Beyond Aspen: hitting the slopes at Colorado’s best ski resorts
While not yet household names, the ski meccas of Telluride and Breckenridge are on the cusp of greatness.
Once the roar of our snowmobiles dies down, the glade at the top of the San Juan Mountains goes quiet. To the southwest, the sun is setting behind Mount Wilson and the Lizard Head Wilderness, the famous alpenglow bathing their rugged lines in rose-gold.
We’re currently at 11,800 feet (3,597 metres), exploring the ruins of Alta – a former gold mining outpost once home to hundreds of people, now a ghost town fallen into disrepair.
Above our heads run transmission lines – this is where Nikola Tesla’s first long-distance AC transmission occurred in 1891 – and to our north sits Telluride, a picture-perfect mountain town and world-class ski resort.
To get to Alta, we drove snowmobiles several miles up into the Rockies, wind chilling our faces and dizzying views of Wilson – one of the state’s 58 ‘14ers’, summits that top 14,000 feet – and the San Miguel Mountains flying past on our right.
On our way back down a light snow begins to fall, and I find myself marvelling (read: kicking myself) that Telluride has never crossed my holiday radar, despite being born and raised in the United States.
That this unforgettable experience lies a mere one-hour flight from Denver, the third busiest airport in the world, is astounding. And it’s not the only Colorado ski town worth seeking out.
Acclimating in the Mile High City
Those glittering peaks and lofty views come at a cost, at least for the first couple of days. Even the lowest point in Colorado is higher than the lowest point in any other US state, so altitude sickness is a concern.
If you have the time, spend a day or two acclimating in Denver. Giving yourself a minute to adjust to the higher climes will help you hit the slopes later in your trip without worrying too much about headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
Far from just a place to adjust to the elevation, Denver has a fresh energy that reflects the state’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Gold runs wild through Colorado’s veins, echoes of its rich mining history and pioneering soul writ large on the rustic building facades and in the proliferation of budding businesses lining its streets.
Big-city atmosphere and small-town charm collide in Denver, which thrives at an altitude of 5,279 feet (1,760 metres).
You can feel the Mile High City’s connection with its people; Denver residents seem to take great pride in their home, painting its walls with irreverent art and expressive murals and packing its kitchens with world-class cuisine like that on display at Tavernetta, a first-rate Italian restaurant from a James Beard Award-winning team.
Inside the iconic Union Station, Denver’s transportation hub and a historic landmark laden with bars, restaurants, and retail, you’ll find the Crawford, a boutique hotel with 112 rooms designed to illustrate chapters of Union’s history.
It feels secluded, yet a stay here will set you right in the heart of Denver. As an added bonus, you can catch the train straight from the city’s airport to the hotel’s front door.
Once you’re acclimated, it’s time to head on to the ski resorts of Breckenridge and Telluride.
When to go and how to get there
Getting to Colorado from Australia is easy – just one leg to a major US hub like Houston or Los Angeles and another short flight to Denver, and you’re there. Then, it’s that easy hour-long flight to Telluride.
For our other recommended destination, the beautiful Breckenridge, you’ll want to hop in the car for a quick hour-and-a-half to two-hour drive from Colorado’s capital city.
January is the most popular time of year for Australians to visit, but any time from December through early March will get you that winter experience. If you’d prefer to visit in the summer, when skiing and snowboarding give way to mountain biking and hiking, plan for mid-June to September.
The climate is generally spectacular – the sun shines 300 days of the year – though it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for potentially temperamental mountain weather.
Luxury lodging and vibrant town vibes in Breckenridge
Thanks to Breck’s proximity to Denver, dense crowds tend to flock to the lifts, of which its Imperial Express is the highest in North America.
For that reason it’s best to plan your drive from Denver during the week, and prepare for an influx of skiers and snowboarders (and resultant lengthy lift lines) if you’re there over the weekend.
But outside the occasional crowds, there’s much to love about this epic spot in Summit County, which boasts the highest concentration of Colorado’s 28 ski resorts.
