Catching some air at Loveland (photo: Liam Doran)

Carving Up Colorado: Ski Resorts Worthy of a Trip South

By Iain MacMillan

Sun all day, snow all night. It’s no wonder Colorado has become a mecca for skiers. Whether you’re seeking soft powder or challenging steeps—not to mention entertainment, dining and other off-slope activities—these five Rocky Mountain destinations are guaranteed to thrill.

Just 85 kilometres outside of Denver, Loveland is an alpine paradise hidden in plain sight. Though its excellent slopes have wooed (and wowed) local skiers since 1936, it lacks an on-site resort, so it’s sometimes overlooked. But Loveland’s pair of ski areas truly have something for everyone: The intimate Valley area is a beginner’s haven, while Basin offers intermediate and expert steeps, bowls and well-groomed cruisers, plus big snow—about 10 metres of the white stuff falls each winter.

It’s also very high: The uppermost Number 9 quad chair, one of a dozen lifts, tops out at a dizzying 3,870 metres above sea level. From there, access to the most challenging terrain is granted by a free ride on an 18-passenger snowcat. The strongest skiers start their run from the Golden Bear peak, just shy of 4,000 metres elevation.

Après-ski: Loveland’s Basin Lodge has burger-and-beer haunts like the Wedge Bar or Rathskeller, while the town of Silverthorne—through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel on the other side of the mountains—has wider-ranging options including craft breweries, cafés and easy-going eateries. If you’re returning to Denver, stop in the hamlet of Silver Plume for a sip at Bread Bar, which sits in a restored, circa-1890s bakery. Back in the Mile High City, the museums alone will keep you occupied for days, with subjects ranging from air and space to western art and the home of Titanic survivor Molly Brown.

colorado telluride ski resort tomboy tavern
Cheers to Tomboy Tavern (photo: Telluride Resort)

Canadians tend to be underwhelmed by the American Rockies. Gouged out by glaciers, our pointy peaks and deep valleys present a more dramatic vista. But Telluride is a south-of-the-border exception, with a significant concentration of towering, rugged mountains. The relatively isolated area didn’t welcome its first chairlifts until 1972, but has since surpassed all others for its scenery, amenities and superior slopes—from gentler runs for non-experts to upper-mountain hike-to slopes that are among the world’s most challenging.

A former mining town set in a box canyon reminiscent of Lake Louise, Telluride’s tight quarters and restrictive historical designation led to the mid-’90s creation of an adjacent “Mountain Village.” That ski-centric community was linked to the old town via gondola and massive development followed. Sprawling accommodations plus top restaurants, spas and shops now satisfy the Wall Streeters, celebs and pro athletes who jet in for winter retreats. But old-timers prefer a more historic claim to fame: Telluride’s San Miguel Valley Bank fell victim to Butch Cassidy’s first heist in 1889.

Excellent Alberta slopes for beginner skiers and snowboarders

Après-ski: After stowing your skis for the day, Tomboy Tavern in Mountain Village awaits with cocktails and casual fare, or you can take in the alpenglow at Allred’s, a mid-mountain restaurant with sweeping views. Back in Telluride proper, 221 South Oak’s grilled elk or Colorado lamb chops, served in a restored heritage bungalow, seems a world away. There’s action off-piste too. Guided snowshoe and fat bike tours are popular, as is ice climbing, while themed day camps for kids allow mom and dad to take an extra run—or extend their bar tab.

While the majority of North American ski resorts try to be all things to all people, Silverton Mountain stands out for one thing alone: its dry, light, untracked southern Colorado snow. To preserve this pristine powder, the ski area is open just three days a week—and only to confident advanced and expert skiers. Operators suggest warming up on less demanding slopes to get acclimated to the conditions. At Silverton, skiers and boarders are assigned to a group with a mountain guide—first riding a slow, funky old chair and then hiking (and gasping) higher to treeless peaks that look like they were painted by Lawren Harris. The reward? Legendary powder on impressive steeps that have to be picked down, turn by delicious turn. If money’s no object, you can return to the top by helicopter. Budget-minders, however, pile into a vintage UPS truck to drive an old mining road back to the chairlift.

Après-ski: The day invariably ends with kegs tapped in a happy, noisy yurt before everyone heads back to the unspoilt Victorian town of Silverton for down-home sustenance at Avalanche Brewing Company (for signature pizzas and tacos) or Eureka Station (with sweet potato fritters, salads and meaty pasties). Even if you’re not sleeping at the impressively restored, 136-year-old Grand Imperial Hotel, a stop for drinks or dinner is worth it. Don’t forget to scan the wall above the bar for bullet holes from a bygone sheriff’s gun, and ask the staff for a story or two about the ghosts who haunt the inn. After a day on the mountain, though, you’ll be too exhausted to be spooked.

colorado winter park resort tubing
Tubing at Winter Park (photo: Winter Park Resort)

The oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado, Winter Park’s 21 lifts are spread across seven distinct territories and 1,250 hectares of mountain—all about 100 kilometres from Denver. The best part? It’s accessible directly by train. Amtrak’s weekend Winter Park Express whisks skiers from downtown Denver to the slopes in two hours. Deals on lift tickets and resort accommodations are also abundant, especially for midweek visitors. And with so many diverse areas to ski, everyone in your group will get their money’s worth. Nearly half of the corduroy-groomed terrain in the main Winter Park territory is for beginner and intermediate skiers, while experts find thrills among the infamous bumps and trees of “Mary Jane” and the steep runs of “The Cirque.” In between are glades, bowls, terrain park jumps and jibs—definitely too much for a single day.

Exotic ski resorts in unexpected places around the world

Après-ski: For train travellers, Denver’s lovingly restored Union Station, built in 1881, is a destination in its own right, complete with retail, restaurants and a hotel. Or meander on foot through the city’s oldest streets to Larimer Square—home to Denver’s first bank, post office, theatre and bookstore. Alternatively, if you’re staying mountainside for a few days, plan a special evening at the Ranch House at Devil’s Thumb Resort and Spa. Part of an authentic Colorado homestead, the restaurant blends local and international flavours with flair, making for the perfect capper to a perfect ski trip.

The quintessential Colorado ski resort, Aspen Snowmass comprises four mountains and more than 500 kilometres of trails—all skiable with a single lift ticket. Aspen Mountain (a.k.a. Ajax) and Snowmass itself are the largest and most accessible to recreational skiers and boarders, while Aspen Highlands is less crowded; two-thirds of its runs are expert-only double black diamonds. Freestylers flock to Buttermilk and its extensive terrain park, but there’s also a sizable beginner zone and learning centre. Families understandably gravitate to ski-in/ski-out Snowmass and signature sleeps like the kid- and pet-friendly Limelight Hotel, whose amenities include a five-storey-high climbing wall and the popular Venga Venga Cantina and Tequila Bar.

Après-ski: Want to add to—or replace part of—your ski day? Aspen has skating, tubing and the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster, a winding, tracked sled ride through the mid-mountain trees. You can also roar back up the mountain after the lifts have shut down: A four-course dinner with live music at Lynn Britt’s cabin—reached by snowcat—makes for a night to remember.

A four-day visit ensures you can tackle a different mountain each day. Off-hill, you’ll likely want to spend some time in the town of Aspen. Meet up with friends at the end of the ski day at establishments like Mexican hot spot Mi Chola, the Ajax Tavern or the chic new rooftop at the W Hotel. Just as the mountains have slopes for every skier, Aspen has flavours for every palate and budget.

colorado aspen snowmass skiing
Aspen’s impressive vista (photo: Sboice/iStock)

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