Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — Fur-clad socialites and A-list celebrities alongside pickup truck and weekend warrior skiers all living large on slopes glorious enough to give Richard Dawkins religion.
Beats the bus stop.
Is there a cozier city park in the world than Aspen's outdoor fire pit?
That may be how the world sees Colorado's top ski destinations -- we'll go out on a snow-crusted limb and call them the best in North America -- but the rowdy frontier mountain spirit here still runs as deep as its top-end visitors' pockets.
With 54 peaks over 4,200 meters, Colorado has no shortage of vertiginous terrain for skiing and snowboarding. But what makes Colorado such a beloved American ski destination is its arid climate, which produces an abundance of light, fluffy snow and 300-plus days of sunshine.
Though resorts are dotted throughout the sprawling 25,000-square-kilometer state -- Telluride, Silverton and Wolf Creek are up to 580 kilometers from Denver -- a concentration of world-class resorts cluster around Interstate 70 (I-70), within several hours' drive of the capital.
Beats the bus stop. Is there a cozier city park in the world than Aspen's outdoor fire pit?
Vail and Aspen Snowmass are the largest, but mountains such as Copper, Breckenridge and Beaver Creek are worth visits for their variety of terrain and extracurricular activities, from open-air hot tubs in swanky mountain lodges to some of the West's best small town nightlife.
Even a handful of days in the state make it easy to experience the best of Colorado skiing -- thousands of ski trails, occasional celeb sightings and wine-drenched nights included.
This guide kicks off in Denver -- as do most airborne visits to the state -- then winds through the Rocky Mountains along I-70 to spend some time in Vail. Then it's off to Aspen Snowmass before rounding things off with shorter looks at other ski resort/mountain options in the state.
Acclimatizing in the Mile High City
Loaded with different, less snow-involved, fun.
Loaded with different, less snow-involved, fun. Apart from its inconveniently located airport, Denver is often ignored by ski vacationers and understandably so. Why bother with a city when world-class powder runs await a few hours away?
That said, the city has its own charm and makes a great layover spot -- especially if you need to recharge after a long-haul flight before tackling the I-70 route to the mountains.
Downtime in the Colorado capital can also help you adjust to the higher altitudes that await. Good restaurants, bars and outdoor gear shops will help make the most of your time. Denver is also a lot cheaper than Colorado's resort towns.
Rental gear can be organized at many outlets in the Mile High City, although it's recommended to hire from shops closer to the slopes in case changes or refits are necessary.
The view will still be here after you come back from skiing.
Denver's hotel scene got a needed boost with the 2010 arrival of Four Seasons Hotel Denver.
With all the quality you'd expect from the chain, rooms are not overstuffed with those unnecessary and often gaudy flourishes stupidly associated with "luxury." Instead, the digs are comfortable and contemporary -- and rather difficult to escape, especially if an early departure is planned. The building is among Denver's tallest, affording some rooms tantalizing views of the nearby Rocky Mountains.
Denver restaurants, bars and nightlife
Denver's Highland neighborhood (demarcated by West 38th Avenue, Zuni Street, West 32nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard) has been a hip zone for the past decade or more. Lots of locally owned restaurants dot an area that still remains true to its migrant Italian and Mexican history.
Closer to town, 17th Street is a great trawl with a range of bars, diners and restaurants spread over about 10 blocks. Denver eating options are near limitless. Among a long list:
-- WaterCourse Foods does high-end dining with a big price tag.
-- Vine Street Pub is Denver's branch of Boulder's Mountain Sun microbrewery. It has a range of beers and large servings of cheap and decent pub grub.
-- A few doors down, The Thin Man is a late-night bar with good drinks and slightly disturbing religious décor.
-- The always-crowded Sushi Den is the state's best for Japanese. Book well ahead.
-- My Brother's Bar not only serves Denver's best burger -- the J.C.B. jalapeño cream cheese burger is a favorite -- it also arguably employs the city's best bartenders.
