Rocky Mountain High: What's the Classic Colorado Ski Safari Really Like?

7th May 2014 - Tara Rogers
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Crested Butte - Empty Slopes

North America specialist Caroline set out this spring to tick off the two remaining resorts in Colorado that she had yet to ski: Crested Butte and Telluride, with a little stop in fabulous Aspen Snowmass, all part of the Classic Colorado Safari. Here she tells us exactly what it was like.

Having worked 4 seasons in Colorado and skied most of the many resorts we offer in North America, some of them more than once, I thought it was high time I rectified the two glaring omissions on the list - Crested Butte and Telluride. Two of the most iconic of the Colorado resorts but, surprisingly, two of the least well known amongst British skiers.

Sunrises and Cinnamon Coffees

After landing in Denver around 6pm, we decided to hit the ground running and drive two hours south to Buena Vista, half way between Denver and Crested Butte where we stayed the night. Due to the usual jet lag, we were up at 6am in time to witness a stunning Colorado sunrise over the mountains then filled up on the fantastic buffet breakfast at the classic Buena Vista Best Western hotel, grabbed a cinnamon coffee and muffin for the road (what’s a roadtrip without snacks?!) and set off for Crested Butte.

A Run for Everyone

After an easy two hour drive we arrived in resort and, after parking at the Mountaineer Lodge, we threw on our ski kit and headed for the Red Lady Express Chair Lift.

The terrain in Crested Butte is seriously diverse. The East River lift is superb for beginners/early intermediates who want to build up their confidence and with no lines you won’t have any problems getting in lots of runs. Past the top of the Silver Queen is the Headwall - an area of double back diamond chutes above the Paradise Bowl. We had a blast up there, although it was steeper than the usual US black diamond which made the first run quite entertaining! The Silver Queen lift provides access to advanced intermediate terrain, as well as a number of black runs, including renowned trails like International. You can also take a catwalk to Paradise Bowl or access a number of south-facing chutes on this part of the mountain.

No Lines? Lots of Skiing

The best thing about Crested Butte is that there are no lift lines so you can ski a huge number of runs in a short amount of time. We made first lift and by 11 o’clock we had notched up a considerable number of ski miles and were ready for a little rest stop. As it was Mardi Gras it would have been rude not to partake in a little beverage, and for $5 you could purchase a beer and shot at the Paradise Café! Suitably refreshed, we were straight back on the slopes, delighted to be discovering such an awesome mountain. After a full day on our skis we decided to head to the infamous Ice Bar at Uley’s Cabin for après. With classic rock blasting out, cocktail in hand and the sun shining, we very quickly realised it doesn’t get much better than this!

Dining in Crested Butte is pretty unique with a huge number of locally owned restaurants and not a chain in site. We had already decided to visit the famous Secret Stash Pizza - you can’t book so get there early as this place fills up fast. They have the most unusual combinations (French fries on a pizza anyone?) but they really work. The Ginger Café is also fantastic, combining Thai and Indian flavours, or for a local tipple, why not visit the Montanya Rum Distillers. The Maharaja Martini there comes highly recommended. I would know - I had 3!

Polar Queen of Telluride

It was hard to say goodbye after the warm welcome we had received in Crested Butte but after 3 nights it was time to head on to Telluride, a 3 hour journey away. After driving up a seemingly endless mountain road, we finally glimpsed the town and wow, what a sight. This has to be arguably one of the most stunning settings for a ski resort anywhere, particularly in the gorgeous Colorado sunshine.

Getting on the mountain took no time at all from the ski in ski out Peaks Hotel and our guide whisked us all over the resort, again making the most of the fact that there are no lift lines. You really do get in a full day’s skiing here. The mountain is aimed at intermediates and above so if you are pretty confident, you will love it. The Polar Queen Express has some great cruisey blues on either side and the best views on the mountain are to be found on the Revelation Lift which takes you up to 12,570 feet! If you have made it up that far then you deserve lunch at Alpino Vino which is the best mountain restaurant I have ever eaten at. The mozzarella and pesto parcels served with balsamic vinaigrette are to die for and the wine is pretty good too!

The town of Telluride looks like something out of an old Western movie. If you are staying in the Mountain Village then you will have to take the gondola into town but it is one of the best gondola rides going with its fantastic views over the box canyon in which Telluride sits. And even though it’s only a 10 minute ride, they will provide you with blankets just in case you are not feeling too hardy after a big day’s skiing. Both accommodation areas (the town and the Mountain Village) have some fantastic restaurants and there is plenty to choose from. Another must whilst you are there is to head to the New Sheridan Hotel and have a drink at the bar. The hotel dates back to 1891 and is steeped in history. Our favourite house rule from back in the day was that you could only bring your horse onto the ground floor where the bar was - no horses upstairs!

Interstate to Aspen

As we had come all this way I couldn’t leave without heading to Aspen. The drive from Telluride to Aspen is around 4 ½ -5 hours depending which route you take. We took the Interstate route through Grand Junction (5 hours!) as the road through Mt Gunnison was very icy and not recommended by locals at the time. This road can also be closed, so do check local conditions. Aspen Mountain (Ajax to the locals) and Highlands are two fantastic mountains and there is plenty to ski here but my highlight was finding ‘Rocky Mountain High’ run which is named after John Denver as he was a local. Aspen town is just as great as I remember with lots of restaurants, bars and nightlife. Little Annie’s is always a favourite for a hamburger and beer, L’Hostoria is still the best Italian in town and finally the Sky Hotel Bar is just as buzzing for après as ever!

What a trip. I really can’t recommend it highly enough! The drive and scenery alone on the Classic Colorado Safari are worth it, but the incredible variety of skiing, the empty runs and non-existent lift lines and the great selection of restaurants, bars and après spots in every resort make for an all-round amazing ski safari.

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