Winter is here, and if you’ve been to Colorado, you know what that means. When the snow covers these mountains and plains, the state’s ski towns light up like beacons in a wintry night. The best part? Many of the most enjoyable activities don’t require a lift ticket. Here are eight of them.
1. Dashing through the snow, the Colorado way
Colorado culture, in most places, has a heavy reliance on the outdoors — with a bit of country western and the occasional flair for the dramatic thrown in. The winter season is a perfect example, where sleigh rides go much deeper (and longer) than a dash through the open snow.
Many outfitters, like Astraddle A Saddle outside of Pagosa Springs, combine a scenic ride with barbecue dinners, warm cocktails, and the kind of postcard mountain views everyone’s come to associate with Colorado. Others swap out the barbecue in favor of a picnic lunch or gourmet, chef-prepared dinner by the campfire. If you didn’t love winter before, you’ll definitely have a soft spot for it now.
2. Experiencing your first mountain-town winter festival
Across the state, tons of mountain towns throw parties in celebration of the season. It doesn’t matter when or where you’re traveling — they’re all worth the experience. Here are a few to get you started:
- Durango’s Snowdown, January 31 – February 4, 2018: This is one of the state’s best-known festivals, and it’s a “black tie affair” (which is saying something, given the puffy coats and boots we’re used to).
- Fire & Ice Festival, Loveland, February 9 – 11, 2018: It’s ice and fire sculpting over Valentine’s weekend. Do you need more?
- Nederland’s Frozen Dead Guy Days, March 9 – 11, 2018: It’s as irreverent as its name implies. Picture 30-some bands, plenty of heated tents, costumed polar plunges, and coffin racing, and you’ll be off to a good start.
- Ullr Fest, Breckenridge: Horned Viking hats (Ullr is the Norse god of snow) and the biggest bonfire in town — that’s how Breckenridge rolls. The event typically spans a few days in min-January, so start thinking about planning that 2019 trip!
3. Soaking in one of the state’s bubbling hot springs
Hot springs are aplenty all over the state. While size, amenities, and accessibility vary greatly among the different sites, the end result is always the same: a soothing, relaxing soak underneath the gaze of the Rockies.
Choose your fancy: staying in a full-on resort with luxury rooms and 23 mineral hot springs in downtown Pagosa Springs; driving up a dirt road to Strawberry Park Hot Springs outside of Steamboat Springs; or taking in the soothing, apothecary-like healing atmosphere of Joyful Journey Hot Springs in the San Luis Valley. Of course, you could always opt for something that involves a backcountry hike, but I can’t help you there — half the fun of those is not really knowing where they are.
4. Hitching a ride on the Polar Express
Colorado’s history is built around the railroad, and the Colorado Railroad Museum, in Golden, chronicles the story of our state’s rise. It’s a super impressive facility — there’s a depot museum, a railyard, a roundhouse, and a library — and the themed events throughout the year almost always involve hopping aboard a train car.
When the holiday season hits, rounding up the family and jumping on the Polar Express is a favorite winter tradition for many Coloradans. During the 75-minute train journey, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express is artfully acted out — complete with the story’s favorite characters, the same fun and engaging action, and, of course, plenty of hot chocolate.
5. Testing your skills on a hut trip…
Scattered throughout the mountains of Colorado are a series of huts, often best accessed via snowshoe, skin/splitboard, or snowmobile. Some are luxurious, equipped with bunk beds, a hot tub, and good heating, while others are more bare-bones and rustic, preferred by the hermits and backcountry veterans among us.
Making your way to a backcountry hut requires ample planning, sufficient gear, and often a good dose of mountain savvy and wayfinding. But the rewards are more than worth it (and organized tours are often available for first-timers). I’ve yet to see a view that tops a Colorado sunrise taken in from the porch of a mountain hut at 10,000 feet. Start your daydreaming and research at Colorado.com, and be sure to pack warmly.
6. …and enjoying those turns you’ve earned
Ski touring and snowshoeing are growing in popularity, a nod to Colorado’s obsession with both the Rocky Mountains and physical fitness. Who needs chairlifts (or lift tickets) to get up the mountain? Rent a pair of skins for your skis and join a backcountry tour — or simply head out (and up) with friends. Those powder turns feel so much better when you work for them!
Backcountry skiing takes endurance and a practiced awareness of snow conditions and weather. Always bring proper backcountry gear, and never head out alone. First time? Rent a pair of snowshoes and find a local trail, or join a group tour — there’s no better way to spend a memorable day in Colorado’s high country.
7. Traveling with a half dozen (furry) friends
If the whole group can’t seem to agree on an activity, there’s always the one surefire idea that unites everyone: dogs. And being whisked around in the snow by a handful of particularly adorable ones, as aspen and pine speed past you, the sounds of “Mush!” filling the background, is winter on a whole other level. Everyone skis in Colorado, but who comes back with dogsledding stories?
Mid-November to mid-April is the general season, and you’ll find operators all across the state — Durango, Wolcott, Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge, the list goes on. Some will bundle you (and a partner) up in blankets to sit back and enjoy the ride, and others will literally give you a rein as you cruise over the aspen-covered hills. And if you’ve got a few animal-lovers in tow, most offer kennel tours, too.
8. Going ice skating in a ski-town plaza
Hollywood itself couldn’t create a more perfect winter scene than the ice skating rinks at Beaver Creek and Vail. Try not to picture it — skaters of all ages doing laps, friends and families socializing on the sidelines, all with festive music playing in the background. Both rinks are located within walking distance of hotels, shops, and dining, meaning there’s no excuse to not at least try your hand. No double axels required.