Fresh powder, 10,000-foot mountains, and the promise of epic adventures call skiers and snowboarders to Colorado every winter. But those tall peaks and the alluring, carved-from-history towns that have risen in their shadows aren’t just a destination for thrill-seekers strapped to carbon fiber planks.
Centennial State ski towns are worthy destinations for both travelers who crave outdoor fun and culture aficionados looking to experience art from a different vantage point. Prefer a winter getaway that doesn’t involve skiing or snowboarding? From tubing and fat biking to ultra-luxurious spas and public art tours, here are 15 ways to enjoy the Rocky Mountains that (mostly) don’t require a lift ticket.
Warm up in hot springs
Nothing staves off Old Man Winter’s chill quite like a dip in a natural pool of 100-plus-degree water. Thankfully, Colorado delivers with more than 30 hot springs scattered across the state. Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs is a locals’ favorite for its sizeable, rocky pools; woodsy backdrop; and the ability to rotate between the hot-hot-hot hot springs and the chilly river. (Note: Strawberry Park is clothing optional after dark, and you’ll need four-wheel drive to reach it in the winter.) Other worthy stops include Ouray Hot Springs (about an hour from Telluride) and Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa (30 miles from Winter Park). Tip: If you’re road-tripping, consider following the state’s Historic Hot Springs Loop so you know exactly where to soothe tired muscles at the end of each day.
When Snowmass Base Village began its recent $600 million redevelopment, one of the first additions was the plaza’s centerpiece: an outdoor ice skating rink (rentals are free) surrounded by perfect-for-s’mores fire pits. (Don’t miss the public curling competitions in December and February.) While many other resorts offer ice skating, Breckenridge will take the edge this winter when it debuts a revamped Peak 8 base area that features a slopeside rink. For more traditional pond skating, head to the five-acre Keystone Lake (just minutes from Keystone Resort), and, to discover something a little different—bumper cars on ice!—check out the Howelsen Ice Complex in Steamboat.
Tubing is not just for the little ones. Kids of all ages will hoot and holler as they fly down one of the speedy, groomed lanes at Frisco Adventure Park near Breckenridge (a conveyor belt makes getting back up the hill a breeze) or Vail’s Adventure Ridge, which sits at the top of the gondola. At the Historic Fraser Tubing Hill, 10 minutes outside of Winter Park, you can hook your whole family together and soar down the open snow. More conventional sledding can be found at Telluride’s Firecracker Hill and Carter Park in Breck.
Find your zen
Luxury is not hard to come by in tourism-driven towns, but some mountain spas take indulgence and relaxation to new heights. At the Ritz-Carlton Spa, Bachelor Gulch, you can spoil yourself with a facial that incorporates a diamond-infused serum or a mud wrap that uses activated-charcoal mud from Colorado mines. In Telluride, stimulate dry skin (thanks, Colorado) with a Peaks Resort & Spa Mountain Moisture Drench treatment that includes a seaweed serum and a light massage. Request a massage on-demand courtesy of the mobile Full Circle in Aspen. Breathe in essential oils that help with the effects of elevation (headache, shortness of breath) during a High Altitude massage at Elevation Spa in Crested Butte. Or escape for 60 minutes of quiet by stepping into a private, egg-like pod and floating in salted warm water at RockResorts Spa in Vail. (Floating is thought to reduce muscle tension, pain, and stress.)
Stroll past public art
Colorado is home to 23 certified creative districts—places where art and other creative pursuits are a robust part of the town and its economic vitality—and around eight are located in ski towns. The 7.5-mile (one way) Yampa River Core Trail that follows the waterway as it weaves through Steamboat directs you past more than a dozen works of public art, including the “Yampa Is Wild” mural, a vivid depiction of the waterway’s meandering route, which was added this past summer. Another option: a self-guided walking tour of Crested Butte’s myriad public art, like the chrome “Pepsi Horse” that greets visitors at the east end of town. To see how Mother Nature herself can become a masterpiece, visit Summit County when the Ice Castles are in town. The monolithic structures, handcrafted entirely from ice and lit with colorful LED lights, are tall enough to walk under and strong enough to slide down (the attraction typically opens in December). The infamous Breckenridge Troll—a 15-foot-tall wooden sculpture by Isak Heartstone—also awaits.
Visit a museum
The Aspen Art Museum doesn’t just contain treasures—it’s a work of art itself. Ensconced in a woven wood screen exterior, the 33,000-square-foot building was designed by renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and is unlike any other space in downtown Aspen. With a focus on contemporary art—and a public rooftop with views of Aspen Mountain—it’s a must-stop for artsy travelers. Did we mention admission is free? A more Western-leaning take on the arts is on display at the Steamboat Art Museum, and one of the state’s most unique cultural sites, the Colorado Snowsports Museum, can be found in Vail. There, you can explore the legacy of skiing and snowboarding in the state, including a history lesson on World War II’s 10th Mountain Division soldiers, a mountaineering division of the U.S. Army that trained in Colorado and captured Italy’s Riva Ridge, helping Allied forces gain territory in Europe.
Snowshoe through the woods
Skis aren’t the only way to explore the tranquil forests that cover nearly 24.5 million acres in the state. Most alpine towns offer guided snowshoe tours on or off the mountain, and there are plenty of trails to explore beyond the ski hills. If you want a tour guide, consider Beaver Creek’s thrice-weekly Winter Wine Excursions, which pair lift-access snowshoeing with charcuterie and wine, or follow a naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies as you explore the top of Aspen or Snowmass mountains. Among the best areas to explore independently is Leadville, home to the 2020 U.S. National Snowshoe Championships and nearly 100 miles of groomed trails that weave through pine- and fir-dotted forests and even ascend above treeline.
