Best small ski areas in Colorado

Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

In 2019, Vail made headlines when the resort began charging over $200 for a single day of skiing. At the price, even if you rode the bus to avoid parking fees, managed to snag the first lift at 8:30 a.m., ate a sandwich on the lift for lunch and skied until 4:00 p.m., you’d still be paying nearly $30 an hour to ski. And let’s be honest, if you’re paying $200 for a day pass, you’re not riding the bus. 

If you’re sick of long lift lines, paying to park and traffic, check out some of Colorado’s best small ski areas. Although ski areas continue to face consolidation and high costs to fund snowmaking, grooming, expensive lodges and gondola construction, there are many great Colorado ski areas that are smaller, more affordable and, often, less crowded. 

Skier at Monarch Mountain, a small Colorado ski area, on a spring Day
Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

What’s great about small ski areas in Colorado?

If you’re like me and would prefer to sleep in, walk to the lifts and not pay for parking, small ski areas offer a more laid back atmosphere. Small ski areas get the same dry, fluffy powder Colorado’s larger resorts market, without many of lift lines. Sure the lifts may be slower or acreage smaller, but smaller Colorado ski areas still offer world-class skiing.

If you’re new to the sport, learning to ski or ride at a smaller mountain makes sense. Since you’ll spend most of your time on groomers, there’s no need to worry about a ski resort’s acreage or the number of expert trails larger resorts boast. 

For experts, however, ski areas like Wolf Creek offer deep powder. Specialty ski areas, like Silverton are not small in terms of terrain options. Silverton Mountain is an experts only ski area. Other places on the list, like A-Basin or Eldora, are on the Ikon Pass, but they still offer a change of pace for skiers.

Best small ski areas in Colorado 

Skier at small Colorado Ski area, Loveland
Photo by Dustin Schaefer, courtesy of Loveland Ski Area

Loveland Ski Area

Where: Georgetown, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adult $89, Child $35
The Lowdown: Loveland is the first ski area you’ll come across driving west on I-70 from Denver. The ski area sits high along the Continental Divide. Although Loveland can be quite windy, the ski area receives 422 inches of snow on average. That’s more than any other Front Range ski area.

Loveland’s high elevation and deep snow totals allow it to open earlier and close later than many places. The mountain typically opens in late October and doesn’t close until early May. Loveland is an excellent place for those learning how to ski, Denver residents going up for the day and spring skiers looking to squeeze every drop of snow out of winter.

Loveland offers a great mix of beginner, intermediate and expert terrain. Although the ski area is not offering cat skiing this year, it usually runs free snow cats to help skiers access additional terrain. Check out Loveland’s terrain map here.

Chair Nine at Loveland ski area, Colorado
Photo by Dustin Schaefer, courtesy of Loveland Ski Area

Arapahoe Basin Ski and Snowboard Area

Where: Dillon, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adult tickets From $99, Child tickets from $45
The Lowdown: Lying on the other side of Loveland Pass from Loveland Ski Area, A-Basin also benefits from its high altitude. Snow lingers well into the spring. Some years the resort offers Fourth of July skiing. A-Basin is known for its variety of expert terrain, including Montezuma Bowl, the Steep Gullies and the East Wall. In normal years, A-Basin’s parking lot, affectionately known as the Beach, offers opportunities for world-class tailgating with a view. If you’d prefer to hike, rather than ride the lifts, check out the ski area’s uphill access policy.

Skier at Wolf Creek finds Colorado powder
Photo by Samuel Bricker, courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area

Eldora Mountain Resort

Where: Nederland, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adult ticket — $149, Junior ticket $99
The Lowdown: If you live in, or near, Boulder, it’s hard to beat the proximity of Eldora. The ski area lies just 30 minutes west of Boulder. Although the terrain selection isn’t amazing, there are a fair number of groomers and some advanced terrain. Eldora has partnered with Woodward and offers several options for terrain parks. If you’re more interested in nordic skiing, Eldora offers a mix of cross-country ski trails at the base.

