From the gentle humped peaks of the Front Range to the east to the stunning Maroon Bells near Aspen to the west, from the Flat Tops Wilderness in the north to the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness to the south, this is the most visited National Forest in America. Millions come to ski its 11 resorts each winter and to explore its mountains each summer,
Colorado’s largest ski resort, Vail Ski Resort, has become synonymous with big-mountain skiing. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to ski this region. Bring the kids to Ski Cooper, a small and affordable family-friendly resort near Leadville. Or visit Arapahoe Basin, which has no ski-in, ski-out condos or posh boutiques, just great terrain, plenty of snow, and a cool local’s vibe. Or visit Aspen and its four ski areas where modern skiing began.
Winter visitors don’t have to be limited to the resorts. A world of backcountry winter recreation awaits those eager for adventure. Skiers and snowshoers can book an overnight stay at one of the 10th Mountain Division huts in the forest or just set off on a day hike or ski. Have a snowmobile and looking for powder? The Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, right off of Interstate 70, offers endless skiing terrain reachable by snowmobiles.
The period from mid-April to early June is known to mountain town locals as “mud season,” when access to many places is limited. But summer always comes, and a world of terrain opens up to hikers with the melting snow. Alpine meadows bloom with wildflowers. Snow loosens its grip briefly on the high peaks.
There are eight wilderness areas. The Eagles Nest Wilderness – the jagged row of peaks you see from the front side of Vail Mountain – offers more stunning alpine lakes than can be named. The Flat Tops Wilderness is a hunter’s paradise, deep and wild and teeming with elk. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is home to some of Colorado’s best overnight backpack trips, including the Four Pass Loop and Conundrum Hot Springs, a hot pool eight miles into the wilderness.
If you’re looking to climb above the clouds, there are ten fourteeners (peaks above 14,000 feet) in the National Forest, for all skill levels. Beginners can cut their teeth on Quandary Peak, a moderate walk-up a few miles south of Breckenridge. Those with moderate experience can tackle Mount of the Holy Cross, remote and deep in the wilderness that bears its name. Experts will find a challenge of climbing the Maroon Bells, peaks that are so dangerous there’s a warning sign at the trailhead.
Autumn, lest we forget, is prime season to see the changing of the aspens. And then winter is back before you realized it had gone.
So whether you want to enjoy this forest on day trips from your resort hotel, from a backcountry cabin in the dead of winter, on a ski lift or deep in the woods on a backpacking trip, this forest will stun you.
Our Favorite Hikes
- For rugged scenery and solitude, nothing beats the Eagles Nest Wilderness. This wilderness can be reached from the Vail area to the south or the Silverthorne area to the north. It has so many 13ers that they don’t have names, just letters. Day hikers can start at the trailhead across from Copper Mountain and take the mild hike to Wheeler Lakes. Looking for a longer trip? Gore Lake is one of the most stunning in Colorado, a great overnight backpack trip or a day hike, 5.5 miles each way.
- Closer to Denver on the east side, Mount Sniktau is a great day trip from the Mile High City. You can drive to nearly 12,000 feet on Loveland Pass, so it’s a mild three miles round-trip to 13,234 feet that can be done year-round.
- Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is a stunning natural pool eight miles into the wilderness. It is worth a visit, though check with the Forest Service first. In the summer of 2016, officials were considering requiring permits due to heavy use.
- Quandary Peak – the peak so nice I’ve climbed it twice. This 14,265-foot mountain is among Colorado’s easiest 14ers – but easy is relative. It’s seven miles round-trip, but the 3,400 feet of climbing will still leave you breathless, if the scenery doesn’t.
Skiing and Snowboarding
- For skiing in this area, in this writer’s opinion, nothing compares to Copper Mountain for diversity of terrain and great snow. The lower slopes have enough blue and green runs to keep beginners busy for days, while the higher hike-to peaks and the back bowls will challenge and thrill even the most expert skiers.
Mountain Town Life
- Coming out of the woods for some culture or nightlife? Breckenridge is a great spot, a ski town that has managed to hang onto and embrace its historic mining legacy. You’ll find great food too and one of Colorado’s largest microbreweries.
- For leaf-peepers, the southern section of the National Forest offers one of the best fall-foliage drives in the state. The West Elk Scenic Byway over Kebler Pass is an autumn trip you’ll long remember.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—R. Scott Rappold