Skiing in CO and CA

Skiing in CO and CA

Having skied only once in the month of December, my decision to do a mini tour of the Rocky Mountain ski resorts was as much about getting my money’s worth of my pass, as it was about making the road trip back to CA interesting. I’d just wrapped up my last day at work and boxed up my Denver apartment, so with a tightly packed Jetta, I made my way to Crested Butte (a minor feat in a snowstorm and two-wheel-drive car). 

The town is absolutely idyllic, and the ski resort is wonderful. A small dusting overnight made for some nice fresh tracks in the morning, and beautiful blue skies all day. A good friend gave me a great list of recommendations for food and drinks - I can only vouch for Secret Stash and Camp 4 Coffee, both of which were great:

  • Sherpa Cafe for incredible Indian / Nepalese food
  • Dogwood Cafe between 5 and 7 for happy hour (try the Poco Loco - best cocktail in the world)
  • Izzy's breakfast sandwich (there will be a wait)
  • The Eldo for live music
  • Chopwood Mercantile for a cool independent store
  • Secret Stash for pizza
  • Camp 4 Coffee
Camp 4 Coffee

Next stop was Copper Mountain where I giddily greeted a phenomenal day of powder skiing. You really can’t go wrong on a powder day - everything makes me smile. I also had quite possibly the most bizarre Couchsurfing experience ever. I won’t go into the full story, but there was a fur door, eclectic assortment of roommates, Russian techno music, laser light display, dirt road, and no cell phone service. (But there was Wi-Fi!)

Then onto Winter Park where I spent many Mary Jane chairlift rides with folks wondering if and when they’d open the “Pano” lift. (Spoiler - they did, much to the relief of those who started lining up waaaayyy in advance.)

Lastly made my way to the highly acclaimed Steamboat resort, which was a nice ending to my mini tour. Both Crested Butte and Steamboat are hard to get to from Denver, so I was thankful for the time to make the journey.


From Steamboat, I straight-shotted it to California, which was a beautiful drive. Debated a detour to Park City, but by this time my legs were pretty shot (and it wasn’t on my pass…).

I originally moved to Denver because I wanted to be closer to the mountains, and I’m very happy to have had two winters to explore the many (many) resorts CO has to offer.


So much to ski, so little time. If you’re living in Denver and not sure which pass to buy, I’d recommend checking first with your ski/snowboard buddies because there’s nothing worse than being odd man out in the carpool. Both the Epic Pass (Vail Resorts) and Rocky Mountain Super Pass are great options, and will give you plenty of variety for a full season. If you’re like me, you’ll want to try them both out. If you want to ski both CO and CA, go Epic. If you want the ‘local’ Colorado experience (and you’re not about the Vail behemoth), go with the RM pass.

If you’re more of a depth-over-breadth person, you can get a good deal by getting a pass to just one of the resorts. It’s hard to pick my favorite ski resort, but I love a good resort that hits all four:

  • Location / Convenience: how long is the drive and/or how hard is it to get there (freeways or winding roads that may or may not be cleared well)
    • Generally a good idea to research the parking situation if you’re visiting the resort for the first time; I usually opt for the free lots and shuttles because parking is pricey, but they’re not always well labeled
  • Terrain: this varies based on skill level - I personally look for steeper slopes that are not groomed, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt if you prefer wide groomers
  • Cost: with season passes, this isn’t as critical, but if you’re someone who likes to break for hot chocolates or adult beverages, worth consideration
    • I’m not including the ski pass prices because they change every season; also, if you’re crafty, you can occasionally get discounted rates through your employer or special deals on 10-packs and so forth. On the whole, best to buy as early as possible as the pass prices hike up the closer you get to opening day
  • Conditions: any resort is awesome on a powder day, so this changes on any given day - check out all the important stats the day before you go via On The Snow

Because I find scorecards easier to digest, I use this simple rating system: 1) not great, 2) okay / good, 3) great. The higher the score, the better!

Quick note: Epic has an assortment of passes, but I opted for the ‘Local’ when living in Denver, which gets you just a handful of days at the CA resorts, along with limitations at Vail and Beaver Creek. Watch out for blackout dates!

Vail, CO = 4 / 9
Location: 1, Terrain: 2, Cost: 1
The Epic Pass website says ‘Like Nothing on Earth,’ but I’m personally not all about the hype. It’s super far from Denver, stupid expensive, and has an obnoxious amount of cat tracks that will have you traversing all day to get around the mountain.

Keystone, CO = 6 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 1, Cost: 2
Keystone is a pleasant drive from Denver (when I-70 isn’t a parking lot) and prices are what you’d expect at a ski resort. Great for families with nice, long groomed runs, but not super exciting terrain for more advanced skiers/riders.

Arapahoe Basin, CO = 9 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 3, Cost: 3
Even though I said it’s hard to pick my absolute favorite, A-Basin is my top of the CO Epic resorts I’ve been to.* It’s quite rustic (homey lodges, nothing fancy) and has more slow-going lifts than high-speed detachables, but the steep runs and beautiful views are what make it great. And when Loveland Pass is open, it’s a quick drive from Denver!

