Photo: Ben Thomas
Last winter, when I was living in Las Vegas, I decided to get back on skis for the first time in nearly a decade. Rather than going on an expensive ski vacation, I decided to stay local and hit up the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort. This little mountain offered plenty of terrain at an affordable price, a great ski school, and NO LINES! My experience there confirmed that you don’t have to go to a big fancy mountain to have a great time on the slopes, and the smaller mountains often have major advantages, especially for larger families where a ski vacation might be cost-prohibitive.
Small ski resorts, like the one in Vegas, exist all over the West, including in Colorado, which is more often known for glitzy resorts such as Vail and Aspen. In this new post by Bearfoot Theory’s Colorado contributor Ben Thomas, he tells us all about the Colorado Gems – a series of 8 small and super affordable ski mountains in the Colorado Rockies.
The Colorado Gems:
8 affordable ski resorts without the crowds
By: Ben Thomas
Skiing is the lifeblood of Colorado. Back in the mid twentieth-century, when mining towns were shutting down, it was skiing and tourism that saved them from extinction (the lucky ones anyway). Small tow-ropes, single and double chair lifts eventually turned places like Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte into resort towns.
Ever since then, the resort lifestyle has gotten bigger and bigger. But with this expansion, the resorts have also lost some of the old charms of expansion-era ski hills. Plus, even with the improved lifts and amenities, there are still plenty of frustrations; just ask anyone waiting in line for Lift 5 out of Vail’s back bowls on a Saturday in February; or the day tripper who dropped over $100 for a single day ticket.
Luckily, the magic of small Colorado ski-hills is not completely lost. Enter the Gems.
Colorado has eight ski areas nicknamed the “Colorado Gems.” Scattered across the state, these hills harken back to an older time. Lift ticket prices and crowds are significantly reduced. The mountains are smaller, the lifts a bit slower; but what these places lack in modern efficiency, they make up for in charm. This is throwback skiing. These are resorts you can get to by back roads. Below is a quick summary of the Gems, along with their closest big mountain resort. If you are already thinking of heading to a large resort this winter, consider spending at least a day at one of the Gems, for an old-school ski-vacation.
The Black Diamonds
Arapahoe Basin & Loveland Ski Area
Nearest Mega Resorts: Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain
These two areas are the closest Gems to compete with the large resorts for mountain size and high-speed lifts. But these two popular gems are most famous for battling it out with each other for longest ski season; every fall they try to best each other for earliest opening day.
Loveland is the closest ski area to Denver on I-70, sitting at the Continental Divide, spanning around and over the Eisenhower Tunnel. On a powder day at Loveland, riding the bowls from the second highest quad lift in the world is the best feeling in the world; shortly followed by the feeling of leaving behind the Summit County traffic and taking the Loveland Pass exit to the free parking lots at the base.
Photo: Jeremiah LaRocco
Arapahoe Basin skiers get that same satisfaction of leaving the I-70 party at the Loveland Pass exit, but they then have to drive over the pass. The extra effort is worth it though! A-Basin has the highest in-bounds skiable terrain in North America. As a bonus, A-basin is the only Gem that is part of a multi-mountain ski pass as part of the Epic Pass, giving you no excuse to miss out on this Gem experience if you are a Vail Resorts customer.
Photo: Justin Knabb
If you are heading to Summit County for a ski holiday, definitely consider adding a day at either hill. A half day warm-up at Loveland on the way to your condo in Breck or a few runs at A-Basin on the road to Keystone is a dynamite way to get your vacation off on the right foot.
The biggest downside with both these areas for day-trippers is that you are still stuck dealing with I-70 and its hellacious weekend ski traffic to/from Denver. If abandoning the interstate is your goal…
Just Say No…to I-70:
Eldora Mountain Resort & Monarch Mountain
Nearest Mega Resort: Crested Butte (Monarch), None (Eldora)
“Friends Don’t Let Friends drive I-70” might as well be the motto of these two resorts. Though they are far apart geographically (Eldora on the Front Range, Monarch out on the Sawatch Range), both places benefit from a major upside: no need to take the interstate. But that’s not all that these two have in common. These two ski areas are kindred spirits: mid-size mountains with quad lift access, sitting above die-hard adventure towns (Boulder and Salida, respectively).
Eldora is the true winner going against I-70. If you are staying in Boulder, you can even catch the local bus to get to the mountain (one of my biggest regrets in college was not getting an Eldora student pass and using my free bus pass to get some afternoon turns in). Time your visit with an up-slope storm – the kind that shuts down Denver – and east-side of the divide Eldora gets pounded with snow while the major resorts on the west-side tend to get a comparative dusting.
