I'm an expert skier with a lot of experience at the Summit County resorts.
The Evolution of Skiing
Skiing has changed a lot since I first started almost 40 years ago. The most notable change has been in equipment. Boots are warmer and fit better. Clothing is lighter and warmer. Helmets are worn by almost everyone for safety. Skis are lighter and shaped, allowing skiers to make easier turns and to control themselves much more easily.
The ski areas themselves are vastly different as well. The biggest change is in the speed of the chair lifts. Where two-person, slow chairlifts used to be the norm, now a high-speed, six-person lift can zip you up the mountain in minutes. Today, a skier can ski three times the terrain in half the time. A half day of skiing today easily covers more distance than a full day of skiing forty years ago.
Another change in the ski areas is the type of terrain. This has a lot to do with the development of snowboarding, which became popular in the mid-1980s - a date I remember because a classmate tore his ACL doing it. Now ski areas have terrain parks, bowls, more family areas, more areas developed to accommodate ski schools. It all adds up to increasing amounts of fun.
Summit County, Colorado
Summit county has five ski areas that are within minutes of each other: Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Technically, Loveland Ski Area isn't in Summit County, but at its entrance, on the east side of the Continental Divide, just before the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70.
From the center of Summit County, which is Dillon Reservoir, none of these five ski areas is more than fifteen minutes away, making each worthy of consideration for those staying nearby. From Denver, Copper Mountain is the farthest away at only 90 minutes.
This article is just my personal opinion.
There is no wrong answer when it comes to skiing in Summit Country. All of these ski areas have something fantastic to offer. On any given day, one might be better than the other. You might find a great lift ticket deal one day for just one resort. Take it!
However, the ski areas differ enough that, depending on your skill level, you might prefer one over the other. Each has beginner trails and each has expert trails. Some have more of each than others. Again, you just can't go wrong skiing in Colorado.
Finally, I'm an expert skier. I like steep powder and packed powder runs. I'm older now, so moguls aren't my favorite thing. I like to ski fast and make big turns. So keep that all in mind when considering my recommendations. That said, I will try to be as broad as possible in my descriptions.
While I could describe individual runs in detail, I'm going to avoid that. I'm just going to describe feelings and overall perceptions. Skiing is an emotional activity many times. Words don't do it justice. My intent here is to give you a sense of what you get from each resort - it's character.
- 2465 acres
- 9712 ft. base elevation
- 12,313 top elevation
- Longest run: Collage 1.7 miles
If you like long, intermediate ski runs, you will love Copper. If you like varied terrain, you will love Copper. These two things set Copper Mountain apart from the other Summit County ski areas and make it the most enjoyable ski area in the Summit County.
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Copper Mountain is known for its steep, open bowl skiing and varied terrain. The mountain is divided logically by difficulty. From the base, the east side of the resort features the steeper, more difficult runs while the west side features the easier runs. This affords skiers the opportunity to congregate with skiers of similar skill right from the beginning.
My general approach to Copper is to take the Super Bee lift up from base and ski a couple of long, intermediate runs as warm-ups, then hit the bowls. Bowls like Spaulding and Union offer open skiing with lots of nice snow. The bowls are best right after a snow, but even after a few days of sunshine, the bowls offer the opportunity for fresh powder. You just have to find it.
The newest chairlift at Copper is Three Bears, which has all kinds of steep, open skiing. It's not for the faint of heart, although even an intermediate skier can find a way down.
Three Bears demonstrates what Copper is all about. The resort offers a lot of challenging skiing, but it has something for everyone.
Copper Mountain Parking
Parking can be a big deal.
It can be free or it can cost money. The time from your car to the lift can be two minutes or it can be thirty minutes.
In other words, the skiing experience often starts with parking and it can screw up your entire day. That's why I'm addressing parking.
Like many resorts, you can park pretty close to the lifts, but you'll have to pay for it. However, Copper also has free parking served by buses. While I generally prefer to park as close to the lifts as possible, Copper's system works pretty well. As long as you get there prior to the lifts opening, a parking spot is easy to find. The buses run frequently. And, best of all, the parking in these lots is free.
Free parking is a luxury not offered at all resorts. Copper's system offers choices and runs well.
- 2908 acres
- 9600 ft. base elevation
- 12,998 top elevation
- Longest run: 4 O'Clock Run - 3.5 miles
Breckenridge ski area is very connected to the town of Breckenridge. Where Copper is a resort and Keystone is a resort, Breckenridge is a genuine town. So there's a feel to Breckenridge that doesn't exist anywhere else in Summit County.
Having said that, I'm not a huge fan of the ski area. I'm more of a day skier, meaning I drive up from my home and ski for the day and drive back down. Of all the ski areas in Summit Country, Breckenridge is the most problematic for this type of skier. That said, I'm betting those who stay in town have a great time.
