By Morgan Tilton
Fourth-generation Coloradan Morgan Tilton guides you through the ultimate ski-cation with a route that avoids I-70 and hits some of the best resorts and backcountry in the state.
If you live on the Front Range, you’ve seen it in the news, experienced it first-hand, or heard about it from friends: The monster that has become I-70 ski traffic. There’s nothing like the sweet taste of powder as the sun rises on a ski day. But hundreds of thousands of vehicles added to that mix of heavy snow and ice-ridden temperatures creates a volatile stairway to heaven.
From the 50-car pileup ten years ago to the 104-vehicle wreck in 2014, extreme wreckage on I-70 has become the new norm. Thrillest lists I-70 as one of the worst freeways in the nation: reporter Aaron Miller writes, “The complete and utter randomness of winter traffic makes planning impossible.” And the forecast doesn’t bode well. The Centennial State’s booming population funnels across stressed, aging highways, yet voters cyclically oppose funding transportation infrastructure, reports 5280. According to the article, CDOT estimates that westbound I-70 travel times will triple by 2035; eastbound drivers should expect their commutes to quadruple.
An increasingly present gridlock on Colorado’s main artery certainly isn’t the most safe, efficient, economic, or environmental way for travelers to enjoy the mountains or for skiers to get to the lifts. Here’s the good news: A handful of road trips from Denver can offer reprieve from the I-70 mountain corridor and also guide you to pockets of our state’s best, lesser-known ski spots. Here are a handful of routes to help you get started:
Colorado State Highway 14
Ski Spots: Steamboat Ski Resort (champagne powder and incredible aspen glades); Howelsen Hill Ski Area (ski jumps including a 114-meter leap); Never Summer Nordic yurts (reserve a remote backcountry yurt in Colorado State Forest State Park, the moose capitol of Colorado); backcountry skiing on Cameron Pass and Buffalo Pass (plus cat skiing with Steamboat Powdercats).
Route: Head north on I-25 toward Fort Collins. Then go west on CO-14, which will take you through middle-of-nowhere northern Colorado, where you’ll be surrounded by the stunning Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. You’ll drive by State Forest State Park, Gould, and Walden before reaching Steamboat.
Time: 4 hours, 23 minutes one-way
U.S. Highway 285
Ski Spots: Copper Mountain (known for the Woodward terrain park, half-pipe, and indoor training facility, and Spaulding Bowl on powder days); Ski Cooper (extremely competitive full-day tickets: $54 for adults); backcountry skiing on Fremont Pass and Mayflower Gulch.
Route: Take U.S. Highway 285 toward Buena Vista. Then head north on US-24 toward Leadville. If you want to ski at Copper, veer slightly northeast on CO-91. To arrive at Ski Cooper, stay on US-24, which will go slightly west.
Time: 3 hours, 24 minutes one-way
Colorado State Highway 9
Ski Spots: Breckenridge Ski Resort (prized for its terrain parks, and high-alpine runs off of Peak 6, Peak 7, and Peak 8.)
Route: Take US Highway 285 to Fairplay. Then go north on CO-9.
Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes one-way
U.S. Route 24
Ski Spots: Monarch Mountain (nostalgic vibe, cat skiing, and one of the deepest annual snowfalls among the state’s ski resorts: 350 inches); Crested Butte Mountain Resort (distinguished by its extreme terrain—check out runs off of the North Face Lift, Teocalli Bowl, and Teocalli 2 Bowl—and the iconic silhouette of Crested Butte, the prominent peak that towers above this historic mining town); Maroon Hut (rent a two-story cabin with heating, hot water, electricity, stocked kitchen in the historic town of Gothic, which is reachable via a mellow 4-mile skin from the north side of Crested Butte.); backcountry skiing on Monarch Pass.
Route: Depart on I-25 toward Colorado Springs and then go west on US-24, which connects with U.S. Highway 285. Continue south to Poncha Springs and turn west on US-50, which will take you over Monarch Pass, where the ski area is located. To reach Crested Butte, crest and descend the mountain pass. Reach Gunnison and turn north on CO-135.
Time: 5 hours, 2 minutes one-way
U.S. Highway 285 (2.0!)
Ski Spots: Telluride Ski Resort (spotlighted for it’s short lift lines, hike-to runs, and steep terrain); Opus Hut (the sauna, food, and San Juan views are hard to beat); North Pole Backcountry Ski Hut (epic for its location on the north side of Sneffels Range, in the heart of the remote Mt. Sneffels Wilderness); High Camp Hut (stellar for its wide porch, wood-fired sauna, and wood-burning hot tub in the middle of a high-alpine meadow.)
Route: Head southwest on Highway 285. Go west over Monarch Pass via US-50 and in Montrose, turn south on US-550 to Ridgeway. Veer west on CO-62 over Dallas Divide. Turn south on CO-145.
Time: 6 hours, 23 minutes one-way
U.S. Route 160
Ski Spots: Wolf Creek Ski Area (famous for being a winter wonderland that receives the most snow in Colorado: 430 inches); backcountry skiing on Wolf Creek Pass.
Route: Head south on I-25 until you reach Walsenburg. Turn west on US-160.
Time: 4 hours, 56 minutes one-way
Safety Check: Driving in Winter Conditions
Whichever road trip you choose, be sure to prepare your rig for winter driving conditions and potentially isolated locations with no cell service or traffic:
Familiarize yourself with the route beforehand, and don’t rely on a phone app to steer you. Carry a printed road atlas, and pull over to check your directions as needed. If a mountain pass closes and a reroute is required, or if you see an unfamiliar junction, you’ll be glad you have a physical map.
Check for condition updates via the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), before you hit the road.
CDOT recommends that travelers top off the gas tank (more than halfway full), which increases traction and ensures that there’s juice if you get stuck in the snow and need to periodically run the engine to stay warm.
Stow a snow shovel, flashlight, water, blankets or a sleeping bag, and nonperishable food in your car. These supplies are useful if there’s a long delay, emergency, or if you need to stay overnight in your vehicle.
Be sure you have good tires with tread that are suitable for blizzard conditions on a mountain pass. According to CDOT, the Colorado State Patrol recommends a minimum tread depth of 1/8 inch. All-season tires are usually adequate for front-wheel drive vehicles, whereas snow tires are best on rear-wheel drive vehicles, CDOT notes.
If the visibility is poor, don’t speed up: slow down, so that you can safely follow mountain curves, stay in your lane, and not lose control of the vehicle.
When you’re descending icy roads, save your brakes and use the engine (by downshifting the gears) to hold back the vehicle. Then periodically tap the brakes to prevent acceleration.
Oh, and one more thing:
We make all the backcountry recommendations in this guide under a major caveat: Backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous and requires more knowledge, experience, and specialized gear than resort skiing. Please do not explore any of the aforementioned zones before you can do it safely. We advise gearing up with a beacon, probe, and shovel and taking an avalanche safety course.
Willing to brave I-70 in order to stay closer to the Mile High City? These are the best ski resorts near Denver.