Three Colorado Ski Resort Gems
by Mitch Kaplan
It takes some restraint and will power to resist the big Colorado ski resorts that tempt you as you drive the Interstate. I did just that recently when I ventured to three of Colorado’s self-branded "Gems." And, what I discovered was—you guessed it—three gems indeed.
Yes, it’s true that to visit these places you must drive right past, or very near to, such heavy hitters as Vail, Copper Mountain, Aspen and the entire Front Range retinue. Still, given the different aspect, the smaller scale and friendlier ambience, it’s worth the detours.
Ski Cooper just may be the anti-resort. There’s
no on-site lodging here. Just pure ski hill.
no fancy base lodge with wallet-busting gourmet cuisine. Just a two-story building with a basic cafeteria and as tiny a ski lodge bar as ever served a beer.
no high-speed lifts carrying van loads at a time. Just a two-seater, a three-seater and a platter tow that eventually get you where you want to go.
When I arrived, it was snowing so hard you couldn’t see the high peaks beyond the lifts. That was good news and bad: good because there would be powder to ski; bad because it meant that Chicago Ridge Snowcat Skiing, which operates largely above treeline, was grounded for the day. The cat skiing adds a dimension that can keep truly expert skiers happily entertained. Otherwise, Cooper is low-key and completely family-oriented.
So family-oriented that you feel immediately like family.
I trudged into the base lodge in search of Bob Casey, newly appointed marketing director. I’d never met Bob, nor did I have a clue where to look for him.
I asked at the cafeteria cash register.
"Oh, that’s him standing right there," said the woman on duty, calling him over. In a blink, Bob was greeting me warmly, introducing her to me and buying me a cup of coffee.
Bob and I spent most of the day covering Cooper’s skiable acreage. But first, he had to man the summit lift shack to monitor a Nordic Rondonee event scheduled for that day as part of Ski Cooper’s annual Telemark Festival. Competitors would skin their way to the top, then doff the skins to tele back down. Bob’s job was to monitor the top gates, and to collect the skins to be brought down later by snowmobile.
I joined him. One-by-one the competitors appeared through the mist and falling snow. By the time the last one — a young man aged eight or nine — made the trek, I was the official skin collector, unofficial cheerleader, and part of the Ski Cooper family.
Ski Cooper sits directly on the Continental Divide. It holds its snow thanks to the combination of its high elevation (10,500 feet at the base) and a lack of super steep terrain where it would be skied off. We chased the newly falling powder into the trees, and down whatever steeper runs we could find. The glades were just the kind that kids love — not steep, but full of places to squiggle, squirm and feel like an adventurer.
The forte here is beginner runs and programs, plus some fine blue-rated wide open cruising slopes. It is, as Bob said, the kind of place where "second and third generation" people come to be taught by ski school director Franci Peterson. Franci has taught three generations to ski so effectively, she’s been elected to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. Parents and grandparents want their kids to learn where they learned.
There’s more than family history here. Camp Hale, where the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops trained during World War II, is a few miles up the road. Leadville, an historic mining town, is a few miles down the road. Check out Leadville’s Delaware Hotel, where I stayed. It’s a kind of combo old-time hotel/antiques-and-junk store, and lots of fun.
Another aspect of Ski Cooper well worth checking out: Tennessee Pass Nordic Center. Sure, they’ve got 25-k of cross-country/snowshoe trails (all dog-friendly, by the way), but it’s their Tennessee Pass Cookhouse ski/snowshoe-to lunches and dinners that draws crowds.
"People come from all over—Colorado Springs, the Front Range—to eat here," said Ty Hall, who runs the place. You ski or snowshoe a one-mile trail to a yurt in the woods, then eat amazingly fine cuisine—elk tenderloin, baked salmon, Colorado rack of lamb, appetizers. Reservations are a must and, with kids, probably traveling to lunch (served on weekends) makes the most sense.
Indeed, for a pure ski experience, Ski Cooper makes sense.
Sunlight Mountain Resort
Possibly a zillion people pass right by Sunlight en-route to Aspen. It’s just a small detour off Highway 82 south of Glenwood Springs, but most keep going. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Sunlight is another locals’ treasure, the kind of place where you can leave your kids to ski all day and they won’t get into trouble. More likely, if they’re not local, they’ll become local. As I ate lunch with Janis Berger, ski school supervisor, kids kept coming up to say hello. As many as 90 instructors work here, but only 15 are hand-selected to work with kids.