Perched at a lofty 9,600 feet (2,926 metres) in town and 12,998 feet (3,962 metres) at the summit, Breckenridge thrums with a kind of youthful energy; it feels notably different to the Hollywood glamour of Aspen or the understated luxury of Telluride.
The ski area comprises Peaks 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of the Tenmile Range, and there’s abundant terrain here for all levels, whether you’re looking for a gritty day on double-diamond slopes or a more relaxed time coasting down powder-covered beginner runs.
If you’re an expert, the outer peaks offer the most advanced options.
After a day in the mountains underneath classic Colorado bluebird skies (and keeping an eye peeled for the moose family that had taken up residence in the area) we headed down to One Ski Hill Place, our immaculate ski-in and ski-out lodging.
These spacious rooms are beautifully appointed – mine had a very welcome fireplace which I immediately set to crackling – and offered a comfortable place to refresh before taking the free BreckConnect gondola into town.
At night Breck’s streets come alive, warm string lights decking the branches of trees and lining the eaves of old-timey saloons and elegant restaurants run by award-winning chefs. Rootstalk, on North Main Street, delivers my favourite meal of the trip.
Adventure and hidden gems in Telluride
Telluride, like the state as a whole, is a place of well-kept secrets – an enchanting crossroads where a community of people passionate about their land welcome adventure seekers and travel lovers with warm, open arms.
Look down the main street and you’ll see mountains bounding you on three sides; this is Telluride’s box canyon, home to a charming village and one of the most prestigious festival locales in the US, with the Telluride Film Festival bringing in the likes of Cate Blanchett, Robert Downey, Jr., and Anne Hathaway each September.
TFF is an incredible way to experience Telluride outside winter. As far as skiing goes though, it’s impossible to be disappointed in this diamond of a town.
Telluride has a reputation as an expert mountain, and indeed many of its runs are spectacularly steep – I won’t soon forget my (accidental) trip down Bail Out – but the actual balance of terrain is 23 percent beginner, 36 percent intermediate, and 41 percent advanced.
Choose your adventure, but be sure to make your way to the historic Gorrono Ranch under Lift 4, where you can grab a table underneath the cloudless sky, listen to live music, and enjoy a tasty mid-ski snack and a drink or two (the tap beers from local Telluride Brewing Company are the ultimate refresher).
The sweeping views of the San Juans don’t hurt, either.
Nestled in its canyon at a grand 8,750 feet (2,667 metres), Telluride retains a kind of pure charisma and grace, thanks in large part to the absence of chains like Starbucks.
What you’ll find instead is a rejuvenated mining town steeped in history and awash in adventure – the spot where legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889 and where snowmobile tours place you among the skies.
I’m told there’s even luxury accommodation up there: the Alta Lakes Observatory. I’m pencilling that in for my next visit – because if my week here has made one thing clear, it’s that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer in Colorado.
And I can’t wait to return for round two.
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Colorado.
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Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer
10 Mar 2023
Total posts 3
Ive just returned from 2 days in Park City/Canyons and 9 days Breckenridge/Keystone. All resorts are skiable on the Epic Australia ski pass. The price of day tickets is well over USD230, so without the pass it will be expensive. All resorts get extremely crowded from Friday through to Sunday. Breckenridge was probably the most crowded. I took the the free shuttle to Keystone and Breckenridge and whilst it was crowded it was possible to avoid long waits.
Breckenridge is an interesting town with varied architecture. Some modern buildings mixed with mining town styled buildings. It can get pretty cold. Finding a coffee early morning was a challenge when the only Starbucks was closed for 3 days due to frozen pipes. It opens at 6 so.moyhing else was open.
I flew AA (with a QF codeshare). SYD-LAX-SLC-DFW-DEN-ORD-LHR-LAX-SYD. There are no AA flights from Utah to Denver so you have to fly to DFW. My bags all arrived promptly except for a 35 minute wait in Sydney. I experienced the 2 shortest ever immigration clearance in LAX. LHR had very long queues, even on a UK passport. It was so long my ski bags were waiting for me.