-- Steuben's is a modern diner with great service and atmosphere and a memorable burger with green chili.
-- You'll wait in line for hearty breakfasts at Snooze, but won't complain once the food arrives. The sweet potato pancakes are recommended.
The only restrictions to Denver's nightlife are 2 a.m. liquor licensing laws. Denver's nightlife scene is not lacking for options at all ends of the scale. Don't forget, in the United States even 50-year-olds can get carded at bars and restaurants. Bring ID. Some places do not accept foreign driver's licenses and will demand passports.
Not far from downtown, El Chapultepec is a local institution, a tiny bar with live music (usually blues or jazz) nightly. It's a not-to-be-missed attraction -- "Grotty and brilliant!" raved one recent Aussie visitor -- that draws a mixed bag of patrons.
The Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel dates back to the Prohibition era. Servers in bowties bringing superb cocktails help class up both you and your date.
The Cherry Creek North area is full of fashion boutiques, restaurants, galleries and other high-end independent stores.
The nearby Cherry Creek Shopping Center houses the more familiar outlets, from Burberry to Saks, along with smaller, interesting boutiques.
Anyone unfamiliar with REI should plan a stop at the massive Denver REI. Filled with every piece of outdoor gear you can imagine -- and plenty of things you didn't know existed, but which you'll immediately need to buy -- the store can suck hours from your life. REI stocks items for almost any outdoor activity and the staff can tell you everything about everything. Browse ahead online if you're serious about picking up some great buys.
Denver airport and driving advice
Denver International Airport (DIA) is a hub for United and Frontier Airlines, but more than a dozen airlines fly here, including British Airways, Lufthansa and Delta.
All major car rental companies have counters at Denver airport. When heading to the mountains, which are about 120 kilometers west of the city, a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle is preferable. A number of shuttle companies also offer van service to the ski resorts. You can find them listed on the airport's website.
Tip: avoid arriving on Friday, when mountain-bound locals clog I-70. Similar issues occur on Sunday's when weekend ski warriors return home.
Alternatively, Aspen (Aspen/Pitkin County) and Vail (Vail/Eagle County) both have small regional airports, serviced by United, Frontier, American, Continental and Delta.
When driving, keep an eye on weather forecasts and news bulletins. Many mountain roads, including I-70, are forced to close during and after major snow storms. Roads can get icy and driving conditions can quickly become hazardous. I-70 is winding and steep in places, and vehicle accidents are not uncommon.
Allow more time to get from A to B than you think necessary, and seriously consider ticking that insurance box on your rental car form. Road closures can also result missing your flight back at DIA.
Nobody's actually listening. They're too busy looking around.
Among Colorado's more than two dozen ski resorts, Vail, 160 kilometers west of Denver, looms largest with some 21 square kilometers. It's huge.
The resort has an astounding menu of terrain options for every stripe of skier or snowboarder. Even more than at most ski areas, it's worth spending time studying the trail map.
On the front side, families schuss down 11 kilometers of beautifully groomed beginner and intermediate runs, while kids, beginners and boarders hit the three terrain parks. On the backside, the seven famed bowls offer wide swaths of tree-free turns that harbor fresh powder for days after a storm.
Blue Sky Basin is top-notch, though a bit of a schlep to get to. Lifts that access backside runs start closing around 3 p.m. or slightly earlier. Check notice boards.
In recent years, the resort has upgraded its on-mountain dining with new mid-mountain hot spots like The 10th, which serves rich comfort food such as chicken-and-pheasant pot pie and hand-cut tagliatelle with elk bolognese.
All ranges of dining and drinking options abound in town. There's also a family-friendly ski rink.
As with most ski resorts, tickets are cheaper when bought in bulk ahead of time. At Vail, domestic travelers are advised purchase tickets online more than seven days beforehand and international customers should purchase 14 days ahead.
