Skiing the Northern Rockies: 12 Snowy Slopes

Chairlifts on the Golden Peak, Vail, Colorado. snowbuzz
By Eric Peterson

The northern Rockies begin just outside of Denver and extend on either side of the meandering Continental Divide down sawtooth ridgelines, through precipitous river canyons, and across broad alpine plains. Here snowfall is measured in feet, not inches; it's where you'll find Colorado's hottest ski resorts -- Aspen, Vail, and Steamboat -- as well as a few smaller areas that are making headlines, such as Winter Park.

And then there's Summit County, with possibly more major ski areas within a half-hour's drive than anywhere else in the country. If you're easily bored, rent a condo or take a room in Breckenridge and spend your days skiing a different mountain every day. With Copper, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin within a few miles' drive, you've got plenty of choices.

Photo Caption: Chairlifts on the Golden Peak, Vail, Colorado. Photo by snowbuzz/Flickr.com.
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Skiing Arapahoe Basin in the Northern Rockies of Colorado. Alex Kerney
Arapahoe Basin is one of Colorado's oldest ski areas, having opened in 1946. Several features make Arapahoe exceptional: Most of its 900 skiable acres are intermediate and expert terrain, much of it above timberline; it expanded to the new, wide-open slopes of Montezuma Bowl in January 2008; its longest run is 1½ miles; and it receives an average of 367 inches of snow a year and is frequently one of the last Colorado ski areas to close for the season -- often not until mid-June. It usually opens in early November. Arapahoe offers a 2,270-foot vertical drop from its summit at 13,050 feet. It is served by two triple and three double chairs plus a conveyor. The mountain rates its 105 trails as 10% beginner, 30% intermediate, 37% advanced, and 23% expert.

For information, including a snow report, contact Arapahoe Basin (tel. 888/272-7246 or 970/496-0718; www.arapahoebasin.com).

Photo Caption: Skiing Arapahoe Basin in the Northern Rockies of Colorado. Photo by Alex Kerney/Flickr.com
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Aspen. Frommers.com Community
Named for an old miner's claim, Aspen Mountain is not for the timid. This is the American West's original hard-core ski mountain, with no fewer than 23 of its runs named double diamond -- for experts only. One-third of the mountain's runs are left forever ungroomed -- sheer ecstasy for bump runners. There are mountain-long runs for intermediates as well as advanced skiers, but beginners should look to one of the other Aspen/Snowmass mountains.

From the Sundeck restaurant at the mountain's 11,212-foot summit, numerous intermediate runs extend on either side of Bell Mountain -- through Copper Bowl and down Spar Gulch. To the east of the gulch, the knob of Bell offers a mecca for mogul mashers, with bump runs down its ridge and its east and west faces. To the west of the gulch, the face of Ruthie's is wonderful for intermediate cruisers, while more mogul runs drop off International. Ruthie's Run extends for over 2 miles down the west ridge of the mountain, with an extension via Magnifico Cut Off and Little Nell to the base, and is accessed by the unique Ruthie's high-speed double chair.

Aspen Mountain has a 3,267-foot vertical drop, with 76 trails on 673 skiable acres. The resort rates its trails as follows: none easiest, 48% more difficult, 26% most difficult, and 26% expert. There are eight lifts -- a high-speed gondola, one high-speed quad chair, two quads, one high-speed double, and three double chairs. Average annual snowfall at the 11,212-foot summit is 300 inches (25 ft.). Aspen Mountain is usually open from late November to mid-April from 9am to 3:30pm. Find out more about Aspen Mountain on its website (www.aspensnowmass.com)

Photo Caption: View of Aspen. Photo by bruceperry/Frommers.com Community
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A skier poses at the top of an Aspen Highlands peak. Frommers.com Community
A favorite of locals for its expert and adventure terrain -- Highland Bowl -- Aspen Highlands also has a good mix of terrain, from novice to expert, with lots of intermediate slopes. It also offers absolutely splendid views of the famed Maroon Bells.

