What makes a ski town more than just a small town with snow? Maybe it’s the mish-mash of log-cabin storefronts and gingerbread Victorians that look especially alluring under a coat of powder. Or the locals who shovel each other’s driveways, all winter long, and exchange hellos in the grocery store. Or perhaps it’s the twinkle lights in the trees, winking as you pass by in beanies, gloves, and puffy coats.
But most of all—it’s the mountains. Rising majestically from the valleys, they turn alpenglow pink in the morning, blindingly white at high noon, and then a deep purple at dusk. Whether you visit for a few nights or decade after decade, you can’t quit these peaks and the towns that call them home.
They stay with you, one season to the next.
Fortunately, Colorado’s best ski towns are like old friends, welcoming you back again and again. There’s European-chic Vail, low-key Crested Butte, friendly Steamboat Springs. You’ll want to party in Aspen, take photos in Telluride, and bring kids along in Breckenridge. And no matter where you go, you’ll find piles of snow—make that boatloads of snow—on pristine ski runs, coating historic streets, and below bluebird skies. This is the good life, Rocky Mountain edition.
Visit if: You like the finer things in life
It’s hard to see between the Prada and Gucci storefronts, but North America’s ritziest ski town started like most other high-alpine outposts in the Centennial State: as a mining town. It was originally called Ute City, after the region’s first inhabitants, the Ute Indians, and the silver found in the pine-covered hills in the 1880s helped pay for the town’s iconic buildings, like the stately stone Wheeler Opera House and the red-bricked Hotel Jerome.
Still, skiing shaped Aspen from the beginning. Though there was nary a chairlift in sight, miners nailed leather foot straps to 10-foot wooden boards and schussed down the mountain after work. Boom times, eventually, were followed by bust, and by 1930 the once 15,000-strong town had shrunk to around 1,000 people.
It was this core population that built up the Aspen of today, holding the town’s first ski race in 1937, constructing a one-person chairlift in 1946, and expanding an airport where billionaires now land their private planes. Aspen also became an epicenter of culture, founding the Aspen Music Festival in 1949—the same year as the nonprofit think tank the Aspen Institute—and the Aspen Art Museum in 1979.
Decades of investment in the arts means that a vacation in Aspen doesn’t necessitate clicking into a pair of skis. The aforementioned Aspen Art Museum recently upgraded into brand-new digs, a $45 million Shigeru Ban lattice-like building with a verdant rooftop garden. You can watch the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet perform classics like The Nutcracker or dance the night away at the intimate Belly Up, a chic 450-person subterranean music venue that has hosted acts like Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. And whether you slurp French onion soup at Creperie du Village or indulge in charcuterie at Meat and Cheese, the crowd is a bizarre blend of ski bums and tourists—who often include movie stars and rappers checking out the scene, too.
If skiing is what’s on the agenda, Aspen delivers 42 ski lifts on four different mountains (Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Highlands, and Snowmass)—each with their own iconic moments. At Highlands, experts should hike the narrow ridge up to Highland Bowl, drop into a steep, open run of powder, and celebrate the whole shebang with apres Champagne at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro. Buttermilk is an intermediate’s dream for cruising down sunny blue runs with your kids. And skiers of all types will be thrilled with the (sometimes) exhausting 4,400-vertical-foot drop at Snowmass.
For our money, Aspen Mountain’s prime location edges the others by just a hair. Walk the tree-lined streets of downtown to the Silver Queen Gondola and head all the way up. You’ll score epic views of both the town below and the frosty hills of Red Mountain across the valley. From the top, choose from blue or black runs and start turning—everything funnels back to the base.
It’s rare to be able to ski straight into a postcard-perfect town, and Aspen offers something special. As you descend ever closer to the snow-covered streets, everything takes on a bit of a sparkle; a vacation here feels like you’re far from the hassles of everyday life, if only for a moment.
Visit if: You want a picture-perfect town
Longtime locals must get tired of tourists standing in the wide streets of Telluride, oohing and aahing over the 13,000-foot peaks. But the town’s stunning scenery is probably why they—and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey—moved here, too.
