How to Ski Crowd-Free in Colorado

Some of the world's premier ski resorts are in Colorado. But the ones you've likely already heard of — Breckenridge, Vail, Aspen and Telluride — are usually both crowded and expensive. Check out these lesser-known locals' secrets to ski pristine runs without waiting at the lift lines.

Photo By: Courtesy of Howelsen Hill

Photo By: ©Scott DW Smith/ Imagesmith Photo

Photo By: Chris Segal

Photo By: Monarch Mountain

Photo By: Courtesy of Silverton Mountain

Photo By: Wolf Creek Ski Area

Photo By: Loveland Ski Area

Photo By: Drive The Image Deanna Trevizo

Photo By: Ski Cooper

Photo By: Matthew Inden

Howelsen Hill

Aside from the backcountry, Howelsen Hill has some of the cheapest skiing in the state, at $25 for an adult lift ticket. The area is run by the city of Steamboat Springs, but don't be fooled by its nature as a public park. Howelsen claims to have sent more skiers to international competitions than any other area in North America and has been the training grounds for at least 90 Olympians.

Purgatory Resort

Purgatory Resort has it all: Snowcat skiing, dogsledding, sleigh rides, Nordic trails, snowmobiles and Santa Claus right on the mountain near Christmastime. The mountain is just half an hour from Durango, on Colorado's Western Slope, where the spirit of the Wild West is still alive and well. The scenery in the San Juan Mountains surrounding Durango is unparalleled, so don't skimp on driving around the area even if you fly right into the Durango airport. Don't want to drive? The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad weaves through some of the most beautiful parts of the San Juans. This time of year, they offer a Polar Express train to bring the famous book to life.

Crested Butte

Some say Crested Butte is one of the last great ski towns of the West. If you live here, chances are it's because you can't survive without the mountain biking, hiking or skiing. Being outdoorsy is essential, and it's built right into the fibers of the town. If you've never skied a big mountain before or if you've never skied alone, don't worry — the resort offers free guided tours of its blue and green runs every day to make sure you're set up to enjoy it on your own. Back in town, don't miss out on The Secret Stash, an eclectic pizzeria more than worth the wait. You'll find creative pies here like Buddha's Belly, with Thai peanut and coconut curry instead of red sauce, and The Woodward, topped with prosciutto and two eggs over easy.

Monarch Mountain

At Monarch Mountain, you'll find affordable lift tickets and runs for skiers of all levels. Salida is in the heart of Colorado's best outdoor adventures. Winter days here are often mild enough that you can ski, bike and fish on the same day. For a bargain of a weekend, stay at one of the two hostels in downtown Salida — the Simple Lodge and Hostel or the Salida Hostel — for comfy, social and cheap accommodations starting around $25 a night. Nature will be your après-ski hot tub: Chaffee County has scores of hot springs, from the rustic, clothing-optional pools at Valley View Hot Springs (call ahead; they can fill quickly) to the upscale pools at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort closer to Buena Vista. Tack on an extra day to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, the tallest dunes in North America and one of the most underrated parks in the whole country.

Silverton Mountain

Everyone will tell you the same thing about Silverton Mountain: This place is made for serious skiers who care about shredding and no frills. You need avalanche equipment to ski here, and unless you specifically come on an unguided day, you must ski with a guide. Once you get to the top of the chairlift, you have to boot pack to the best routes. There are no cut or groomed trails, and it's not beginner-friendly. But for experts, the terrain, powder and solitude are unmatched. Want to avoid the trekking to get in a few more runs? Heli-ski for $179 a run or $1,000 for six drops.

Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek is the epitome of a locals' secret. It's in the heart of southern Colorado, four hours from Denver but worth every hairpin turn on the mountain roads to get there. Wolf Creek claims it gets more inches of snow than any other resort in Colorado, and that's a ton of powder — usually about 430 inches a year. You won't get sick of the views or the expert terrain, especially when lift tickets are $70 and under, and you can't get bored in town, either. Pagosa Springs has three developed hot springs, including the massive Springs Resort and Spa, which has dozens of pools.

Loveland Ski Area

Enjoy free rides on Loveland's snowcat to access expert terrain along the Continental Divide. And if you're searching for a creative winter wedding idea, look no further — the mountain takes its name to heart on Valentine's Day, when couples can join a mass wedding near the top of the mountain to wed or renew their vows for the price of a single lift ticket (wedding cake and beer, of course, are included). Expect to see couples skiing in suits and wedding dresses throughout the day. Want to find a sweetheart whose skiing matches yours? Colorado-based dating app LuvByrd will host chairlift speed dating at Loveland in February and March.

Sunlight Mountain Resort

With far less traffic than Colorado's more well-known resorts, you can ski powder for days at Sunlight, near Glenwood Springs. If you're into hot springs, too, you're in luck — Glenwood Hot Springs takes the cake for largest natural hot springs pool in the world. Take advantage of Sunlight's "Slope and Soak" packages for four days of skiing and hot spring-hopping between Glenwood and Iron Mountain Hot Springs for $199, about the same price as a single-day lift ticket and gear rental at Vail. You can avoid Coloradans' least favorite part of skiing — horrendous I-70 traffic — by ditching your car and taking Amtrak from Denver to Glenwood Springs.

Ski Cooper

Be prepared for a major altitude adjustment if you visit Leadville, which at 10,152 feet is the highest city in the U.S. Ski Cooper is just outside town and has both snowcat skiing and mellow terrain perfect for young and novice skiers and snowboarders. Warm up between runs at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, just on the other end of the parking lot, where you'll find hearty soup and warm drinks. Not into downhill skiing? Rent cross-country skis at the Cookhouse to slide across groomed trails. Stay overnight in a Tennessee Pass yurt, and the staff will pack in your gear and make dinner for you right in your yurt.

Colorado Backcountry

More and more Coloradans are choosing to skip the lift lines entirely and head uphill with their own two skis to earn their turns. Lots of backcountry skiers fight to keep their favorite spots a secret, but guides from Colorado Mountain School will show you where to go — and how to get there safely. If you've never skied out of bounds before, be sure you take an avalanche safety course before venturing into the backcountry, with Colorado Mountain School or elsewhere. If you don't know what a beacon and probe are or why you'd need them, this is not for you. Instead, aim to hit the resorts on a weekday for minimal crowds and maximum powder.

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