Rocky Mountain Renaissance

Rocky Mountain Renaissance

Julie Toy The Devil's Thumb Ranch near Winter Park.
Julie Toy The Devil's Thumb Ranch near Winter Park.
Five of Colorado's most improved—and impressive—ski areas.
Plus: Seven smaller resorts worth discovering.

The Colorado Rockies are home to some of the world's most glamorous ski resorts, iconic places like Aspen and Vail. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's these name-brand destinations that leap to mind when skiers sit down to plan a winter trip. But Colorado has many ski areas, and a number of them have recently undergone major changes. New base villages and hotels, better lift systems, and improved access have made these five resorts worthy alternatives to the state's more celebrated slopes.

If you gaze from the top of Aspen Highlands out at the peaks and forests of the Maroon Bells wilderness, it's easy to forget that you're just a few miles from racks of Prada leather pants and trendy sushi restaurants. Highlands feels—and looks—more like wild Alaska than chichi Aspen, and until very recently, skiing here was a bit too much of an adventure for most people. Creaky lifts, a lack of services, and a reputation for being an experts-only hill made it largely the domain of locals. In the past few years, though, the installation of speedier chairlifts and the construction of a small base village has helped transform Highlands into an intimate and relaxed version of its three fast-lane sister resorts, Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, and Buttermilk.

To be sure, Highlands can be a challenging mountain. Terrain like the ultra-steep Highland Bowl, off the 12,400-foot summit—accessible only by foot or Sno-Cat—is serious stuff (any doubts about that will be erased if you happen to share a chairlift with a rescue dog). But there are plenty of groomed, wide-open slopes for not-so-hot shots; in fact, more than half of Highlands' trails are for novice and intermediate skiers.

No matter where you ski, stop for lunch at the mid-mountain Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro (970/544-3063; lunch for two $50; reservations recommended), where wild game, raclette, and strudel are served in a snug cabin overlooking a panorama of 14,000-foot-high peaks. When the lifts close, head for the new base village to celebrate moments of glory with margaritas on the deck at Iguana's Bar & Grill (970/920-9449), or lament your lack of powder skills over a pint in Willow Creek Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton Club (800/306-7836;; two-bedrooms from $1,155), a fractional-ownership property that has a limited number of luxury two- and three-bedroom units available for rent. There are many more options in Aspen proper—try the renovated Sky Hotel, (800/747-1970 or 970/925-6760;; doubles from $289) right at the center of Aspen's whirl; there's shuttle bus service to Highlands, two miles away.
ASPEN HIGHLANDS, 800/525-6200 or 970/925-1220;

This 150-year-old former mining town in Colorado's rugged Elk Mountains has what no team of skilled architects or ingenious designers could ever manufacture—real character. Crested Butte is one of the great ski towns of the West, with renovated Victorian-era general stores, bordellos, and saloons lining the main street and a population of friendly and eccentric skiers, mountain bikers, artists, and romantics.

So why isn't the resort better known?Partly, it's because of the 250-mile distance from Denver, and the perception that it's difficult to get to. While the trip may indeed take a little extra time and effort, the recent addition of direct flights from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Newark airports, and daily flights from Denver into Gunnison, 28 miles to the south, have made it much easier.

Skiers may also be under the mistaken impression that Crested Butte's imposing lone, white peak is strictly for gonzo, mohawked cliff-jumpers. Granted, the nearly vertical North Face holds some of the steepest and hairiest terrain in North America, and the resort does host the U.S. extreme snowboarding and skiing championships. But Crested Butte is also a family mountain, with miles of mellow trails, several kids' terrain parks, a well-lit tubing hill, and a fine ski school. The resort's contemporary base village, Mount Crested Butte, is three miles north of the old town and has a handful of pleasant and affordable ski-in, ski-out condominiums and hotels, including a 240-room Club Med (800/258-2633 or 970/349-8700;; doubles from $770, all-inclusive).

