The Interstate 70 corridor in Colorado is home to eight of the state’s largest ski resorts. It may be the greatest concentration of ski lifts this side of the Alps.
From the foothills west of Denver to the Eisenhower Tunnel to the Vail Valley, Front Range skiers regularly use the highway to access Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain and Winter Park. There’s no good way around it and little public transit.
Not surprisingly, the I-70 corridor also has some of the worst ski traffic in the known universe. Every metro-area skier has a story about sitting for hours on the snowy highway no matter how early they set the alarm on Saturday morning or what time they left a ski area to head home on Sunday afternoon. It’s a stretch of highway never meant to handle such high traffic volumes, where it only takes one jackknifed semi or fender bender to bring the whole sorry mess to a halt. It’s enough to make a downhill weekend warrior abandon the sport.
But rather than hanging up your skis in frustration, there’s a better option: Head off the beaten interstate path to some of the more out-of-the-way ski areas. Yes, you’ll put more miles on the car, but wouldn’t you rather be moving on a twisting highway than sitting on I-70 wondering who crashed their car to cause such a miserable backup? (Answer: Nobody did. It’s just too many skiers not carpooling on top of the already heavy truck and passenger-vehicle traffic.)
If you have a season pass, check the fine print: You might get a discount or even free days at these smaller resorts.
The secret is out about this small ski area on the Continental Divide in central Colorado. Once the domain of Salida locals and Colorado Springs day trippers, more and more Denver-area skiers are finding their way here. It doesn’t have the 3,000 vertical feet of larger ski hills, but it also rarely has lift lines or traffic jams. Nor hard, machine-made snow (it’s all natural.) The drive on U.S. 285 from Morrison will seem like a delight if you’ve ever spent two hours moving 2 miles on I-70. The fact Monarch partners with several other ski areas on lift tickets will make your budget happy.
Location: Monarch Pass, U.S. 50
Distance from Denver: 160 miles
Where to stay: The Monarch Mountain Lodge is just minutes from the resort, or stay in Salida for a greater selection of restaurants and night life.
Skiable acres: 800
Colorado pass partners: Arapahoe Basin, Cooper, Copper Mountain, Loveland, Purgatory, Sunlight
If you’ve ever skied on 23 inches of snow that fell in one night, it just might have been at this southern Colorado ski area. When storms come out of the Southwest, it gets pounded — to the tune of 430 inches a year. Powder hounds know: When it’s pouring in Southern California and the winds are right, it’s time to head to Wolf Creek. There’s no base village, posh boutiques or ski-in, ski-out condos, just good old-fashioned skiing, the way it used to be.
Location: Wolf Creek Pass, U.S. 160, between South Fork and Pagosa Springs
Distance from Denver: 250 miles
Where to stay: South Fork has numerous hotels and cabin rentals and is more affordable (and closer to Denver) than the Pagosa Springs side of the pass.
Skiable acres: 1,600
Colorado pass partners: None
Sitting just 21 miles west of Boulder, this small, family-friendly ski area has become the go-to for metro residents sick of I-70. You can even take a bus there, which is a good idea if you’re a solo weekend warrior because single-occupant vehicles must pay $10 to park on weekends and holidays. The mountain also benefits from upslope storms, so if there’s snow on your lawn in Denver there’s probably a lot more on the hill.
Location: West of Boulder on Colorado 72 (Peak to Peak Highway)
Distance from Denver: 50 miles
Skiable acres: 680
Colorado pass partners: Ikon Passholders get unlimited access
Crested Butte Mountain Resort
Steep and deep with jaw-dropping views. That about sums it up for this central Colorado resort. With some of the steepest terrain in the industry, this is a mountain where you put it all on the line and impress (or scare) yourself. Of course, you’ll want good snow for a 55-degree pitch, such as on Rambo, the steepest cut run in North America. Add to the experience the dining and nightlife of delightful Crested Butte and you have a perfect ski weekend without setting a tire on I-70. (Don’t worry, newbies and cruisers, there’s plenty of fun for skiers of all abilities at the Butte.)
Location: Crested Butte
Distance from Denver: 230 miles
Where to stay: For a modern resort experience you can’t beat the base village, though the town of Crested Butte also has a charm all its own.
Skiable acres: 1,547
Colorado pass partners: Epic Pass holders get unlimited access
We know what you’re thinking: “I’ve sat for hours on I-70 trying to make it to the turnoff to Berthoud Pass and Winter Park.” Why drive when you can take the Winter Park Express train from downtown Denver, all while soaking in the mountain views through floor-to-ceiling windows? The train runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday and typically sells out, so book early and cross your fingers for good snow. It’s a unique experience in Colorado, though ski trains have long been all the rage in Europe. Just think how much you’ll appreciate not having I-70 in your life for those hours.
Location: Depart from Union Station in Denver
Distance from Denver: 56 miles (Who cares? You’re not driving.)
Skiable acres: 3,081
Colorado pass partners: Ikon Pass holders get unlimited access
Still need your fix of Breckenridge, Keystone or Copper? Drive U.S. 285 instead of I-70, and stop for coffee and a breakfast burrito in Fairplay or Alma. For an even greater chance of avoiding traffic, ski on a weekday.
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