It takes two lifts to reach the 11,675-foot Loge Peak summit, where most of the advanced expert runs are found in the Steeplechase area and 199 acres of glades in the Olympic Bowl. Kandahar, Golden Horn, and Thunderbowl give the intermediate skier a long run from top to bottom, and novices are best served midmountain on trails like Red Onion and Apple Strudel. There are also some fantastic opportunities for experts at Highland Bowl, which is a short walk from the top of the Loge Peak lift.

Freestyle Friday, a tradition at Highlands for almost 3 decades, boasts some of the best freestyle-bump and big-air competitors in Colorado every Friday from early January to mid-April. In this technical head-to-head contest, competitors bump their way down Scarlett's Run and finish with a final jump that lands them within perfect view of lunchtime guests at the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant.

There are 118 trails on 1,028 acres, served by five lifts (three high-speed quads and two triple chairs). Trails are rated 18% easiest, 30% more difficult, 16% most difficult, and 36% expert. Highlands is usually open from mid-December to early April, with lifts operating from 9am to 3:30pm. Find out more about Aspen Highlands on its website (www.aspensnowmass.com).

Photo Caption: A skier poses at the top of an Aspen Highlands peak.
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Slopes near Grouse Mountain, Beaver Creek. Frommers.com Community
Beaver Creek, which is owned by Vail Resorts, is an outstanding resort in its own right, one with a more secluded atmosphere and maybe even more luxury than its better-known neighbor. Beaver Creek combines European château-style elegance in its base village with expansive slopes for novice and intermediate skiers. The Grouse Mountain, Birds of Prey, and Cinch lifts reach expert terrain.

From Beaver Creek Village, the Centennial Express lift to Spruce Saddle and the Birds of Prey Express lift reach northwest-facing midmountain slopes and the Flattops beginners' area atop the mountain, offering a unique beginner's experience. Opposite, the Strawberry Park Express lift accesses Larkspur Bowl and the McCoy Park cross-country ski and snowshoe area at 9,840 feet. Three other lifts -- Larkspur, Grouse Mountain, and Birds of Prey (serving the expert area of the same name, one of the steepest downhill slopes in the world) leave from Red-Tail Camp at midmountain. Arrowhead Mountain is also part of Beaver Creek. The two are connected through Bachelor Gulch, offering village-to-village skiing.

Beaver Creek is open from mid-November to late April daily from 9am to 4pm, conditions permitting. For more information, contact Beaver Creek Resort (tel. 970/845-9090 or 800/427-8308 for snow reports; www.beavercreek.com).

Photo Caption: Slopes near Grouse Mountain, Beaver Creek.
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The ski town of Breckrenridge, Colorado. Courtesy Colorado Tourism Office Weaver Multimedia Group/Matt Inden Matt Inden/Weaver Multimedia Group
Spread across four large mountains on the west side of the town of Breckenridge, this area ranks third in size among Colorado's ski resorts. Once known for its wealth of open, groomed beginner and intermediate slopes, Breckenridge in recent years has expanded its acreage for expert skiers as well.

Peak 8, the original ski mountain, is the highest of the four at 12,998 feet and has the greatest variety. Peak 9, heavily geared to novices and intermediates, rises above the principal base area. Peak 10, served by a single high-speed quad chair, is predominantly expert territory. The vast bowls of Peak 8 and the North Face of Peak 9 are likewise advanced terrain. There are restaurants high on Peaks 8, 9, and 10 and three cafeterias at the base of the slopes. Peak 7 is a double black-diamond challenge on over 1,200 feet of vertical drop.

All told, the resort has 2,208 skiable acres, with 146 trails, including Four O'Clock, the longest, at 3½ miles! The resort rates its trails as 15% beginner, 33% intermediate, and 52% expert and advanced. There are 28 lifts -- two high-speed six-passenger chairs, seven high-speed quads, one triple chair, six double chairs, four surface lifts, and eight carpet lifts. A gondola connecting the north side of town with Peak 7 and Peak 8 opened for the 2007-08 ski season. Vertical drop is 3,398 feet from a summit of 12,998 feet; average annual snowfall is 300 inches (25 ft.).

