As winter has already reached us, it might be getting time to think about the next ski trip. Austria, South Tyrol and Switzerland are wonderful ski destinations, of course. However, if you're looking for something a little different this year, we've got a great idea for you. We got the chance to explore seven ski resorts in Colorado and experienced the perfect ski trip.
I've been traveling around the world and testing ski resorts for Snow-Online since 2004. In those 15 years, I've gotten to know quite a few exotic and memorable places. I will never forget my journey to the Snowy Mountains in Australia or my semester abroad in New Zealand. When I found out I was getting the opportunity to skiing in Colorado with my wife for two weeks, I wasn't sure what to expect. Looking back at that time now, I can say it was the best ski trip I ever went on. And if you stay with me until the end of this story, you might understand why.
From Munich to the United States
My wife lived in Oxnard, near Los Angeles, for two years, so we decided to fly there from Munich first to visit some old friends. Transitioning into the cold heights in Colorado by spending some days on the beach might not make any sense, but we definitely enjoyed it.
As warm and sunny as our stay in California was, the more overwhelmed were we when the air of our breaths became visible in the cold, dry air in Denver. We quickly hopped on the bus going towards the car rental service near the airport. To explore the winter landscape off the ski slope as well, we chose one of the four-wheel drive models. We would find out later that we had made the right choice but for now, we took our 4WD for a ride around Denver.
Our tip: The airport in Denver is about 40 minutes away from the city and there are shuttle buses going directly to the different ski resorts. It's worth it, however, to enjoy the “Denver flair” first.
If you're planning on bringing your own ski equipment, be sure to take a look at the airline's guidelines. Lufthansa offers package prices starting at 70€ for sports luggage. British Airways lets you bring your ski and sports equipment for free as long as it's under the weight limit. In general, you should declare your sports luggage in advance.
Culinary and cultural Highlights in Denver
My wife and I had read a lot about Denver before our trip. The city ranks among the most livable places in the US year after year. Of course, its nickname, the “Mile High City”, was very appealing to me as a skier. Denver is located at an altitude of 1,600 meters (5,250 feet), higher than the Swiss city of Davos for example. Therefore, this was the ideal place to get used to the skiing altitude.
The next morning, we woke up to an incredible view of the city and the Rocky Mountains in the background. We could hardly wait to unpack our skis and get on the slope, but we wanted to look around Denver first.
The city of Denver has a long and intriguing history. In the mid 19th century, gold diggers set up their camps and used the place as a starting point for their searches. On many streets and squares, you will find buildings reminding you of that era. Especially the area around the old train station in Lower Downtown, the Historic Union Station, gives a good impression of what Denver used to look like. The Historic Union Station was on our to-do list anyway, since we heard it's also home to many small cafes and serves the best breakfast in town.
Art was up next in our itinerary. Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still Museum are two of the cultural highlights in Denver. They are located only five walking minutes away from each other in Lower Downtown (also known as LoDo). Art lovers will certainly enjoy Clyfford Still Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to the expressionist's works. Denver Art Museum, however, is probably more suited to the average visitor. With its glass and titanium facade, the building constructed by Daniel Libeskind is impressive already from the outside. Inside, visitors can admire exhibits from different epochs on the museum's many floors. The exhibition of Native American handcraft is especially impressive and recommendable. For families with children, the changing special exhibitions will be a great experience. At the time of our visit, “Star Wars™ and the power of costume” was the museum's visitor magnet.
After a day full of culture, we were ready to dive into the city's nightlife. The Source on Brighton Blvd is something you definitely shouldn't miss on a night out in Denver. Right in the heart of the historic Five Points quarter, the Source is home to a number of restaurants, cafes and even breweries, making us feel like a market square back home. The area has become so trendy that locals have started playfully calling it “Hipster Heaven”.
Those looking for an iconic steakhouse should check out Buckhorn Exchange on Osage Street. Adventurous customers are greeted by the moose antlers hanging on its facade. To experience the full range of their specialties, you'll have to be willing to try one or two exotic dishes. After we had finished what was probably the best steak in Denver, the owner persuaded us to taste grilled buffalo testicles. And we must admit, they were a lot better than we had expected!
Our first Date with the Rocky Mountains
On the way to our fist skiing adventure, we were able to get a taste of what the gold diggers must have felt when, after days of traveling across the Great Plains, they finally got a glimpse of the Rocky Mountains stretching across the horizon. As we set off westwards on the I-70, mountains as high as 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) began to rise out of nowhere.
As we passed the first snowfields in the foothills, we got more and more excited to finally feel the famous champagne powder under our skis. The four-lane road climbed higher and higher up the mountains and soon snow walls surrounded us, blocking our view of the landscape. Admittedly, the lane's surroundings are not any more special than in the Alps. The snow is equally dirty and sooty – no wonder, with all the SUVs and gasoline guzzlers on the road. However, it made looking at the summits and valleys of the Continental Divide even more pleasurable. On our way we passed several small villages with old mines and took a couple of exits to look at the gold mines from close up. After two hours on the road we reached our destination: Breckenridge!
Breckenridge: Young and Cool
So this was what an American ski town looked like! Bars and saloons could be seen all over Breckenridge's Main Street as we made our way to the ski lifts. Had there not been cars around us, one could have thought we were back in the wild west. The lifts themselves at the Peak 9 base station made a much more modern impression though. We grabbed our skiers from the car, got into our skiing gear and headed for the lift entrance.
