On the final day of each ski season at a mountain called Mary Jane (within Winter Park), locals take over the car park with barbecues borrowed from their backyards and kegs of beer set up on the back of their 4WDs. They play '70s American rock a little too loud, eat charred hot dogs and dance like no one's watching. Somehow, I couldn't imagine this happening just across the Continental Divide at Vail. And at Copper Mountain, locals who have been hanging around the mountain for 40 years generally end up with a ski run named after them. One long-time local, Frank Walter, who turned 93 on his last birthday, even gets to ride the first chairlift of each new ski season. No one ever takes his spot, not even the CEO of the whole darn resort. Somehow, I can't imagine that happening down Interstate 70 at Aspen.
"Copper Mountain's special because it's a real local's mountain," longtime local, Larry "Bear" Astor tells me one chilly morning on the slopes. "The focus is on skiing its terrain and not on other things like base village fluff or expensive restaurants. Locals flock here 'cause of that and 'cause of the friendly vibe of the whole place. We're just one big, happy group of ski bums really."
Nor can I imagine a fashion store in the main street of Aspen or Vail where ski jackets get sold on consignment, or a bar called the Moose Jaw, where even if you don't want to keep your pool table, you have to play the people challenging you for it just to see who would win (it's … sort of … law).
But that's what you'll get if you go outside your comfort zone and see what else is on offer in Colorado come ski season. When most of us think of Colorado ski resorts, we think of Vail or Aspen. Those with a little more local knowledge – or a better search engine – have probably also heard of Beaver Creek, and Breckenridge, and Telluride … and perhaps Steamboat Springs.
But whoever heard of Copper Mountain… or Winter Park? It turns out they're actually closer to Denver than better known Colorado resorts – in fact, you can't get closer than Winter Park, especially when a new train starts delivering skiers and snowboarders from Denver's downtown from January 7, 2017 – and yet less than 25 per cent of the clientele at Copper Mountain comes from abroad, and only 10 per cent at Winter Park are visiting from overseas. In a week at both resorts, I don't hear a single Australian accent – and you ask anybody who's skied in Colorado how rare that is.
But with the Australian dollar continuing to fare poorly against the mighty Greenback (at the time of writing, you could expect 76 cents for one Aussie dollar) from a position of parity a year or so ago, it's not a bad time to consider Colorado's lesser-known ski resorts. Because while Copper Mountain and Winter Park epitomise all that's good about the Colorado ski experience – all that sunshine and dry snow and friendly folk telling you to have a nice day like they mean it – they come with a much smaller price tag.
I arrive in Copper Mountain on one of Colorado's 300-plus days a year of sunshine. Copper Mountain is how Disney might imagine a ski resort should look: there's a central village with a sun-drenched square where cheery families roast marshmallows over open fire-pits that never seem to go out. Towering 4000-metre-high mountains as pretty and perfectly triangular as the Alps – separated neatly into ski runs by forests of healthy green pines, firs and spruce – fall right into the backyard of my villa. Bus drivers smile as I get on their rides, children help me find my room when I can't seem to locate it and American flags flap lazily on only the slightest hint of an afternoon breeze. The dwellings here all follow Colorado high country tradition – native pine cabins with heavy stone foundations, whose roofs are covered in half-a-metre of dry, fluffy snow. Squirrels and chipmunks dash maniacally from dwelling to dwelling, a few minutes after arriving I even see a deer – who knows, perhaps it's Bambi?
Though Copper Mountain considers itself a family mountain, there's nothing too family-friendly about a lot of its terrain. The US ski team uses Copper Mountain as its official downhill ski training centre - that should tell you something. It's not just steep, Copper Mountain has some of Colorado's most challenging side-country terrain – there's three huge peaks over 4000 metres high; one can be accessed only by a snow cat that offers free rides to the top for anyone with a ski pass. But what makes Copper Mountain suitable for families despite its risky terrain is the way it's set up. In Copper Mountain, the higher you go, the more challenging the terrain. But that's not the end of it – as you move east to west, the terrain goes from beginner to expert, so as you improve, simply work your way further west around the mountain. And because it's sandwiched between two large mountain ranges – the 10 Mile Range to the east, and the Gore Mountain Range to the north – Copper Mountain sucks in all the cold, dry snow in the region; meaning it has more consistent snowfall, and for a longer duration (it has one of Colorado's longest ski seasons).