Breckenridge is usually open from mid-November to mid-May daily from 8:30am to 4pm. For further information, contact Breckenridge Ski Resort (tel. 800/789-7669, 970/453-5000, or 970/453-6118 for snow conditions; www.breckenridge.snow.com).

Photo Caption: The ski town of Breckrenridge, Colorado. Courtesy Colorado Tourism Office
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Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colorado. Frommers.com Community
Buttermilk is a premier beginners' mountain, one of the best places in America to learn how to ski. And it's also the home of the ESPN Winter X Games.

The smallest of Aspen's four mountains, it has 44 trails, which the resort rates at 35% easiest, 39% more difficult, 26% most difficult, and none expert, plus a great terrain park. There are nine lifts (two high-speed quads, three double chairs, two handle tows, and two school lifts) on 470 acres, with a 2,030-foot vertical drop. Average annual snowfall at the 9,900-foot summit is 200 inches (16 ft., 8 in.). There's a restaurant on top and a cafe at the base. Buttermilk is usually open from mid-December to early April, its lifts running from 9am to 3:30pm. It shares a website with the rest of Aspen's mountains (www.aspensnowmass.com/buttermilk/).


Photo Caption: Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colorado.
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Ski lift at Copper Mountain. William Dayton
From Copper Mountain village, the avalanche chutes on the west face of Ten Mile Mountain seem to spell out the word ski. Though this is a natural coincidence, locals like to say the mountain has terrain created for skiing.

Terrain is about half beginner and intermediate, with the rest ranging from advanced to "you'd better be really good." The area has a vertical drop of 2,601 feet from a peak elevation of 12,313 feet. There are 2,433 skiable acres and 125 trails served by 22 lifts -- one high-speed six-person chair, four high-speed quads, five triple chairs, five double chairs, two surface lifts, four conveyors, and one tubing zone lift. Average annual snowfall is 280 inches. Copper Mountain has two terrain parks. Big floater jumps are spread out across an entire run, with proper takeoff and landing ramps; there's a regulation half-pipe, and several drainage and gladed runs have been thinned to provide challenging tree riding for more advanced snowboarders.

Copper Mountain is usually open from early November to mid-April, Monday through Friday from 9am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday from 8:30am to 4pm. For information, contact Copper Mountain Resort (tel. 866/841-2481; www.coppercolorado.com). For reservations, call tel. 888/219-2441; for a snow report, call tel. 800/789-7609.

Photo Caption: Ski lift at Copper Mountain. Photo by William Dayton/Flickr.com
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Snowmobiles at the top of mountain in Keystone, Colorado. Frommers.com Community
Keystone is actually three separate mountains, offering a variety of terrain. And the resort is one of the best spots for night skiing in America, open daily from 8:30am until 8pm.

From its peak elevation of 12,200 feet, Keystone's vertical drop is 3,128 feet. It's three interconnected mountains offer 2,870 acres of skiing, 117 trails (17 open for night skiing), and 19 lifts -- including two connecting high-speed gondolas, a high-speed six-person chair, five high-speed quads, one quad, one triple, four doubles, one surface lift, and four carpets. Average annual snowfall is 230 inches (about 19 ft.). Its trails are rated 12% beginner, 34% intermediate, and 54% expert and advanced.

For snowboarders, Keystone has 66 acres of terrain parks, including two half-pipes, which are lit for night riding.

Keystone is usually open from early November through mid-April. For further information, contact Keystone Resort (tel. 800/468-5004 or 970/496-4386; www.keystone.snow.com). For snow reports, call tel. 800/404-3535 or 970/496-4111.