Just as a side mention. The flights were all business class, if you could call the US domestic flights that. It yielded 820 status points and cost only approximately $8400. The AA lounge in Denver is average. There isn't one in Salt Lake City. I didn't spend long on the one in Dallas. The flagship in LAX is average however the one in ORD was quite good. Don't bother with the LHR lounge unless you want to take advantage of bagging lollies for your flight. The QF lounge is the best for coffee. I spent most of my time in the Cathay first.
13 May 2020
Total posts 796
new epic pass prices are just out for next ski season. For USD$361 you can get a Keystone plus season pass with very few blackout dates. Also includes 5 days at Crested Butte & spring skiing at Breck. All Colorado resorts are good. Just depends how much you want to spend. The most expensive is not the best, just the most expensive. For Jan/Feb 2023, you could have got a 3 star apartment on snow 150m from 6 person lifts for only usd$186/night midweek, which could sleep 6 in 4 beds in 2 separate areas. Have 6 people, that was ony usd$31/night. Hopefully prices won't go up much. The abpove lift season tickets were usd$334 last year so 8% increase. Plenty of sub $1000 rtn airfares from ADL, MEL, SYD & BNE to LAX or SFO & meant to be a new route being announced this month that will get you closer to Denver. We either use qf or va ff tix to get from port of entry to COlorado (many airports) or fly Southwest.
Air New Zealand - Airpoints
14 Jul 2017
Total posts 18
Hi Peter62. I'm a Kiwi living in Keystone. Best coffee in Breck is a French Bakery on the main street. Wonderful European food and coffee.
Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer
10 Mar 2023
Total posts 3
Hi MikeAir. I'm pretty sure the bakery opened around 7.30. I went to Keystone those 3 days and was on the 7.30 shuttle. Can't recall the name, however the cafe where that sells coffee from the local area was good. It was jam packed on Saturday. It's the one the right hand side...just before you but the gondola line. The coffee at Peak 9 break was pretty good too. They used Lavazza. The Epic discount actually made it quite a reasonable price and it was at least 20% better flavour than Starbucks
13 May 2020
Total posts 796
btw- almost no one buys single day lift tickets. They are like hotel rack rates, that no one actually pays, just a number to discount from. Catch 22 with some vail discounts. They raise prices 25% eg. $80 to $100 & then say you can have 20% off if get a season pass, so you end up back at $80. Dodgy as.
17 Apr 2017
Total posts 1
Thanks for this article Nikki. It’s very timely. My wife and I are leaving Colorado tomorrow to head back to Brisbane after 3 fantastic weeks between Breckenridge and Beaver Creek using our 2022/2023 Epic Australia pass. We’ve had a fantastic time as always and have already started discussing next year’s ski destinations.
We flew here with United - BNE/SFO/DEN. Premium Plus out, which for a “day flight” was excellent. Polaris back (flat bed for the overnight journey home), which we’re sure we’ll enjoy. SFO was a pleasure when compared with previous experiences at LAX.
There have been a couple of negative observations during our trip. Firstly, post-COVID staff shortages. For example, the bar and restaurants in our hotel in Beaver Creek (The Charter) are closed for two nights each week due to lack of staff. Secondly, the hidden charges on a number of restaurants bills. For example, a 6% surcharge in one restaurant and a 4% surcharge in another one “To give our staff a living wage”. Aligned with this theme, tipping culture is now on steroids. The expected percentage tip is now higher than I remember in 20 years of visiting Colorado and tipping is now invited on simple transactions such as buying a single $5 pre-baked cookie over the counter. We hear even the Americans are suffering from tipping fatigue.
The unfavourable AUD/USD has made this trip quite expensive (bring back parity!), but that aside we hope to return to the US next year to ski. Must dash now. Snow has fallen overnight and it’s our last day on the slopes!
Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards
24 Jan 2018
Total posts 605
Good read, the Late Warren Miller couldn't have put it better.