Monarch Mountain can be experienced as its own trip or as a warm-up mountain to those heading over to Crested Butte. It’s about a three hour drive from Denver, which at first seems to take the avoiding I-70 concept a bit far—until you remember that day you spent the same three hours going thirteen miles from Georgetown to Idaho Springs, slowly realizing that the license plate number of the car in front of you would be drilled in your memory forever. Suddenly going 65 on US-285 across the South Park Valley from a day of cat-skiing at Monarch seems a bit more reasonable.
Photo: Vicki Devine
So close, yet so far…
Cooper, Sunlight Mountain Resort, Ski Granby Ranch
Nearest Mega Resorts: Vail and Copper Mountain (Cooper), Aspen-Snowmass (Sunlight), Winter Park and Steamboat (Ski Granby)
Of all the gems on this list, these three might epitomize the Gems experience the best. Each one is within a 30 miles of a large resort, but skiing or riding there feels like you’ve gone back in time.
Cooper, (formerly Ski Cooper) at the top of Tennessee Pass, sits above Camp Hale, just west of Vail and Copper Mountain. This area outside of Leadville was the training ground for the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. While 10th Mountain Alumni went on to start Vail and Aspen, modeling them off European ski resorts, Cooper has remained a humble local ski hill. But if you are looking for something a bit more extreme and personal, they also offer snow-cat access skiing up on Chicago Ridge, with terrain similar to Vail’s back bowls. If you are getting overwhelmed by the size of the mountain (or the crowds) at Vail or Copper Mountain, pop over to Cooper for some old-school mountain time.
Photo: Casey Day
While Cooper plays little brother to Vail and Copper, Sunlight Mountain Resort is second (well really, fifth) fiddle to the four-mountain monolith that is Aspen-Snowmass. Sitting above Glenwood Springs on the west end of the Roaring Fork Valley, Sunlight offers just about the opposite of everything Aspen. Glitz, modern gondolas, and champagne bars turns into humble, old-school double-chairs, and hot chocolate from the tiny ski patrol hut. Sunlight is a favorite with families. But don’t let the kiddos trick you into thinking this mountain is all beginner’s luck: the Gibson and Sundown Glades on a powder day is the definition of steep and deep, peaking out at a vertigo-inducing 52 degrees…inbounds.
Ski Granby Ranch, formerly known as Solvista Basin, is sandwiched halfway between Winter Park and Steamboat Springs on US Highway 40. This little twin mountain resort gets overlooked thanks to its gentler terrain. But for families that want a more laid-back and budget-friendly spring break, staying in Grand Lake and filling your days with runs at Ski Granby and snowshoeing on the quiet side of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park is a pretty choice way to go.
The Lone Gem
Powderhorn Mountain Resort
Nearest Mega Resort: None
Powderhorn Mountain Resort is the only truly Western Slope ski area. When I say there are no mega-resorts nearby, I mean it. Telluride and Aspen are the closest—over 100 miles away. If you are looking to get far away from the standard ski tourist, front range weekend warrior, or upper-crust second home owner, Powderhorn is your spot. Located on Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain IN THE WORLD, this gem has weather systems practically all its own. On a sunny and dry January day down in Grand Junction, if there is a cloud cap on Grand Mesa, Powderhorn is probably getting dumped on. If you are also looking for an old school experience, better hurry! This year, Powderhorn is opening their first high speed quad, the Flat Top Flyer.
Photo: Peter Stabolepszy
Regardless of which Gem you decide to try out, be sure to get the Colorado Gems Card. It’s a one time 20 bucks for the season and gets you a bunch of discounts at the gem resorts; most notably 2-for-1 lift tickets. That means if you and a buddy want to try out Ski Cooper, you’re paying $25 for a full day of Colorado skiing. Or you can hit up Arapahoe Basin for less than forty bucks. To say this card pays for itself would be an accurate understatement.
Well, there you have it! If you’re looking for something a bit different, a little quirky, one of these small mountains might be for you. Don’t get me wrong, the large Colorado resorts are amazing. I grew up bouncing between Front Range resorts. But I have to say, there is something missing from the large resort experience. The Gems may not be as slick and speedy as the big mountains, but the experience will still be unforgettable.
** Read More on Winter in the West **
About the authors: Ben and Jenna Thomas are a pair of newlyweds who both grew up exploring the mountains of Colorado. Right now, they’re making their way around the world, from one exciting adventure to the next. Follow their journey at WildImagining.com and make sure to check out their awesome photography on Instagram and Facebook.