Colorado is home to some of the greatest things in life. This is the land of raging rivers that rip through narrow canyons before slowing their pace along valleys speckled with wildflowers. This is where giant aspen groves paint mountainside masterpieces amid dark spruce forests before giving way to towering rocky peaks that climb to the sun. This is the land that complemented Albert Bierstadt’s paintbrush and John Denver’s guitar, and, for many who have been here, this is the place we picture when we think of paradise.
It’s no wonder then that when the mercury drops and snow begins to accumulate throughout the Rocky Mountains, crowds amass at Colorado’s most popular resort towns for the country’s best downhill skiing and snowboarding. But those city-dwelling locals that live here year-round also run for the hills every chance they get, leaving travel-weary visitors to fend for themselves. And while popular resorts along Interstate 70, like Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Vail, offer great skiing in a stunning landscape, one’s hard-earned vacation time is more often spent shuffling through congested lift lines than actually skiing. Suddenly this Colorado paradise isn’t so great.
Fortunately, Colorado is a big place, and many of the state’s best getaways are well hidden and often overlooked. They’re back in the mountains, down a much smaller road and beyond the reach of those big city crowds.
Stashed away in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, amid a sprawling wilderness of rugged mountains and countless river bends, the town of Durango offers a classic Colorado getaway. For its year-round charm, the town has appeared on Outside magazine’s “Best Towns” list more than once. But with loads of crowdless skiing and après ski fun, a Durango winter is more than enough to earn the town a spot on anyone’s “best” list.
In addition to its extracurricular mountain town adventures like snowshoeing and snowmobiling, Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort offers 1,360 skiable acres, 10 lifts, five terrain parks and an annual snowfall of more than 21 feet. With more than half of their trails rated beginner and intermediate and a first-class ski and snowboard school, Purgatory is a mountain custom built for every level of skier, even the thrill-seeking powder hounds. San Juan Ski Co. provides guided backcountry skiing in more than 35,000 acres of untracked, expert terrain. When your ski legs grow weary, have a seat and make turns on a snowbike. Or skip the mountain and ride the narrow-gauge railroad through a snow-covered, Christmas card wilderness to the town of Silverton.
Aside from outdoor fun, cuisine is king in Durango; in fact, downtown Durango boasts more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. Mountain-town favorites like Ken & Sue’s and the Ore House will make an impression on your palate to be rivaled only by what the local brew masters are cooking up. Extreme elevation and ice-cold Rocky Mountain water are two ideal ingredients for brewing the world’s best beer, and Durango takes full advantage. With some of the state’s best microbreweries, like Durango Brewing Company and Ska Brewing Company, Durango serves up a flavorful menu of Colorado brews
Head north out of Durango and the air gets thinner as the majesty of the mountains grows in relation to the smile on your face. By the time you make it to the clapboard storefronts of downtown Telluride, closed off from the rest of the busy world by a box canyon and towering peaks that top out at over 14,000 feet, you’ll swear you’ve arrived on the set of some romantic narrative.
Much of the town is designated a National Historic Landmark, and the residents and business owners take great pride in preserving the historic atmosphere throughout. Dine and drink at La Marmotte, inside the 125-year-old Ice House, or claim your stool (and your room) at the New Sheridan for an ice-cold glass of the late 19th century.
Telluride’s version of public transportation consists of a free gondola ride up and over aspen groves and dark spruce ridgelines to the town of Mountain Village and a whole new chapter to this historic tale.
Although Telluride is popular for its summertime cultural events like the Telluride Film Festival, these events are mere footnotes to the world-class skiing visitors experience here. With more than 2,000 skiable acres (41 percent of which is designated advanced or expert terrain) and a vertical drop of 4,425 feet covered by 26 inches of annual snowfall, Telluride is a mountain that will challenge and elevate (literally) even the most experienced snowrider. And remember, the crowds here are thin, so you shouldn’t hesitate to take a tumble or two on your way down the black diamond runs.
North out of Telluride, across Colorado’s high desert region, up a winding drive north from Gunnison (where you’re sure to run across hitchhiking college students toting well-weathered snow gear), and into the Elk Mountains is a Colorado town that defines the notion of off-the-beaten-path—the town of Crested Butte. Originally a mining town in the 1800s, Crested Butte still maintains an intimacy with its history and environment that is evident from Main Street to the main lift.
