In certain hardcore skiing circles Keystone, Colorado gets the Rodney Dangerfield treatment - no respect. Those who remember the late comedian recognize this label as false shtick. In truth, he reached the top of his game and was hugely entertaining. So it is with Keystone ski resort, where my wife and I traveled with three teenage children for a rewarding visit during late Spring 2007.
Maybe the disrespect thing stems from an old bias against the original low angle 1970 layout of what has now become a diverse, three mountain, all-exposure Colorado behemoth? Maybe spoiled Coloradans from surrounding Summit County resent that at 75 highway miles from downtown Denver, Keystone affords a level of accessibility requiring them to share the goods during prime times? Some overfed Front Range powder hogs will say the mountain is not always well favored by Ullr despite a sky scraping base elevation of 9,300 feet.
All I can tell you is that in April 2007 Keystone served-up an outstanding experience for my mixed ability family group. Delivering an entertaining trail network with long beginner runs, tons of intermediate groomers, secluded black diamond glades, untracked bowls, and soft bumps; we also found Keystone to be crowd-free, discount priced, and two quick hours from Denver International Airport via interstate highway. All this and it was covered in late season freshies to boot. Are we easy to please? Whatever, I’m ready to give big Easter Week props to Keystone.
Unlike the typical North American trail layout spread across one broad ridge, the approximately 120 runs/3000 acres of Keystone are laid out like a giant three humped camel, aligned north to south. Each of the three “humps” has a top elevation approaching 12,000 breathtaking feet. Dercum Mountain (elevation 11,640’) is first and has the greatest trail count with 50+ beginner and intermediate runs, some three and a half miles in length, and all descending over 2300 vertical feet. Named after Max and Edna Dercum founders of the ski area, this original north facing terrain offers a scenic intermediate playground and two distinct base complexes, Mountain House and the newer River Run village containing skier services, retail shops, restaurants, and accommodations.
The second hump is the more steeply pitched North Peak (elevation 11,660’). It is reached by trails leading down from the south face of Dercum or by taking the Outpost Gondola. Strung peak-to-peak from Dercum to North, this lift descends and rises twice along its 7500’ length and eventual 1200’ vertical rise. The North Peak terrain was added in 1984 and has about 1500 feet of vertical with 15-20 runs and four lifts that serve steep blue groomers and some of Keystone’s most challenging black diamond bump runs.
The third and most southerly hump/peak is called The Outback (elevation 11,980). It was added to the trail network in 1990 and is accessed by skiing trails off the backside of North Peak. The Outback also features about 1,500 feet of vertical with about 15 blue and black level runs and a batch of advanced-expert glades. Many runs in this section feature great views of Breckenridge ski area, less then 10 miles to the southwest as the crow flies.
To the East above all three of Keystone’s mountains one can hike or ride Keystone’s snowcat service to reach a ridge of high, open bowls. This bonus high country adds another 500 or 600 vertical feet to the terrain. Most of these bowls feed directly back through glades or runouts to the lift served sections of the ski area.
4/10/07 - Powder Day One: We awoke to a ski vacationer’s dream, first day powder. Our condo at The Springs complex was about a 150 yard walk from the loading station of the River Run gondola (9,385’ length, 2,302’ vertical). At 9 AM my son Vince (age 16), nephew Rick (age 19), and I boarded it for the top of Dercum Mountain. We made a trail called Mozart our very first run of the trip. Normally one of Keystone’s signature effortless groomers, this morning Mozart was covered with 15” of fresh snow. While a rare, but not unknown treat and challenge for me, skiing in this amount of untracked snow was totally foreign to my two Dixie homeboys raised on machine made Blue Ridge hardpack.
Leading the way I took my first goggle clogging faceplant within 300 yards of the summit. It was preceded by an ungainly 180 degree pirouette, which must have amused the boys. They auditioned similar dance steps on Mozart several times each themselves. The three of us continued to struggle for a time in the deep stuff. I took a month’s worth of wipeouts in one morning. Dusting flakes off my coat at one point I tried to rally them and myself, “get into it guys, this stuff can be great when you get the hang of it and (coming from Virginia) it could be years before we ski this much fresh snow again.”
