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Laura Beausire
May 2020

With its 28 ski areas, Colorado has long been considered a destination that offers something for everyone—and not only in terms of experience levels. Though there are plenty of famous big-name resorts, the state has a wealth of unique under-the-radar independent operations, each with its own quirks, its own personal charm. Here, some of our favorites.

With extended hours, Echo Mountain is a favorite among the local crowd who drop in after work for a few turns. / Photography by Steve Debenport

Echo Mountain, Idaho Springs
Summit Elevation: 10,650 ft.
Skiable Area: 60 acres
Number of Runs: 9

The bustle of downtown Denver is 50 minutes away, but the distance seems vast as you ride the lift to the top of Echo Mountain, taking in the view of the snow-capped Rockies.

Easily accessible, Echo Mountain is a popular ski area for anyone staying in Denver and fancying a few turns. No need to worry about gear; there are jackets, snow pants and gloves for rent at the resort. And for locals in need of a run after a day at the office, the area is open between 4:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

“We’re making it possible for folks to get runs in after school or work and not have to wait for the weekend,” says Fred Klaas, Echo Mountain’s general manager. “We also have a lot of visitors who come to Denver for a business trip or quick vacation and want to experience what Colorado is known for.”

The family-owned ski area offers beginner and expert runs, but it specializes in intermediate terrain. A uniformed team of ambassadors roam the slopes offering coaching advice. Echo’s tubing hill, served by a conveyor lift, is available via online reservation, and a new pizza truck, Two Mile Pie, opens this season.

Courtesy of Powderhorn Mountain

Powderhorn Mountain Resort Mesa
Summit Elevation: 9,850 ft.
Skiable Area: 1,600 acres
Number of Runs: 42

Après-ski at most resorts means sipping hot cocoa (or something a little stronger) by the fire, but skiers at Powderhorn Mountain Resort can raise a glass at a local winery. Situated on the edge of Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flattop mountain, Powderhorn is only 30 minutes from the Grand Valley wine region on the sun-soaked Western Slope of the Continental Divide—known for varieties including cabernet franc, syrah and viognier, along with award-winning vineyards like Colterris and Carlson. 

Due to Grand Mesa’s topography, Powderhorn’s slopes are strewn with basalt boulders, some as big as cars, which resemble snowy pillows in winter. Navigating a “pillow line” among the rocks has become a popular Powderhorn tradition. “Uncrowded runs mean that powder stashes remain days after a snowstorm,” says Eric Almanzar, the resort’s events coordinator.

Seventy percent of the runs are beginner and intermediate, and the resort also offers a Free Learn to Ski & Ride Program, with three days of complimentary lessons, rentals and lift tickets for first-time skiers or snowboarders. And, in a break from the high-rise ski condo tradition, Powderhorn is building a village of tiny homes clustered around the base area, with six available for rental this season and more to come in 2020.

Courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Monarch Mountain, Salida
Summit Elevation: 11,952 ft.
Skiable Area: 800 acres
Number of Runs: 66

For 80 years, Monarch Mountain has been the go-to spot for those craving a laid-back day on the slopes. “The vibe is very low-stress and nobody is here to impress,” says resort executive Dan Bender. “Many entry-level skiers prefer the simple approach, as the intimidation factor can be overwhelming at the larger resorts.”

Thanks to its bowl-shaped topography and high elevation, Monarch gets plenty of snow, and the resort offers terrain for every ability level. “Our skiers range from first-timers to well-seasoned experts,” Bender says. About 130 miles west of Colorado Springs, Monarch is popular among families, with tubing and terrain parks offering rails, boxes and jumps that beginners can try. The resort also uses snowcats to take skiers to some of Colorado’s steepest terrain, attracting a loyal contingent of fans, and the 130-acre Mirkwood Basin area, reached by a short hike, welcomes backcountry extreme skiers.

Although a recent beetle infestation has forced Monarch to remove a large swath of Engelmann Spruce trees, the resort has come up with a creative response: They’re partnering with Denver-based Meier Skis to launch a line of Monarch-logoed skis and snowboards, crafted partially from beetle-kill spruce harvested from the resort.

Freeskier Sven Brunso takes on Silverton Mountain. / Courtesy of Silverton Mountain

Silverton Mountain, Silverton
Summit Elevation: 13,487
Skiable Area: 26,819 acres
Number of Runs: 69

It’s big, steep and untamed: at 226,819 acres, with a peak elevation of 13,487 feet, the family-owned Silverton Mountain has 69 double black diamond runs, ideal for thrill-seekers.

The mountain, located about 60 miles south of Montrose, has been left in its natural state, with no groomed runs or cut trails, and the skiing is almost entirely guided (for groups of eight or less), with the exception of designated days when unguided skiing is allowed. Jen Brill, who built the resort with her husband Aaron in 2002, explains, “Our objective is that you feel like you are at a private ski area.”

Although the daily capacity is set at 475 skiers or snowboarders, it’s not uncommon for Silverton to see 80 or fewer. The guided day begins at 8:15 a.m., and includes three to six runs, with hikes of up to an hour to access just the right bowl or chute. Helicopter runs are also one of the resort’s specialties.