Here, too, you find all the expected elements for a fine family destination:
just one base lodge
wide, forgiving learning terrain
just enough terrain park to keep park denizens interested
an excellent day care facility
fine learning programs for all ages and interests
unique programs—like avalanche rescue demonstrations with avi-dogs in action.
But, there's more to this improbable place:
genuine double-diamond terrain, including Colorado’s steepest lift-served run—The Heathen trail, which dips at an incredible 52 percent grade
a 2.5-mile, dazzlingly wide, novice trail called The Ute Trail that’s accented with huge rollers that add dimension to a delightful cruise
a history that dates back to the 1930s.
Head ski patroller Norm Wheeler regaled me with Sunlight stories. Originally called Holiday Hill, the first lift was a rope tow powered by a 1930s Buick. Unlike other ski areas of that time, Holiday Hillers didn't use just the car's engine to get themselves uphill. The entire vehicle was stationed on the mountain.
"I’ll show you," Norm said.
We skied to a run called Showdown. A fully rusted car carcass sat in the trees just off the slope. No easy-sliders were these guys in the old days. Showdown is a respectably steep black diamond-rated route.
But Showdown can’t touch the precipitous runs we followed through the Gibson Glades. The angle of descent there was enough to set off vertigo. When you add the dimension of truly steep challenge, you've suddenly got a place that can satisfy anyone in your entourage.
But, wait, there’s more . . .
When you drive through Glenwood Springs, you can't help but notice the large hotel and its huge swimming pool. That’s the Hot Springs Lodge & Pool, the world’s largest hot springs pool. Therapy pools there run to 90 and 104 degrees. You can also swim laps, dive or water slide, and there’s a kiddie pool. For really aching bodies, the complex holds an oversized whirlpool, steam room, sauna and massage services.
When you add in the world's largest hot springs swimming pool, an uncrowded hill with old-time ambience, and ski-swim-stay packages from some nine hotels—offering lodging, lift ticket and hot springs pool entry—you suddenly realize you’re on to something special.
You needn’t leave the Interstate to ski Monarch. If you’re here, you’ve left the big highway long ago. But, the ski area does sit right on the roadside—adjacent to U.S. Route 50 in the heart of Monarch Pass. Talk about scenery.
Like the others, Monarch does without frills. Instead, they substitute
surprisingly extensive glade skiing
some serious steeps
cool terrain parks, including one with all-natural elements
a heady dose of intermediate thruways
and a true cat skiing backcountry experience.
Here, too, you find a small base area with but one main lodge, a rental/ticket building and a children’s center.
That kids’ center is run by one Roger Potts, a man who is righteously dedicated to detail and proud of his excellent programs. The oversight is so personalized that they’ll teach a three year-old to snowboard (most places require a child to be seven). Intro teaching happens on an isolated hill with its own tow and surface carpet. An obstacle course and a ski tunnel add fun.
In addition, families with kids age seven and up can opt for a family private lesson in which everyone learns together.
Still, if some have adventure on their minds, it’s readily found here. Isolated on National Forest Service land at a base elevation of 10,790 feet, where commercial encroachment is impossible, and outfitted with languorous, leg-resting lifts, fully 31 percent of the 800 skiable acres are rated expert. And, the glade runs are the stuff of a tree skier’s dream.
Then, there’s the cat skiing. Monarch Powder Cats services 900 acres, much of them remarkably steep. The day I skied it, the snow was largely breakable crust (often a nightmare), and the wind on the top ridge whipped at 50 m.p.h. Still, if you accept the challenge, it’s a remarkable way to spend a day. Given good weather and snow, it would be unforgettable.
Food and beds are found about 10 miles away in Salida. Don’t let the town fool you as you pass through on Highway 50. It gives the impression that Salida is nothing more than a roadside glut of fast food, strip malls and chain motels.
Just a few blocks "inland" nestles an historic district that holds a bevy of shops, galleries and surprisingly good restaurants, including some truly gourmet fare at a place called Laughing Ladies Cafe, and a remarkably epicurean pizza joint known as Amica's Pizza & Microbrew.
And, while Glenwood Springs may have the largest hot springs pool, Salida boasts Colorado's largest indoor hot springs pool. The Salida Hot Springs contains a 25 meter, six-lane warmed to 84-86 degrees. A smaller, four-foot deep pool holds water at approximately 95-100 degrees.
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...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.