By Laura Newcomer on December 15, 2020 in Travel
Nestled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, you’ll find more than 100 small towns boasting opportunities for winter fun. Whether you’re looking to ski extreme terrain, try a new winter sport, or enjoy hot cocoa and a beautiful view, these towns offer something for every kind of traveler.
Keep in mind that you should take some precautions if you travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Don’t travel if you’re ill, quarantine before and after travel, wear a mask in public places, and respect local regulations. Many mountain towns rely on tourism, but they have limited medical resources.
Ready to start planning (or fantasizing about) a trip? Here are some of the best mountain getaways for wintertime activities in Colorado, plus tips for making the most of your trip.
Colorado Destinations with Skiing or Winter Sports Nearby
Each of Colorado's Rocky Mountain towns has something spectacular to offer. Here are seven epic destinations with access to skiing and other winter sports.
Haute Aspen draws celebrities and everyday people from all over the country and world for good reasons. Not only does the city offer world-class skiing at its four (count 'em!) ski mountains, but its relatively large downtown has high-class dining establishments, local shops and eateries, and an active art scene. Plus, the city has a strong commitment to climate action with their plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent between 2004 and 2050. Each winter, Aspen hosts the Winter X Games — an amazing display of winter sports prowess.
Breckenridge (or "Breck" as it's known to locals) has a larger and more active downtown than many Colorado mountain towns. Breck bustles with people dining out, shopping at the varied local stores, or hitting the bars. The city sits at the base of the slopes, so it's easy to walk to the lifts from a downtown rental. It also offers plenty of activities for non-skiers. Take note: At 9,600 feet above sea level, Breck is one of the highest ski towns in terms of elevation, so it’s not a great choice for people who are sensitive to altitude.
- Crested Butte
One of the newest editions to the Epic Pass (more on that below), Crested Butte has been steadily growing in popularity. The former mining town boasts a National Historic District and a distinctly funky vibe, from its brightly painted Victorian homes to its varied shops, eateries, and artistic enclaves. The slopes towering above downtown offer plenty of extreme terrain for daring skiers with the skill to navigate them.
Situated about 70 miles from Four Corners (the point where Colorado intersects with New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah), Durango has a more southwestern vibe than the other towns on this list. It's also a bit lower in elevation (at around 6,500 feet above sea level). It doesn't offer quite as close of access to ski resorts as the towns above. But don't let that deter you! This family-friendly town offers plenty of fun things to do. Eat, shop, and ride the historic Durango and Silverton Railroad while taking in stunning views of the San Juan Mountains. Eleven miles west of Durango, snowboarders and skiers can check out Hesperus Ski Area, a small, low-key resort known for night skiing. Or they can head 25 miles north of town to Purgatory Resort. Experienced skiers and snowboarders can also enjoy guided skiing and riding and heliskiing in rugged Silverton, about 48 miles north of Durango.
Like many of the towns on this list, Georgetown got its start as a mining town. Today, the small town sits on the edge of I-70 in Clear Creek Canyon. It serves as a mellow, more affordable destination for travelers who are interested in spending time in a mountain town and visiting multiple ski resorts within an hour’s drive. Loveland Ski Area is 12 miles east; Arapahoe Basin is 20 miles southeast; Keystone is 33 miles southeast; and Winter Park is 34 miles north. Georgetown’s Victorian downtown has a quaint feel and features locally owned specialty shops and eateries as well as museums. In December, the town turns into a winter wonderland with the annual Georgetown Christmas Market. Families can also take a ride on a historic steam train’s Santa’s North Pole Adventure or Santa’s Lighted Forest ride.
One of the highest-elevation incorporated towns in the United States, the historic mining town of Leadville perches at more than 10,000 feet above sea level and offers stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, including 14,439-foot Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in the state. Leadville was one of the largest and richest silver camps in the world in the 1880s, so it boasts an abundance of historical attractions. The charming downtown has a Western flavor thanks to its funky Victorian architecture and old saloons. And don’t miss a stop at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum and Tabor Opera House. Leadville is 10 miles from the budget-friendly Ski Cooper and 24 miles from the larger ski area Copper Mountain. Because Leadville sits so high in the mountains, winter visitors should prepare for freezing temperatures and windy conditions.