Fly down the mountain on an alpine slide
The latest heart-thumping rides to take over Centennial State ski resorts are alpine coasters: open-sided carts that rip down the mountainside at the speed of your choosing. (Don’t worry: There’s a hand or foot brake system.) Steamboat claims the country’s longest—the 6,280-foot-long Outlaw Mountain Coaster, which descends more than 400 vertical feet. You’ll ride it uphill first for a scenic, albeit nippy, few minutes. Close on its tail are Copper Mountain’s 5,800-foot-long Rocky Mountain Coaster and Snowmass’s 5,700-foot-long Breathtaker Alpine Coaster.
Try ice climbing
Whether you’re a novice ice climber or looking to hone your skills, you’ll want to visit Ouray Ice Park in southwest Colorado (about an hour drive from Telluride). Home to the Ouray Ice Festival—celebrating its 25th anniversary in January 2020—the human-made venue contains more than 100 named climbs. The routes, some marked by fixed ropes, ascend (or descend, if you need to rappel) frozen waterfalls in a massive gorge that seem to glow blue in the sunlight. For lessons or more of a backcountry experience, hire a guide; we like San Juan Mountain Guides (Ouray), Irwin Guides (Crested Butte), and Aspen Alpine Guides (Aspen).
Mush your own sled dog
A bucket-list adventure for many, this ancient mode of transport can be experienced via numerous outfitters who will teach you the ins and outs—and then let you play with the adorable pups after. Among the best-known is Krabloonik in Snowmass Village, which got an upgrade when new owners took over five years ago and takes wannabe mushers on hour-long tours through the valley’s backcountry morning, noon, and twilight. Not every company lets you run the sled, but at Good Times Adventures in Breckenridge, you’ll lead a team of Siberian huskies, switching off with your friends or family (up to six people can join) as you explore mile after mile of the Swan River Valley. In Telluride, family-owned Wintermoon Sled Dog Adventures takes guests deep into the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests during two-people-per-sled rides led by Alaskan huskies.
Pedal a fat bike
Fat biking, or riding a two-wheeler with extra-thick tires, has only been in vogue for a few years, but there’s no shortage of routes to explore. Telluride locals frequent the three-mile, protected Valley Floor trails, which are groomed (smoothed down for easier riding) daily for fat biking. Many of the area Nordic centers, such as Vail Nordic Center and Haymaker Nordic Center in Steamboat, allow for both sports on their property and often rent gear and offer lessons or guided tours. But the hub of fat biking in Colorado is Crested Butte (host of the upcoming Fat Bike World Championships), where the local Mountain Bike Association grooms miles of routes for cyclists. Some of the group’s top recommendations include Cement Creek, the Club at Crested Butte, and following the Snodgrass Trailhead downhill to Gothic. If you’d rather replenish lost calories while you ride, check out Ridden in Breckenridge for daily Fat Bike Beer & Distillery Tours.
Soar in a hot air balloon
Think hot air ballooning is a summer pastime? Not in Colorado. Experience Snowmass valley from a different vantage point with Above It All Balloon Company. The hourlong, sunrise excursions (reservations required) drift along the craggy Elk Mountains, rising at least 1,000 feet into the purple- and orange-painted sky before floating back down to solid ground for a Champagne brunch (hot cocoa and coffee are included, too). Steamboat travelers can check out Wild West Balloon Adventures, while Summit County visitors will have to make the trek to Grand Adventure Balloon Tours, which operates out of Fraser.
Catch a show
It may not be Broadway, but Colorado’s high-country performing arts scene is quite robust. The 26-year-old Lake Dillon Theatre Company performs a full season of professional, timely productions at the striking, contemporary-industrial Silverthorne Performing Arts Center. Creative complexes—like the newly expanded Center for the Arts in Crested Butte and Beaver Creek’s Vilar Performing Arts Center—gift visitors with the ability to nab tickets to everything from theater productions and concerts to literary and film events. For live music, though, nothing beats the subterranean Belly Up Aspen, an intimate, local hot spot (capacity: 450) that has hosted greats as varied as B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, and the Head and the Heart.
Step back in time
Many of Colorado’s ski hubs are former mining towns, rich with history—and ghost stories. Breckenridge Heritage Alliance hosts a number of outings, but the Haunted Tour, with its stop inside one of the town’s oldest homes, is easily the most popular. The led-by-a-local weekly walking tours run by Telluride Historical Museum highlight the architecture and personalities of the tucked-away town. (The museum itself was originally built in 1896 as a hospital.) And the Aspen Historical Society offers Historic Pub Crawls, guided walks to some of the area’s legendary venues and watering holes, such as Hotel Jerome and the 127-year-old Red Onion.
Hitch a ride on a sleigh
There are two ways to enjoy sleigh rides in Colorado: as a relaxing, family-friendly outing or as a means of traveling to and from a gourmet meal. If you—and your kiddos—are interested in the former, sign up for a backcountry excursion with Golden Horseshoe Tours in Breckenridge or a jaunt through Soda Creek Valley in Keystone. If you prefer to pair the ringing of sleigh bells with a hearty meal, check out Pine Creek Cookhouse, an upscale log cabin decorated with antler chandeliers and nestled into the valley below Aspen’s Elk Mountains; Uley’s Cabin, an intimate, mid-mountain, French-influenced restaurant with wooden beams and a stone fireplace at Crested Butte Mountain Resort; or Beaver Creek’s Beano’s Cabin for a five-course meal in a high-ceilinged room with floor-to-ceiling windows that is only accessible by sleigh or snowcat in the winter.