Colorado is home to some of the top ski mountains in North America, if not the world. You know their names: Vail, Aspen Snowmass, Breckenridge…the list goes on, and each resort is worthy of its own dedicated winter trip. But in a state with so many peaks and cool little mountain towns, you don’t have to stick to the world-famous. And when you get off the beaten track, what you’re likely to find are shorter lift lines, lower ticket prices, and a higher percentage of locals with you on the slopes.
Hidden just behind a mountain pass or sitting right at the edge of town, these 10 awesome ski mountains are practically invite-only. Cross these off your list, and you’ll be an honorary Coloradan in no time.
Often overlooked in favor of the nearby and much larger Copper Mountain (or simply a victim of Google’s auto-correct?), Cooper might just be the best place to ski on a fresh powder day in Colorado. Beginner and intermediate terrain make up the majority of the mountain’s 400 lift-served acres and 39 trails, while experts can get extreme with a snowcat tour of Chicago Ridge, opening up an additional 2,600 acres of smooth bowls and gnarly drops.
Located just north of Leadville (the highest incorporated town in the US), Cooper was established in 1942 as a training ground for the snow troopers of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. This history defines the rugged, unpretentious atmosphere at the resort, and stories of Colorado’s mountaineering legends still float around the lodge bar. In addition to being one of the oldest ski areas in Colorado, it’s also one of the most affordable ($54 full-day adult, $34 full-day child), so don’t leave the family at home for this one.
When it comes to Colorado ski destinations, Monarch Mountain is the perfect in-between. A mile or so north of Monarch Pass on US-50, in the center of the state, it sees practically none of the I-70 crowds. That means less competition for the mountain’s super-diverse terrain, everything from powder-packed groomers and terrain parks to backcountry bowls and epic glade runs. There are 64 trails in total, covering 670 acres of lift-accessible powder. But one of the coolest aspects of Monarch is the whopping 1,600+ acres of backcountry that opens up on a cat-ski tour. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it here.
There’s a tiny old mining village just five minutes down the highway from the slopes, with a lodge and houses for rent, but farther down-valley is Salida, where you’ll get warmer temperatures and the chance to check out one of Colorado’s hottest mountain towns.
The closest ski hill to Denver (35 miles due west of downtown), Echo Mountain covers roughly 60 acres and sits above 10,000 feet. It’s all about your traditional skiing and snowboarding here, with the main lift, the Milk Run Special, clocking in at four minutes and 39 seconds bottom to top. However, there are two not-so-basic upsides you might not be expecting: The entire mountain is wired for music, and there’s some pretty great night skiing.
Echo Mountain has undergone numerous changes and developments in recent years, at one time focusing solely on terrain parks. New ownership has taken the mountain in a family-friendly direction without compromising on cheap lift tickets ($54 single-day adult), standard lodge amenities, or the handful of great tree lines for those willing to venture off the groomers.
The ultimate family ski adventure is found at Granby Ranch, roughly 90 miles northwest of Denver and not far from the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The terrain here is as forgiving as it is uncrowded, and the expert staff is familiar with showing skiers and riders of all levels how to have the best time possible on the mountain. There are runs from beginner to advanced, but you might want to check out the night skiing and snowshoeing opportunities, too.
As an added perk, the nearby town of Granby is a true “Mountain West” experience sure to show the kiddos a boot-kickin’ good time. For the adults, the saloons and barbecue shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
Nowhere in the state embodies the ethos of “lift-accessed backcountry” or “in-bounds big mountain” quite like Silverton. Simply put, this place is for the experts. Their lift (and helicopter!) services terrain advanced enough that the ski area hosts annual boot-packing days prior to opening in order to get those weak layers and heavy slabs ready for the season — a great opportunity to volunteer in exchange for free lift tickets.
Backcountry and avalanche gear is required to ski and ride at Silverton and can be rented onsite. Be sure to bring a worthy backpack and your best chops — this is the steepest and deepest powder in the state — or you might find yourself doing the walk of shame back to the lodge.
Often overlooked by visitors, in-town ski areas can be found at many a high-altitude destination in Colorado. Ouray, Steamboat Springs, and Gunnison (among others) each have their own unique-to-Colorado experiences without the lines, expensive lift tickets, or drives up a snowy mountain pass. Here’s a few to check out:
- Lee’s Ski Hill lies just off 3rd Avenue in Ouray, appropriately known as the “Switzerland of America.” The breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains are even more dramatic when taken in on two planks heading down the hill’s snow-packed run. A post-ski soak in the nearby Ouray Hot Springs is a big bonus.
- Lake City Ski Hill sports seven runs and an entry-level terrain park popular with locals. The hip, flashy vibe of destination ski towns is nowhere to be found in Lake City. Getting here can be a challenge in winter, but the spectacular backdrop of Crystal Peak, with Uncompahgre Peak beyond, is as Colorado as it gets.
- Cranor Hill Ski Area, in Gunnison, is a premier spot to welcome young kids to the sport of skiing. Its forgiving terrain is ideal for learning, and Crested Butte and Monarch Mountain are both within driving distance if they level up quickly.
- Howelsen Hill Ski Area, in Steamboat Springs, is the most historic of this bunch, taking the title of longest continuously operating ski hill in Colorado. Equally as impressive is the fact that the four-lift operation has sent more professional athletes to international competition than any other in North America — meaning visitors not only make turns themselves, but can sometimes see the world’s best in action.
If you’re looking to test your backcountry skills, Loveland Pass is a great place to start. US-6 traverses the pass and gives access to a wide swath of intermediate and advanced backcountry terrain that doesn’t require much hiking. Park at the base of the pass, hitch a ride to the top, and lap as many times as you can!
To get here, take the Loveland Pass exit off I-70, just east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, following signs for Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. These resorts stand as two of the state’s long-time stalwarts for great powder and — particularly at Loveland — in-bounds, big-mountain terrain. The backcountry terrain of the pass sits between the two.
A few things to keep in mind before heading out:
- Don’t leave home without proper backcountry gear — i.e., a beacon, probe, and shovel (and the skills to use them).
- Never ski in the backcountry by yourself. On good days, plenty of experienced skiers and riders familiar with the terrain will be onsite at Loveland Pass making laps themselves. They can offer pointers and even show you around. Odds are, you’ll be hitching up in the back of one of their pickup trucks — don’t be afraid to ask questions!
- Always check weather and avalanche conditions. Avalanche safety programs are conducted across the state throughout the winter and give a great primer on how to identify and avoid unsafe conditions.
And then? It’s off to Colorado, and off to the races.