Colorado Ski Gems

March, 2021

I’ve skied the big resorts of Colorado, from Breckenridge to Vail and just about everything in between. But during a recent trip west, I traded expansive resorts for smaller destinations without all of the glitz and glamour.

On my list of smaller, less-showy destinations? The hidden gem of Monarch Mountain; the resort with the longest season, Arapahoe Basin; and locals’ favorite Copper Mountain. None measures up size-wise to the sprawling slopes of the big boys like Vail, which covers more than 5,300 acres served by 31 buzzing lifts, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

Monarch Mountain

I’ve always bypassed Monarch, assuming it didn’t have enough terrain to keep me interested. I was wrong.

The cozy, 800-acre ski area doesn’t have any on-mountain lodging. The closest is the no-frills Monarch Mountain Lodge a few miles away, where you can get a room for about $100 and a free shuttle to the ski resort. Nearby, you can explore restaurants and shops in town, swim laps at the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center downtown, or detour over to Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort after a day of skiing and plop yourself into a pool of steamy water right along a riverbank.

Monarch Mountain officially opened as a ski area in 1939, but its off-the-beaten path location means it’s less crowded.

“No frills, no fuss, no Prada store,” says Allie Stevens, marketing manager for the ski area. “Here it’s just fun turns and everybody gets to know each other.”

Monarch isn’t just for beginners, either. One hundred and thirty wild and wooly acres of ungroomed chutes and glades are nestled in the Mirkwood section, which you have to either hike to or book a day of cat skiing to access. (Hint: It’s worth it. Just be sure you can handle the expert terrain before you go.)

One big advantage to skiing Monarch? Cost. Lift tickets cost less than half as much as the bigger resorts––about $79 per day for adults if you buy online in advance. There’s even a sack lunch room, so you don’t have to fork out money at the cafeteria at the base if you don’t want to. Plus, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet new ski patrol dog Fawkes, who loves to roll on his back in the snow.

Arapahoe Basin

After a few days in Salida, we moved our home base to Frisco, where we’d have easy access to two other resorts we hadn’t given much thought to: Arapahoe Basin and Copper Mountain. We got a room at the Frisco Inn on Galena Street, which felt like sleeping in the guest room at your best friend’s house––if that friend made you breakfast every day, let you use the hot tub, lit a fire in the fireplace each evening, and poured you a glass of wine, just because.

From there, it’s a 25-minute drive to Arapahoe Basin, which scooped all of the Colorado resorts this season and opened first. A-Basin, as they call it, covers 1,428 acres. We pulled in to the “Early Risers” lot, just 100 yards or so from the base area. No fancy restaurant. No ritzy hotels. Just spinning lifts, moving chairs and a mountain of natural-looking terrain to explore. Most resorts cut wide swaths of trees to create uniform trails; instead, A-Basin left most of the design work to Mother Nature to minimize impact.

“We didn’t cut runs, we shaped them,” says Patrick O’Sullivan, director of safety and risk for the mountain. “We trimmed limbs, took out deadfall, and were very conscious about wildlife habitat.”

Terrain includes gullies and chutes, rolling cruisers, nicely spaced glades and open bowls. “It’s like an English muffin,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s got really nice nooks and crannies.”

And best of all, the ski area retains that old-school charm.

“We’re not a resort––we don’t have snow coasters and trampolines,” says marketing representative Katherine Fuller. “Seventy five percent of our terrain is black and double black. That tends to scare some people off, but it’s a skier’s mountain.”

I particularly loved the Beavers and the Steep Gullies areas. A new lift whisks skiers to a huge section of expert terrain, including some of the best glade skiing in Colorado. And one more tip: Take a lunch break at Il Rifugio––a tiny on-mountain warming hut that now serves the most amazing antipasto, complete with olives, thin-shaved meats, olives and roasted veggies, that I’ve ever nibbled.

On your way out, take a gander at the folks tailgating in the parking lot, known as “The Beach.” We watched a group of barbecuing revelers line up for a shot ski (a row of shot glasses glued to an old ski) during a driving blizzard.

Copper Mountain

Temperatures cold enough to freeze the bottle of water I left in the car overnight didn’t keep us away from Copper, which isn’t exactly a small resort with 2,490 skiable acres and 24 whirring lifts, but still fits our theme of less-celebrated ski areas.

Chris and I just stuck toe warmers on our socks and hand warmers in our gloves, then covered every patch of exposed skin with clothing before catching a chair lift to the top in minus 15-degree weather.

Guide Todd Casey explained the resort’s two-peak layout. I skied Copper three years ago, but since then the new Three Bears lift has started whisking skiers up Tucker Mountain to some of the steepest lift-served terrain in Colorado. If you like double-black drops, chutes and razor-edge ridgelines, this is your mecca.

“There’s more challenging terrain here than people realize,” Casey says. “It’s steep, north-facing, ungroomed, above-the-treeline into glades. It’s always been inbounds, just not often used.”

We spent most of our time in the slightly milder terrain of Copper Bowl, where we bounded down fluffy mounds of snow, and in the untracked stretches of powder back in Union Meadows. We also found lots of gorgeous glades, where the wind couldn’t find us among the trees.

And here’s a tip for skiing Copper in cold weather: Take advantage of the American Flyer lift, where you can pull down the blue-tinted, plastic bubble cover to shield yourself from the elements. Also, stop frequently for hot chocolate.

If You Go

Getting there:

Fly from Austin to Denver, then rent a car and drive 140 miles to Salida and stay a few nights. It’s a 30-minute drive to Monarch Mountain for skiing. From Salida, it’s a 90-mile drive to Frisco, where you’ll have easy access to both Arapaho Basin and Copper Mountain ski resorts.

Stay:

In Frisco, stay at the Frisco Inn on Galena, 106 Galena Street.

Eat and Drink:

In Salida, dine at the Boathouse Cantina, 228 North F Street, which overlooks the Arkansas River.

Insider tip:

While in Salida, make time for a side trip to Mount Princeton Hot Springs, about 20 miles away, where you can soak in natural hot springs or a spring-heated pool.

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