Skiing in Colorado: Spectacular powder, free pancakes and that incredible feeling of having a mountain to yourself

Skiing in the Alps is great, of course – but a winter trip to the Rockies is a completely different experience, as Victoria Marston found out during a visit to Colorado.

Flying down a mountain, weaving in and out of towering conifers – or, more accurately, zig-zagging across a mountain in a gentle downwards fashion, hoping to avoid said conifers, because between you and me, I’m incredibly wimpy – I can’t see a single other person on the slopes. Other than my ski instructor, whose tracks I’m following religiously, because again, I’m a massive wimp.

As we approach a ski lift, there’s no queue. It feels as though we have the mountain to ourselves. Toto, we’re not skiing in Europe anymore. This is the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, USA.

If you’re a serious skier, the Alterra Mountain Company’s new Ikon Pass is the perfect way of visiting multiple resorts. We went to Winter Park and Aspen Snowmass, but it also covers Steamboat, Copper Mountain and Eldora Mountain Resort, plus multiple others in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Chile. Yes, you would need to ski several times a year to make it worth it – but if you already do, it’s definitely worth looking into.

Ikon Pass costs from $649 (£492) for an adult per season – see www.ikonpass.com for more information, as there are several options available.
Icelandair flies from London Heathrow to Denver, with a stopover in Keflavik, from £487 – see www.icelandair.co.uk for more details.

Winter Park, Colorado, at Sunset

Winter Park

For the first couple of days, we stayed in Winter Park Resort, the closest major resort to Denver and its airport, 67 miles away. It’s a cheery, family-friendly sort of place, with group children’s lessons galore and special tuition available for disabled skiers. It’s best to stay here in the week, then head to Aspen for the weekend: due to its proximity to Denver, Winter Park can become a bit crowded with weekend skiers.

The mountain is split into seven territories covering more than 3,000 acres – Winter Park Territory, Vasquez Ridge, Parsenn Bowl, Terrain Park, Mary Jane, Eagle Wind and The Cirque. Most of these areas allow skiers of differing levels to progress slowly, offering variety rather than just one green run you have to take repeatedly or the option to move up too rapidly and scare yourself (or is that just me?).

That said, Winter Park also caters for the seriously advanced, with lots of professionals coming here to train. Beginners are well advised to start off in Winter Park Territory, whereas intermediates and above should head for the Pioneer lift.

Skiing in The Rockies - Aspen and Winter Park, Colorado

One last tip: if, like me, you fly into Denver, overnight at a hotel there and get the train to Winter Park early the next morning, rather than getting a shuttle from the airport. There’s barely any difference in cost, the train has a plough on the front so runs whatever the weather and it will give your body a chance to acclimatise.

Pick of the slopes, by Winter Park instructor Dione Bailey:

  • Green: Lonesome Whistle into Switchyard
  • Blue: Buckaroo
  • Blue/Black: Kinnikinnic
  • Black: Cannonball (off-piste, moguls)
  • Double-black: Destiny
The author all kitted out and ready to take on The Rockies

The author all kitted out and ready to take on The Rockies

Aspen Snowmass

After a few days in Winter Park you can hop back on the train and continue to Aspen via a track that passes through Glenwood Canyon, which was carved out 3 million years ago by the Colorado River and is truly spectacular.

It’s just as spectacular when you get there. Aspen Snowmass is quite simply a skier’s dream. I’d always imagined it might be, well, slightly pretentious – but it isn’t. Clearly people here have money, but it has a relaxed and welcoming vibe.

Skiing in The Rockies - Aspen and Winter Park, Colorado

Credit: Jeremy Swanson

We stayed in Snowmass village, which has a mall and a skating rink in the Base Village, skied on Snowmass and ventured into Aspen by car in the evenings. Aspen has charm, history, beautiful buildings and twinkling lights aplenty – it feels like exploring a snowglobe. The mountains here are populated with Aspen trees, whose leaves turn gold in the fall. As those leaves fall, the trunks develop eyes – a sign of our ancestors looking over us, according to Native American lore.

Skiing-wise, no one could be disappointed. The slopes are, of course, beautifully maintained – unless you prefer more rugged terrain, and there’s plenty of that, too – on all four mountains at this resort: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk. Buttermilk is great for beginners, Snowmass gives you the opportunity to progress in one place and the two Aspens are perfect for the more advanced and adventurous, with trails from blue upwards.

And for the really adventurous? Host to this year’s Winter X Games, the resort has two super pipes and multiple terrain parks on Snowmass and Buttermilk, if flying along rails and over jumps is your thing. As you might have guessed by now, I was happy watching…

Pick of the slopes, by Aspen Snowmass instructor Susan Lee:

  • Green: Dawdler and Funnel
  • Blue: Naked Lady (rolling terrain) and Bull Run (open tree run)
  • Black: Powerline (open trees, moguls)
  • Double-black: Reidar’s (steep, moguls) and The Wall, Hanging Valley (off-piste, powder, trees)
Skiing in The Rockies - Aspen and Winter Park, Colorado

Credit: Matt Power

Places to stay at Winter Park and Aspen Snowmass

At Winter Park Resort, we stayed at Zephyr Mountain Lodge (rooms from from $189/£142 in winter), made up of simple but homely ski-in/ski-out condos just 110ft from The Gondola lift. The rooms are spacious and have everything you could need if you’re going down the self-catering route.