As for the mountain, it's divided up into peaks. So it's almost like there are separate ski areas in Breckenridge. While I liked the terrain, I found the process of crossing from one peak to the other kind of tedious. They have some bowl skiing, but it's not extensive. Also, I didn't go up to the very top. This is one of Breckenridge's highlights. There are breathtaking views at the top.
I'll just say it. I hated Breckenridge's parking situation.
Sure, you can drive closer to the base, but you'll pay. And even in the outer lots during busy times, you pay.
One of the reasons you pay is to fund the gondolas that take you up to the base. Parking is, more or less, in town. Gondolas service the lots and take you up to base. For a day skier, this whole process of parking and riding the gondola simply takes too long. It eats up too much of the day.
I think for kids, the gondola ride is fun, but I'd rather just walk from the lot to the lift, if possible. And for a guy who doesn't like buses, I still prefer Copper's system.
- 3148 acres
- 9280 ft. base elevation
- 12, 408 top elevation
- Longest run: Schoolmarm 3.5 miles
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Keystone. It's a great ski area for kids. In general, Keystone is what I'd describe as family-friendly. There are a lot of long, green runs that families can enjoy together. I've gone to Keystone with my kids and had a great time.
For me personally, as an expert skier, I don't like the mix of terrain. Keystone does a nice job of segregating its expert terrain from its intermediate and easy terrain. However, I find Keystone's terrain to all be similar. Keystone either has groomed runs or mogul runs. There's very little open, bowl skiing.
While I find it fun to travel back to Keystone's expert terrain, which requires multiple chair lift rides and feels like it's in another universe, there's not much reward other than fewer people.
Keystone has a pretty good parking situation. They have a number of large lots near the resort where you can park for free. Usually, during the weekend, they fill up and you have to park across the highway and take a bus over.
I used to park in a secret, free lot really close to one of the lifts, but Keystone started charging for it. When it's not busy, I think it's still free.
The walk from the normal lots to the gondola is a little long, so they offer wagons to tote the kids and their stuff.
- 1428 acres
- 10520 ft. base elevation
- 13,050 top elevation
- Longest run: 1.5 miles
I have a friend whose first skiing experience was Arapahoe Basin. Needless to say (if you know A-Basin), he hasn't skied since.
Although it has some beginner runs, A-Basin is for intermediate and expert skiers. I recall being on the main lift and watching somebody fall toward the middle of the lift and slide all the way down the run on his back.
A-Basin is a smaller resort, although they've just added a new bowl that I haven't skied yet. There's also a totally different feel at Arapahoe Basin than at the other resorts, except perhaps Loveland. It's laid back. Usually the crowds are smaller there, though getting up the mountain from base can sometimes be a process.
If you're an expert skier, there are some jaw-dropping runs at Arapahoe Basin. Among the best-known is Pallavicini. It looks intimidating from the bottom and from the top. It's among the steepest runs in Colorado. Actually, Gauthier is steeper, which is also served by the Pallavicini lift. Basically, if you try to ski these when they're packed and icy, don't fall, you might die.
Arapahoe Basin Parking
If you go when it's not busy, like on a weekday, you can park right next to the base and walk to the lifts. If it's a weekend, you can park at the outer parking lots, which aren't too far away either.
Because Arapahoe Basin is a smaller resort, parking is all good.
- 1800 acres
- 10800 ft. base elevation
- 13010 top elevation
- Longest run: 2 miles
I haven't skied Loveland in a long time, but I know people who prefer it over all the other resorts. There are a number of reasons. Chief among them is that it's the easiest ski area to access from Denver. It's right off I-70 just before the Eisenhower tunnel. It probably takes twenty minutes less time to get there than the next closest resort, which is Arapahoe Basin.
The second reason people love Loveland is its open skiing and powder. There's a lot of above treeline skiing at Loveland and some gnarly, expert runs. In fact, the steepest run in Colorado is at Loveland. The run is called Wild Child and is, arguably, Colorado's steepest run.
Another special feature of Loveland is that there are really two, distinct ski areas. There's Loveland Basin and Loveland Valley. They require two separate tickets.
If you're just learning to ski, Loveland Valley is really unique. It's tiny, by Colorado resort standards, but it's usually not crowded and only has beginner terrain. There are only two lifts. Last time I went, a ticket there was $25 for the bunny lift. Access to the second lift cost just a little more.
Loveland has the best parking situation of all the resorts. You park and walk a short distance to the base. Parking is free.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Allen Donald
Liz Westwood from UK on September 04, 2020:
This is a very useful guide for anyone planning a skiing trip in this area. It's great that you can share your experience to help others.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 04, 2020:
A-Basin and Copper Mountain for me. We did some junior racing at Brechenridge and Keystone -- we all agree free skiing time was boring.
It has been a few decades but I think we had Downhill races in Summit County.