Photo Caption: Snowmobiles at the top of mountain in Keystone, Colorado.
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Looking downhill at Snowmass in Aspen, Colorado. Frommers.com Community
A huge, mostly intermediate mountain with something for everyone, Snowmass has 33% more skiable acreage than the other three Aspen areas combined! Actually four distinct self-contained areas, each with its own lift system, its terrain varies from easy beginner runs to the pitches of the Cirque and the Hanging Valley Wall, the steepest in the Aspen area.

Big Burn, site of a 19th-century forest fire, boasts wide-open advanced and intermediate slopes and the expert drops of the Cirque. Atop the intermediate Alpine Springs trails is the advanced High Alpine Lift, from which experts can traverse to the formidable Hanging Valley Wall. Elk Camp is ideal for early intermediates who prefer long cruising runs. Sam's Knob has advanced upper trails diving through trees, and a variety of intermediate and novice runs around its northeast face and base. All areas meet in the scattered condominium developments that surround Snowmass Village Mall. All told, there are 3,132 skiable acres at Snowmass, with a 4,406-foot vertical drop from the 12,510-foot summit. The mountain has 91 trails, rated 6% easiest, 50% more difficult, 12% most difficult, and 32% expert. The longest trail is over 5 miles long. There are 21 lifts (one high-speed eight-passenger gondola, one high-speed six passenger, one six-passenger gondola, seven high-speed quad chairs, two quads, three double chairs, two platter pulls, and four ski/snowboard school lifts). Average annual snowfall at the summit is 300 inches (25 ft.).

The renowned Snowmass ski school has hundreds of instructors, as well as programs for children 18 months and older. The area also has three terrain parks, a superpipe, and a rail yard. There are 12 restaurants.

Snowmass is usually open from late November to mid-April from 8am to 3:30pm. It shares a website with the rest of Aspen's mountains (www.aspensnowmass.com/snowmass/).

Photo Caption: Looking downhill at Snowmass in Aspen, Colorado.
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The lifts at Steamboat Springs. Jeffrey Beall
When devoted skiers talk about Steamboat, they invent new adjectives to describe its incredibly light powder.

Six peaks compose the ski area: Mount Werner, Christie, Storm, Sunshine, Pioneer Ridge, and Thunderhead. Christie Peak, the lower mountain area, is ideal for beginners. Thunderhead Peak, served by a high-speed detachable quad chairlift called the Thunderhead Express and the gondola, is great for intermediate and advanced skiers and riders. Arrowhead Glade provides an advanced playground for everybody. The Morningside Park lift accesses the extreme double black diamond terrain -- chutes, advanced mogul runs, powder bowls, and one-of-a-kind tree skiing, all from the top of Mount Werner. Buddy's Run, one of the Rockies' great intermediate cruisers, is located on Storm Peak. The most famous tree runs -- Shadows, Closet, and Twilight -- are on Sunshine Peak, along with more bump runs and cruising slopes. Morningside Park includes 179 acres on the back of Storm Peak, with intermediate to advanced terrain served by a triple chair.

The vertical drop here is one of the highest in Colorado: 3,668 feet from the 10,568-foot summit. Skiable terrain of 2,965 acres includes 165 named runs, served by 23 lifts -- an eight-passenger high-speed gondola, a high-speed six-person chair, five high-speed quad chairs, one conventional quad, six triple chairs, three double chairs, and six surface lifts. Trails are rated 14% beginner, 42% intermediate, and 44% advanced; the longest run is Why Not, at over 3 miles.

Steamboat is usually open from the third week in November through mid-April, daily from 8:30am to 4pm. For further information, contact Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation (tel. 877/237-2628 or 970/879-0740 for reservations, 970/879-6111 for information; www.steamboat.com). For daily ski reports, check the resort's website or dial tel. 970/879-7300.

Photo Caption: The lifts at Steamboat Springs. Photo by Jeffrey Beall/Flickr.com
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Snowboards and skis in downtown Vail, Co. Frommers.com Community
America's top ski resort by practically any standard, Vail is something that all serious skiers must experience at least once. It has fantastic snow, great runs, and everything is so convenient that skiers can concentrate solely on skiing. You can arrive at the base village, unload and park your car, and not have to drive again until it's time to go. Your lodging choices offer as much pampering as you want, or can afford. And you'll find all the shops, restaurants, and nightlife you could want within a short walk of your hotel or condominium.

