The first time I visited Copper Mountain, as a college student in the 1980s, I figured a pair of bluejeans sprayed with waterproofing material would work as well as insulated pants on the slopes.
That was a very bad idea. I turned blue and hated the whole experience.
Still, I returned to the mountain, just 75 miles west of Denver, in 2011. By then I’d gotten a couple decades of skiing experience under the belt of my now-insulated pants, even if it came in one-week-a-year increments. I liked the place for its laid-back, unpretentious vibe and variety of terrain, which ranged from ego-inflating cruisers to gnarly chutes.
My friend Sara McCabe puts it this way: “You won’t find any fancy ski outfits here.”
McCabe’s family has headquartered its annual family reunion in Copper for 20 years now, and they’re not about to go anywhere else. They’re longtime friends who used to live in Austin, so we agreed to meet them there for a few days last spring.
“We heart Copper! And it’s so easy to get around the mountain,” she told us. “Not too big, not too small.”
The vibe here remains old-school and down-to-earth. Patrons don’t strut their stuff in mink stoles and high-heeled boots like they do in Aspen or Vail. You’ll find lots of locals and others who love to hammer it on the slopes all day, crash hard at night, then wake up, guzzle coffee and do it again.
Copper Mountain Resort opened in 1971. Today it boasts 2,490 skiable acres, with more than 140 trails and four bowls, spread over three mountains. By comparison, Aspen has about 700 skiable acres, Telluride has about 2,000, and Steamboat has about 3,000.
This season the resort is upgrading one of its high-speed quad lifts, the American Eagle, with a lift that carries a combination of six-person chairs and eight-person gondola cabins. And the American Flyer lift, long a high-speed quad, will be converted to a six-person chair with bubble enclosures to keep skiers out of the wind.
We stayed in the Copper One building in the Center Village base area. If you want base-thumping music and cocktail-swilling nightlife, keep driving west on Interstate 70 until you get to Vail. But if staying close to the mountain and cooking in rather than spending your money at expensive restaurants appeals, drop your anchor in Copper.
You can even rent a house (the McCabes do) or find a less expensive hotel room in nearby Frisco, which is home, I might add, to one of the best skiers' breakfast joints in all of America — the Butterhorn Bakery and Cafe. (Try the Eggy Bread or Eggs Butterhorn with red pepper sauce.) It’s a 6-mile haul to the ski area from downtown, but you can catch a ride on the free shuttle. Save even more by booking a room in Silverthorne, another 10 minutes down the road.
The best things about Copper? Some of the nice, long screamers, and gladed areas where you can skip through trees spaced just widely enough that you don’t get sweaty palms. Try 17 Glade if you like the feeling of schussing through a wind-blocking curtain of pine trees. Another treat? Runs that are left half groomed and half ungroomed, so mogul-loving and mogul-avoiding friends can ski together and meet up at the end of each lap.
Twenty-four lifts buzz visitors up and down 2,738 feet of vertical drop. Folks who like to defy gravity can shred it up at terrain parks and one monstrous, 22-foot superpipe.
The resort thoughtfully put in place a parents’ night out program so families can get up to three hours of free child care as long as they spend $30 anywhere in Copper’s village areas, too. Not bad. And kids enrolled in the ski school are outfitted with GPS tracking devices, so parents can virtually follow their offspring as they cruise the slopes. At the Green Acres section (cue music from the 1960s sitcom starring Eva Gabor), newbies can ride the Easy Rider magic carpet to the top of the short, non-intimidating learning area.
And for those who can’t rally to catch first tracks when the lifts open in the morning, consider this: Every day at noon, rabid skiers gather near the top of the American Flyer lift, where patrollers have roped off a fresh swath of unskied snow. At exactly noon, they drop the rope and let the crazies rip up the “corduroy.”
At our friends’ suggestion, we lunched at the brazenly old-school and no-frills Solitude Station on the mountain, where we didn’t have to worry about lines or crowds or finding a table. That just doesn’t happen at most ski resorts.
McCabe, my friend, thinks Copper is the best-connected mountain in the area.
“You can get from anywhere to anywhere with just one lift. And it’s so logically divided between green, blue, black trails (that’s beginner, intermediate and advanced) and the bowls. It’s the best layout for all levels of skiers to ski together and meet up easily for lunch or other fun,” she says.
Plus there’s free parking and a free shuttle, which allows anyone in the family to come to the mountain and go home whenever they want.
Besides downhill skiing, you can ice skate on West Lake in Center Village, roast marshmallows using the roasting sticks handily stashed by fire pits around the villages, go tubing (must be 36 inches tall) or practice your trick skiing in the 19,000-square-foot indoor training center that is Woodward Copper, where you can fling yourself off a faux ski jump into a pit of blue foam blocks instead of spine-cracking hard-packed snow. The pocket-size REI store inside Camp Hale Outfitters offers guided snowshoeing excursions on the mountain, too.
McCabe’s secret indulgence? The Frisco Library. Put it on your must-do list.
But make it quick. Because what you really want to do here is ski. Hard.
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