Heavenly, CA = 7 / 9
Location: 2, Terrain: 3, Cost: 2
Heavenly has some of the best views of Lake Tahoe, and it’s fun to ski on both CA and NV sides. If you have a gambling or clubbing streak, you’ll enjoy the glitzy base. The parking situation is a little perplexing; the drive there (coming from I-80 Truckee) rings the lake, which is a wonderful scenic drive even though it’ll take some time to get there. Plan for slow speeds with any fresh snow.

Northstar, CA = 7 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 2, Cost: 2
Northstar is super convenient from Truckee / I-80, and has a nice ski village (standard pricey). Pretty easy to get around the resort, but their terrain isn’t anything too terribly exciting.

Kirkwood, CA = 7 / 9
Location: 1, Terrain: 3, Cost: 3
I LOVED Kirkwood. It’s just so fricken hard to get to. But easily my favorite of the Epic CA resorts. Big fan of the expert-only chairs and the lunch prices were underwhelming, which is a good thing.


* I still haven’t made it to Breckenridge or Beaver Creek, but heard great things about both. Breck is definitely closer and convenient to Denver, but Beaver Creek supposedly has amazing free fresh cookies at the base in the afternoon! Also Telluride just joined the Epic Pass — I’m told it’s beautiful, but it’s quite the trek from Denver, certainly not a day trip.

** Vail Resorts includes several other awesome ski destinations across the states and abroad, which is great if you’re looking to ski far and wide.

Great collection of Colorado resorts and NO BLACKOUT DATES!

Winter Park, CO = 8 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 3, Cost: 2
The drive to Winter Park can be a little sketchy in snow because you’ve got a lot of tight switchbacks, but it’s not far and worth it to get a powder day! The Mary Jane territory is nice section for advanced skiers/riders, and overall the resort is easy to get around. A lot of free parking lot options, but they fill up pretty quickly!

Copper Mountain, CO = 6 / 9
Location: 2, Terrain: 2, Cost: 2
Just a little further down I-70, but the resort is right off the freeway, so it’s easy driving. The resort has some really nice long runs and decent terrain, but it can take a while to get across the mountain to the various lodges and lifts.

Steamboat, CO = 6 / 9
Location: 1, Terrain: 3, Cost: 2
I’m sad to say I didn’t get to witness the infamous ‘champagne powder’ of Steamboat. It’s a trek from Denver, but great for a weekend trip. The mountain is pretty huge, so there’s a lot to see. Generally not a lot of steep terrain, but I was there when a lot of their blacks weren’t open, so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt! For those who hate country music, be warned. For those who love it, get excited.

Crested Butte, CO = 6 / 9
Location: 1, Terrain: 3, Cost: 2
Crested Butte is a lovely, quaint ski town, and the resort is also pretty great. Nice high speed lifts, so you can cover a lot of ground quickly. Pretty choice terrain, even though it’s a smaller resort. Probably my favorite resort on the RM pass, but definitely harder to get to.


* I didn’t make it to Eldora, which is also included in the pass; it’s smaller, but super close to Denver, and you can avoid the awful I-70 traffic.

Off-the-Pass Resorts

There are several other resorts in CO and CA that aren’t included in either the Epic Pass or Rocky Mountain Super Pass, but are worth a visit if you get the chance! Here are just a few:

Loveland, CO = 9 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 3, Cost: 3
Loveland is similar to A-Basin in many ways. It has great terrain, is a fairly modest resort, and is super easy to get to. Also, the people who ski at Loveland are awesome. Because it’s a stand-alone pass, all the skiers/riders are super fans, and super helpful in pointing out the sweet spots. Take the time to get the cat pass from the information desk to hitch a cat ride for a few extra turns at the top!

Squaw Valley, CA = 7 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 3, Cost: 1
Squaw is similar to Vail in that it has some strong hype. Host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw gets a lot of traffic, so expect long (long) lift lines on any holiday weekend. Great terrain though, and pretty easy to get to and get around the resort. The village scene isn’t bad either! Partner with Alpine Meadows ski resort.

Sugar Bowl, CA = 8 / 9
Location: 3, Terrain: 3, Cost: 2
I’m 100% biased because this is my ‘hometown’ resort (and I’m almost afraid to mention it because I like that it’s not well-known), but Sugar Bowl is a unassuming ski resort with a good variety of terrain, but small enough to cover a lot of ground in a day. Starting to ratchet up the prices with the rest of the Tahoe resorts, but generally a little less expensive.

Mammoth, CA = 7 / 9
Location: 1, Terrain: 3, Cost: 3
Mammoth is awesome. A 5.5-hour drive from LA or 3.5-hours from Truckee, it’s not easy to get to, but has a lot to offer. Great terrain and BOMB nachos at the Mill base lodge.


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