Bluebird Colorado: A Local's Guide to Skiing in the Rockies

Nomad Greg Benchwick finds freedom, connection, and speed on the Rocky Mountains’ famed slopes.

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Photo © Getty Images / Kristin Braga Wright

Skiing is about freedom. It’s about exploration. It’s about controlling speed and adrenaline and fear to forge a remarkable connection with the mountains, with yourself, and with all the other like-minded fools who find purity and solace in high, cold, and windy places.

I started skiing when I was just two years old – I still have a picture of me walking around the base of Breckenridge, Colorado, with red plastic skis and brown corduroys, to prove it.

Since then, I’ve skied resorts across the US West, and taught skiing in Vail, Colorado, and the Sierra Nevada in Southern Spain – the skiing is terrible, but the après parties are off the hook.

With the birth of my daughter eight years back, I’ve changed the way I view skiing as a sport and as a way of life. As I strive to hand over the sense of freedom that skiing can bring to a new generation, it’s less about getting radical, and more about finding peace in a world dominated by 140-character rants, short attention spans, and little connection with our wild and open places. It’s also about keeping the whining at bay – I’ve found bringing Starbursts for a power-up every chair lift ride helps.

Snowmass. Image credit: Getty Images / Lana2011

Champagne Powder, World-class Bumps, and Perfect Bunny Slopes

While I’ve skied the world, for me, there is no better place on earth to take to the slopes than in my home state of Colorado, land of Champagne powder, legendary ski resorts – 28 in all – and 300 days of sunshine a year.

I grew up here, tackling the super-fun tree paths like Schoolmarm at Keystone, and taking half-day Fridays to ski my local hill at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs (it’s closed now – and if we don’t act on climate change, we’ll all face a future of less snow, warmer winters, and less powder for everyone).

Growing up, Aspen’s Buttermilk Mountain was one of my favorites. This is, without a doubt, the best learner hill in all of Colorado (and perhaps the world). Every run is wide and perfectly pitched for beginners. While a private lesson with an instructor here will top out above US $900 a day, it might just be worth it.

Best of all, it seems nobody really skis Aspen. Mostly, they just walk around town in furry boots.

Aspen is comprised of four unique mountains. Snowmass is perfect for families with skiers of all abilities. Buttermilk is a great beginner hill. Aspen Mountain (aka Ajax) is incredibly steep and a bump-lovers paradise, while Aspen Highlands is home to my favorite powder run in the United States.

The hike-to-terrain Highlands Bowl is truly the stuff of Colorado legend. You’ll have to earn your turns to get to this 2,500-vertical-foot (762-vertical-meter) bowl. It’s about a 30-minute hike to get to the 12,392ft (3,775m) summit. From here, you have perhaps the world’s finest view of the Maroon Bells peaks. Best of all, this out-of-the-way spot is patrolled for avalanches by ski patrol, so you don’t need to have avalanche gear or training.

It’s a special place. From the top, it offers some of the steepest powder turns around. Because the hike separates out the gapers (a local word for tourists), you can almost always find fresh powder here. After a big dump, this is truly epic.

Highland Bowl. Photo credit: Getty Images / gladassfanny

Changing Times: The Rise of Snowboarding (and Crowds)

Skiing has changed a lot in Colorado since I was rocking my neon fanny pack and ripping sweet backscratchers on mogul runs like Drunken Frenchman at Winter Park’s Mary Jane (like they say no pain, no Jane).

Snowboarding has caught on in a big way, and the resorts in Summit County (including Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Keystone) are often packed to the gills. Consolidation means more resorts are owned by big conglomerates. In short, skiing has gone corporate, and that sucks.

Sometimes I wonder why I do it. Why would I pay US $209 to ski Vail for a day? Why would I pack my feet into impossibly tight boots that make me walk like a robot? Why would I take my daughter into the cold to slide down icy slopes when there’s a perfectly good TV at home?

The answer comes when the sun peeks out from the grey clouds and that big beautiful Colorado sky appears. It’s my daughter’s ear-to-ear smile after she and her BFF took their first run without parents down Arapahoe Basin’s steep front face. It’s the feel of the wind on my cheek, the laughing crowds and whoops from the chair when I pull off my trademark backscratcher grab, and the collective feel of comradery and community as we fly down slopes of snow and ice in a ridiculous pursuit that makes no sense on paper, but makes perfect sense in our hearts.

Snowboarder at Breckenridge. Photo credit: Getty Images / ArtBoyMB

Trip Notes

Skiing Colorado is easier and cheaper than you’d think. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Skip the day lift ticket. The way to go is a season pass or four pack, such as the Epic Pass and Ikon Pass.
  • Pick a destination that fits your needs. Families will love Steamboat, Copper Mountain, Snowmass, and Keystone.
  • Snowboarders love Copper and Vail, while big-mountain riders should look to Aspen, Crested Butte (some of the gnarliest skiing in the US), Telluride, and the one-lift wonder of Silverton. While runs are a little short, the biggest powder is almost always found at Wolf Creek.
  • Mom-and-pop resorts are still worth it. You’ll save a bunch of cash, people are friendly, and the relics of freedom and anti-establishmentarianism are still alive and well on forgotten hills like Ski Cooper, Monarch, Arapahoe Basin, Purgatory, and Sunlight.
  • Most people fly into Denver (DIA), then schlep up I-70 to get to the Summit County resorts. But Steamboat, Aspen, Vail, Telluride, and Crested Butte all have airports nearby, with regular direct flights all winter long. Flights are a little more expensive than going into DIA, but missing the traffic is priceless.
  • Colorado gets better later in the winter, but the snow can be finicky. Check out a source like OpenSnow for spot-on snow forecasts.
  • Skiing and snowboarding are dangerous sports. Wear a helmet, ski in control, and, for heaven’s sake, don’t cut me off!

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