Luke Rees

16 Oct 23

Ski holiday in Colorado

Luke Rees

16 Oct 23

Ski holiday in Colorado: What to Expect

Keen British skiers will often cast their eyes across the pond at resorts in the US. And Colorado, with 28 ski areas, including the likes of Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail is likely to catch their green eyed attention. But what is skiing and snowboarding in Colorado really like, and how does it compare to Europe?

To find out I visited the resorts of Winter Park, Breckenridge, Aspen and Telluride while also spending a couple of days in Denver. And the first thing that needs to be explained is that just like in Europe every ski resort in Colorado was different. They each have their own feel and attract a different crowd.

How does Colorado Compare to Europe?

The act of skiing or snowboarding doesn’t really differ wherever you hit the slopes, afterall it is all sliding on snow. But the experience in Colorado does have some obvious differences to Europe:

  • There are no red runs. Instead green, blue, black and double black.
  • Most of the skiing is below the treeline, which is about 500m-1000m higher in Colorado than the Alps.
  • Pistes through the trees seem to be wider in Colorado than in Europe, where motorway wide pistes tend to be above the treeline.
  • Off-piste the trees are more spread out, with gladed runs everywhere.
  • Every bit of skiable terrain is used and marked as a run (often un-pisted) on the piste maps.
  • Everything ‘inbounds’ is made avalanche safe, so there is no need for avalanche gear unless you’re heading into the backcountry.
  • They get more snow in Colorado – Average of 7m in Breckenridge vs 3.6m in Chamonix.
  • The snow is lighter and fluffier in the Rockies.
  • Longer ski season: most resorts open early October to late April (and longer if conditions allow).
  • Everything is a bit more expensive than Europe, although food and drink at the budget price point is similar to France. Please note, exchange rates have improved since I visited making it less expensive.
  • Expect to chat to strangers on chairlifts.
  • Putting the safety bar down on chairs is optional! And when you ask others to put it down they lift it up again long before the end like we would in Europe.

Why Visit Denver?

Ski holiday in Colorado

If you are flying from Europe to Colorado you are likely to arrive in Denver. Now don’t think about this as just a stepping stone to the mountains, Denver is well worth visiting and is an excellent destination for adventure sports.

It is a cool city with great food, a thriving microbrewery industry, strong artistic roots and an interesting history. Small compared to many US cities, Denver punches way above its weight in terms of entertainment and facilities due to its isolation as the nearest other city with more than a million inhabitants is Salt Lake City around 8 hours away.

Ski holiday in Colorado

The mile high (1600m) city is also a great place to acclimate yourself to altitude. The ski resorts in Colorado are some of the highest on the planet, and altitude sickness can be a problem. So a couple of days in Denver is not just fun but serves a purpose. 

We stayed at the stunning Crawford Hotel which is located at the train station. This meant it was very convenient to reach by train from the airport. Plus it is perfect to catch the Park Express train to Winter Park.

Find out more about Denver: www.denver.org

Winter Park

Ski holiday in Colorado

From Friday to Sunday the Park Express train runs direct from Denver to Winter Park taking around two hours. It is a beautiful train journey that terminates in the ski area – you can literally get off the train and be on the slopes within minutes.

There are 3,000 acres of skiable terrain offering 168 runs serviced by 25 lifts. Around half of the slopes are beginner to intermediate level and half advanced to expert, so there is something for everyone – including seven terrain parks and a superpipe.

We enjoyed exploring the two mountains – Winter Park and Mary Jane – which link together seamlessly. The resort is used by a lot of day trippers from Denver, so it does get busy particularly around the base lifts where there were queues. But when exploring the seven different zones you can avoid this bottleneck.

You can stay right next to the mountain at the main base a walking distance from the train. Our accommodation at the Zephyr Mountain Lodge was lovely, I had a stunning suite and the outdoor hot-tubs were a blessing after a day of snowboarding.

Check out the resort and hotel at: www.winterparkresort.com


Ski holiday in Colorado

Most skiers have heard of Breckenridge, so it doesn’t need too much intro. It is located in the Ten Mile Range – specifically on Peaks 6 to 10. The 2,900 acres of terrain and 187 marked runs are spread across the peaks, which is a good thing as the resort gets quite busy.

It seems Peak 8 and 9 – the easiest to access from the base, are busiest and we saw the longest queues of the trip here (although it was the weekend). Peak 10 is mainly black runs and Peak 6, 7 and 8 give you the chance to ski above the treeline. There is an excellent terrain park and ample freeride opportunities. And away from the main lifts queues were much more manageable.

