There’s something about arriving in Summit County, Colorado that will always feel like coming home.
It’s where I spent childhood family ski trips, and where I lived for three years in my mid-twenties as a ski bum. It’s where I met my husband, and it’s where we married this March.
It’s where the mountains stretch to the sky, reaching past the treeline and dwarfing the high-alpine towns. For that reason, it’s also home to four world-class ski resorts: Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone.
As you arrive on I-70 from Denver, about 1 hour to the east, you drop down into the country from the mouth of the Eisenhower Tunnel – a 1.6 mile/2.5 km long tunnel that carries four lanes of traffic through the mountain and underneath the Continental Divide. Like many things in Summit County, it is the highest of its kind; Eisenhower Tunnel sits at an elevation of 11,112 ft/3,386 m.
After a few bends, as the highway wriggles its way down into the valley, you can start to see the towns of Dillon, Frisco and the Dillon Reservoir between them. If you are arriving at night, like we did this year, the distant twinkling lights from below you can confuse your sense of up and down. Even more so when you arrive in a snowstorm after three flights from Australia. For me, I also get that odd combination of thrill and calm that can only come from arriving at a place that was once home.
The county is shaped a bit like an upside down T, pointing slightly northwest. Dillon Reservoir sits at the middle and in the valley you reach when you finally wind your way down from the tunnel. To the right of the highway (North) is Silverthorne; to the left is Dillon. Beyond Dillon and heading southeast, you reach Keystone Resort, and further still as you snake back east toward the county border and the Divide you come upon A-Basin. Travelling past the reservoir on I-70, you reach Frisco, nestled to the left of the highway between the interstate, Dillon Reservoir and in the shadow of Tenmile Peak. If you get off the interstate and take Highway 9 past Frisco, you’ll find yourself at Breckenridge in less that 15 minutes. If you stay on the interstate and keep going west, you’ll find yourself at Copper Mountain, before heading over Vail Pass to Vail in Eagle County.
With so many well-known ski resorts in one place (plus so many more within a 90 minute drive) it’s not hard to work out why so many skiers and snowboarders make their way to Summit County every year. Add to that the awesome history that fills the county, once a mining powerhouse, and you start to get a sense on the area’s character. It is full of people who are smart, hard working, love the outdoors, aren’t afraid of a little weather-related adversity, and prefer a different lifestyle to that provided by a 9-5 office job. It’s the kind of place where people keep their diplomas in the garage and their skis in the office, and when you go out for a nice dinner your best pair of jeans and a nice shirt will do just fine.
Our North American ski trip in February and March started with three weeks in Summit County, to include our wedding (and wedding prep). The first stop was about a week at my parents’ home in Silverthorne. My parents have been residents of Summit for more than a decade, and are more part of the community that I ever managed to be. Their home is built into the mountain-side, a 10-minute drive up from the valley road. Their land backs up to national forest, so elk occasionally wander past the window. It makes for an awesome place to visit and a great base for exploring Summit County and its ski resorts. After a weekend in Denver to meet up with friends and wedding guests, we spent the second half of our time in Summit County staying at Keystone Resort for our wedding.
The first few days of our trip included several non-skiing activities. We had a lot of stuff to do for the wedding – meetings with the venue and wedding suppliers, getting our marriage license, and prepping the smaller items for the night. (If you want to read a bit more about why we chose to get married overseas, you can read about it here.) We also went snowshoeing out the back of my parents’ place and looked for skis; we had both decided it was time to purchase a new pair and wanted to demo a few before buying.
