Colorado's two glitziest, most well-known ski resorts open for the season this weekend, along with a locals' favorite, joining a few others that have so far. Vail goes first, giving customers access out of both Vail Village and Lionshead at 9 a.m., as well as return routes to both base areas. (Skiers and snowboarders are asked to observe all posted signs and closures, especially during the early season.) Boulder County mountain, Eldora Resort, also cranks up the lifts today, while Aspen Mountain follows on Saturday by opening the Silver Queen Gondola and Ajax Express, along with the Sundeck and Ajax Tavern. The mountain is opening earlier than expected, thanks to a storm that dropped 21 inches of snow.
We profiled all of Colorado's ski-country destinations in The Edge, our insider's guide to the 2014 ski and snowboard season. We'll be rolling out those profiles as the mountains open, but here are our looks at Eldora, Vail and at the four mountains around Aspen.
VAIL SKI RESORT vail.com 970-476-5601
Six lift upgrades in the last six years have transformed the Vail experience so that your time on the slopes is maximized while lift-line waits are minimized. In addition, the resort is going all out to prepare for the 2015 World Championships at Beaver Creek, but spokeswoman Sara Lococco says she's just as excited about Décimo, a gondola-accessible nightclub experience at 10,250 feet that will feature six events, beginning with an unforgettable New Year's Eve party.
Signature experience: To really feel Vail, Lococco suggests skiing or riding all seven of the area's legendary Back Bowls: Sun Down, Sun Up, Teacup, China, Siberia, Inner Mongolia and Outer Magnolia. If you have kids, be sure to stop by Adventure Ridge, which features the requisite ziplines and tubing hills, as well as a miniature snowmobile course.
Splurge: "Kick off your boots and slip on a complimentary pair of warm slippers" at The 10th, a luxury ski-in, ski-out restaurant located at mid-Vail, Lococco says. For lodging, try the Lodge at Vail, newly renovated and just steps from the base of Gondola One, or the Game Creek Chalet, where you can opt for a personal private chef.
Ski bum tips: "Pack up some burgers and brats and enjoy a winter barbecue at either Belle's Camp, in Blue Sky Basin, or Hawk's Nest Deck, at the top of the High Noon Express Lift; both offer complimentary gas grills. Also, prices on lift tickets and lodging drop in between peak periods, Lococco advises, so try to get there before Christmas or after New Year's Day, and skip three-day weekends and Spring Break season if you're looking for deals. Skip the ticket window any day of the season and order from snow.com/epicday for discounts up to 25 percent off daily tickets; tickets purchased at least seven days in advance will get the best available price.
Drink locally: The 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company is marking its first season in Vail, with a portion of sales benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project, the Vail Veterans Program and the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. The distillery is producing an Olathe corn moonshine, a rye whiskey, a bourbon, a potato vodka and a Colorado sage-infused Palisade peach-vanilla cordial. Also, stop by the Tavern on the Square at the Arrabelle, which features firkins from Colorado breweries: Try Odell Brewing's Haven & Hale Peach Ale if it's there.
ELDORA MOUNTAIN RESORT eldora.com 303-440-8700
Unlimited skiing at Eldora is now included on the $549 Rocky Mountain Super Pass Plus, bringing the area's no-frills charms to a wider audience and presenting a nice option for turning off I-70 early if the traffic to Copper Mountain, Winter Park or Steamboat is dispiriting.
Signature experience: Visit the Eldora Nordic Center to explore an extensive system of groomed trails perfect for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Rental and lesson packages are available for anyone from first-timers to experts.
Splurge: Book the Private Lesson Express and you'll find an instructor and a high-end rental package waiting for you upon arrival. Or pick up the 5-Pack Special, good for five one-hour private lessons any time during the season. For lodging, try the Alps Boulder Canyon Inn, where room packages include a full gourmet breakfast and where some of the rooms come with private double whirlpool bathtubs built for two.
Ski bum tips: Stay at Foot of the Mountain Motel in Boulder, with Stay and Ski packages starting at $95 per person that include Eldora lift tickets, then take the ski-and-ride RTD bus to the mountain. Alternately, pick up a $20 Gems Card from Colorado Ski Country USA at coloradoski.com; the card is good for buy-one-get-one lift ticket deals at Eldora and seven of the state's other big-things-come-in-small-packages ski areas.
Drink locally: Stop in Nederland on your way out of town and visit Very Nice Brewing and Wild Mountain Brewery.
AJAX/ASPEN HIGHLANDS/ BUTTERMILK/SNOWMASS aspensnowmass.com 800-525-6200
The four mountains in Aspen share lift tickets and free shuttles, so plan to make your adventure last at least a couple of days. The Aspen Mountain base area -- aka Ajax -- is right in town, and a quick gondola ride will put you into intermediate and advanced terrain with the best views of the Aspen Valley that you'll find without putting in some legwork. Aspen Highlands is steeper and features more hike-to terrain for those who like to earn their turns. Buttermilk has the family-friendly vibe and reputation of a small ski area but also features long, steep cruisers and an X Games-level terrain park and superpipe. Snowmass, the biggest of the four, has all of the above.
Signature experience: In January, Buttermilk Mountain -- home of the Winter X Games since 2002 -- renewed its contract with ESPN through at least 2019. Seeing X Games Aspen 2015 live and in person (January 22-25) is a must, and the best part is that the world-class halfpipe and portions of the slopestyle course will be open to the public afterward and for the rest of the season. Another Aspen must for the hardcore is a hike in Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands, which summits at 12,392 feet. You'll be stomping around for 45 minutes or more, depending on your line choice, and you won't believe how many others will be joining you. Need a hiking partner for life? Offer to buy one of your fellow climbers lunch at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, suggests Aspen/Snowmass spokeswoman Tucker Vest Burton, then grab a table with a view of the Maroon Bells.
Splurge: Raise a toast to your pow-chasing peers at the Oasis Champagne Bar, a mobile bar run by the Little Nell at Aspen Mountain that serves caviar and Veuve Clicquot from "secret" locations on the hill. Follow @TheLittleNell on Twitter to help track it down. For an even bigger upgrade, try the $469 Friday Powder Cat Day with the Limelight Hotel: You'll get as many as fifteen runs on the backside of Aspen Mountain, followed by a late lunch in an on-mountain cabin with food prepared by the Limelight. "Aspen Mountain Powder Tours and the Limelight Hotel are teaming up to provide guests with the unforgettable experience of enjoying a day of powder on a guided cat skiing/riding tour," Burton says.
Ski bum tips: Snow in the forecast? Call 925-1220 3543 the night before to make reservations for the First Tracks program at Aspen Mountain, free with a valid lift ticket or season pass. Load up on free Green Mountain Coffee, sunscreen and Clif bars at the base area while you're at it.
Drink locally: You'll find Colorado brews on tap at nearly all of the on-mountain bars. End your day in the tasting room at Aspen Brewing or Woody Creek Distillers in nearby Basalt; both have beverages on the menus at most
Follow @WestwordCulture of the best restaurants and bars in town, too.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.