Family skiing at Sunlight Ski Area
Photo courtesy of Sunlight Mountain Resort

Sunlight Mountain Resort

Where: Glenwood Springs, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adults: $69 Child $45
The Lowdown: Sunlight Mountain Resort is located outside the town of Glenwood Springs. The small resort offers abundant terrain ranging from beginner groomers to expert tree runs. Sunlight prides itself on offering a simpler, cheaper experience than the nearby mega-resorts along the I-70 corridor. Sunlight offers one of the best deals for single day lift tickets. If you’re looking to stay the night, check out Sunlight’s Ski, Swim, Stay package for deals on lodging, lift tickets and an aprés-ski hot springs soak.

Skier finds powder at Colorado Ski area, Monarch Mountain
Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Monarch Mountain

Where: Salida, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adult tickets $99, Junior tickets $52
The Lowdown: Located between the towns of Salida and Gunnison, Monarch Mountain offers excellent skiing on Monarch Pass. Don’t expect fancy accommodations or restaurants at the base. Monarch is known for good snow, especially in El Niño years. The ski area offers family friendly terrain, as well as expert glades in the Mirkwood Basin area. If you’re looking for additional expert runs, Monarch offers private cat-skiing, just north of the ski area.

Mirkwood Basin at Colorado ski area, Monarch Mountain
Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Wolf Creek Ski Area

Where: Pagosa Springs, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adults $80, Children $41
The Lowdown: If it’s snowing at your usual ski area, it’s likely dumping at Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek is a small ski area located 30 minutes outside of Pagosa Springs. Although it’s a nearly five hour drive from Denver, Wolf Creek’s distance from the Front Range helps to keep crowds at bay. The ski area offers tons of glade skiing and hike-to chutes. Although the snow is often fresh, the runs tend to be relatively short. Plan on lots of laps.

Skier at Wolf Creek Ski Area Colorado powder
Photo by Samuel Bricker, courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area

Silverton Mountain

Where: Silverton, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Guided skiing one day $249, Unguided $99, Single Heli Run $179
The Lowdown: If you’re looking to ski Colorado’s biggest in-bounds terrain, Silverton is the place to go. Silverton offers a unique skiing experience. The mountain only has one lift. From the top, skiers hike to a variety of chutes, couloirs and powder fields.

From the time the mountain opens in late-December until mid-March, all guests must travel with a guide. Starting in mid-March, when snowpack conditions are safer, skiers can opt for an unguided experience. If you’re looking for to turn your ski trip up a notch, consider Silverton Mountain’s heli-skiing package. Silverton offers single-run heli tickets or a full day package that includes six runs. Silverton is an experts only ski area. If you’re still learning how to ski, check out nearby Purgatory Resort instead, which offers more variety in run difficulty.

Chairlift at Monarch Mountain, Colorado
Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Purgatory Resort

Where: Durango, CO
Lift Ticket Price: Adult Tickets from $39 
The Lowdown: Purgatory lies 30 minutes outside of Durango — just south of Silverton Mountain — along Colorado’s powder highway. The San Juan mountains are notorious for deep snow and steep faces. Purgatory offers a great way to take advantage of the region’s skiing without breaking the bank. Lift ticket prices depend on the day of the week and when you book. Be sure to check the resort’s website for accurate information. Purgatory offers excellent deals on Spring skiing. If you’re looking to ski corn snow in a t-shirt, Purgatory lists $39 adult tickets in April.

The resort is more developed than many of the ski areas on the list. Purgatory Resort has nine lifts, including three express lifts. Lifts provide access to a variety of terrain — mostly blues and blacks. Purgatory also has lodging at its base. Cheaper rentals are available in the town of Durango.

Ski at Colorado Ski area, Wolf Creek, powder skiing
Photo by Samuel Bricker, courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area