Telluride sits in a box canyon in southwestern Colorado, surrounded by steep cliffs that stretch into the sky, pine trees and aspens improbably clinging to the rocks. It’s a made-for-Instagram, can’t-stop-taking-pictures kind of place, full of tin-ceiling saloons and 19th-century brothels-turned-hotels that pride themselves on a frontier-style sensibility. Telluride has always been flashy, in a Wild West kind of way; the mining boom birthed more millionaires per capita than Manhattan, and this is also where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank.
The only reason it’s not more packed is because of its remote location: it’s a seven-hour drive from Denver; a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Montrose, where most flights land; or you can fly into the tiny Telluride Regional Airport, the highest-elevation commercial airport in the U.S., famous for thousand-foot cliffs on either end of a single—harrowing—runway.
A free eight-mile gondola connects the 12-block town in the valley with the more glamorous ski-in/ski-out hotels of Mountain Village, up above. The gondola is also the optimal place to take in the 360-degree views of the box canyon, whether you’re skiing or not. Snowshoe trails weave around the village, and you can ice skate outdoors at one of two rinks: a spacious rink at the Hotel Madeline or the rink back down in town at Telluride Town Park.
It would be a shame, though, to skip the slopes. Crowd-free lift lines mean it’s easy to burn your legs out lapping three-mile-long runs like the aptly named See Forever trail. Intermediate skiers can rip down well-groomed blues off of the Polar Queen Express, and experts have a field day with the double blacks off of the Plunge lift. If you feel up to it, cash in on the powder by hiking the super-steep Gold Hill Chutes, and then reward yourself with a po’ boy and the view at Giuseppe’s, a New Orleans-inspired wooden shack perched on a ridge.
Once you’ve maxed out your legs, embrace apres with wine and truffle fries at the top of the gondola at Allred’s or jukebox tunes and a cold beer at the old-school Last Dollar Saloon, known to locals as the Buck. Take a stroll along Colorado Avenue, ogling the artsy galleries and non-chain stores in renovated Victorians, before making your way to the west end of town for cocktails and small plates at the bohemian chic (and enigmatically named) There...Bar.
Still hungry? Our go-to spot is Siam, just across the street, where the soulful smells of curries and pan-fried noodles will have you begging for a seat. End the night with a movie or concert at the Sheridan Opera House, a 240-seat former vaudeville theater, with red velvet seats and intimate upper balconies, that was built in 1913. As you’re leaving the theater, look east for one more glimpse of the hills towering above, ready for their next close-up.
Visit if: You’re a free spirit looking for powder
It’s the middle of 2017 in Crested Butte, and thanks to “Snowmaggeden,” it’s hard to make out the town’s Easter-colored Victorian buildings. Fifteen-foot snow banks flank the restaurants and coffee shops on Elk Avenue (the town’s main drag) and locals struggle to shovel as piles rise past second-floor windows.
Not every January has this level of snow, but the possibility is why diehards move to a remote town over four hours from Denver. That and the state’s most varied and steep terrain. It’s a bonus that the town of Crested Butte is also a gorgeous place to live, a laid-back collection of mining huts, early-20th-century farmhouses, and contemporary log cabins built in the shadow of the town’s eponymous 12,162-foot peak.
Far from the Denver crowds that swarm the Summit County resorts and without the billionaire set of Aspen, Crested Butte is sometimes called “the last great American ski town.” Locals worried that the sale of the mountain in 2018 to the uber-corporate Vail Resorts would unravel the tight-knit community, but that underestimates Crested Butte’s grit.
It takes guts to live at 8,885 feet at the end of a road. The town has already survived mine explosions, the boom and bust of coal, the removal of the railroad, and droughts. Throughout the years, Crested Butte has kept its small-town feel, and that has made all the difference.
If you’re visiting, start with Camp 4 Coffee, a diminutive timber building plastered with license plates that serves up the best joe around. Then jump on the free bus and head 10 minutes up the hill to Crested Butte Mountain Resort. This hodgepodge collection of hotels and condos lacks the quaint ambience of downtown, but it’s how you access the Red Lady or the Silver Queen Express, the two main lifts out of the base.