Although you could happily spend your entire vacation at Mount Crested Butte, if you did, you'd be missing out on one of the area's greatest attributes: the remarkable collection of stellar restaurants and atmospheric bars that line Elk Avenue, the town's historic main drag. There's tiny, romantic Soupçon (127A Elk Ave.; 970/349-5448; dinner for two $85), for innovative French cuisine; Timberline (201 Elk Ave.; 970/349-9831; dinner for two $55), for game; the Secret Stash (21 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6245; dinner for two $20), for eclectic pizza; and the Idle Spur (226 Elk Ave.; 970/349-5026; dinner for two $65), for aged Colorado steaks—to name just a few. Late-night musts include the Eldo (215 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6125) and Talk of the Town (230 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6809) for live music, and the century-old Kochevar's Saloon (127 Elk Ave.; 970/349-6745), a pool hall where Butch Cassidy left his gun behind when he bolted to escape a sheriff's posse. That's atmosphere.

If you skied Copper sometime in the last few decades, odds are your reaction was something like this: Great mountain, too bad it doesn't have a nice little town at the base. Now, thanks to Intrawest, the Canadian firm that acquired Copper in 1997—and that specializes in the creation of nice little towns at the bottom of ski mountains—the resort finally has what it was missing.

The new Village at Copper, unveiled last winter, is the centerpiece of a massive redesign. With a half-dozen timber-framed lodges, a hip little snowboard shop, a skating rink, and several happening après-ski spots, Copper's base has been transformed into a festive, appealing place, worthy of the fine ski mountain it anchors—and with barely a hint of Disney World artifice.

Copper Mountain's skiing is sublime. Experts head for the high-altitude bowls of Copper Peak and work the flanks of Union Bowl; the less experienced find sanctuary in the tree-lined boulevards of Union Creek. Snowboarders love the mountain, too, for its lack of tedious catwalks and its big terrain parks.

In the evening, Copper's new village revs up. Mix with the Red Bull crowd at Endo's Adrenaline Café (970/968-2882) or with the shaken-not-stirred set at Pravda (970/968-2222), a vodka bar (no relation to the New York City original) where the doormen wear KGB-style trench coats and fur hats and the bartenders have been known to pour drinks directly into patrons' mouths. Visit Jack's Slopeside Bar & Grill (970/968-2318) if the infectious duo Lefty Lucy is performing and don't be surprised to find yourself line dancing on the bar. No worries: your hotel room—try Copper One Lodge (888/263-5302; studios from $149), right next to the American Eagle chairlift—is just a short walk away. That's all part of the master plan.
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT, 888/219-2441 or 866/841-2481;

High above the small town of Avon, Beaver Creek sits, like Oz, at the end of a serpentine road. The impeccably designed resort village is an architectural wedding cake—tier upon slate-roofed tier of vaguely Swiss-looking granite lodges and shops, clustered around a heated, cobblestoned plaza and a skating rink. Nothing seems haphazard here; even the fat, drifting snowflakes feel as if they were choreographed by some guy behind a curtain.

All this has helped create the perception that Beaver Creek is long on cushiness, short on challenging skiing. But the resort has varied and uncrowded slopes—from monster bumps to pitch-perfect cruisers. So what if you take a heated escalator to get to the chairlift and enjoy free warm chocolate-chip cookies while you stand in line?That doesn't mean you aren't a brilliant skier.

You can even pretend you're in the Alps and ski village to village from Beaver Creek over to Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch, two recently developed, intimate, and ultra-tasteful enclaves in the next valleys over. But be warned: You will be overwhelmed by the urge to immediately check into the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch (800/241-3333 or 970/748-6200;; doubles from $250), a peak-roofed palace modeled after the grand national-park lodges of the American West. The 237-room luxury hotel has a full spa, a heated outdoor pool, its own chairlift outside the front door, and a menu of services that includes a "ski nanny" who delivers your kids and their equipment to ski lessons.

Those lessons, by the way, are at what is widely recognized as one of the best ski schools in the Rockies. You can book instruction, rentals, and—new this year—airline tickets on-line at Vail Resorts Save a day to head up to McCoy Park (970/845-5313), the mountaintop snowshoe and cross-country-ski center. Then reward yourself with a six-course dinner at the elegant Beano's Cabin (970/949-9090; dinner for two $185; reservations essential), a mid-mountain log cabin accessible only by sleigh ride. Beaver Creek's lift tickets are also honored at sister resort Vail, 10 miles to the east.
BEAVER CREEK, 888/830-7669 or 970/496-4500;

On the road to Winter Park, one minute you're blowing by the Wal-Marts of greater Denver, the next you're snaking your way, white-knuckled, up and over narrow, switchback-filled Berthoud Pass. It's only 67 miles from the city, but Winter Park is another world—one where the mountains are immense and the cowboy hats are worn by actual cowboys.