Breck has quite a party vibe with a lot of people drinking in the day while skiing and then partying late into the night. We had a night out and ended up listening to a live band that played everything from country to rock and indie to pop. The town is pretty and lively – there were queues to get in most bars.

We stayed at the excellent One Ski Hill Place which is located at the base of the Peak 8 slopes. Again there were gorgeous rooms and hot tubs. The main town of Breckenridge is further down the hill, you can take a gondola, bus or taxi. I strongly recommend Roots Talk Breck if you’d like to eat out.

Find out more about Breckenridge: www.breckenridge.com


Ski holiday in Colorado

And while we are talking big name ski resorts next up is Aspen that even non-skiers have heard of. It’s known as a place for the rich and famous, and I have to say the town lives up to its reputation. There are lots of expensive art galleries and designer shops, including one selling cowboy hats for tens of thousands of dollars!

The 5,300 acres of skiable terrain is split across four mountains; Aspen (Ajax Peak), Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. The first two are the steepest with Ajax Peak being accessible right from town. I spent a few hours riding Ajax on arrival day and covered most of it. It was surprisingly quiet and the runs from the top are long and fairly steep, more suited to upper intermediates and advanced skiers and snowboarders.

Buttermilk is known for beginners and intermediate skiing and most of our group went there for the day and had a great time. Home to nine snowparks it has a long association with freestyle snowboarding, and hosted the X-Games not long before our visit.

However, it was a powder day and my snowboard guide took me to Snowmass, which is the largest Aspen area with runs suitable for all. We enjoyed light and fluffy knee deep powder on serious terrain in Cirque, Burnt Glades and Hanging Valley. While I didn’t get to ride in the snowparks they looked impressive from the chairlift.

We stayed at the Limelight hotel which is lovely and laid back. The buffy breakfasts are great and we had a delicious dinner there one night.

Find out more about Aspen: www.aspensnowmass.com


Ski holiday in Colorado

Less well known, and those in the know want to keep it that way. Telluride is in a box canyon surrounded by steep mountains that look and feel more like the Alps than any of the other areas we visited in Colorado. The town and scenery are very impressive as is the skiing.

With 2,000 acres with 121 runs, Telluride is the smallest of the resorts we visited, but it’s a big draw for those who like challenging off-piste terrain. There is a huge amount of inbound backcountry with some serious double blacks for advanced skiers and snowboarders. In fresh snow Telluride would be incredible. 

That said every lift has a blue option from the top, meaning intermediates can have a great time cruising around the ski area. The slopes have a really nice flow to them, easily taking you around the mountain to explore. It was the quietest of the resorts we visited with no lift queues and it had a far more European feel than the others, mainly because the mountains are more recently formed and so steeper. 

The bars and restaurants we visited in Telluride were cool without being overly swanky. I instantly felt like a local everywhere we went, which for a tourist destination is a great testament to how friendly and welcoming it is. 

Ski holiday in Colorado

While in Telluride we also went on a snowmobiling experience to the old mines. It is an exciting trip by Telluride Outfitters that covers a lot of interesting local history. Check out ESPERANZA’S Tequila Restaurant for authentic Mexican food much loved by my friends from Mexico.

We stayed in a gorgeous ski in ski out chalet at Mountain Lodge Telluride located above the mountain village. Telluride has a lot more chalet style accommodation spread across the mountain than the other resorts, free late night gondolas help you get to town and back to the mountain village. 

Learn more about Telluride here: www.telluride.com

Colorado Conclusions

Skiing and snowboarding in Colorado is unlike the experience to Europe. But not because the actual skiing and snowboarding is vastly different, but rather everything that comes with it. Colorado blends US hospitality, North American style and a bit of cowboy culture with ski and snowboarding holidays into a lovely package. 

The four resorts we visited all felt different. Go to Winter Park for ease of access to Denver, it is perfect for a day trip and great for freestyle. Want to party? Then head to Breckenridge, just don’t forget to enjoy the excellent skiing. Go to Aspen for an upmarket experience, and the most on slope variety, epic freeride and incredible terrain parks. Or visit Telluride for welcoming down to earth skiing on quieter slopes and a backcountry experience with inbounds safety.

Away from the slopes the food, drink, accommodation and general service is exceptional. It is a far cry from the surly service you can receive in Europe. Even the budget food was good, and all the mountain lodges have free water and tissues.

As my first visit to Colorado and my first time snowboarding in the US this was an incredible experience. So stop looking enviously across the pond and visit Colorado, because as long haul ski destinations go it’s tough to beat. 

To find out more check out the Colorado Tourism website: www.colorado.com

Images © Luke Rees

InTheSnow Colorado Ski Guide