The front side of the mountain provides abundant green groomers for beginners, but it’s the gnarly upper mountain that beckons experts. Hit Teocalli Bowl if you like cliffs and trees, or check out Rambo, the steepest lift-serviced run in the lower 48. After you’ve scared yourself silly, head to the Avalanche for well-deserved pints in a rowdy, college-style bar.
Not your scene? Try ice skating at the town’s outdoor rink, or tap into some cardio on 40 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails at the Crested Butte Nordic Center. If you want a cocktail, apres at Montanya Distillers, home to hand-crafted rum cocktails in a cozy renovated house, and finish with pizza for dinner at the always-bustling Secret Stash.
Visit if: You love a European vibe
Arrive in the Vail pedestrian village in winter and packs of skiers will carry you through the bricked streets, a current of brightly patterned Gore-Tex jackets and stomping ski boots running swiftly toward the gondola. As you go, glance upward—watch out for errant ski poles—and you’ll see green Bavarian shutters, wooden gingerbread balconies, and Tyrolean-style facades. The faux-Bavarian architecture defines Vail at its core: a mini-European village that’s a little bit Austrian, a little bit Swiss, and all American ingenuity.
Few who ski down the hallowed runs of Vail’s Back Bowls know that the area’s roots can be traced to World War II veterans. Tourists mostly ignore a bronze statue of a soldier carrying skis caught in mid-stride, located just past the main parking garage (the Starbucks behind it is arguably more enticing).
The ski statue commemorates the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, a one-of-a-kind light infantry unit that trained in nearby Camp Hale for high-alpine combat. After fighting in Italy, the ski-savvy veterans returned to the U.S. and became the backbone of the ski industry, founding dozens of ski schools and resorts. Two of these soldiers, Earl Eaton and Peter Seibert, wanted to bring a European-style resort to Colorado; they founded Vail Mountain in 1962.
The $5 lift tickets of the early 1960s are long gone, but Vail eventually became the largest ski area in North America (it has since dropped to fourth largest), and the mountain’s parent company, Vail Resorts, now owns or operates 37 ski areas in three countries.
Despite Vail Resort’s imperial-sized ambitions, the skiing in its home town remains a draw. Hop on Gondola One first thing to avoid the crowds and look back as the valley disappears behind you. Warm up with a run or two on the Mountaintop Express before dropping into Vail’s iconic, leg-burning open runs in the Back Bowls. For lunch, indulge in a piping-hot bowl of bison chili at Two Elk Camp, a mountaintop lodge with towering logs and oversized chandeliers.
Save some strength to tackle the (sometimes icy) trails back to the village, and then do as the locals do and hit apres hard. Grub on house wine and pizza with ski patrol at Vendetta’s or sip on suds at Vail Brewing Company. Walk it off with a tour of over 36 brightly colored murals and animal sculptures scattered around the village, and then head to dinner at Almresi for cheese fondue, German sausages, and Swiss potato pancakes.
The scene is indicative of today’s Vail: ski boots tucked under long wooden tables, sheepskin throws, lederhosen, and hot pink napkins. Boisterous conversations in Spanish, English, French, and Chinese are all washed down by bottles of California wine and pints of Austrian beer. Seibert and Eaton’s vision has come full circle, and this wannabe European ski town in the shadows of 12,000-foot peaks is one of America’s finest.
Visit if: You want to chill in the Old West
For miles before you arrive in Steamboat Springs by car, hand-painted yellow-and-black signs dot the landscape. “Levi overalls, a good brand to tie to,” says one. “Get the light idea, stop at Steamboat Springs,” says another. And on them all: “F.M. Light & Sons” in big, bold letters, often with a silhouette of a bucking bronco and cowboy.
In total there are 99 signs that lead the way to the Western-themed clothier that opened in 1905. Unlike other Colorado ski towns, Steamboat didn’t get its start because of the mining industry. Ranching was the primary industry of the valley when the railroad arrived in 1909, and better transportation connections drove the town to become one of the largest cattle centers in the west.