Guests are required to pack avalanche beacons, probes and shovels (all available to rent). “High-intermediate skiers and snowboarders with a good attitude often find that Silverton Mountain is the next level for them to improve their powder and steep skills,” Brill says. “The only way to get to the next level is to try.”

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Howelsen Hill Ski Area Steamboat Springs
Summit Elevation: 7,135 ft.
Skiable Area: 50 acres
Number of Runs: 17

In 1914, Norwegian immigrant Carl Howelsen built a ski jump in the northern Colorado ranching town of Steamboat Springs, starting a tradition that continues today. Named after its pioneer, Howelsen Hill is North America’s oldest continuously operated ski area.

Owned by Steamboat Springs as a city park, Howelsen Hill now offers seven jumps, plus a full range of alpine terrain and 13 miles of Nordic skiing, snowshoe and snowbike trails. Though only 13,000 people live in Steamboat Springs, the town has bred 96 Olympians, inspiring its nickname Ski Town USA. Many credit the success to the Howelsen-based Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which focuses on youth training and development.

But Howelsen isn’t just for champions. On Sundays, the facility waives admission, welcoming skiers of all skill levels. “We enthusiastically embrace both ends of the spectrum,” says Brad Setter, Howelsen Hill Manager. “Where else can a never-ever skier learn alongside Olympians?” And if you’ve ever had a hankering to ski jump, you can try it at the Steamboat Springs’ 107th Annual Winter Carnival.

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Cooper, Leadville
Summit Elevation: 11,700 ft.
Skiable Area: 470 acres
Number of Runs: 60

In 1942, the U.S. Army developed Cooper Hill and nearby Camp Hale as a training ground for the famed ski troopers of the 10th Mountain Division, who successfully battled German forces in Northern Italy during WWII. Following the war, Cooper opened to the public as a recreational ski area.

The mountain is operated today as a nonprofit and its heritage is celebrated during the annual 10th Mountain Ski-Down, a parade of flags carried by division soldiers and descendants. During the season, military families are also offered discounted lift tickets.

“Cooper is authentic Colorado skiing, with uncrowded slopes, soft all-natural snow and a family-friendly vibe,” says Cooper executive Dana Tyler Johnson. “Sitting on top of Tennessee Pass, Cooper skiers and snowboarders are treated to amazing views of Colorado’s highest peaks, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive.”

There’s terrain for all ages and abilities, from dabblers to daredevils. This season, the resort opens its Tennessee Creek Basin area to the public, which boasts steep tree skiing with a dedicated lift.

The Chicago Ridge Snowcat carries skiers up to 12,850 feet to reach an additional 2,600 acres of open glades and powder bowls. Or, if you prefer to ingest calories instead of burning them, one of Cooper’s snowcats can also transport you to a luxe yurt for a farm-to-mountaintop dinner serving locally sourced food and wine.

Sunlight Mountain regularly holds youth slalom competitions. / Photography by Deanna Trevizo

Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort, Glenwood Springs
Summit Elevation: 9,895 ft.
Skiable Area: 680 acres
Number of Runs: 67

At the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers, Glenwood Springs is home to the world’s largest hot-springs pool. In a family-friendly town, no resort lives up to the billing as much as the family-owned Sunlight Mountain.

There are 30-mile snowmobile tours available, but Sunlight’s executive Troy Hawks finds that “many skiers and riders out there are actually looking for less, not more.” In the end, one of the resort’s biggest draws might be its small-scale feel. “Parents love Sunlight because they can watch their kids ski and snowboard right from our base lodge.”

Sunlight boasts extreme steeps and tree skiing, but those without a daredevil streak shouldn’t be discouraged: Their 2.5-mile Ute Trail has been named one of the most scenic beginner runs in the country. Meanwhile, the resort is currently undergoing a $4 million expansion to add a new lift and nearly 100 acres of fresh terrain.

Kids 12 and under ski for free with Sunlight’s “Ski, Swim and Stay” package, and the whole family scores complimentary admission to the nearby hot springs after a day on the slopes.

© Scott DW Smith

Wolf Creek Ski Area, Pagosa Springs
Summit Elevation: 11,904 ft.
Skiable Area: 1,600 acres
Number of  Runs: 133

In the Southern San Juan Mountains, Wolf Creek routinely boasts the most snow of any Colorado ski resort: a whopping average of 430 inches a year. The resort’s high altitude and northerly aspect creates a microclimate favoring lingering storms and heavy snow dumps.

“Wolf Creek has a reputation for early season skiing,” says Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, an executive whose family has owned the resort since 1976. “It’s one of the first to be open in early November, and often even in October, with all-natural snow.” The area, she adds, “attracts families and powder hounds.”

Friendly and affordable with a menu of homemade food, Wolf Creek is particularly welcoming for those just learning how to ski. “We are now on our third and fourth generation of families coming to the mountain,” says Haidorfer-Pitcher.

The resort’s heavy machinery uses biodegradable hydraulic oil while its restrooms are composting, zero-discharge and water-free. In November 2018, Wolf Creek became the first solar-powered ski area in the country.

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