Are you thinking affordable ski resorts in Colorado – or anywhere for that matter, is an oxymoron? True, skiing isn’t a cheap vacation, but it is my youngest favorite sport, and with two short years until he leaves me for college, I want to indulge his passion, preferably without spending his college fund.
That mission led to this post. So yes, there are affordable ski resorts, and as a bonus, it seems they are usually less crowded, more ‘locals-only’. The trade off for lower prices is fewer amenities, but if your priority is cruising some powder on the slopes, vs. après nightlife, we got you covered.
When it comes to pricing out a ski vacation, there are a lot of moving parts. You may get a great deal on lift tickets, but that savings is wiped away on flights or shuttle service. I looked at five things to help me narrow my search: Flights, transportation to the mountain, lift tickets, equipment rental and lodging.
My initial search included bigger, economical ski-resorts like Winter Park, as well as two outside Colorado – Grand Targhee, WY and Powder Mountain Utah. Both resorts outside Colorado have good lift ticket deals, but flights from Hartsfield International Airport are generally more expensive, if you’re an east coaster.
Winter Park is a good choice, especially since it is so close to Denver, and they do offer lodging at the base of the mountain as well as bigger resort amenities.
In the end, I narrowed my search to three mountains – Arapahoe Basin or A-Basin, Loveland, and Monarch Mountain because their price points were very similar, and all are easily accessible from the Denver Airport. (Note Colorado Springs is actually closer to Monarch, but you can get there from Denver which generally offers cheaper fares).
RENTAL CAR VS SHUTTLE
When staying at the larger resorts, there are often several options for transportation if you choose not to rent a car. I prefer to take the shuttle vs. drive in snowy conditions on windy mountain roads that can feel like navigating the side of a cliff. That’s why I spent a LOT of time trying to get a shuttle option to work for these resorts. It can be done, but renting a car is the cheapest and quickest way to get to any of the affordable ski areas. Since none of our three options have lodging at the base of the mountain, having a car allows flexibility once you get there too. Plus, all three mountains have free parking.
However, since I did the research, here are your options for shuttle service. I could make A-Basin work if I really don’t want to drive. Rates vary on how you do it, but I budgeted $130 per person roundtrip.
- Snowstang. This is a bus service run by the state of Colorado from downtown Denver to Arapahoe Basin and Loveland. However, it’s not the most direct option. You’ll need to ride the RTD rail from the airport to downtown Denver first. Tickets are $25 round trip and only available on weekends, as well as MLK and President’s Day Holidays. The buses are super-comfy with bathrooms and WiFi, so kick back and watch Hot Tub Time Machine again while someone else drives.
- Summit Express. This is a direct shuttle service to Dillon and Silverthorne, a home base for either A-Basin or Loveland. They will take you straight to your lodging. (just make sure it is on their list)
- Mountain Shuttle.
- Summit Stage Swan Mountain Flyer. This is a free bus that runs hourly during the season from Summit County to A-Basin. If you are taking this option you’ll want to stay at the Keystone Lodge or River Run at Keystone as these are the closest bus stops.
- Greyhound. Catch a Greyhound bus from Denver International Airport to Monarch.
COMPARING LIFT TICKET PACKAGES FOR THESE AFFORDABLE SKI RESORTS IN COLORADO
The earlier in the season you buy your lift tickets, the better deal you’ll get. Fees go up after Labor Day and the closer you get to the season, the more you’ll pay – this holds true for any ski resort. In 2022 Lesli paid several hundred dollars more for a 4-day ticket to a single resort (for a visiting relative) than she did for her adult annual pass to all the big-name resorts in the state.
A ski vacation is definitely something you want to plan early. Lift tickets for the three resorts are close and the prices quoted here are for the 2021-22 season purchased before Labor Day.
If you ski more than four days, consider a season pass. There are several different passes depending on where you want to go. A-Basin is part of the IKON pass. Loveland is part of the Powder Alliance. Monarch isn’t part of a traditional pass, but does have numerous partner resorts if you want to hit more than one slope.
When Lesli has visitors come into town that are willing to miss the “big mountains” like Keystone and Breck, she recommends the Colorado Gem Card. At 11 ski resorts, including the ones mentioned here, this $40-ish card gets you either 2-for-1 tickets OR 30% off a single lift ticket…for two days. Which deal works best for you really depends on what the ticket values are going for at the time of your visit….but you can pick the best one.
BEST DEAL FOR THREE DAYS – A CASE STUDY FROM 2022
We can only get out West for one trip a year and it’s usually a long weekend, so I am looking for individual lift ticket deals. Loveland has a great $199 4 PAK that can be split between skiers and there are no blackout dates. Our family of 5 can split the 4 PAK and purchase a single day lift ticket for $85 each, still well below most single day resort prices.
A-Basin has a similar $199 three-day pass, but it is non-transferable. That’s ok for our purposes as we plan to ski three days anyway. And since there are no blackout dates, we can go during a holiday weekend.
A three-day ticket at Monarch runs $208 for peak dates if you purchase in advance (a 40% discount). It’s significantly cheaper if you are going non-peak times. In addition, at Monarch, you can also ski half days starting at 12:30 pm with even further reductions after 2 pm.
