Appreciating the winter season becomes effortless with the array of enjoyable activities Colorado offers. Whether it’s classic downhill skiing and snowboarding or trying out ice fishing on a frozen lake, the Rocky Mountains stand as an exceptional hub for snow-based adventures.Moreover, modern ways to savor the winter’s beauty abound. Winter festivals and indulging in exquisite dining at local lodges ensure your days and evenings remain vibrant amidst the Rockies. Even a leisurely stroll through the picturesque ski towns promises to captivate and enchant.
Top Things To Do in Winter in Colorado
Fresh snowfall brings with it a slew of extraordinary things to do each winter. There’s really no place like Colorado in the U.S. when it comes to snow-covered fun. From skiing Vail’s back bowls to ripping an expansive country field on a snowmobile, this Southern Rocky Mountain state has got wintertime fun covered.
For those looking to skip the slopes, consider this additional guide to planning a winter vacation for non-skiers.
1. Ski Resorts
With over 30 ski areas to choose from, there is truly terrain for every kind of skier and snowboarder. All levels and budgets can be accommodated. There are smaller slopes perfect for learning the craft, and big giant playgrounds that keep everyone in your group entertained for days.
Some of the most popular resorts in the state are also among the closest to Denver. Breckenridge and Vail are among the most visited in the state. No matter where you go in the Rockies, there is likely a ski area not too far away.
The ski season here will typically kick off sometime in October, with Arapahoe Basin usually opening first, but sometimes Wolf Creek and even Loveland try to beat it out. A Basin is also the last one to close, with its season often stretching well into May, and even later some years. Most resorts though, open sometime in November and close in early April.
2. Snowcat Skiing
Snowcat skiing entails guests ripping through fresh powder in the backcountry, craving their own lines down the mountainside. You’ll begin your day by riding through the untouched natural terrain in a heated snowcat, followed by venturing into untracked meadows on your skis or snowboard. If getting blown in the face with freezing gusts is not for you, then you’ll love the comfort of snowcats.
Located within Central Colorado are two snowcat skiing companies, namely Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, and Eleven Experience; both give downhillers an opportunity to experience the rounded alpine valleys surrounded by the powdery hilly terrains. These are far from the only two choices, as there are more than ten snow car skiing operations around the Colorado Rockies.
Instead of going with the traditional route to see the vast region of the mountains, let’s opt for heli-skiing. Imagine being perched out a helicopter door, the cold winter breeze gently blowing on your face, and leaping onto a downward slope!
For those in a relationship with adrenaline or wanting to try something new, heli-skiing is perfect. Two well-known providers based in Colorado are; Telluride Helitrax and Silverton Heli-Skiing.
Silverton Heli-Skiing is the only entity in the U.S. that facilitates single drops as well as whole-day excursions providing access to Colorado’s deepest heli-skiing area. It’s a favorite for the not faint of heart.
On the other hand, Telluride Helitrax based in the San Juan Mountains facilitates access to more than 200 square miles of land and many landing zone options.
4. Cross Country Skiing
Downhill isn’t the only way to enjoy skiing in the Rocky Mountains. Nordic skiing, more often referred to as cross country skiing, is fantastic across the state. There are Nordic centers near all the favorite ski towns and resorts, plus endless miles of trails in the national forests to peruse on your own accord.
Most cross country ski areas, called Nordic centers typically, will offer rental skis to those on vacation or just looking to try the sport. It’s an excellent form of exercise and a way to get outside and enjoy the winter sun.
Most of the aforementioned Nordic centers in Colorado provide access to snowshoers on their multi-use trails. Many will even have snowshoe rentals available, as do many ski resorts. It’s not uncommon for ski areas to allow snowshoeing on some of their cat trails (greens), or even have separate trails completely for these winter hikers.
Like cross country skiing, snowshoeing is a splendid way to burn some calories and see the sights. You can venture into the picturesque and peaceful national forest trails and perhaps not even see other people, unlike the crowded ski slopes.
6. Ski-Mountaineering School
Ski-mountaineering includes a combination of uphill and downhill skiing in addition to mountaineering, orienteering, and climbing. If you are someone who prefers to slowly trek across the winter landscape, absorbing and appreciating the views, then this sport is perfect for you. It’s common along Colorado’s front range, among all its other mountain ranges, with a great resource on the most popular routes available online.
There are a few locations around the state that offer ski-mountaineering courses and guided treks. Irwin Guides out of Crested Butte offers tours for experienced skiers and technical climbers. They include an avalanche pack, any special climbing gear if needed, and knowledgeable guides. They keep a low guest-to-guide ratio of 3:1 and always put safety first.
