By Joel Gratz, Founding Meteorologist Posted 4 years ago January 3, 2019
Snow In Colorado - What To Do, Where To Go, & How To Chase The Best Powder
This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at the Colorado Tourism Office.
I have been playing in Colorado’s mountains for over 15 years, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of your time enjoying the snow.
We’ll start by discussing why Colorado’s high elevation is so important when it comes to snow. Then we’ll look at various mountain regions of Colorado and talk about how you can plan your travel to chase the best snow or explore less-known resorts. And I’ll also list all of the activities that are available to you during the winter – skiing and riding at resorts is quite fun, and there are plenty of other super fun options as well!
Elevation – The Key Ingredient
Most of Colorado’s best ski terrain sits between 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level.
This is a higher elevation than other areas around the western United States, western Canada, and most of Europe.
The high elevation is incredibly important:
* High elevation means colder temperatures. With colder temperatures, mountains can make snow early in the season to ensure terrain is open, and snow can stick around longer into the spring. Also, cold temperatures mean that nearly every winter storm will drop snow on the ski areas with rarely a mention of the “r” word that should not be spoken aloud by skiers (ah, ok, I'll say it – "rain").
* High elevation leads to fluffy snow. In general, colder temperatures help the atmosphere to create fluffier, lighter snowfall. While I welcome all types of snow, the fluffy, light snow is my favorite to ski. The average of all winter storms in Colorado drops snow at a ratio of 15 inches of snow to 1 inch of liquid (15:1).
* High elevation brings the opportunity for long runs. Many of the larger resorts stretch nearly 3,000 vertical feet from summit to base. Skiing a lot of vertical feet isn’t always the goal, but if you want a workout and you want your on-hill fun to stretch over 1/2 a mile in elevation, these bigger mountains might be for you!
While most of the skiing and riding in Colorado takes place above 8,000 feet, most towns are generally located between 6,000 - 9,000 feet. If you feel great at a higher elevation, explore away. And if you want to stay a bit lower in the thicker air, you can plan your accommodations in the larger cities around Denver, or head to Grand Junction, Durango, Pagosa Springs, or Steamboat Springs.
Photo: Steamboat Resort from downtown Steamboat Springs
Mountain Regions & How to Chase Snow
I think of Colorado’s mountains in three distinct groups.
The mountain regions of Colorado. By Joel Gratz.
As a meteorologist who forecasts and travels to the best snow, I love Colorado because different regions of our state are favored by each storm track. For example, if a storm tracks to the south and misses the northern mountains, I can drive a few hours and ski in the deeper snow in the southern mountains. Or vice-versa. Having these many mountains within a reasonable drive leads to quite a few adventures!
Below are my thoughts about how to travel through each region.
This is the area along and north of I-70. Most of Colorado’s most well-known and largest resorts are in this region. A storm track and wind from the northwest is most favorable for snow at most of these mountains.
If you are in the Denver area or I-70 region, day-tripping to any of these mountains is simple. And while the bigger-name locations steal the headlines (and offer fantastic skiing and riding), don’t forget the smaller mountains, like Loveland or Eldora, which offer a low-key atmosphere and solid skiing. Also, here’s a tip – a handful of times each season, a storm brings a wind from the east, which can deliver the most snow to the Denver area and also to nearby Eldora ski area.
The northern mountains of Colorado. By Joel Gratz.
This is the area south of I-70 and north of US-50. Because this region is further from Denver, there are fewer people in these mountains, which can mean short or no lift lines and plenty of room for you to explore the terrain.
If you find yourself along I-70, a quick trip to the south will take you to the ski area of Cooper (not to be confused with Copper), which offers all-natural snow (no snowmaking) and an uncrowded experience. Also, Sunlight and the Aspen-area mountains are an easy drive from I-70.
If you find yourself on the western slope, around Grand Junction, Powderhorn is a gem that sits on the northern end of the Grand Mesa. A unique experience is heading to this area in the springtime when you can ski powder in the morning and then head west for an afternoon of mountain biking around Grand Junction or Fruita.
Another fun road trip is to ski at Monarch, and then head west to Gunnison and north to Crested Butte. The town of Crested Butte is as authentic and fun as a mountain town can be and is worth a visit. Both of Monarch and Crested Butte can get the most snow when the wind direction is from the west-southwest, so keep your eye on this if you’re looking for deep powder.
The central mountains of Colorado. By Joel Gratz.
Known as the San Juan mountains, this area is in the southwestern part of Colorado.
The most well-known resort is Telluride, and its recognition is deserved as the terrain is incredible and the views are likely the best in all of Colorado.
Photo: Telluride, Colorado from Telluride Ski Resort. By Sam Collentine.