Four Seasons Resort Vail
The Four Seasons is perhaps the best reflection of the ongoing revitalization of this beloved ski town. Each room is quiet and large.
Nice touches include in-room fireplaces and metal bathtub trays for books, magazines or newspapers, excellent for those who like to linger in the tub. The highlight of the resort is the Ski Concierge station located at the base of the Vista Bahn chairlift -- a short walk from the hotel along a heated pathway that never ices up.
Four Seasons guests can stow ski gear inside, while attendants help kids (or lazy grown-ups) put on or remove boots, as well as offer directions and generally take care of the heaving and hefting business of skiing.
After a day hitting the back bowls, handing skis and boards to an orange-clad Four Seasons staffer at the base of the run home is one of the sweetest ski experiences possible. It's like flying business class -- once you've experienced it, you'll never want to go crawling back to economy.
Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa
I bet her friends don't lose her with that outfit.
The 27 rooms and condos at Vail Mountain Lodge have all the accoutrements of a luxurious mountain abode: feather beds, fluffy down duvets, gas fireplaces and views of the peaks, to name a few. But there are also unusual amenities, like the on-site Vail Vitality Center, a spa and wellness center staffed with doctors and trainers.
The hotel also houses the award-winning Terra Bistro restaurant.
Alpine Creek Bed and Breakfast
Thanks to a revolving cast of friendly hosts, Alpine Creek is far more intimate than cookie-cutter ski condos.
The lodge has only two rooms, which have decks and come with a gigantic breakfast, including specialties like frittatas, Belgian waffles and banana bread. Après ski, arrive home to homemade cookies and tea.
Throughout Colorado, it's easy to rent homes, condos and apartments. VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) is one of the best sites, with options ranging from studios to mansions. On the ground, local information booths and centers can also assist.
When dinnertime rolls around, the Bully Ranch fills up fast with locals. The place has built a reputation on American classics like burgers, chicken wings and New York strip steak, but it also serves unusual Western dishes such as wild game chili and Colorado lamb with root-vegetable hash.
Ever since Vail became an up-and-coming mountain town three decades ago, Sweet Basil has been the standard of the fine dining. Choose from some 500 selections off the wine list, sip an artisan cocktail and try dishes like salmon tartare and a truffle-braised pork cheek raviolo.
Regarded as one of the top restaurants in the mountains, and certainly among the most sophisticated in Vail, Kelly Liken delivers modern American cuisine. The owner and chef, after which the restaurant is named, runs the restaurant with her husband, who juggles director of wine and general manager duties.
The wine list is impressive with more than 200 selections. The menu changes frequently. Tables seem a little too close together, perhaps aimed at catering better to the restaurant's popularity. As with Sweet Basil, it's advisable to book well ahead, especially on weekends.
Hungry skiers often end up at Los Amigos, the local's go-to for good, fresh, filling and inexpensive sustenance. The restaurant serves traditional Mexican fare such as steak burritos, seafood enchiladas and margaritas.
Bart & Yeti's
On a warm day, there are few better spots at which to knock back a post-ski beer than the lively deck at Bart & Yeti's, located in the Lionshead area of Vail. Five o'clock brings dinner specialties like baby back ribs and Southwest green chile.
Vendetta's makes legendary pizza and pasta, but it's best known for its wine and beer, which attract locals well into the wee hours. Sidle up to this old standby with goggle-tanned locals, well-heeled visitors and the occasional celebrity.
If you think about skiing all day long, this is the place to be.
The United States' premiere destination for celeb and top-notch skiers and snowboarders, Aspen's combination of world-class skiing, world-class hobnobbing and world-watch-out American party spirit makes it an unbeatable winter destination.
Despite the glam, Aspen is remarkably down to earth. On weekdays, it's common to see shoes and bags under park benches at mountain bases, waiting patiently for their owners to return from the slopes. Safe as houses.
