A very opinionated Colorado ski resort review

 

 

   Best overall ski areas
   Best moguls
   Best technical terrain
   Best trees
   Best powder
   Most underrated ski areas
   Most overrated ski areas
   A ranking of all Colorado ski areas

 

 In bounds at Silverton.  Oh yeah...

Ok, right up front, I've got to say that this is from an expert skier's point of view.  If you like bumps, trees, steeps, couloirs, cliffs, and picking through tight technical terrain (preferably all at once), then this review is for you.  If you are a beginner skier then ignore everything that follows.  Beginner terrain is easy to find, but when it comes to expert and extreme terrain some resorts outshine the others.  In my opinion.  Only my opinion.

 


The view from Aspen Highlands.

Best overall ski areas

1. Aspen Highlands.  Has it all.  Steeps, moguls, great hike-to terrain, superb trees, and some fun though smallish cliffs on the front side.  Lifts are very well placed. Only needs a little more of the crazy technical terrain.  Killer views.

2. Crested Butte.  Incredible steeps and cliffs with technical turns through tight rocky terrain, though not a lot of bumps.  Kudos for opening terrain that other resorts wouldn't even think about (they are perfectly willing to let you get in waaay over your head).  Would be the best in the state except for two serious shortcomings.  First, the lifts are very poorly placed for expert skiers.  It's an annoying three(!) lift rides for each run on the extreme terrain.  And at least one of the lifts will always have a long line.  It's hard to get enough runs in one day to make the hefty ticket price worthwhile.  Second, Crested Butte is hit or miss with snowfall.  Near as I can figure, their best terrain is open only one out of three years.

3. Silverton.  Fantastic long steeps, couloirs, cliffs, and trees with deep powder that's preserved by the limited number of skiers.  The only downsides?  No bumps and almost all of the terrain involves at least a short hike and usually a long hike.  Combined with the hit-or-miss shuttle rides back to the base (at least when skiing without a guide), you only get six to eight runs per day.  But each run will be excellent, and this is probably the best ski area for powder snobs.  The new heli-ski option seems like an annoyingly noisy and bad idea in a ski area that otherwise has a remote backcountry feel.  Every skier at Silverton is a very good skier.  There are no beginner or intermediate runs.  None.

4. Telluride.  A great combination of bump runs, trees, bowls, and steep hike-to technical terrain.  They are willing to let you get in trouble in some places, but incongruously, rope off many other fine spots.  Great town.  Gorgeous scenery.

5. Mary Jane (and Winter Park).  Best bumps in the state.  Best trees in the state.  And these are long runs.  Many great cliffs for those who know where to find them (follow a local through the trees).  For day-in day-out skiing this is my favorite resort in the state.  All it lacks are the steep runs of the above resorts, though in the last year Mary Jane has been much better about opening the short but steeper Chutes on a regular basis.  I recommend skiing primarily the Jane side, but don't completely neglect the bumps and trees on the Winter Park side.  Easy close-in parking on the Jane side, which is unusual for a resort this size.  Unfortunately, the pine beetle is killing virtually every tree in Grand County and may irrevocably alter the landscape of this resort.  We'll see.

 


Moguls at Aspen.

Best moguls

1. Mary Jane Best bumps in the state.  Period.  If you want to be a better and more precise skier, get your pass here.  Try the "C-lift Challenge" -- in one day, ski every bump run accessible as a round trip from the Challenger lift.

2. Aspen Highlands Steep fun bumps!  Can get icy, but some of the trees have good bumps that hold up well during those warm snaps.

3. Arapahoe Basin Nice technical bumps, particularly through the trees in the Alleys.

 


The easy side of Crested Butte.

Best technical terrain (cliffs, billy-goating, ultra steeps, etc.)

1. Crested Butte Hands down winner.  Too bad the resort is laid out for beginners and takes three lift rides for every run on the steeps.  Only visit in a very good snow year.

2. Silverton.  Great hike-to terrain with fun chutes and slots through rock.  Best terrain requires longer hikes that will limit the number of runs, but don't neglect some of the easier access cliffs like Raff.