7. Backcountry Hut Trips
Hut trips are the epitome of Colorado’s wintery adventures. For prolonged snowshoeing adventures and cross-country skiing, more than 160 huts and yurts (permanent circular tents) are accessible throughout the state. They are typically furnished with essential amenities for cooking heating and sanitary conveniences.
Snowmobiles (and ATVs if weather permits) are often used to access many of the huts much quicker. Space is extremely restricted, so book as early as possible for any of the reservable huts.
For those who are new to hut hopping, consider starting with the Jon Wilson Yurt. Although it’s secluded deep in Colorado Rockies near Lake City, it’s a prime trek for novices at only 1.25 miles from the highway, CO-149.
The well-renowned 10th Mountain Division Hut System, situated between Aspen, Leadville, and Vail comprises 30 huts spanning over 350 miles of trails. The huts are named after the U.S. Army division that utilized the facility for training during world war II.
8. Snowbiking, Snow Biking and Fat Biking
These three similar-sounding activities are all very different snow-based activities, although they are often referred to by the same name, snow biking, or as one word, snowbiking. Let’s break down the difference between “snowbiking”, “snow biking” and “fat biking”.
Snowbiking – When written as one word, snowbiking technically implies no motor. A Snowbike® is a registered trademark that’s used to glide down the slopes, similar to downhill skiing. You can rent snowbikes at a few places locally, and there are even some ski resorts that allow them on their chairlifts, such as Breckenridge Ski Resort. You then ride down the mountain as you would on your skis or snowboard, except your sitting down on a Snowbike®.
Snow Biking – When snow biking is written as two words, it implies it has a motor. These are sort of like snowmobiles and are used in a similar fashion. There are some snow biking competitions and you could use them in the backcountry (uphill, downhill, on the flats) the same as you would a snowmobile. This version is not a registered trademark and technically needs a space between them, snow bike, however, you still might see it improperly referred to as a snowbike with one word.
Fat Biking – These are bicycles with fat tires and thick treads that are suitable for riding on packed snow. They are becoming more popular in mountain towns, and you can often see someone riding along for fun or transportation. There are even competitions held, such as the above-pictured race in Crested Butte. There are some shops in select towns that will rent you a fat bike to use for a fun day off the ski slopes.
Snowkiting is very similar to kiteboarding on water. However, you’ll use skis or a snowboard instead of a surfboard. It’s simpler to master kiteboarding since snow supplies less friction than water. Do note that snowkiting lessons do require you already have a snow kite and harness available.
Many people attempt snowkiting on frozen lakes, such as Lake Dillon in Summit County. An advantage is that this skill can be later applied to kiteboarding on the water during the warmer, summer weather.
10. Ice Fishing
Nowadays, ice fishing has become accessible, comfortable, and almost risk-free to most adventurers via a whole slew of technologies such as ice fishing huts, thermal knee pads, karambit fades, portable heaters, and small portable drills called augers. If you’re passionate about fishing and no longer want the winter to stop you, then ice fishing is perfect for you.
For those who want to test their skills, companies such as Ice Fish Colorado provide trips and guides in the front range area. Like all snow-based activities, being comfortable is key here, so dress warmly and in layers. However, ice fishing isn’t the only sport that involves conquering ice.
11. Ice Climbing
Imagine how epic it would feel scaling a vertical ice wall or to maneuver up a frozen waterfall. Consider ice climbing in Colorado this season, with something for all levels.
Each year, an estimated 10,000 climbers gather at Ouray Ice Park based in the perched town of Ouray to scale up to over 200 pathways. Another well-touted spot, secluded in the remote Hinsdale County, is Lake City Ice Park (pictured above).
Both ice parks, Ouray and Lake City host a climbing festival. The former is held in January and is by far the most popular one in the state. However, to ditch the crowds and experience an often-unseen part of the Rockies, head to Lake City in February for their annual Ice Climbing Fest.
Based out of Vail, Apex Mountain School offers courses aimed at showing you the ropes of climbing frozen waterfalls and steep terraces. It’s just one of more than a dozen climbing guides that specialize in both rock and ice climbing, with lessons and guided tours available.
12. Ice Skating
This activity is suitable for all ages and skill levels. Take the family out to one of the many outdoor ice rinks found across the state. From the front range urban corridors in cities like Colorado Springs and Denver to the high Rockies in all your favorite ski towns, there’s usually a frozen-over lake or pond to skate on.
Most locations will rent you ice skates, usually for a small cost. Sometimes ice skating is free at various locations, or for a nominal fee. The typical winter outdoor ice skating season runs from around Thanksgiving through March, and most are open all day into the evening.
