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.
Fifteen miles southwest of Keystone, Breckenridge seems to have been plucked from a snow globe. Flakes drift down on a Main Street lined with brightly painted cabins and steep-pitched Victorians, now filled with restaurants, shops and galleries. The Blue River gurgles under pedestrian bridges and a snowy massif, etched with ski runs, rises right from town.
Prospectors flowed into this 9,600- foot-high outpost in the mid-1800s, bushwhacking their way up river drainages as they panned for gold. They hit pay dirt, including the largest gold nugget ever found in Colorado. “Tom’s Baby” weighed more than 13 pounds; the miner swaddled it in blankets like an infant on the way into town.
Of course, it was snow, not gold, that turned out to be this town’s greatest fortune. Today Breckenridge anchors the nation’s second most-visited ski resort (after Vail). The resort stretches across four peaks and seems to expand every year. Its south end, Peak 10, skirts the town; the north end, Peaks 7 and 8, sits higher, linked to town by the free BreckConnect gondola.
Some call Breckenridge “the gentle giant” for its gradual slopes; indeed, many will find the intermediate runs here quite tame. But advanced skiers and riders will find plenty of pitch in the bowls accessed from the nation’s highest chairlift on Peak 8, which tops out at 12,998 feet. Breck’s renowned terrain parks and pipes—considered some of the best in the country—ramp up the challenge, with an array of boxes, rails, kickers and other features that seem to go on forever. And everyone can enjoy Breck’s stunning serrated scenery, looking across to the Continental Divide scraping at the sky.
Even if you never intend to get on a chairlift, Breckenridge dishes up plenty of entertainment, which makes it the best base for a Summit County vacation. Take a thrill ride on the Gold Runner Coaster, where two-person sleds on rails twist wildly downhill. At the Breckenridge Nordic Center below Peak 8, some 30 kilometers of trails wind through old-growth pines, across meadows and to overlooks with postcard views of the Ten Mile Range.
In town, there’s great dining at every turn, from reliable stalwarts like the South Ridge Seafood Grill to newcomers like Ember and Twist. The Arts District is home to a growing number of galleries and art classes. Sign on with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance for a walking tour—the town has more than 250 historic structures—or a snowshoe tour of gold-mining sites.
And be sure to check out the Breckenridge Welcome Center. Its great little history museum reveals Breckenridge “firsts,” including the nation’s first half-pipe and the first ski resort in the world to allow snowboarding. Clearly, Breckenridge recognizes a gold mine.
Breckenridge: 1599 Ski Hill Rd.; 970-453-5000; breckenridge.com
Breckenridge Nordic Center: 1200 Ski Hill Rd.; 970-453-6855
South Ridge Seafood Grill: 215 S. Ridge St.; 970-547-0063
Ember: 106 E. Adams Ave.; 970-547-9595
Twist: 200 S. Ridge St.; 970-547-7100
The Arts District: 970-453-3363
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance: 970-453-9767; breckheritage.com
Breckenridge Welcome Center: 203 S. Main St.
Breckenridge gold mine: 970-453-5000; breckenridge.com