All three mountains have special rates for kids, juniors and seniors. In some instances kids under five or six ski free!
DON’T FORGET RENTAL EQUIPMENT
All three ski areas A-Basin, Loveland, and Monarch charge the same amount for ski-rentals – so from an affordability standpoint, this isn’t a factor
Can you save money by getting equipment elsewhere? Maybe. But I recommend spending the money to rent equipment on-site. If anything goes wrong, you can ski into the rental shop and get it fixed, or switch out. In addition, you’ll have trained technicians making sure your equipment fits properly and is appropriate for your ability level. These are important factors. Equipment that doesn’t fit right can be uncomfortable, and more importantly it can be dangerous.
FIND THE PERFECT LODGING
Lodging is one of the big amenities that separate the bigger resort ski areas from the more ‘locals’ ski mountains. The big guys will have lodging on site. The three ski areas here do not. Of course you can find a VRBO nearby, but below I am recommending some non-VRBO options for your consideration.
THE PAD NEAR A-BASIN
A-Basin is located in Summit County, Colorado. If you are skiing here, you can stay in Silverthorne, Frisco or Dillon. A-Basin is partnering with a new hotel in Silverthorne called The Pad. This eco-friendly hotel/hostel is a unique concept that is locally owned and operated. They had me at rooftop bar, but upon closer inspection there is more to love – including a woodsy location right on the Blue River.
The Pad could be the answer to the après skiing experience you get at a ski resort since they have a full bar and restaurant, plus that rooftop I mentioned. I’m a little old for a hostel, but I like the idea of that type of youth and energy, plus the Pad has traditional rooms as well. At this writing, A-Basin and the Pad are discussing a shuttle service to the mountain – which would be huge for me.
CLEAR CREEK IN NEAR LOVELAND
Loveland skiers stay usually stay in Summit County (near A-Basin and The Pad) which is 12 miles west or Georgetown which is 12 miles east of the ski area. The Clear Creek Inn in Downtown historic Georgetown looks like a winner with a rooftop deck and hot tub for soothing tired muscles while looking up at the stars.
MT PRINCETON HOT SPRINGS NEAR MONARCH
Monarch Mountain Lodge is a basic hotel (with shuttle to the ski resort), a restaurant and bar. To really do it right, our sources recommend combining two exceptional experiences and staying at a hot springs resort like Mt Princeton Hot Springs. They have cabins and a hotel, restaurant and awesome pools – some right on the river! And if you are looking for a non-ski day, check out their concierge page – dog sledding or snowmobile tour…um YES!
COLORADO’S AFFORDABLE SKI RESORTS: WHAT’S THE VIBE?
Once all the logistics are worked out, the rubber really meets the road out on the mountain. Here is what I gleaned about the personality of each of the resorts. Have an opinion? I’d love to hear it in the comments below.
A-basin is the one mountain of this lot that we have not skied. According to my sources, A-Basin has a 70s vibe, and old school feel – which sounds good to me. But several of the reviews and info from my sources seemed to point to ‘The Legend’ as it is called as better for expert skiers and ‘steep and deep’ skiers. That made me a bit nervous as a solid, once a year intermediate skier.
But then I found this video (above) on the A-Basin YouTube Channel – I LOVE this! After a tour of the beginner/intermediate slopes with Paddy O, I am confident I can handle A-Basin and have fun doing it! If you are an advanced or expert skier, they definitely have runs for you too – check out the tour of the Beavers – Oui, I will NOT be glade skiing!
LOVELAND SKI AREA
Loveland Ski Area is within an hour of Denver on the Front Range, which means when storms stop you from getting through the tunnel to the “big guys” Loveland is usually still available. (Don’t confuse this with Loveland, Colorado or Loveland Pass Road that takes you from I-70 over to Keystone…though the ski area is at the beginning of Loveland Pass Rd)
Lesli snowboards here with her family and found it a great place to warm up for the season or introduce newbies and young kids to the slopes. There are a plethora of green runs, and multiple chair lifts. It can get windy though, so be prepared.
Similar to A-Basin and Loveland, Monarch is an unpretentious, independent ski slope. The big advantage for Monarch is that it is NOT on I-70, so you aren’t fighting the crowds (and traffic) going to the many slopes along that route. Monarch also does not make snow, they rely on mother nature averaging 350 inches of fresh soft powder each season. A good all around slope, there are runs for beginners and intermediates and according to those in the know, advanced and expert skiers can get their heart pumping in the Mirkwood Basin.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Breckenridge, which is located in an actual western town with a rich history well before the ski-slopes were put in. The Kids Ski Free program makes Keystone great for young families, and as a local it is Lesli’s favorite (tied with Beaver Creek.) Copper has Woodward at Copper, an extreme sports training facility that tweens and teens will want to visit even if they aren’t looking to enter the next X Games. And Lesli’s family loved Park City Utah for snowboarding.
But I’m keen to try some of the smaller, more affordable mountains and see what they offer too. They don’t come with an entire bustling ski village or 5-star dining…but they allow you to ski affordably, still have a great vibe, and allow you to feel a little more like a Colorado local.
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