3. Telluride.  Great hike-to technical terrain.  Nice pockets of hidden fun scattered on many lifts.  Would be nice if they dropped some ropes on Gold Hill Express.

4. Mary Jane (and Winter Park).  Many great cliffs and technical shots for those who know where to find them (hint: look in the trees -- at least 12 different cliff areas come to mind at the moment).  I just wish they would drop some of those ropes in and around the Chutes.  An orange warning sign saying "Cliff" would be sufficient.

 


Trees at Telluride -- another fine choice.

Best trees

1. Mary Jane.  So many to choose from, and so nice and long.  Most trees on the Jane side have bumps, but if you want fewer bumps try the Eagle Wind lift.  And if you don't want any bumps, try the infrequently skied trees on the Winter Park side.  Caveat: the mountain pine beetle is devastating the forests along the Front Range.  The tree skiing may look very different in a few years.

2. Steamboat.  The trees are the only reason to visit Steamboat.  Fantastic expansive aspen groves with great powder.  Don't miss the trees on some of the lower lifts.

3. Aspen Highlands.  Steep and fun.  Try any patch between the bump runs, and poke around a bit to find some nice aspen groves.  Most folks will do the long hike all the way to the top of Highlands Bowl, but consider hiking only 5 minutes and dropping through the trees instead.  Trees on the front side can also be quite good.

 


Woohoo! Powder day, if I can find my car.

Best powder

This is a hard one.  Every resort can get great powder, but these are my choices for having consistently big dumps that hold up well.

1. Silverton.  The number of skiers is limited by design, so duh, of course there will be stashes five days after the storm.  But their location is also excellent.  They get a lot of snow.

2. Wolf Creek.  Just seems to dump on this place. Great for early season powder.

3. Loveland.  Yes, Loveland.  Big snows, small crowds, and a gigantic bowl (Chair 9) that make other resorts wish they understood the meaning of "bowl".  But watch for the winds which can really strip the snow away.  Goes through long dry spells, particularly in January.

 


Some of the fine trees at Loveland. (Photo: Brian Bahr)

Most underrated ski areas

1. Loveland.  A surprising number of people pass this ski area on their way to Breckenridge and Vail.  Why on earth?  Loveland has much better terrain, even if it is smaller and colder.  No parking hassles, good skiers, no lift lines, ok bumps, good trees, and some of the state's best and easiest hiking for powder.

2. Sunlight Overshadowed by the nearby Aspen resorts.  Has surprisingly fun steeps, though it takes two slow lift rides and a long traverse to get to the best terrain.

3. Eldora.  Small and very few bumps, but has surprisingly good tree runs.  Check out Bryan and Salto Glades.  After a few visits with lots of poking around, you'll find some of the secret stashes.  Wait for early spring to be sure the cover is decent.

 


Forget Vail. Go backcountry. Now that's good technical terrain. Vader Couloir, Indian Peaks, CO, 2007.

Most overrated ski areas

Ok, before you lynch me, this is just one person's opinion (and a slightly demented person who prefers extreme ski terrain).  These are some of the most successful resorts in the world, so I feel like I must be missing something somewhere.  Probably am.  Many, many people enjoy these resorts.  More power to them.

1. Vail Hardly any steeps, and takes forever on a zillion traverses and lifts to get to the "good terrain".  Powder disappears fast.  Expensive tickets.  Annoyingly expensive pay-to-park.  A town with no charm.  I don't ski here even when I have a pass.  Just big.  And we all know bigger is better.  Ugh.  

2. Breckenridge.  Flat.  Only a few steeps and not many bumps except on short southern (icy) exposures.  Have to park a million miles from the resort.  Expensive.  Again, it's just big.

3. Steamboat.  Yes, there are good reasons to ski Steamboat.  Powder and excellent aspen glades.  I don't want to imply that this is a bad place to ski.  I've had some very happy powder days here.  None-the-less, Steamboat is waaay oversold and overrated.  No steeps anywhere (ok, maybe two turns if you spend 10 minutes hiking) and very few bumps.  The sea of condos are a blot on what used to be a nice town.  Again, Steamboat is a much better choice than some other resorts but that doesn't change the fact that expert skiers should look elsewhere and ignore the hype.