Between Aspen's four choice mountain resorts -- Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Buttermilk -- there's enough skiing here to last a full season. Not that this has stopped many from trying to cram the best of Aspen into a very long and satisfying weekend.
Here's how to make the most of your time in Colorado's toniest ski town.
St. Regis Aspen Resort
On a quiet edge of downtown, the St. Regis resort epitomizes Aspen's high-minded side. Rooms have the requisite marble bathrooms, leather chairs and million-thread-count sheets. Ski valets whisk away equipment at the end of the day, chauffeurs drive guests around town in Mercedes SUVs and butlers cater to zany whims at all hours of the night.
You might not need 48 square meters of Premiere King Guest Room after a day on the slopes (that's the smallest of the rooms in this 94-room-and-suite landmark), but you'll definitely appreciate the deep soaking tub in each room, plush bathrobes and outdoor heated pool.
The hotel's Library bar takes pride in its historically accurate pre-Prohibition cocktails. The full service Aspen Club & Spa features 34 treatment rooms. Aspen's mountains are majestic. The experience here comes close.
Mountain Chalet Aspen
Local ski bum Ralph Melville built this Swiss-style chalet in 1954, and his family has been running it ever since. Rooms are simple but comfortable and come with the most important ski-town amenities: a hot breakfast, a location two blocks from the gondola, an outdoor hot tub and free cookies and hot chocolate every afternoon.
Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, accessing part of 1,342 meters of vertical drop, the longest in the United States.
Situated in Snowmass's pleasantly sleepy base village, the Viceroy, opened in 2009, is purposefully unstuffy, with a youthful vibe and a retro-cool aesthetic.
Its Eight K Restaurant has some of the village's most inspired cocktails (consider the Moscow mule with house-made ginger syrup), a 650-square-meter spa with Ute Indian-inspired therapies and one-step access to the slopes.
Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro
A table with a view? How about a whole restaurant?
Good thing it takes a few calories to get to Cloud Nine, a bistro situated mid-mountain at Aspen Highlands. This tiny restaurant, a former ski-patrol hut, doesn't skimp on the cheese and carbohydrates. Euro-style lunches of fondue or Raclette are served with French vino and tempered with best of Colorado views of the mountains from the 1,000-square-meter perch.
It's a testament to Aspenites' refined taste buds that celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa set up shop in this out-of-the-way village. Matsuhisa is housed in an old Victorian and serves Japanese cuisine with Peruvian and Argentine twists. Specialties include sea bass with truffle and lobster with wasabi pepper, plus a wide range of sushi with the chef's dose of culinary magic.
Woody Creek Tavern
Some 14 kilometers north of Aspen, the Woody Creek Tavern is a throwback to wilder times, when local Hunter S. Thompson kept a bar tab.
Food is simple, good and inexpensive -- chicken enchiladas are a bar favorite -- and the scenery is entertainingly kitschy. Photos, postcards, memorials and posters ("Thompson for Sheriff") plaster the walls, and the colorful clientele includes bikers, cowboys, families and dolled-up Texan tourists.
For worn-out skiers, there's little better than a heaping plate of Mexican food at the end of the day. Cantina Aspen offers old standbys (tacos, quesadillas, tamales, enchiladas) plus novel dishes like baby-back ribs slow-roasted with beer. The enviable collection of tequilas is served in pitchers of margaritas, snifters or the infamous shot ski.
39 Degrees Lounge
One might expect Playboy bunnies or stiletto-heeled celebrities to sidle up to the swanky bar of the Sky Hotel's 39 Degrees Lounge -- and, in fact, they often do.
This is the place to quaff cocktails like the dangerously tasty champagne supernova (it involves elderflower liqueur and white peach puree) and thaw frost-nipped toes by the fire while channeling your inner heiress.
The Red Onion
If a place named onion dates to 1892, there has to be something special about it. Built in 1892, The Red Onion is rife with the ghosts of Aspen's wild past. Now helmet-haired locals gather to down pints of New Belgium and hearty bar food like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken.