If you are looking for a southern adventure, a road trip across all four southern resorts is a great bet. You can start in Telluride, swing around to Silverton (an expert mountain that offers mostly guided skiing and is open Thursday to Sunday), continue south on Rt 550 to Purgatory, and then after some time enjoying the town of Durango, head east to Wolf Creek which has a laid-back feel, a lot of terrain, and can get the most snow per storm of any mountain in Colorado with southwest winds bringing the deepest accumulations.
The southern mountains of Colorado. By Joel Gratz.
Things to do aside from skiing at a resort
Each of the mountains I mentioned above could offer you a lifetime of fun, but why focus only on skiing or riding at the resorts when there is so much else to explore?!
Below are some of my favorite ‘other’ things to do in the winter in Colorado.
* Explore the towns! What sets Colorado apart from many other ski destinations are the towns close to or at the resorts. For me, the most notable towns to explore during the winter include Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge, Vail, Leadville, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Aspen, Crested Butte, Gunnison, Pagosa Springs, and Durango. After all, skiing or riding isn’t just about the snow – it’s about spending time with friends and family in fun, beautiful locations with plenty of food and drink to keep you warm and happy!
* Use a machine other than a chairlift to go uphill. At Silverton Mountain, you can take a helicopter to a far peak for an unforgettable ski descent. And if you want to stay on the ground, there are multiple cat skiing operations throughout the state that offer zero crowds and fresh tracks all day.
Photo: Irwin Cat Skiing, just west of Crested Butte, Colorado. By Joel Gratz.
* Use your own power to go uphill. The backcountry options are nearly limitless, and you’ll want to ensure you have the proper training for navigation and avalanche safety before heading out (educational courses and guides are available and are a great idea if you’re just starting out). You can go into the backcountry for a day, or you can reserve a hut to stay overnight, or for many nights. The basic huts offer beds, gas-powered cooking, and a wood-burning stove for heat and are immensely popular. Another experience is the full-service huts, which come with a staff that cooks meals for you (it’s a wonderful feeling coming back from a long day of skiing to food that is hot and ready to eat!).
* Ditch the downhill skis. Why not change it up and try cross-country skiing (a great workout!), snowshoeing (just like hiking in the summer, but you’re on snow!), snow tubing, snowmobiling, or even ice climbing. If you want to do something different for a day, or are not a skier and want to enjoy the snow and the mountains, there are plenty of options!
Best Ski Resorts for Families in Colorado
Outside of chasing snow, Colorado offers a wide variety of events specifically tailored for families.
Keystone Resort's Kids Ski Free program gets the little ones on the slopes when their families stay two or more nights in Keystone.
Friday nights during ski season, bring your family to Elk Camp, Snowmass' on-mountain restaurant, which transforms on Ullr Nights into a nighttime winter wonderland with events Ullr’s Ghost Ship made of snow with lights and a slide, a Viking sledding hill, snowshoe tours as well as s’mores and hot chocolate by the bonfire.
Purgatory offers the Power Kids Season Pass free to children 12 and under. The Polar Express returns to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a Christmasy ride where kids get into their PJs for hot cocoa and cookies and a reading of the Polar Express.
Visit Colorado.com to view more information about family destinations in Colorado.
Backcountry recreation can be dangerous and requires certain safety precautions and equipment to ensure a safe outdoor experience.
If you plan to venture into the backcountry, please do so with safety in mind.
In addition to all of our snow and mountain weather forecast information, you can also find the latest Avalanche Forecast and backcountry conditions information on OpenSnow.
As you prepare to go into the backcountry or sidecountry, first check the Avalanche Forecast map layer and tap any colored region for more details.
Our animation tool will also provide the historical forecast for the past 7 days so that you can quickly see how the avalanche forecasts are trending over time.
The data is sourced directly from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and should be used by experienced backcountry travelers in uncontrolled sidecountry and backcountry terrain.
This information does not apply to open, in-bounds terrain at ski resorts, which is subject to avalanche control by local resort ski patrol.
Visit Colorado.com for additional resources on how to stay safe in the backcountry.
How do you get to these activities?
Flying to Denver International Airport is the most popular option. As the 5th busiest airport in the United States, you are bound to find a flight that fits your schedule. From Denver, you can take a shuttle into the northern and central mountains, or you can rent a car to start your own adventure.
If you are heading to mountains a bit further from Denver, there are direct flights to Steamboat Springs, Vail (the airport is about 30 minutes west of the resort), Aspen, Crested Butte (the airport is about 30 minutes south of the resort), Montrose, and Telluride.
I hope this article offers motivation and advice as you plan your next winter adventure in Colorado. For more details about many of these activities, peruse Colorado.com, and stay tuned to OpenSnow for forecasts that will point you toward whatever weather you're seeking – deep powder, sunny skies, or both!
Snow Forecast & Report: Colorado
Daily Snow Forecast: Colorado
Download: OpenSnow App
This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at the Colorado Tourism Office.