Tucked in the stunning San Juan Mountains, Telluride offers plenty of steep terrain for the adventurous skiers in your midst. It’s also home to a thriving downtown with delicious restaurants, local shops, and active art, music, and festivals scenes. Telluride isn’t close to any major airport or city, so it’s a haul to get there. The nearest airport is in Montrose, Colorado, about 65 miles away. But those willing to make the wintry drive will find that their effort pays off in spades.
Tips for Planning a Mountain-Town Winter Adventure
Ready to plan your winter adventure in a Colorado mountain town? Get started with the following tips.
- Research ski areas
Research is crucial if you’re traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, because resorts may have different policies regarding reservations, lift access, and pass insurance.
Additionally, every mountain town in Colorado has a flavor, and different people enjoy different vibes. If you want access to arts and nightlife during your trip, for example, Aspen or Breckenridge may be a great choice. If you’re looking for a quieter, more down-to-earth vibe, Durango, Georgetown, or Leadville may be more your speed.
Towns also differ when it comes to access to winter sports. Some people will prioritize proximity to ski resorts, while others may not mind a drive. If you want to be able to ski in and out from your lodging (or close to it), stick to Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, or Crested Butte. If you don’t mind driving to the slopes, consider Durango or Georgetown.
Finally, research is essential because the cost of a visit to a Colorado mountain town may vary greatly depending on the destination. For example, you’ll likely spend more in the resort towns of Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Telluride.
- Plan your dates
As a general rule, it starts snowing in the Colorado mountains sometime in October and continues through May. But all snow isn't created equal. While resorts usually open in November, it often takes until late December or early January to open all runs.
The snow forecast varies by year, and it's impossible to know far in advance when the best powder will dump. Increase your chances of a well-timed trip by checking the forecasts at specific resorts and Open Snow, a fantastic resource for snow forecasting at ski resorts.
- Check out other winter sports
Many people flock to Colorado mountain towns in the winter to snowboard and downhill ski. While these sports are a blast, other options such as snowshoeing, snow tubing, Nordic skiing, or fat-tire biking abound. Many towns offer access to these and other activities.
- Buy lift tickets in advance
The sooner you purchase lift tickets, the more money you'll likely save. Know the resort(s) where you plan to ski before you book lift tickets, and research passes that allow access to multiple resorts. The two main passes are:
1. Epic Pass
This pass provides access to Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Telluride, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Epic Pass holders need to reserve lift access in advance. Learn more about Epic Pass insurance and other COVID-19-related info here.
2. IKON Pass
This pass provides access to Aspen (as well as Snowmass). The IKON Pass hasn't yet shared many details about their plans for COVID-19; look for updates here.
- Research local restaurants, events, and hot springs
After a long day of skiing, snow tubing, or fat-tire biking, you'll want to unwind. Make it easy by researching local restaurants and hot springs before your arrival. Make a list of places you'd like to go, so when you're feeling windswept and tired at the end of a day on the slopes, you can consult your list and easily find a delicious meal or refreshing hot springs.
While you're at it, make a list of events in the area such as concerts, food tastings, or festivals. If you take a break from the slopes, these activities can help you enjoy local flavor.
- Check the road conditions
If there's one thing that you're all but guaranteed to encounter in and around mountain towns, it's wintry driving conditions. If you'll drive your car, make sure your tires are in good shape and you're comfortable driving in snow and poor visibility. If you're renting a car, ask about getting a 4-wheel drive vehicle with snow tires. Check road conditions every time you drive, as conditions can change quickly in the mountains.
Whether you’re fantasizing about travel or planning a trip for this winter, Colorado mountain towns are bursting with opportunities for winter fun. If you visit during COVID-19, stay safe and respect the wellbeing of locals. And don’t forget to have a blast, whether you’re swooping down the slopes, snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, or kicking back with a warm drink beneath craggy peaks.