J-Bar at Hotel Jerome
If not for the Gore-Tex-wearing, iPod-toting clientele, J-Bar at Hotel Jerome would feel like a time warp. At this vintage Victorian-era bar, clever bartenders opened an ice cream parlor during Prohibition and nonchalantly dosed local miners' milkshakes with bourbon. Patrons can still taste the concoction -- ask for an Aspen Crud -- but bartenders now serve their whiskey on the rocks, too.
Belly Up Aspen
One advantage of Aspen's small size is that it's easy to find the best party. Almost unfailingly, it's at Belly Up, a bar and music venue known for wooing big acts to this remote tour stop. At last check, they had artists like Rufus Wainwright, Jane's Addiction, Lyle Lovett and G. Love and Special Sauce lined up. In the past ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams and Snoop Dogg have played.
Aspen Art Museum
Few mountain towns can claim the caliber of art that Aspen can.
A prime example: the Aspen Art Museum, a free public exhibition space that shows contemporary paintings, sculptures and installations by international artists. A new building to house more exhibitions is in the works.
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies
Aspen mountain is great for hiking, not just skiing. Although the former is easier in summer.
The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is the town's go-to diversion for non-skiers. Offerings include snowshoe tours from the top of Aspen Mountain, full-moon wildlife walks and evening slideshows by a rotating cast of naturalists and adventurers.
Aspen's shopping generally falls into two categories: outdoor gear or fancy stuff normal people can't afford. The latter (Gucci, Burberry, etc.) makes for top-notch window shopping.
One notable exception to the mold is Hayes Silver, a family-run business that crafts custom aspen-leaf belt buckles worn by the likes of Stein Eriksen and Gary Cooper.
Hayes Silver, 209 E. Bleeker St., +1 970 319 1697
Aspen Walking Tours
On ski-bum-turned-historian Dean Weiler's dark side walking tours, visitors listen to spirited tales of Aspen's past, featuring haunted bars, the old brothel district and spooky hotels.
Beginner and intermediate runs are impeccably groomed, but it's the scary-steep double diamonds that draw many to Aspen Mountain. With a base elevation of 2,422 meters, the season is unusually long -- November to mid-April -- and the snow is reliably fluffy.
Of 76 trails, more than half are rated either "most difficult" or "expert," making Aspen Mountain a place for veteran skiers to burn some calories and quad muscles.
Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands. Prices aren't the only things that are steep.
At Aspen Highlands, hike to Highland Bowl, a dramatic cirque with famed high-altitude steeps that tops out at an awesome 3,777 meters. The trip up is almost as invigorating as the ride down.
On the rest of the hill, three high-speed quad lifts keep traffic moving across 118 trails. This is also where you'll find Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro (see Dining section), probably the greatest high-altitude diner you'll ever find.
Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, accessing part of 1,342 meters of vertical drop, the longest in the United States.
With 1,342 meters of drop, Snowmass offers more vertical meters of skiing than any ski area in the country. This resort has also got a stunning variety of terrain, with glades, moguls, groomers, terrain parks and half pipes.
At the top of the Village Express chair, Sam's Smokehouse restaurant puts your hometown ski mountain cafeteria to shame. No need to pack lunch.
Buttermilk terrain park: family friendly? Depends on your family.
Families flock to Buttermilk, renowned for its wide-open and gentle collection of rolling, beginner-friendly trails. At least 35% of the 34 kilometers of trails here are rated "easiest."
However, it's not all tame. Considered one of the top snowboarding hills in the world, Buttermilk hosts the Winter X Games each year. The seven-meter superpipe in the monster terrain park is a boarder's dream.
Aspen ski ticket information
For the best prices at any ski resort, purchase lift tickets at least a week in advance online. All resorts offer deep discounts for multiday tickets.
