Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Ultimate Colorado Winter Vacation

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If you’re planning a winter vacation, head to the Rocky Mountains. Colorado is the number one skiing destination in North America, and for good reason. The state boasts some of the world’s best ski resorts, not to mention blue skies perfect for hiking nearly every day of the year. Yes, even when the ground is covered in powder.

With more than 30 different ski and snowboarding resorts in the state, each one offers a little something different from the rest. You can find trails for newbies to pros, for families or for solos. The state offers large, famous resorts and plenty of lesser-known hidden gems. And when you need a break from the slopes, there’s plenty more outdoor winter adventure, with tubing, ice skating, and snowshoeing.

Loveland Ski Area in Colorado
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When to Go

Colorado’s ski season is longer than anywhere else in the United States, due mostly to the high altitude of some of the ski mountains. (The snow-making machines don't hurt, either.)

The state has higher ski resorts than anywhere else in the nation, which means incredible snow and views to match. For hard-core skiers, that also means some of the toughest runs in the world, as well as more vertical feet than anywhere else. Some ski zones perch as high as almost 14,000 feet above sea level.

There’s simply no comparison.

The first hills to open—not just in the state but across the entire country—are typically Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin (both start at around 11,000 feet above sea level). You can sometimes hit these slopes even before Halloween in mid-October. Go skiing in your Halloween costume, if you dare.

These high-altitude resorts stay open a lot longer than any others, too. A-Basin is always open through late May and sometimes all the way into July—it even has a party-like parking lot that’s affectionately dubbed “The Beach.” You can often hear music here, even before slipping into your skis. There are only a few months when you can’t go skiing at a resort in Colorado.

The most popular times to go are, naturally, in the winter: December through February is high season. If you want fewer lines, plan your trip early or later in the season, or visit on a weekday. Weekends in December, especially during the holiday break, are absolutely nuts. It can be tough to find lodging, and prices tend to be higher due to inflated demand.

Keystone, Colorado
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Ski Resort Areas

Colorado’s numerous ski resorts are scattered up and down the mountain range, which is west of Denver and cuts through the state from north to south. While you can find resorts down south in Telluride and north in Steamboat Springs, a large chunk of the resorts are located just west of Denver along Interstate 70. Many resorts are close together and connected by public transportation, so you can hop from mountain to mountain; there’s a pass for that, too.

Colorado is home to some of the nation’s biggest ski resorts. You’ve probably heard of Vail ski area, with more than 5,300 skiable acres and 31 lifts, plus seven back bowls. High-end Aspen is famous, too. The Snowmass ski area isn’t as big as Vail, but the 3,300-plus acres and 21 lifts are no disappointment. Snowmass claims to have one of the highest vertical rises of anywhere else in the country and one of Colorado’s longest runs.

Keystone Resort is another large ski area in Colorado, with more than 3,000 acres spanning three different mountains.

Other big resorts in Colorado include:

  • Winter Park: This large resort is especially appealing to visitors because it’s easy to access. On weekends and select Fridays, you can take the Amtrak “ski train” straight from Denver's Union Station to Winter Park and not need to rent a car. SKI magazine named one of Winter Park’s peaks the No. 1 spot for mogul skiing in North America.
  • Breckenridge: This is a ski town for skiers, with crazy moguls and chutes, although it’s got trails for all levels. The downtown is absolutely charming, too. Breck is beloved by boarders because it helped pioneer snowboarding in Colorado in 1984—it was the first mountain in Colorado to permit snowboarding.
  • Copper Mountain: Copper is pretty large, too, spanning more than 2,400 acres.
  • Beaver Creek Resort: Just a few minutes from Vail, Beaver Creek sometimes gets lumped into the Vail scene, but it’s distinctly unique. Sure, it’s got that same luxury charm; the ski town itself is located inside a gated community. But the snow is worth it. Beaver Creek grooms its slopes 20 hours every day, so they’re as pristine as possible.
  • Buttermilk: This destination gets lumped in with Aspen, but again, it’s worth highlighting on its own largely because it hosts ESPN’s Winter X Games.

Beyond the big names, Colorado has some smaller spots worth exploring. These tend to be less expensive and have much shorter lift lines, too. Due to that, these resorts are popular among the locals. If you don’t like the crowds or the “commercial” feeling that has consumed much of the ski culture, these gems are for you.

A few smaller ski resorts to add to your winter bucket list include:

  • Wolf Creek: This is a local favorite because of the quality and amount (the average is a whopping 430 inches per year) of powder this small resort gets.
  • Howelsen Hill: As the oldest operating ski area in North America, this small, historic ski area has some of the best jumps in the state.
Denver International Airport
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Getting There and Around

To begin your winter vacation in Colorado, you will need to fly into the Denver International Airport, which is unfortunately located way far east and quite out of the way. It’s not a close drive to any of the ski resorts, but once you touch the ground, there are several ways to get to a ski resort, depending on where you want to go.

If you want to ski in southern Colorado, you can save the drive and book a short flight to the small Telluride Regional Airport. There is also a small airport in Durango (not far from the Purgatory ski area). Aspen is also quite the drive (nearly four hours in clear traffic, which isn’t going to happen in the winter), so you may want to connect to the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. It's going to cost a pretty penny, though.

If you want to visit any of the ski resorts up I-70 (such as Vail), you may need to rent a car. That depends on how much freedom you want to have. Ski areas, such as Vail, offer free public transportation throughout the town and often between resorts. In addition, many hotels offer free shuttles.

Unfortunately, due to the cluster of ski towns up the interstate, that also means a ton of traffic on that highway. Winter mountain traffic jams are no joke and can suck hours upon hours out of your day. They can even completely ruin your weekend and can cause you to deal with potentially snowy and icy conditions found on hairpin curves.

The worst times to try to fight the traffic are Fridays after work and Saturday mornings headed west and Sunday evenings (after 4 p.m. when most slopes close) headed east. Avoid I-70 during these windows, completely. Schedule your drive a day early or later, if possible. There is no real detour around the traffic, and it's unavoidable via car.

That’s why the “Ski Train” is popular among visitors who want to ski in the I-70 area. Amtrak offers an inexpensive train ride between downtown Denver’s Union Station and Winter Park Resort. It runs weekends and select Fridays during the winter and takes about two hours to get from Denver to the resort.

The Ski Train originally opened in the '40s and has experienced some evolutions and improvements over the years.

You can also find carpooling options and ski shuttles, but these feel the brunt of traffic just the same and can cost more than the Ski Train.

Despite the crowds, your winter trip to Colorado promises to be one full of stunning Rocky Mountain beauty, small-town American charm, and more than an ounce of adrenaline.