Another reason for our delayed start to skiing was that it was President’s Weekend (so it was very busy, and our Epic Passes were blacked out). Also, it was super cold. You know when even the locals are complaining about the cold, it is unusually bitter. It ended up being the coldest February in at least 10 years. I don’t have a lot of photos from this part of our trip because it was so cold that I couldn’t bring myself to take my hands out of my gloves. At least it was still sunny – I love the Colorado bluebird days where the sky is a crisp, deep blue in contrast to the stark white of the mountain snow. The first weekend of March (the weekend of our wedding) it warmed up. It also started to snow – A LOT. Again, when the locals are impressed, you know it’s epic. There was so much snow that there were several large avalanches that actually covered I-70, which is highly unusual. It turned out to be the snowiest March on record. One of the many things I love about skiing in Summit County is that you can have a bluebird day one day, and knee deep powder the next.
When we finally did get to start skiing, we made the most of the county, skiing all four resorts. Copper, with its naturally divided terrain and long runs, will always be a favourite because it’s where we worked and met. Now that I have skied more places around the world, I’ve really come to appreciate the grooming at Copper. It is always done well, a fact that hasn’t changed in the 12 years since I moved away. The grooming always improves the snow quality – it doesn’t making the runs icier or full of chunks – and there’s often a noon groomer available as well.
Keystone I admit to usually avoiding because the layout of the resort means most people end up on the same run at the end of the day. It is often icier than the rest of the county’s resorts as well. However, because we were getting married there, it was time to give it another go. I was very impressed with the staff, they were all very friendly and helpful. This was the case for everyone I came across the lift operators, hotel check-in employees, and the wait staff in the restaurants. And, while the snow was more variable than at other resorts, there were some really good pockets that I had previously overlooked. One of the reasons we chose Keystone for our wedding is because there are so many other awesome things to do besides ski, and it’s great for families. During the wedding weekend, I went on a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the local valley, complete with blankets and hot apple cider. It’s a fun way to glimpse of the ranch-life portion of Colorado history.
Breckenridge is one of my family’s favourites. It sits on the Tenmile range above the historic town of Breckenridge and has five peaks open for skiing. A block off of Main Street, there is a gondola that takes you from the car park to the bases of both Peak 7 and Peak 8. There is a good variety of terrain at Breckenridge for all abilities, including ski runs cut through the trees as well as above the tree line. There is also some very good advanced terrain. However, it does often get very windy on the chairs. At Breck, I always feel like I’m going into the wind (on the chair and off). Breckenridge is also home to Imperial Bowl, and the Imperial Express Superchair – the highest lift in North America.
I also managed to get in a day at Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin for short). This was just after the announcement that they would be leaving the Vail Resorts Epic Pass at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 ski season, pretty big news for all the locals who have passes there. A-Basin is smaller than the other three resorts, but its location on the side of the Continental Divide helps it stay open longer – usually into June or July. It’s position also helps the mountain trap the clouds and it gets really good snow. We skied the East Wall and Montezuma Bowl, both wide open and above the trees. The snow was awesome. Unfortunately, it was the weekend so it was also crowded and we had long waits at the chair lifts (of which there are only a few).
During our time in Summit County, we both demoed skis and purchased pairs that hadn’t been on our radar at the start. I tried five or six pairs of skis, including K2 Alluvit and the Atomic Vantage. I was convinced before trying that I would have ended up in one of those two, so I was surprised but happy when I fell in love with the Blizzard Black Pearl skis. I haven’t had that much fun on a pair of skis in a really long time.
There are many ski stores to choose from in Summit County when deciding to rent or purchase, which makes for strong competition and knowledgeable staff. And, when you’re done purchasing the gear, there’s also the outlet mall in Silverthorne to shop for reasonably-priced clothing. If you are visiting from overseas and can afford to wait or spend a day shopping, it’s worth buying your gear when you get there (particularly if you are comparing prices to those in Australia or New Zealand).
It was amazing to go back to Colorado again and spend some time with family and friends in what will always feel like home. As much as we were excited to start the honeymoon part of our trip – Park City and Whistler – I was still a little sad to go. Normally, we do a quick visit back, but the three weeks there this year reminded me that Summit County has so much to offer visitors and residents. It’s not hard to see why Summit is the kind of place people move to for a winter season and stay for a lifetime.