Against a blue sky, Crested Butte Mountain offers a distinct, towering profile. The prominent needle-like peak ascends far above the resort’s highest lift like an icy specter. Much of Crested Butte’s 1,547 acres is intermediate terrain, but this mountain offers something many others simply can’t—The Extreme Limits. This world of intense bowls and cliffs and steeps, offering an average pitch of 50 degrees, is some of North America’s best in-bounds double-black-diamond terrain. But don’t shy away if yours is a family getaway; Crested Butte has plenty of green terrain and some of the state’s best instructors available.
When the lifts close, the town of Crested Butte turns into a Christmas card image dotted with snowy spruce trees, icy storefronts, and bundled pedestrians. Local flavors like The Eldo, Talk of the Town, and The Dogwood Cocktail Cabin offer a place to refuel your weary ski legs, while dog sled tours, sleigh rides, and winter horseback trail rides broaden the breadth of snowy adventures available to visitors.
Just a few miles north, over some of the state’s tallest peaks and icy roads impassible during the winter, are two quintessential Colorado mountain towns—Aspen and Snowmass Village. The names alone paint the image of wealth and luxury, starry nights beneath mountainside neighborhoods and star-studded days mingled with fashionable ski wear and the chance to share a lift ride with a movie star. And while this is all true, Aspen and Snowmass offer visitors a taste of Colorado unapproachable anywhere else in the state.
Four classic ski areas accessed by just one lift pass magnify the ski and snowboard experience and offer visitors a different experience each day. Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk combine to offer 42 lifts, accessing 5,467 skiable acres and 336 trails. While Aspen/Snowmass knows how to serve up snowriding, they are experts in entertainment with year-round outdoor concerts, festivals of all varieties, World Cup ski races, big air competitions, and Friday Ullr Nights, complete with sledding, a bonfire, ice skating and live music.
The bar for Aspen cuisine and ambiance was set high back in 1972 when Little Annie’s Restaurant first started serving the best burgers in town. Since then, Aspen has swelled with mouthwatering masters like The White House Tavern, Ajax Tavern, and Pine Creek Cookhouse. Lodging, much like the area’s dining offering, is easily the finest in the Rockies. The sprawling, slopeside presence of Westin Snowmass Resort (formerly The Silvertree Hotel) is a front-row seat to both the mountain and village with luxury amenities galore. In Aspen, nothing beats the historic elegance of Hotel Jerome, but a night at The Little Nell, with three bars, two restaurants, and award-winning service, might be the next best thing.
From Aspen, head north, bypassing Vail, Breckenridge, and the rest of the Interstate 70 crowd as you make your way to the loneliest of the out-of-the-way mountain towns and the home of Champaign powder—Steamboat Springs. Here the Western customs of cattle ranchers and cowboys meet an Olympic tradition that reaches back to the earliest days of skiing in North America.
The terrain of Steamboat’s ski hill, ranging an entire mountain range of nearly 3,000 skiable acres, offers skiers of all abilities a wide range of downhill options. Families will appreciate that more than half of the trails are rated for beginners and intermediates, while advanced skiers will bask in the mountain’s expansive glades, roomy tree skiing, a mammoth superpipe, and a feature-filled terrain park complete with outdoor speakers. Best of all, experienced guides and instructors are available for every aspect of the mountain, no matter the age or ability. But what makes all of this so special is a fluffy, low-density powder, known as Champaign powder, specific to this part of the Rocky Mountains. Imagine skiing through three feet of down feathers, and you’ll begin to get the idea.
Off the mountain, Steamboat and Mother Nature roll out another unusual characteristic. The town’s namesake is its natural hot springs, located downtown, that once stirred so loudly French fur traders mistook the sound for the chugging engine of a steamboat engine. Today, Old Town Hot Springs is a multi-use facility with eight different pools. Or you could head up into the mountains for a more secluded mineral pool experience at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Here the springs are set within a dense mountain environment that brings about a sort of reverence not often experienced in the busy downtown pools. If visiting Strawberry Park tempts you to linger, stay the night in a renovated train caboose or one of the rustic cabins that complement the springs.
For a different kind of Colorado experience, this year visit the less crowded mountain towns, rather than wasting your time in long lift lines. You can enjoy your time on the slopes where you should be.