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Colorado: Off The Beaten Track

Colorado may be home to some of the best known ski resorts in the world – Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge – but venture off the I-70, and the ski capital of the world offers far more than just big name stations. Known locally as the “gem resorts”, these smaller, less commercialised, resorts offer an experience like no other.

But the only way to travel is by car: so buckle-up. On arrival in Denver I headed “out west” on the I-70 to Grand Junction (the last major town before you reach Utah), from where it’s just 30 minutes’ drive into the hills to the resort of Powderhorn.

  • Powderhorn

Here the red rocky landscape better resembles that of Utah, and from the resort – perched on the world’s highest flat-top mountain, Grand Mesa – the views of the vast “high desert” and the dusty peaks on the horizon are sensational.

With just four lifts it’s easy to imagine one could exhaust the trails pretty quickly (and indeed you do if you ski around like a downhiller), but the gems aren’t about highly-charged racing. Skiing here dates back to the 1930s, when a rope tow, powered by an old truck (which needed a new battery every day), serviced the two runs. Today things are a little more advanced, but the character remains unchanged.

The tree skiing remains the big draw, and when it snows, there’s no better place to head than Mad Dog Glade – but you best be early. For intermediates, Bill’s Run remains ever popular, as does Sven’s Bend for those looking for more of a challenge.

  • Sunlight

Sunlight’s rental shop resembles a mix of my grandfather’s garage and a student house: there are tools of every shape and size hanging from the walls, clutter all over the workbenches, and countless Pepsi cups (in a size you can only find in the US!) strewn about the place. Outside a man in a yeti suit greets me, and hurtling down the slope above is a bikini-clad church group (really!). “Only in America,” I think, but in fact that should read only at a gem resort.

Located 16km south of Glenwood Springs, Sunlight first opened in 1966, with a handful of trails and one chairlift. Today there are three lifts, but bizarrely, only two are drawn on the trail map. “It was an error on the last proof,” the resort’s PR Manager tells me. Since they printed 12,000, I guess they’ll be using them for a while to come.

Given its size there is a surprising amount of terrain to be had, from beginner slopes to cruisers, and even some steep chutes and serious tree skiing.

I can honestly say I’d never before visited such a relaxed resort. It’s friendly, unpretentious and eclectic. It’s, therefore, a relief that when Vail Resorts once tried to buy Sunlight to turn it into a private resort, the owners said “No.”

  • Ski Cooper

If you’re looking for serious cat skiing, Cooper is the place. With over 97km2 of (seriously high) terrain, cat skiing is the main operation – but it comes with a price tag, and a pretty hefty one at that: $275 (£172) for a day tour. But what a day you’re in for! And it still won’t leave half the dent heli-skiing does in your wallet. With three skiable bowls – and the prospect of 12 descents – you’re sure to find fresh tracks, even once the snow clouds have long since gone.

Back within bounds (a substantially smaller area, at just 1.6km2), the terrain is best suited to families and those just starting out on skis. For those wanting more of a challenge, there are black mogul runs, and some fun tree skiing.

With a day pass rate of just $46 (£29) the resort offers some of the most affordable skiing in the state (if you ditch the cat), and thanks to its close proximity to Vail and Copper Mountain (it is sandwiched between the two), Cooper makes for a great day trip – especially during peak weeks when the queues here will be substantially smaller.

  • Arapahoe Basin

Having spent the night at nearby Keystone (famed for its night skiing), I was a little reluctant to ski another small resort when I could have happily spent the day where I’d slept. How wrong I would have been: it took me approximately three turns to fall in love with A-Basin – as it’s locally known.

And that was before I’d discovered they have a trail named “S*** for Brains”. With 60% expert terrain and 30% intermediate, A-Basin is certainly a resort geared to those looking for a challenge. In the Pallavicini area, The Spine and the Rock Garden are both brilliant double-black diamond runs, the former especially suited to times where there has been little fresh snowfall.

I spent the day skiing with Patrick O’Sullivan, the Risk Manager at the resort. He’s been in the job 25 years and knows the mountain better than anyone. At the end of the day he takes me to see “the steep gullies”, which lie at the back of the mountain. Currently out of bounds, O’Sullivan tells me the resort has plans to open the area, and install a new lift.

The day was drawing to a close, and we headed back inbounds to our last run – Gauthier. It’s the longest of the double-black runs, and follows the boundary of the ski area. I closed the gate behind us – as O’Sullivan and I were the last people on the mountain – and we set off over the ridge. What awaited was a 39° pitch, all the way back to the base.

The lifts were closed, and by now the car park resembled a Los Angeles beach, with barbeques and people toasting their day on the hill with a cool Coors. A-Basin is certainly the daddy of the gem resorts.

  • Loveland

The second oldest ski resort in Colorado, Loveland opened in 1937 with one lift: a rope tow powered by a Model T engine. Then last season – when the pioneering resort celebrated its 75th anniversary – it launched free cat skiing on The Ridge, an area previously only accessible after a 30 minutes hike.

As far as I’m aware, Loveland is one of only two resorts that offer cat skiing for free – the other, Copper Mountain’s access to Tucker Mountain. Bizarrely, last season, they weren’t publicising it, so it came as a great surprise when my guide suggested “a little cat skiing, maybe?” just before lunch. The ride may only be about 12 minutes – similar to that at Copper – but opens up the top of an area the locals call North View. We weren’t able to hike to the top and explore the whole area, but straight off the cat, Field of Dreams is a brilliant, wide descent, whilst Tickler is a steeper pitch of powder heaven. Need I say more?

  • Eldora

I hate fancy dress, so you can imagine my excitement when this popped up on my Twitter feed the evening before I was due to ski at Eldora: “Pull out the Day-Glo and aviators for our annual RETRO SKI DAY tomorrow!”

As the closest ski resort to both Denver and Boulder, weekend city skiers largely frequent the resort, and thus things can get busy. But that shouldn’t put you off, especially as the resort boasts nine lifts. The terrain is varied, and all the trails are in the forest, making for interesting descents and tree skiing. There are some pretty steep sections as well – both on- and off-piste – which are used as the training ground for the University of Colorado.

And the fancy dress: well, I ended up looking like Elton John.

Of course a road trip like mine isn’t going to suit everyone, and involves some pretty serious driving – over 1600km – but in truth there is no need. I’ve skied loftier, ”greater” resorts, but in skiing the gem resorts, I found stations that had an overwhelming charm, in large part because of their small size. The resorts may be underrated, but only by those who haven’t taken time to find them. What’s more, the majority of the resorts lie well within day trip distance of the big name resorts. Surely it makes sense to explore a little after you’ve flown all that way?