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The family that skis together, stays together – or so we’d like it to be. But in reality, a ski trip with the family—or even a day of skiing with the kids—can be overwhelming. It’s usually crowded, expensive and a hassle from parking to renting gear to getting separated from the kids (that can ruin a ski day).
But it doesn’t have to be.
Scratch the idea of traveling to the high profile resorts with the $15 hamburgers. Colorado has some of the best family-friendly small ski areas in the country. Here are five reasons to ski the smaller resorts during winter in Colorado.
Off the Beaten Path
Some of the smaller, lesser known ski areas are not on the I-70 corridor. Any skier can tell you the hassles that result when a jackknifed truck or sliding car accident closes the interstate for hours. Sunday afternoon traffic can turn a two-hour trip into five or six.
Instead, head south from the city of Denver on Highway 285 for Monarch Mountain, just 20 miles from the historic mountain town of Salida, and Wolf Creek, a bit farther over Monarch Pass.
From Denver, drive to Boulder and continue 21 miles up to Eldora Mountain. Heck, you can even take an RTD bus and not have to drive at all! Echo Mountain is the closest ski area to Denver, just 50 minutes away and very little time on I-70.
For a long weekend, head south to Durango in the San Juan Mountains and find Hesperus on Highway 160. Then about an hour north is Kendall Mountain Recreation area in Silverton.
Always check COTRIP.ORG for highway information around the state.
Parking is Free
There are no expensive parking garages or lots. And parking lots are usually within a short walking distance to the base lodge and lifts, so schlepping equipment is manageable, even for the kids. One exception: cars with one rider will be charged $10 at Eldora on Saturdays, Sundays and holiday periods for the 20/21 season.
Nearly everything—lift tickets, lessons, rentals and food—is cheaper at the smaller resorts. Even more so if you buy a Gems Card from Colorado Ski Country. It costs $39 and entitles you to 2-for-1 lift tickets or two tickets with 30 Percent discount or one of each. Participating resorts are here.
Smaller areas have fewer people, making the whole experience safer and more fun. Lift lines are shorter so you get in more rides. On the mountain, less density means less chance of collisions.
Plus, fewer skiers and snowboarders keeps the snow from getting glazed off and provides a softer, more skiable surface. Powder in the trees can last for days. From renting equipment to taking lessons, when there are fewer people you get more personalized attention and that makes it fun for everyone.
Single Base Area
All the runs funnel down to one base area and lodge. It’s nearly impossible to get lost on the slopes if you keep going downhill. At some areas, like Cooper, Arrowhead and Granby Ranch you can sit on the deck of the lodge and watch the kids come down.
Colorado’s Small Ski Areas
The small ski areas listed here have less than 1,000 acres of skiable terrain; hence, meet the descriptions listed above. For a hassle-free, relaxing family day in the wintery Colorado mountains, try one!
On the flank of massive Beaver Creek sits this little ski area with mostly easy runs. Arrowhead has a lovely village from where you can catch a free shuttle to Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch should you want to explore the big boys.
One of the oldest ski areas in Colorado, Cooper started near Leadville in 1942 as a training site for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during WWll. If you like to ski deep powder, they run an excellent snowcat operation on Chicago Ridge. It was closed last year; check the website for opening dates in 2022.
Less than an hour from Denver, Echo Mountain is a great place for beginners with mostly green and blue runs. It offers night skiing and snowboarding Wednesday through Saturday from 4:30-9 pm. There’s also a tubing hill. Check website for days and hours.
This winter playground in Boulder’s backyard is home to Woodward Mountain Park, a terrain park designed for progressive sports training. On 680 acres, Eldora has 10 lifts, including one dedicated to race training. There’s also uphill skiing and Nordic trails.
Divided into two mountains, the gentler runs have real estate on East Mountain while more than half of West Mountain is in the black zone. But all runs at Granby Ranch lead to one nice base lodge where First Chair Cafe is waiting with premium coffee from local roasters.
This 60-acre area has some decent short black runs mixed in with greens and blues. Herperus has night skiing as well as an awesome terrain park and tubing hill. You can buy an uphill pass for skiing when the area is closed. Seniors and kids 12 and younger can ski or ride for free, every day!
The grandpa of the nation’s ski areas since 1915, it is the training site for famous Olympians and Hall of Famers. Howelsen Hill, owned by Steamboat Springs, is right in downtown from where you can see its ski-jumping complex and watch the night show during February’s Winter Carnival.
If you’re there on a Sunday, you can ski its 17 runs for free, all season long! Nordic too.
This small area among big mountains in the San Juan Mountain range is perfect for beginners. With one chairlift and 16 acres, Kendall is the quintessential hometown ski hill. All little sliders 5 and younger ski free every day, and anyone can skate and play hockey for free at the outdoor rink.
Of all the small ski areas, Monarch skis large with 67 trails on 800 acres and a vertical drop of 1,162 feet. Black runs comprise 36 percent of the terrain. Annual snowfall averages 350 inches, so no need for snowmaking. . .yet.
Powderhounds can find untracked lines in Mirkwood Basin on the backside. Formerly open only to cat skiing, anyone now can enjoy the off-piste conditions, rated double-black.
Just outside of Glenwood Springs, Sunlight its a mostly intermediate mountain with some very nice double black glades for experts. Sunlight is a great alternative to the four-mountain mega resort of Aspen down the road.
The best part is Sunlight’s Ski-Swim-Stay Package that includes overnights and soaks in the world’s largest hot springs pool for which the town is famous. They also offer snowmobile tours.
Book This Trip to Ski in Colorado
Ready to book a trip to some of the most gorgeous smaller ski resorts in Colorado? Start planning with hotel and VRBO information, local restaurant reviews, tips on the best winter fun in town and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.
Check out the best seasonal deals and promotions on flights and ground transportation through CheapOair.
Keep the whole family warm with the best-selling heated winter items from Gobi Heat.
For more information on what to see and do in Colorado, check out our Colorado Travel Guide.
Author Bio: Denver native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning journalist, covering skiing and travel for a variety of magazines and websites. Her blog Sleepin Around covers unique places to sleep on vacation.