” says Nobis. “It has a longer history and still feels how it must have when the first lift began running in January 1939. Snowbird is more high-end and has a more aggressive atmosphere when people jockey for a spot on the tram. I love both.”
Many a ski bum has logged a season (or 40) working at the Peruvian Lodge in Alta, which offers a mix of bunk and private rooms, as well as dinner and breakfast. Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge is a steel-and-concrete modern palace with plate glass windows offering stunning canyon views.
>> MORE INFO // alta.com; snowbird.com
Rachel Walker is a Boulder-based freelance writer who doesn’t worry about I-70 on the weekends because she only skis powder days, which generally come Monday-Friday.