That proximity and down-home authenticity is part of what draws people to Winter Park. But it's the vast skiing and snowboarding terrain that keeps them coming back. Families love the web of groomed green and blue trails that vein the Winter Park side of the resort. Young yahoos with still-decent knees hit the bumps on adjacent mountain Mary Jane; adventurous types looking for a backcountry experience head above the timberline to Vasquez Cirque.

Where Winter Park has lagged behind other Colorado ski areas is in lodging and dining options right at its base. The opening, in 2000, of the Zephyr Mountain Lodge (866/433-3908;; one- to three-bedroom units from $159) was a big step forward, but there's more to come. Resort developer Intrawest recently partnered with the city of Denver (which owns Winter Park) to operate the resort, and announced plans to invest at least $50 million in the mountain over the next 10 years. That means Winter Park will get a renovated base village, like Copper Mountain.

Despite the impending slicking-up of the immediate resort area, the town of Winter Park, a few miles north of the ski lifts, will most likely remain the refreshingly unhip hodgepodge of rental shops and budget motels that it is today. So if you don't want to pay for Intrawest's brand of charm, you won't have to. And if you drive a little farther up U.S. 40, you'll find yourself in lovable, unfashionable Fraser, a ranch town of weathered storefronts and feed shops. Stop in for a cold one with the locals at the Crooked Creek Saloon (401 Zerex St.; 970/726-9250), and then have dinner at the more refined Devil's Thumb Ranch (3530 County Rd. 83; 800/933-4339; for two $70), a top Nordic ski center that serves good food in its original 1937 log homestead. The ranch is just up the road from the area's best B&B, the Wild Horse Inn (1536 County Rd. 83; 970/726-0456;; doubles from $170). Guests stay in one of seven bright, whitewashed rooms with log furnishings, down comforters, and private baths.
WINTER PARK RESORT, 800/979-0332 or 970/726-1564;


These ski areas refer to themselves collectively as the Colorado Gems, and offer moderately priced lift tickets, affordable lodging, and a laid-back atmosphere—not to mention some of the least crowded trails in the state.

1 Powderhorn Resort
On the side of flattop Grand Mesa, 35 miles outside Grand Junction, Powderhorn's broad slopes and terrain parks are ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders.

2 Sunlight Mountain Resort
Ten miles southwest of Glenwood Springs—site of the world's largest hot-springs pool—Sunlight has 67 trails, including some more than two miles long, and spectacular views of Mount Sopris and the Elk Mountain range.
800/445-7931 OR 970/945-7491;

3 Monarch Ski & Snowboard Area
At the top of the Continental Divide, 20 miles from the historic hot-springs town of Salida, storm-pummeled Monarch is known as an advanced expert powder-skier's heaven. There's Sno-Cat access to 900 backcountry acres.
888/996-7669 OR 719/530-5000;

4 Ski Cooper
Originally the training ground of World War II's famed 10th Mountain Division Special Forces, Cooper, just outside Leadville, has four lifts serving a mellow beginners' and intermediates' playground. Experts head for the backcountry Chicago Ridge, with 2,400 acres of challenging treed slopes and open bowls, accessible by Sno-Cat.
800/707-6114 OR 719/486-3684;

5 Arapahoe Basin
With half its trails above the timberline, A-Basin, just up the road from mega-resort Keystone, has big-league open bowls and the highest skiable terrain in North America.
888/272-7246 OR 970/468-0718;

6 Loveland Ski Area
Fifty-three miles west of Denver, with 1,365 acres of skiable terrain on the flanks of the Continental Divide, this locals' favorite just off I-70 gets more than 400 inches of snow each season.
800/736-3754 OR 303/571-5580;

7 SolVista Golf & Ski Ranch
Formerly Silver Creek, this low-key, well-laid-out family resort has two interconnected mountains, 33 well-groomed trails, ski-in/ski-out lodging, and an emphasis on learn-to-ski and -board programs.
800/926-4386 OR 970/887-3384;

MEG LUKENS NOONAN contributes regularly to Outside magazine.

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