Colorado Snow and Ski

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Colorado Snow and Ski
Colorado's snow sells itself: The ski areas are famous, and with good reason. But there’s a whole lot more to winter in the 38th state, from ice climbing to quirky mountain festivals.
Photo courtesy of Rosanne H. Pitcher/Wolf Creek Ski Area
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    Early Season Skiing in Wolf Creek
    It’s not as iconic as Aspen or as convenient to Denver, but the unique geography of Wolf Creek, located near the town of Pagosa Springs by the New Mexican border, gets surprisingly excellent early-season snow, especially for a southerly resort. Add to that the sparse lift lines, and you have one seriously underappreciated destination for logging powder time. And as an added bonus, after a day of beating yourself up on the slopes, the therapeutic geothermal pools at Pagosa Springs feel mighty good.
    Photo courtesy of Rosanne H. Pitcher/Wolf Creek Ski Area
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    Touring the 10th Mountain Division Huts
    Named after a legendary Army mountain warfare unit that trained in Camp Hale in central Colorado, the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association operates a network of 30 well-kept huts in the Rocky Mountains. Visitors can make reservations to ski or snowshoe in through the mountains, arriving either with a guide or as part of a privately-arranged group. Don’t let the name fool you, though: These “huts” aren’t tumbledown shacks. They’re full-on backcountry cabins; some boast indoor plumbing and private bedrooms. A few, such as the Shrine Mountain Inn, even have wood-fired saunas.
    Photo by Jess Vulcan
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    Ice Climbing in Ouray
    Ice climbers usually have to slog down miles of trail to reach their objectives. In Ouray, they don’t even have to leave downtown. Located right outside central Ouray, Ouray Ice Park uses an ingenious system of irrigation pipes to farm ice along the steep sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge, creating a mile of thick, challenging ice for climbers to tackle. The park opens in mid-December and typically remains active through the spring; in January, climbers from around the country and the world flock to the town for the Ouray Ice Festival, a weekend-long celebration featuring ice climbing clinics, slideshows, and a mixed climbing competition.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Untamed Skiing in Silverton
    Colorado’s best answer to the wild peaks of Alaska is Silverton Mountain, which opened just over a decade ago and is strictly for serious skiers. You won’t find any bunny hills here; Silverton’s one chairlift services only ungroomed, uncontrolled terrain, and patrons are required to carry avalanche gear—including a beacon, probe, and shovel—at all times. To get the full experience, however, you're best off taking a bird; over 20,000 of Silverton’s 22,000 acres of terrain are accessible only by helicopter or hiking. Unlike most heli-skiing providers, Silverton lets riders and skiers buy helicopter time by the ride. A single drop is not much more than the cost of lift tickets at some resorts.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Iconic Skiing in Aspen
    Aspen has gone through a lot of changes since its countercultural heyday as the 1970s haunt of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. With second- and third-homeowners flooding the market, the town's real estate is among the most expensive in the United States. Along with the town's famously fancy après-ski scene, one thing that hasn’t changed is the snow; the four nearby resorts of Aspen/Snowmass get dumped on each year. Aspen Mountain itself gets an average of some 300 inches every winter and spring, and nearby Buttermilk, with its forgiving slopes, is one of the best confidence-boosting destinations in the state for new skiers.
    Photo by Chris Caldicott/age fotostock
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    Skiing in Vail
    Vail is one of the most manicured ski towns in the world, a purpose-built community designed from the get-go to be the ultimate ski resort. It's an excellent destination for après-ski, with a lively bar scene and no shortage of interesting places to visit. That’s not to say the skiing isn’t good, either. Vail mountain is vast, with world-famous back bowls, and the town has hosted World Cup races; Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn moved there as a teenager to train. As a bonus, the Epic Pass—a combined ticket from Vail Resorts that offers holders unlimited access to their mountains in Colorado, Utah, and California, as well as a limited number of days at three European resorts—is probably the best value in Colorado skiing.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Snowdown Winter Celebration in Durango
    Founded in 1979 with the aim of relieving residents’ midwinter blues, Snowdown has evolved into a massive winter carnival that draws hundreds of people to Durango to dress up in costumes, watch a parade, drink profusely, and take part in slightly bonkers activities that include a beard-growing contest, a winter triathlon combining skiing, snowshoeing, and tubing, and a polar plunge in a pool of beer. The theme changes annually, with past themes including "Steampunk Snowdown," "Snowdown in Da Nile," and "A Jolly Roger Snowdown." The theme in 2014 was "Safari So Good," and featured a fair number of lions, zebras, giraffes, and pith-helmeted explorers roaming the streets.
    Photo courtesy of Scott D.W. Smith/Snowdown Durango
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    Breckenridge’s Ullr Fest
    Since its inception over a half-century ago, Ullr Fest has been a bastion of Viking-themed weirdness. Revelers at the annual winter carnival don plastic helmets for the festival’s Christmas-tree-fed bonfire, as well as for unusual competitions such as the frying pan throwing contest. The Ullr Fest parade—the festival’s centerpiece—features floats that range from conventional to proudly bizarre. The festival as a whole is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Norse god Ullr, patron deity of skiers, with the aim of convincing him to drop a good powder year on Breckenridge.
    Photo courtesy of Carl Scofield/GoBreck
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    Skiing Arapahoe Basin
    Denverites like to ski too, and when they do, one of the places they go is Arapahoe Basin, located on the Continental Divide about 68 miles from the capital. A-Basin, as it’s known, clocks in at a top elevation of over 13,000 feet, making it one of the highest ski areas in Colorado. As a result, A-Basin opens early (it’s often the first resort in the state to turn on its lifts) and closes late (in a good year, A-Basin may stay open until July). With six chairlifts and two terrain parks, there’s plenty for visitors to tackle when the gates are open.
    Photo courtesy of Dave Camara/Arapahoe Basin Ski Area