At Aspen Snowmass, the Limelight Hotel Snowmass (from $350/£269 in winter) opened in December last year and is a bright and modern ski-in/ski-out option, located next to the Elk Camp Gondola. There’s a solid restaurant offering, including freshly baked pizzas, a ski concierge and touches such as bright-orange Smeg fridges in the rooms.

If you’d prefer to stay in Aspen itself and are splashing out, the Hotel Jerome, The Little Nell and the St Regis are local landmarks. Until April, the St Regis is also hosting the E. M. P. (Eleven Madison Park) Winter House pop-up, with food and drinks served in luxury yurts.

Limelight Hotel Aspen

A room at the Limelight Hotel Snowmass

Food and drink

The social scene here is a whole different ballgame to European après ski – it’s more chilling over a few beers than spraying people with Champagne, downing shots and then attempting to ski down, rather than off, a mountain.

Personally, I found this both refreshing and helpful when it came to skiing the next morning. If, however, Champagne spraying is your thing, go to Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro in Aspen for some dancing on tables…

  • At Winter Park, fuel up at Goodys Mountain Creperie before you hit the slopes – because visiting the USA and not eating pancakes should be a crime.
  • Stop for lunch at Sunspot Mountain Top Lodge, Winter Park, for fantastic views and a warming bread bowl of buffalo chilli.
  • Vertical Bistro & Tap is the place to hang out in the evenings at Winter Park. The sharing boards are generous, the craft beers plentiful and the cocktails pretty killer (you have been warned). Doc’s Roadhouse has more of a tavern vibe and serves up a particularly good plate of tacos.
  • Lynn Britt Cabin offers modern American cuisine and is a good lunch spot if you’re on Snowmass – try the elk, with a hot buttered rum on the side. At the weekends, there’s a DJ and an outdoor fire pit in the evening.

  • At Aspen Snowmass, look out for Powder Pancakes – if it snows more than 8in, there are free pancakes for everyone! There are also complimentary hot drinks on the mountains – the cider is delicious – and s’mores stations at the end of the day.
  • For cocktails, make sure you go to the Marble Bar Aspen for the espresso vodka. I would have brought home at least two bottles, had I the space.
  • Finally, seafood lovers shouldn’t miss the new Clark’s restaurant, Aspen. There are dedicated oyster and caviar menus and every dish we sampled was spot on. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, Hao House serves up Asian streetfood – the TFC (Taiwanese fried chicken) is a good bet.

Things to do

  • Wear lots of layers. In Europe, I’ve always been a t-shirt and ski jacket kind of a girl and was adamant I wouldn’t need all the Helly Hansen layers I had with me: merino-wool base layers, insulator jacket AND ski jacket (plus ski pants, obviously). Despite my misgivings, I layered up for the first day. It was a powder day and, even with my many items of clothing, I was still freezing. It was better when the sun shone, but be warned – wrap up.
  • Go tubing at the Coca-Cola Tubing Hill in Winter Park. I have to confess I didn’t – I was utterly exhausted – but it looked like immense fun.

  • If you do take the train from Winter Park to Aspen Snowmass, stop off in Glenwood Springs and visit one of the spas. We could smell the sulphur from the hot springs in the air as we passed through and, after skiing, a dip in them will be as restorative as a thousand hot tubs.
  • If you’re a strong enough skier, go in search of the shrines on the four Aspen Snowmass mountains. These are memorials created anonymously on various themes, from Hunter S. Thompson and John Denver to cats and unicorns, hidden in the trees off various runs. They’ve been appearing for some 40 years and there are about 100 in existence, but there’s no official guide so you’ll have to ask a local – or hope to stumble across one.
  • Book First Tracks in Aspen Snowmass so you can hit the snow before anyone else. If you’re staying at Limelight Hotel Snowmass, the staff will arrange it for you. Anyone else can contact the Aspen Skiing Company, but do it as soon as you arrive as places are limited.

  • Visit the Ice Age Discovery Center, Snowmass. During the construction of the Ziegler Reservoir here in 2010, workers stumbled upon the bones of a Colombian mammoth. Archaeologists went on to discover more than 100 species here, including the American mastodon. You can see the reservoir from the Dawdler green run.
  • While away a couple of hours at the Aspen Art Museum. We saw zombies, swings, mirrors and folk art – which broke up the skiing, food and cocktails nicely.
  • Go on a Historical Pub Crawl with the Aspen Historical Society. It sounds a bit forced, but was actually really interesting. You’ll visit the Red Onion (where the locals hang out), Aspen Public House (located in the Historic Wheeler Opera House), Aspen Tap (which isn’t particularly historic, but serves loads of beer, which is what miners drank, so it qualifies) and J-Bar at Hotel Jerome. It was a hang-out of Hunter S. Thompson and is home to the ‘Aspen Crud’, a spiked vanilla milkshake that will change your life.