Ski area boundaries stretch 7 miles from east to west along the ridge top, from Outer Mongolia to Game Creek Bowl, and the skiable terrain is measured at 5,289 acres. Virtually every lift on the front side of the mountain has runs for every level of skier, with 18% beginner terrain, 29% intermediate, and the remaining 53% expert and advanced. The seven legendary Back Bowls are strictly for advanced and expert skiers; snow and weather conditions determine just how expert you ought to be. One trip down the Slot or Rasputin's Revenge will give you a fair idea of just how good you are. Blue Sky Basin, on the next mountain south of Vail, is accessed by three high-speed quad chairlifts, and intermediate to advanced terrain offering backcountry-like conditions. There is a warming hut at the top of the basin with a basic snack bar, water, restroom facilities, and a pair of gas grills.

Vail has a vertical drop of 3,450 feet; average annual snowfall is 346 inches (nearly 29 ft.). All told, there are 193 conventional trails served by 31 lifts -- a gondola, 16 high-speed quad chairs, 1 fixed-grip quad, 3 triple chairs, 1 double chair, 3 surface lifts, and 6 conveyors. There are also three terrain parks for snowboarders of all skill levels, and a unique log-rail park at Golden Peak.

Any lift ticket purchased at Vail is also valid at Beaver Creek, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Breckenridge ski areas. Vail is usually open from mid-November to late April daily from 9am to 3:30pm. For further information, contact Vail Mountain (tel. 877/204-7881, 970/476-5601, or 970/476-4888 for snow report; www.vail.com).

Photo Caption: Snowboards and skis in downtown Vail, Co. Photo by DeeSmith/Frommers.com Community
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Skiers headed downhill at Winter Park. Frommers.com Community
Winter Park Resort is one of those rare resorts that seems to have something for everyone. Experts rave about the chutes and steep mogul runs on Mary Jane Mountain and the extreme skiing in the Vasquez Cirque, but intermediates and beginners are well served on other slopes. Moreover, Winter Park is noted for wide-ranging programs for children and those with disabilities.

The resort includes three interconnected mountain areas totaling 141 designated trails on 3,060 acres of skiable terrain. There are 25 lifts, including two high-speed six-passenger chairlifts, seven high-speed express quads, four triples, six double chairs, three surface lifts, and three Magic Carpets. In 2008, the resort opened a new open-air gondola connecting parking lots with the village. The resort rates its trails as 8% beginner, 17% intermediate, 19% advanced, 53% most difficult, and 3% expert only.

Winter Park Resort comprises several distinct areas. Winter Park Mountain has mostly beginner and intermediate terrain. Discovery Park encompasses more than 25 acres of prime beginner terrain. Mary Jane Mountain mainly offers intermediate, most difficult, and expert terrain, best known for its numerous mogul runs. Vasquez Ridge, the resort's third mountain area, has primarily intermediate and most difficult terrain. Fans of tree-line skiing will like Parsenn Bowl, more than 200 acres of open-bowl and gladed-tree skiing that fan out from the summit at North Cone and merge with Mary Jane's Backside. Vasquez Cirque is no place for beginners. It contains steep chutes and gladed pockets for advanced and expert skiers and snowboarders. The five terrain parks at Winter Park are cutting edge, and there is one for every skill level. Rail Yard, consisting of advanced terrain, is considered one of the nation's best.

Winter Park is usually open for skiing from mid-November to mid-April. It's open for summer operations daily from early June until early September. For more information, contact Winter Park Resort (tel. 970/726-5514, or 303/316-1564; www.skiwinterpark.com). For daily ski reports, call tel. 970/726-7669 or 303/572-7669.

Photo Caption: Skiers headed downhill at Winter Park.
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