Lift tickets are good for all four Aspen Skiing Company mountains (Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Buttermilk). Shuttles connect the four resorts all day. +1 970 925 1220; $104 for one day; www.aspensnowmass.com
Beyond Vail and Aspen
Colorado is stuffed with world-class ski resorts. If you've got time to get around the state, here are five prime mountains to hit. Already thinking of how to get back up.
Breckenridge is one of Colorado's heavyweight ski resorts with 31 lifts, a 1,035-vertical-meter drop and some remarkably diverse terrain. It's also easy to get to and from as a day trip from Denver.
Expert skiers head to Peak 8 for double-black-diamond chutes and bowls, intermediates schuss down Peak 7's groomers and jibbers congregate at the resort's three famed terrain parks. The historic mining village itself is worth a detour, with a long line of shops, restaurants and cafes and unusual events like an annual snow-carving competition that attracts international artists.
The slopes are mere steps from ski-in One Ski Hill Place, a tony wood-and-stone lodge with an imaginative array of amenities such as a bowling alley, two private movie theaters, an outdoor fire pit and complimentary transportation anywhere in town. Accommodations include studios, four-bedroom condos and everything in between.
Two blocks from Breckenridge's historic Main Street, the Fireside Inn offers cozy, inexpensive doubles, family rooms and dorm-style accommodations. Come evening, skiers gather to swap slope stories in the hot tub or over tea by the fireplace.
Sandwiched between Breckenridge and Vail on I-70, Copper Mountain has a lot to live up to. But with four challenging high-altitude back bowls, beautifully spaced glades and Tucker Mountain, a backcountry-like area serviced by a free snowcat, it measures up with style.
At Woodward at Copper, the first indoor ski and snowboard training facility, riders can perfect jumps on trampolines and a spring floor before hitting the terrain parks.
In historic nearby Frisco, the same family has run the Victorian Frisco Lodge for more than 50 years. They have the details of hospitality down. Stay in a cozy room furnished with antiques, sip complimentary aprés-ski wine and pick out constellations around the outdoor fire.
Hotel Frisco is a slightly more contemporary option, with simple, clean rooms featuring log furniture, a library with games and books, a tea and coffee bar and a hot tub that overlooks Mount Royal.
Can you hear the "swoosh?"
With skier escalators, ski valets and plates of free cookies come evening, Beaver Creek certainly lives up to its motto: "Not exactly roughing it." But a little known fact: in addition to its groomers, the resort also harbors some rough-and-tumble skiing -- nearly 40% of its seven square kilometers are marked "expert."
Don't miss the expert Black Bear and Royal Elk glades and the ultra-fast Birds of Prey downhill course. Beaver Creek lift tickets, +1 970 754 4636; $92-$105 for one-day lift ticket; www.beavercreek.com
The 24-suite Poste Montane Lodge at Beaver Creek looks just like a traditional European ski lodge -- and its hospitality is just as refined. After a day on the mountain, guests enjoy a soak in the hot tub, partake in a complimentary wine-and-cheese reception or kick back in the classy wood-paneled reading room.
A tidy collection of candy-colored Victorians in a steep box canyon, Telluride is easily the state's most gorgeous ski town. Luckily, its isolation in Colorado's southwestern corner translates to zero lift lines and seven largely empty square kilometers.
Though it has a nice menu of wide groomers like aptly named See Forever, Telluride is best known for its challenging expert terrain such as the Gold Hill Chutes and Black Iron Bowl.
Where the Champagne is shredded, not poured.
Despite its claims to birthing the most Olympians of any ski resort (79 and counting) and harboring Colorado's best snow (they coined the term champagne powder), Steamboat's vibe is notably laid-back.
After exploring the resort's prized terrain features, like the glades of Pioneer Ridge, Sunshine and Storm Peak, tuckered skiers hit arguably Colorado's best après-ski spot: Strawberry Park Hot Springs.