 


Awe Chute at Mary Jane.

A ranking of all Colorado ski areas

Remember, this is from the point of view of a skier that likes to see cliffs, rocks, couloirs, bumps, obstacles, cornices, tight slots, and general gnarlescence.  If you like challenging terrain, then I'm guessing you would place each of these resorts within three or four slots of my rankings.  In most cases, I would say that the difference between any three consecutive rankings is splitting hairs.

1. Aspen Highlands.  Has it all.  Steeps, moguls, great hike-to terrain, superb trees, and some fun though smallish cliffs on the front side.  Lifts are very well placed. Only needs a little more of the technical terrain.

2. Crested Butte.  Incredible steeps and cliffs with technical turns through tight rocky terrain, though not a lot of bumps.  Kudos for opening terrain that other resorts wouldn't even think about (they are perfectly willing to let you get in waaay over your head).  Would be the best in the state except for two serious shortcomings.  First, the lifts are very poorly placed for expert skiers.  It's an annoying three(!) lift rides for each run on the extreme terrain.  And at least one of the lifts will always have a long line.  It's hard to get enough runs in one day to make the hefty ticket price worthwhile.  Second, Crested Butte is hit or miss with snowfall.  Near as I can figure, their best terrain is open only one out of three years.

3. Silverton.  Fantastic long steeps, couloirs, cliffs, and trees with deep powder that's preserved by the limited number of skiers.  The only downsides?  No bumps and almost all of the terrain involves at least a short hike and usually a long hike.  Combined with the hit-or-miss shuttle rides back to the base (at least when skiing without a guide), you only get six to eight runs per day.  But each run will be excellent, and this is probably the best ski area for powder snobs.  The new heli-ski option seems like an annoyingly noisy and bad idea in a ski area that otherwise has a remote backcountry feel.  Every skier at Silverton is a very good skier. There are no beginner or intermediate runs.  None.

4. Telluride.  A great combination of bump runs, trees, bowls, and steep hike-to technical terrain.  They are willing to let you get in trouble in some places, but incongruously, rope off many other fine spots.  Great town.  Gorgeous scenery.

5. Mary Jane (and Winter Park).  Best bumps in the state.  Best trees in the state.  And these are long runs.  Many great cliffs for those who know where to find them (follow a local through the trees).  For day-in day-out skiing this is my favorite resort in the state.  All it lacks are the steep runs of the above resorts, though in the last year Mary Jane has been much better about opening the short but steeper Chutes on a regular basis.

6. Arapahoe Basin Small ski area, but great runs on the Pali lift.  Steep bumps, and great trees in the Alleys.  Excellent hike-to terrain with billy-goat options.  Plenty of airtime available in Grandfather Cliffs and the North Pole.  Overrated back side, but it keeps the crowds down on the Pali lift, so hooray for that.  Many very good skiers.  Only hits its stride in mid spring when the cover is finally decent.

7. Wolf Creek.  Steep Waterfall area and Knife Edge are a blast.  Great trees with some old growth.  Short runs, but I get more powder here than just about anywhere else.  Nice small resort feel.

8. Aspen.  Has lots of fun terrain with some really fine moguls and aspen glades. Has some nice steeps here and there.  The biggest drawback is the horribly placed lifts.  Most decent runs require a two-lift round trip.  Great but expensive town. 

9. Snowmass.  Better than the trail map might imply.  Has some nice hike-to technical terrain, and has a few good bump runs.  Some occasional steeps and some good hucks.  Not my top choice, but still a fine destination.

10. Loveland.  The most underrated ski area in the state.  Small, but larger than most folks realize.  Not a lot of technical terrain, but some big cornices off the divide.  Expansive hiking.  Good powder, ok bumps, some excellent trees, and a friendly atmosphere. 

11. Keystone.  Overrated, but still has some really good trees and bumps in the Outback.  When the snow is good, I can spend a happy day in the trees here.  Unfortunately, as a rule, Keystone doesn't get very good snow.