F.M. Light & Sons clothed the Yampa Valley’s ranchers, and today the historic store remains a must-visit spot for buying cowboy hats—or just having a look around. While fewer cowboys call Steamboat home, Western hospitality reigns supreme. Riverside restaurants with big patios let diners linger over drinks, the unpretentious Italian restaurant Mazzola’s slings food for families on paper-covered tables, and the glitz and glamour of other ski towns seem light years away.
The friendly, accessible atmosphere extends to the slopes at Steamboat Resort, a 10-minute drive southeast of town. A walkable base area is located at 6,900 feet—lower than other Colorado ski areas—meaning the effects of altitude sickness (shortness of breath, nausea, dehydration) are often not as intense.
What Steamboat Resort lacks in steeps, it makes up for with miles of breezy intermediate runs, plentiful sunshine, and some of the best tree skiing in the state; experts lucky enough to catch a powder day will hoot and holler as they weave between glistening aspens on runs like High Noon and Twilight.
The best apres spot on the mountain is also a lesson in understated style. Ski to the T Bar, a boxy hut off of the Right-O-Way run near the base, and you’ll find bumpin’ tunes, picnic tables, walls plastered with stickers, and surprisingly gourmet options like hot smoked Brie. Once you’re satiated, head to the hot springs to soothe your tired legs. Old Town Hot Springs in downtown offers eight pools, water slides, and an aquatic rock climbing wall—or opt for a more rustic soak at the riverside, rock-filled Strawberry Park Hot Springs, seven miles out of town.
To cap off the day, even if it’s chilly, take a walk along the path that runs next to the Yampa River and look across to the night skiing at Howelsen Hill Ski Area. This small-yet-mighty collection of runs and ski jumps opened in 1915 and is America’s oldest continuously operating ski area. One of the skiers under the lights might just be a future Olympian: Steamboat has produced more winter Olympians (98 and counting) than any other town in North America. Not bad for a cowboy town.
Visit if: You want a little bit of everything
As you exit off of Interstate 70 at Frisco, two hours west of Denver, a series of numbered mountains runs parallel to the road that winds its way to Breckenridge. The hills are thick with evergreens until around 11,000 feet—above this, the wind and snow bombard the 13,500-foot summits. One, two, three, four... by peak five you can see the ski area, trails and lifts sprinkled throughout peaks six through 10.
This sprawling ski area is the magazine-ready backdrop for Breckenridge’s historic main street, a one-mile stretch of mining huts, renovated Victorians, and brick buildings. At Breck, there’s no backside or frontside, just one expansive five-mountain resort that shows off all its glory in a single panorama.
The town was the center of the Colorado gold rush in the late 19th century, including the discovery of a giant 13.5-pound gold nugget in 1887. That gold was long gone, however, by the time the ski area opened in 1961, and the town quickly pivoted to outdoor adventures.
Breckenridge has always lacked the high-end hotels of Vail or the glamour of Aspen, preferring a more down-to-earth, family-friendly vibe. Extensive development hasn’t changed the feel much; it’s still the ski town of choice for Denver families who commute to the mountains each weekend to ski.
A gondola connects the town to the ski lifts at Peak 8, and from there you can tour the famous Ten Mile range on skis or a snowboard. To orient yourself, intermediates and above should head to the Imperial Express chairlift. At the top of the highest lift in North America (at 12,840 feet), you’re only 100 feet from the summit of Peak 8, with top-of-the-world views for miles. Beginners will love cruising the mellow blues of Peak 7, and at the end of the day your whole group can ski straight into downtown Breck on the green Four O’clock run.
Finish off the afternoon at Rocky Mountain Underground, a ski shop turned rustic bar that serves bourbon and gin from nearby Breckenridge Distillery, with plenty of local beer on tap. Window-shop on Main Street to work up an appetite before digging into the heavenly banh mi sandwiches and belly-filling pho at Peak of Asia on the south end of town. But save room for dessert: The decadent crepe stand on Main Street is a must-do.