'Bear' Astor takes me up and across four huge ski bowls in a single morning, where we ride up high above the tree line. Although I'm barely a chairlift ride from the families in the sunny village square, up here I feel as if I'm lost somewhere in the Colorado backcountry – especially when the Tucker Mountain Snow Cat arrives and I'm bundled into the vehicle with nine other skiers and boarders. When it stops, we hike further still, till we ride down through fir trees, finding patches of fresh powder even though it hasn't snowed in four days. Minutes later, we negotiate our way down the mountain to an easy green run, where families ski past and I sprawlout in a deckchair in the sunshine eating a cheeseburger the size of my face.
While there are three villages at Copper Mountain with a fair offering of restaurants and bars, I prefer to take the free shuttle into the town of Frisco, 13 kilometres away. It's the kind of place where elk and moose congregate in the main street and big-horned sheep lick the salt right off the road. Built on the side of the Dillon Reservoir, there are more boats here than much else, but for cowboy kudos, Frisco is like stepping back into another era in American history. The main street at night is lit up like a Christmas tree, its tiny bars and eateries offer a warm, cosy respite from the bracing cold of the Rockies. It's a simpler kind of hospitality to what you'll receive in Vail, but it's as Colorado to me as the fluffy snow fluttering down to the street outside under all those pretty lights.
An hour or so north of Copper Mountain, Winter Park has long been Colorado's best-kept secret, though it's the longest continuously operating ski resort in the state. Winter Park has never been as fashionable as other Colorado ski resorts, but it has some of Colorado's best ski terrain and lift tickets are amongst the cheapest of any in Colorado.
There are actually two very different ski mountains here – Winter Park and Mary Jane – and seven ski territories spread across 1246 hectares. Winter Park has all the elements Colorado is most famous for – long, steep groomers at Winter Park and world-class tree skiing and deep fresh powder runs days after snow storms at Mary Jane; and 360-degree views out over endless Rockies vistas on blue-sky days. But more than that, it's the open-plan restaurants high on the mountain I love most of all; nothing beats a long lunch in a mountain hut with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over ski runs you've survived, or lazing out on deckchairs set out in sprawling beer-gardens where skiers congregate to boast about their best runs, without ever revealing exactly where they were. Nowhere in North America does on-mountain apres and dining better than Colorado, and Winter Park and Mary Jane have two of the state's best on-mountain venues in the newly renovated Lunch Rock and The Lodge at Sunspot (which is also open for fine dining or fondue dinners on Friday and Saturday nights – reached via a moonlit gondola ride).
I'm surprised by the lack of crowds on blue-sky ski days. "My old manager said if I ever have to wait five minutes at a lift-line he'll buy me a beer," ski guide John Glancy, who spent 10 years here in ski patrol, tells me. "He never has." While amenities are light on in Winter Park's village, the town of Winter Park is just a few minutes drive down the road. It lacks some of the quaintness and cowboy kitsch of Frisco, but it's full of restaurants and bars that let me peek inside a Colorado I don't often see at much better known ski resorts in the state. Ullrs Tavern particularly, with its down-home atmosphere and nightly live music scene, is the best place to experience local culture as it's been since 1939 when the resort first opened.
There are far fancier resorts across Colorado receiving far more rave reviews, but for a voyeur's look into the Colorado heartland that comes with enormous mountains and deep, powder snow – at a reduced price – nowhere's a safer bet than Copper Mountain and Winter Park.
Qantas offers direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to LA and onward connections to Denver with codeshare partner American Airlines, see qantas.com.au. Then catch the new train to Winter Park via Union Station in downtown Denver, see Amtrak.com/WinterParkExpress. Take a transfer to Copper Mountain with Colorado Mountain Express, see coloradomountainexpress.com/copper-mountain.
Travel Plan offers ski packages to Copper Mountain and Winter Park with Qantas fares, see travelplan.com.au. Buy a Rocky Mountain Super Pass offering unlimited skiing at both Copper Mountain and Winter Park for $US509. For combined accommodation and ski specials and all information, see coppercolorado.com and winterparkresort.com.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA and Qantas