Colorado is a skiing Mecca and is the perfect place for skiers of all abilities. The pistes are wide, the powder is deep and the off piste is awesome. There is guaranteed snow in most resorts from late November until early May. Here are our top tips for skiing in Colorado with your family.
Getting to Colorado
The ski fields of Colorado are situated in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. The flight to Denver is 9 hours direct from London Heathrow. The closest ski fields are 2-3 hours drive from Denver International Airport such as Breckenridge and Winter Park, whilst the more famous such as Vail is a 4-5 hours drive, Aspen is 5-6 hours and Telluride is an 8-10 hours. There are very few organised transfers from the airport to the ski resorts so you will need to rent a car. These journeys, especially in winter are hugely weather dependent and require a 4 wheel drive car- you will not require snow chains if your car has 4WD. Winter driving in Colorado must not be underestimated. Most ski resorts are reached via highways, local roads and mountain passes. Prepare for your journey with plenty of water, snacks and warm clothes. Picking up a snow shovel at the first gas station you reach is not a bad idea either! And be prepared for inclement weather. When you arrive most parking is free within the resort. Or you can pay for parking that is closest to the slopes- normally $40 per day.
Our view of ski resorts in Colorado
We initially skied at Keystone and Breckenridge which are both at a higher altitude. Both have a huge variety of terrain and are great for skiers of all abilities. Breckenridge has the highest chairlift in North America taking you up to the giddy heights of 12,840 feet. Breckenridge is a ski town with a high street, lots of restaurants and accommodation options. Keystone is a ski resort and is limited on restaurants. Vail, Aspen and Steamboat Springs are all ski towns adjacent to the slopes and are at a lower altitude. Steamboat Springs is an old cowboy town and has hot springs you can relax in after skiing. Vail has the famous back bowls with huge swathes of off-piste and powder skiing. Other resorts we skied are Winter Park, Loveland, Crested Butte, Copper and Beaver Creek.
Altitude and the Sun in Colorado
Denver is called the ‘mile high city’ because it is situated a mile up from sea level at 5,600 ft. The ski fields are another 2000- 5000 ft above Denver in the majestic Rocky Mountains. This means that the air is thinner; there is less oxygen and it it drier. Altitude must be taken seriously. I have lost count of the number of people I have encountered at a cafe atop the ski fields who were suffering the beginning effects of altitude sickness, because they had not taken any opportunity to acclimate lower down. Altitude sickness begins with dehydration, a headache , nausea and fatigue. It can rapidly lead to confusion, difficulty breathing and decreased levels of consciousness. We recommend spending at least one night in Denver before driving up to the ski resorts to acclimate. For the duration of your trip drink plenty of water. Limit coffee and tea: these are diuretics meaning they will dehydrate you very quickly. Eat little and often to avoid nausea. Avoid too much alcohol: the hangovers at altitude are legendary!
Being this high up also means you are closer to the sun. All of us have been burnt whilst skiing in Europe, but here the risks are even higher. We wear factor 70, and factor 90 on very sunny days. You can buy these higher factors of sunscreen at the resorts. Good quality sunglasses and ski goggles with a high UV rating are also a must.
The cold when skiing in Colorado
It is much colder skiing in Colorado than it is in Europe. Normal winter ( Dec- Feb) mornings in resort can begin at -28 degrees Celsius and barely go up above -5. Again you need to be prepared for this before you arrive. Good quality thermals, very warm gloves with liners, very warm ski socks and good quality ski outerwear are needed. My boys would wear 2-3 layers under their ski jackets ( thermal, t-shirt, thin fleece) with a balaclava under their helmets or a fleece gator around their neck, chin and mouth. Take a backpack to carry these extra layers as the sun comes out later in the day, as well as for plenty of water.
In the Spring the temperature does warm up, and you can find yourself skiing in a t-shirt.
Health Insurance for skiing in Colorado
It is imperative that you have comprehensive health/travel insurance when skiing in Colorado. Should anything go wrong the costs of being evacuated from the mountain and treated in hospital is eye-watering- even for Americans. Please make sure you are fully covered for any eventuality before you ski.
Ski passes and ski lessons for skiing in Colorado
Most Colorado ski resorts are privately run. This means that you can buy day or weekly passes directly from the resort on the day, however this is an expensive way of doing it. We suggest that you buy your passes in advance online. If you have rented a car, you have access to more resorts. Coloradans buy a season pass called Epic or Ikon. These offer large discounts to a collection of resorts and are also linked to some European resorts but cover the whole season so are an expensive choice.
Ski lessons are run independently by each resort. You will need to book lessons in advance.
For the more adventurous or more experienced skier in Colorado
For the more adventurous the off-piste offering beyond the slopes is second to none. Most resorts offer a cat ski adventure, driving you to fresh powder and hiring a one-day guide is a popular way to get to know the best off-piste powder. Vail is a great option for a family of experienced skiers because the off-piste powder is available via the famous back bowls. These are epic, legendary and any other adjective you want to apply. Our 6 year old learnt to powder ski there so they are even accessible to younger and less experienced skiers.
Accommodation for skiing in Colorado
There are no chalet-style ski arrangements, with the childcare and food provided in Colorado. In the larger resorts there are plenty of hotels in the resort town or by the piste but these can be expensive and the decor is pretty tired. Most people book a condo (apartment) or house through AirBnB or Vrbo. If you find a property you like through these sites, contact the management company directly. Often these management companies are in resort and won’t charge as much for the property because they aren’t paying the larger site’s fees. The condos vary widely in style and cost. Most are within walking distance of the slopes or are connected to the slopes by shuttles. Another cheaper alternative to access a wider range of slopes is to stay in a hub town such as Dillon. From Dillon you can access by car or by shuttle bus Keystone, A-Basin, Breckenridge and Copper.
Equipment and lessons for skiing in Colorado
You can rent equipment in resort, or a cheaper alternative is to rent at an outlet in Denver. This does not need pre-booking.
Food on the mountain in Colorado
I have to disappoint you; if you were expecting good food, beautiful wine and excellent service atop the mountain Colorado is not the place to find this! We missed this the most and hankered after our €2 glass of French rose on a sunny terrace! The food on the mountain is canteen style: burgers and fries with a few healthier options. If the kids are in a full day lesson they are given a hot lunch and regular hot chocolate breaks. This is included in the price of the lesson. At the bottoms of the slopes there are restaurants and the obligatory Starbucks. Mountain towns have a much wider variety of restaurants.
Entertainment beyond the slopes in Colorado
There is lots to do beyond the slopes. Dillon has an amazing ice castle that you can walk through but make sure that you book. Most of the large resorts offer tubing and tobogganing. Tubing is the adrenaline- fuelled sport of sitting on top of a large rubber ring to slide down an icy slope. It is a lot of fun! The toboggans run on wooden tracks and go very fast so children have to be with an adult. Finally a lot of resorts offer night skiing and the opportunity to ride up the slopes in a cat ski. Finally a snow mobile safari is a fun way to see the beautiful mountain views on a day off from skiing.
Please also be aware of the local wildlife. We have come across bears and moose on the ski slopes and in the resorts. Do not get too close and alert the nearest snow patrol.