13. Horseback Riding
Colorado’s picturesque and Instagram-ready scenery is even more exciting from the back of a mustang, no we are not talking about a matte-black turbocharged Mustang. We’re talking about a horse that will take you through the snow-covered ravines.
Winter horseback riding is a marvelous and refreshing way to connect with nature not only through scenery but with a beautiful equestrian companion. There are numerous summer ranches that also offer this activity throughout the snowy season. It’s a unique way to discover the Rocky Mountains and one that’ll take you back in time.
14. Sleigh Rides
For those looking for some quality time with their loved one(s), a horse-drawn sleigh ride is a terrific way to spend an afternoon or evening. There are even sleigh rides pulled by snowcats at some locations.
Options vary from a simple tour with hot cocoa and/or cider provided, to ones that end the ride with a western-style dinner, and perhaps live entertainment. Nearly all ski towns provide sleigh rides for its guest, whether directly through the resort, or a local company. Dash through the snow in Colorado’s wonderland this winter.
15. Guided Snowmobile Tours
Grab your closest friends and traverse Colorado’s frozen landscapes on your very own snowmobile tour. There are many options out there, all across the Rockies. Most outfits offer guided tours that speed through the national forests. Most will usually end up in a big meadow or somewhere to allow you really accelerate without fear of bumping into those in front of you.
Alternatively, some places allow you to just rent a snowmobile and go off on your own. They will typically transport the snowmobile to a trailhead of your choosing, and then pick it up at the end of the day.
The advantage of renting a snowmobile for an unguided adventure is more freedom to ride where you want to go. One key disadvantage to not taking the guided tour is if something happens where you crash your snowmobile in thick snow, you won’t have anybody to help you get it out but you and your friends. This is time-consuming and less safe than a guided tour.
16. Dog Sledding
This is one of the most iconic snowy activities in the big mountains, although not many people will ever get a chance to try it. In the Colorado Rockies, you can find several outfits that organize guided dog sled tours. Most of them will let you drive your own dog sled, though there are some, that just strap you in for a seated adventure.
From Pagosa Springs to Steamboat Springs, there’s a team of huskies waiting to take you out on an adventure. The dogs are eager to pull their sleds and transport people on a one-of-a-kind adventure through stunning alpine landscapes.
17. Snow Tubing
The young and young-at-heart will love this winter pastime. Snow tubing is essentially sledding, except you’re on an intertube and there is usually a lift involved. This makes it far more manageable and easy-going to get back up the hill and race your friends down again. Some locations even allow you to link up your tubes with others for an extra thrill.
Most ski towns have access to a snow tubing hill either at the resort or through another local company that manages its own facilities. Tubes are always provided for a fee, you just need to dress warmly and come ready for fun. It’s a terrific way to spend an evening after a day skiing or a day away from the ski slopes.
18. Hot Springs
There’s nothing else quite like soaking in hot springs after a long day of wintertime adventuring in the Rocky Mountains. There are a wide array of choices, from free, primitive pools alongside a river, to developed resorts with multiple pools, spas, and lodging on-site.
Almost anywhere you go in the Colorado high country, you’re never too far away from a hot spring. Most ski areas will put you within at least an hour or two drive from these mineral thermal pools, making them terrific day trips for recovering from your skiing, snowboarding, or whatever other winter sport you got into.
19. Winter Events and Festivals
There is a myriad of exciting events and festivals happening from December through March. From those kicking off the ski season with a bang to those closing it down with gusto, there is so much happening over the wintertime in Colorado to keep guests and locals entertained.
One of the most unique events is snow boating, which entails maneuvering a kayak or boat through icy ponds and snow banks instead of the usual water rapids. In April, boat enthusiasts may try their luck at snow boating by signing up for an exclusive course at Monarch Mountain. For those who are hesitant to take part, the event provides the freedom to watch from the sidelines in anticipation of the region’s active whitewater season.
So grab your coat, check the upcoming winter event calendar, and venture into Colorado’s winter wonderland!
20. Apres Ski
This activity might be more popular than the actual skiing for some skiers. French for “after ski”, apres ski is just a fancy way of saying happy hour. It gives riders a chance to boast about their day slashing through powder and ripping down groomers to friends and families, and share drinks with those who didn’t make it up on the slopes.
With breweries, wineries, distilleries, and ample bars scattered around the various ski towns, there’s no shortage of places to imbibe. Whether you drink high up on the mountain as one of the lodges for a special experience or down at the base village, it’s a fun way to unwind and plan your night ahead (or the next day’s adventures). Cheers!