A non-skiers guide to winter in Colorado
Drivers race their cars atop the frozen-over Georgetown Lake, located in the Rocky Mountains. (Steve Nelson)
When it comes to winter vacations, the words “ski” and “Colorado” might as well be synonymous. But as the cost for a lift ticket rises (a single day pass for Vail will set you back $102 this season, not including equipment), ski bums and bunnies alike may want to complement their winter break with more affordable activities.
Thankfully, a number of skiing alternatives across the state make it easier to see Colorado’s winter best without Rocky Mountain-high prices. These affordable, outdoor activities provide the same sense of adventure as the popular downhill sport and are surrounded by the same show-stopping, snowcapped mountain peaks. Plus, non-skiers will get a chance to enjoy life outside the lodge for once.
Every weekend in January and February, brave drivers race their cars atop the frozen-over Georgetown Lake, located in the Rocky Mountains, 45 minutes west of Denver. Anyone can enter, provided they have an all-wheel drive vehicle, a driver’s license and the $25 entry fee -- but out-of-towners may want to watch for free in lieu of explaining the races to a rental car company. The more experienced drivers come out on Saturdays, making them the best days for spectators, said Lisa Bashline, president of Our Gang 4 Wheelers, the club that puts on the event. The drivers are required to have studs or bolts that jut out of the tires to give the vehicle more traction and speed (like football cleats for cars) and make the head-to-head races all the more thrilling.
If it is the steep slopes that keep you from going downhill, try cross-country skiing at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash. Almost nothing like downhill except in name, cross-country skiing requires completely different equipment (lighter skis, longer poles and more comfortable boots) and a completely different muscle group to get moving. The expertly groomed (mostly flat) tracks and friendly instructors at Devil’s Thumb make it easy for beginners to find the right rhythm, though the 100km of trails keep it fun for experts as well. Trail passes for adults are $18 a day and lessons start at $35.
Once a sleepy old mining town, Ouray in southwestern Colorado has transformed itself into the ice climbing capital of the United States. Taking advantage of both natural ice formations in the San Juan Mountains and the city’s water overflow, the Ouray Ice Park was the first of its kind in the world, with more than 200 unique climbing routes up the ice walls (much like ski runs, but uphill). Admission to the park is free to the public from mid-December to late March. An annual Ice Festival every January showcases competitions for the best climbers in the world and offers clinics for those new to the sport. The Ice Park also has a 40ft ice wall just for kids 8 to 17 years old, with 12 unique climbing routes with various difficulty levels.
Snowshoe under the stars
Believe it or not, snowshoeing is easier than it looks. Today’s aluminium-framed snowshoes make it easy to walk on top of snow and are light as air to lift, making the sport more equivalent to hiking than anything else. You can take snowshoes and poles on practically any trail normally reserved for hiking, but remember an easy trek in summer is more like a moderate hike in the winter, when combined with the snow, cold and extra clothes. For a special spin, sign up for one of Crested Butte Nordic Center’s Moonlight Dinners, offered on a few select dates each winter. Diners must snowshoe or cross-country ski to the Magic Meadows yurt about a mile from the Center, with just the stars and moon to the light the way, and a warm dinner waits at the end. The $65 cost includes dinner, a trail pass and equipment rental.