12. Beaver Creek.  Ok, not bad.  Has lots of good bump runs, though they over sell them (e.g., their "radically-insane super-crazy Birds-of-Prey bump challenge" is, well, easy).  Some fun trees here and there.  Not many steeps.

13. Copper.  Lots of bumps, but many are on an annoying double fall line.  Their bowls are overrated (like most bowls at most resorts).  Some good trees.  "Town" has no charm and parking is annoying.  Nowhere obvious to bring and eat your own lunch.

14. Eldora.  Small, but good tree skiing.  Serious lack of bumps which they should fix asap (how about letting Mule Shoe bump up?).  Wish they would reopen night skiing (limited, but it was fun as an after-work diversion).  Incredible upslope powder dumps, but gets crowded on those days.  Wait for early- to mid-spring for the good coverage.  Low elevation and man-made snow means lots of ice.  New Englanders will feel right at home.

15. Steamboat.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  Great powder and great aspen groves.  Really good aspen groves (worth trying at least once).  This resort isn't near the bottom of my list, but it's waaay oversold and overrated.  No steeps anywhere (ok, maybe two turns if you spend 10 minutes hiking) and very few bumps.  The sea of condos are a blot on what used to be a nice town.

16. Sunlight.  An underrated little resort overshadowed by Aspen.  Has some surprisingly fun steeps and tree shots, but the two-lift round trips are annoying.  A great option as a half day on your way to Aspen Highlands.

17. Monarch.  Not a bad little resort, but only has enough to keep me interested for a few hours.  Nobody skis the trees, so you can get some nice powder several days after the storm.  The hike-to terrain is short but good -- on the right side, aim for the small orange warning signs that say "Cliff".  (Those signs attract me like a magnet.)

18. Breckenridge.  Used to have the advantage of being a real town, but like much of the I-70 corridor, it has been overrun and condo-ized.  Oh, and the skiing sucks.  Flat and boring.  Sorry.

19. Vail.  Ok, go ahead and shoot me.  I know you love it, but I don't.  It's boring and expensive.  There, I said it.

20. Powderhorn.  Actually has a few surprisingly good tree runs through mixed aspen forest.  And has a few bump runs.  It's just not very exciting for more than a half day.  I recommend this only as a half day excursion on your way to Telluride or Silverton.

21. Buttermilk.  Ho hum.  Don't be fooled by the presence of the Winter X-Games.  There is very little for the advanced skier.  That being said, Buttermilk has a few very long steep groomers that can be incredibly fast in the early morning.  You will catch 30 feet of horizontal air over some of the steeper rollovers.  That is fun.

22. Ski Cooper.  A nice little resort with pleasant views suitable for families and beginners, but utterly boring for an advanced skier.  Come here to learn to ski backwards because nothing else will be interesting.

23. Sol Vista Basin.  And at the bottom of the list... a lame excuse for trying to sell real estate.  It's blatant; every lift tower has another ad.  The staff is friendly, but there is no interesting terrain unless you are a beginner.  Snow cover is usually poor.  As a sure warning sign, they advertise their golf as much as their skiing.

For Durango, Echo, Howelson, Kendall -- see fine print.


The fine print

For the persnickety, I am defining ski resorts and ski areas as any place with a ski lift, more than a few acres of terrain, and an emphasis on all types of downhill snow sports.  This excludes Echo mountain (small and emphasis on snowboarding terrain parks), Howelson Hill (small and emphasis on ski jumping), and other small mom and pop operations like Kendall Mountain (ultra small).  I'm also excluding dead resorts like Berthoud and otherwise excellent resorts outside of (but very near) Colorado like Taos, Alta, Snowbird, etc.  And one other caveat: I have skied Durango Mountain (aka Purgatory), but not recently enough to give it a fair shake, so I'm not including it in the rankings, though my recollection is of a very intermediate-level resort.  Most of the other resorts I have skied this season (2008-2009). 

My opinions are based on upwards of 2000 skier days over 20 years, but the distribution is not even.  I ski resorts near Denver a lot more than resorts in the southwest part of the state.  It's strictly a function of proximity.  Frankly, the southwest has better skiing.

 

David Bahr's home page.

Last update: April 2009. David Bahr at dbahr at regis.edu.

 

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