My first moment of realization came when my skis touched the groomed slope. Even though the ground is flattened thoroughly, the powdery snow rises as my skis dig into the slope. This was only the first taste of the type of snow that is only found in the dry, continental air of the Colorado mountains.
We got onto the QuickSilver SuperChair taking us up to Peak 10. The view from the lift already demonstrated everything that Peak 9 was famous for. The lower part is a gigantic beginners' area of green slopes (in the US, the color green stands for the easiest slope level). This division makes it possible for beginners to enjoy an endless variety of easy runs with only one lift. Thanks to the forest in the lower part, skiers there are also relatively well-protected from the wind – the ideal space for families with children.
We, however, were headed further up the mountain towards Peak 8. Our goal was the Imperial Express SuperChair lift, the only one on the North American continent that takes visitors up to heights of 3,900 meters (12,800 feet). From up here, we had an incredible view all the way over to the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests. We didn't stay here very long though and made our way over to the Black Diamond runs around Peak 7 and 8, where we skied until the lifts closed for the day.
After our first day of skiing in Colorado, we wanted to check out the reality behind the facade of the saloons and bars on Main Street. We were looking for authentic American flair and were not disappointed. Our first stop was the Oxygen Bar. Here, the increased oxygen level in the O2 Lounge is supposed to help against altitude sickness. A nice marketing trick, but the bar does have its charm. We liked the Gold Pan Saloon even better, though. The bar and restaurant is over 150 years old and has become a real historical heritage.
Bottom Line: We especially liked the natural divide of steep Black Diamond runs in the upper part of the ski resort and more even practice slopes near the base station. This way, advanced skiers and beginners do not get in each others' way and beginners don't have to pass any of the steep slopes on their way to the large beginners' area. When the lifts close, Main Street is the place to be for (mostly) younger guests. Definitely worth a visit!
Our tip: Breckenridge is among the most versatile ski resorts in Colorado. While the upper slopes are extremely demanding, the beginners' runs near the valley are very even, making them a paradise for families.
>> More information on Breckenridge ski resort
Beaver Creek: On the Trail of the Birds of Prey
Our next destination couldn't have been a bigger contrast to young and trendy Breckenridge: the noble ski resort of Beaver Creek. We had booked a room in the near resort of Vail, but didn't want to miss the legendary World Cup runs at the Birds of Prey lift either.
Bottom Line: The highlight at Beaver Creek is of course tree skiing through the famous Aspen trees. Their lower parts are branchless and they stand relatively far away from each other, making it easy to cruise between the trees and explore untouched slopes. The best spot to do so is around Elkhorn lift. While the Birds of Prey are steep and moguls, this particular kind of terrain can be found in the Alps as well.
Our tip: Expert skiers will find black slopes such as Raven Ridge and Bald Eagle around Grouse Mountain. The World Cup run Golden Eagle is also among the Black Diamond runs at the Birds of Prey lift. Golden Eagle is a regular host of Ski World Cup races. Those new to skiing will find a large beginners' area with family-friendly slopes at Red Buffalo Park.
>> Find out more about Beaver Creek ski resort
Vail: The World's most famous Ski Resort?
The ski area of Vail has an almost legendary reputation. The resort was founded by members of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite group of skiing soldiers that fought Nazi Germany high in the mountains during WWII. Our first time in Vail, we were especially excited to explore the famous Back Bowls. So, we took the Gondola One and Mountain Top Express right away in the morning. To warm up, we skied on some groomers around Mountain Top Express before heading to the legendary China Bowl.
Freeride slopes wherever we looked and the finest powder snow are what awaited us here. And here comes the most important difference between skiing in the US compared to Europe: Although it hadn't snowed in over a week, we encountered perfect deep powder snow and trackless slopes in Vail. The dry, continental climate combined with the cold mountain air of the Rockies keep the snow soft and powdery for several days. If you're going skiing in Vail, definitely pack a pair of skis with a width of more than 80 millimeters – you'll need them.
Bottom Line: The modern lifts and beautifully groomed slopes on the Frontside are great. The actual highlights, however, are the freeride slopes in the Back Bowls. Renting a pair of freeride skis will be more than worth it if you're looking to explore the Back Bowls. As long as there's no unforeseen warm-air surprise, you'll be able to enjoy gorgeous and trackless deep snow slopes.
Our tip: Vail is without a doubt a ski resort of the highest class. 195 runs, a guarantee of snow and the amazing Back Bowls make the resort a popular destination even among the athletes of the US ski team. Ambitious skiers can enjoy over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of black-marked terrain. Snow parks and kids' adventure zones can of course also be found in the resort.
>> More information on Vail ski resort
Heading South: Telluride
Having spent three days at the Vail Resorts (Breckenridge and Beaver Creek are part of the Vail Resorts company as well), we traveled south to Telluride. Our five-hour journey took us across Grand Junction. To be able to enjoy the surrounding landscape, we decided to drive during daylight and take the day off to restore our energy. Nature in the Grand Junction area's endless high plain is rather sparse. Far away, we could make out some of the Eastern Rockies' mountaintops.
We kept following Highway US-50 in southern direction, passing Montrose. The mountains seemed light-years away from us, the countryside was still vast and plain. We started to feel how much uninhabited land there must be in the United States. South of Montrose, the landscape started getting hilly again and long, winding roads began taking us uphill. Suddenly, the giant peaks of the San Juan Mountains rise right before us. Mt Wilson is the king among them and one of the highest points in the Rockies. Maybe that's also one of the reasons it's seen on every Coors Light beer bottle.