As soon as you head west of Denver on Interstate 70, the scenery transforms. Steel and concrete morph into pine and granite, and the front range of the Rockies fills the windshield. WATCH FOR WILDLIFE, cautions a yellow sign; bighorn sheep, pushed from the peaks by heavy snows, casually gaze through a curlicue of horn at the cars streaming by.
By the time you reach Dillon 60 miles later, you’ve nearly climbed to the roof of the Rockies. Summit County sidles up against the Continental Divide, spiked with peaks and elevations that range from 8,000 to 14,000 feet. Its ample dry snows, top-notch ski areas and picturesque resort towns—all linked by the free Summit Stage bus system—make this region a no-brainer for winter sports fans.
Veer south off the interstate at Dillon, and the first ski town you reach is Keystone. Its River Run base area looks as if it had been custom-made for an easy, low-stress vacation—which, in fact, it was. In its car-free village, condos and restaurants are clustered around pavilions and cobbled walkways. Families clomp around in ski boots, sprawl beside fire pits and soak up the brilliant Rocky Mountain sunshine at the Kickapoo Tavern.
Across the Snake River, the River Run gondola quietly whisks skiers and snowboarders to the summit of 11,640-foot Dercum Mountain. While its Area 51 terrain park is fairly challenging, the signature front slopes will please beginners and intermediates with their mellow groomed runs.
But first impressions can be misleading. Keystone encompasses three peaks; the challenge increases as you work your way south from Dercum. North Peak offers some steeper cruising and long thigh-burning mogul runs. The Outback hides stashes of powder and nice lines threading through spruce forest.
Enticing snowy bowls gape above North Peak and the Outback like hanging glaciers. Follow the locals trudging to the 12,000-foot ridge above, or hop on the Outback Shuttle, where five bucks gets you a snowcat ride to the top.
When you’re spent, it’s easy to skip the end-of-the-day crowds skiing back to the base. Keystone thoughtfully has strung a second gondola from Dercum Mountain to North Peak, so you’re just two relaxing gondola rides away from après ski.
Kickapoo Tavern: 129 River Run Rd.; 970-468-4601
Keystone: 800-328-1323; keystoneresort.com