We moved on to North Peak and took a steeper blue run called Last Alamo. With the added pitch I started to find my powder groove and enjoyed completing figure 8’s with somebody’s left over tracks. Only 6-8 inches actually fell overnight at the foot of the mountain, but across the top 1,500 vertical feet of Keystone’s three peaks it had wind drifted to a good 15”. Temps were about 25 degrees up top and 35 down below, truly midwinter conditions.
The weather was still quite rugged with sporadic snow squalls when we found ourselves back on the front side of Dercum. This time the River Run gondola was on wind hold so we rode the parallel Summit Express Quad traveling the same 2,300’ vertical, only faster. From the summit of Dercum we took a 50’ walk and boarded The Outpost gondola, still operating due, perhaps, to its more sheltered south facing orientation and terrain hugging line. By the time we disembarked atop North Peak the sun was back out and our easy spin down the windless blue square run Anticipation delivered classically beautiful Colorado powder turns. With North, West, and South exposures you’re likely to always find something good at Keystone.
We soon took our first ride on the Outback Express (5,846’ length, 1,482’ vertical) to the summit of the farthest southern reaches of the ski area. Here the skier’s right side of the moderately pitched Elk Run featured a foot of cut-up powder over old bumps. The exquisite, but tough going had us flatlanders stopping to suck wind every couple hundred yards on our first morning at altitude.
Eventually we headed back to North Peak and down Prospector, a nice easy rider that my snowboarding nephew Rick restfully enjoyed. Then we ascended yet another long chair, the Ruby Express (5,864’ length, 1,600’ vertical) back to the summit of Dercum Mountain for a dash down easy skiing Santa Fe to a late lunch rendezvous with my wife and daughter at the River Run base. Our first rate accommodations at The Springs provided a great location for a relaxing meal.
In the late afternoon I did some easy Dercum Mountain cruising with my daughter Suzy (age 14). Curiously, among the named runs in this section are Salamander, Ballhooter, and Mambo Alley, each having counterparts at a mid-Atlantic ski area. It was a nice cool-down after an epic day.
4/11/07 - Bluebird Day Two: This was a mostly sunny day with great visibility. Many of Keystone’s runs had been groomed by this time making us feel like superstars after the deep, difficult fresh snow of the day before. Vince, Ricky and I again fell into a pattern of riding both gondolas back-to-back first thing to get deep into quiet areas of the trail layout before our initial runs. Not everything was groomed out, however, and we purposely took an early run on the intermediate Spillway. It still had a foot of deep chop on it, making for extraordinary conditions.
Spillway dumped us into The Outback and from the top of the Outback Express chair we skied Porcupine, a real favorite of mine. It’s a guilty pleasure type of intermediate run with great views of the enormous, sprawling slopes of Breckenridge. Just as we began to descend Porcupine the clouds parted and Breckenridge lit up like it was under a spotlight. We made many more runs in picture perfect conditions as we spent a few hours gradually working our way back to the condo for a noon lunch.
After our repast I wanted to try a Keystone $5 a la carte snowcat ride which I heard might be available from above The Outback. We took the gondolas again to get there quickly, but after the previous day’s heavy snow the Ski Patrol was not quite ready to open enough of the high bowls to justify cat operations. Instead, we hiked/skated about 300-400 yards beyond the upper terminus of the Outback Express chair and dropped into the south facing Puma Bowl.
Skiing very much like lift served terrain, some of the nearest lines in this area provide a fun yet manageable taste of the ungroomed for tourists like my gang and I. Puma Bowl had a six foot cornice drop into deep, day old snow. The johnny rebs from Virginia took a few nosedives, but got some bowl bashing bragging rights for their troubles. This route led to a narrow, winding runout through the woods called Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. When Vince and Rick said they were going to do a reprise on Elk Run I decided to try Pika, one of The Outback’s numerous glades. I never caught a peek of another soul in Pika’s almost 1,000 vertical feet of sublime solitude.
By the time we returned to the summit of Dercum Mountain it was after 3pm and I was bushed from two days of maximum mileage. We watched an Army of groomers pass by the rustic Summit House restaurant and realized they had just completed an afternoon groom on Frenchman, a looong and enjoyable blue run descending the front face of the mountain. This was just what the doctor ordered for my legs and lungs so Frenchman it was for a schuss behind two tireless teenagers. We were able to squeeze in a couple more blitzes by riding the Montezuma Express (6,213 length, 1,589 vertical) before the hill closed at 4 o’clock.
4/12/07 - Mellow Day Three: We eased back a bit on our final day at Keystone. It was mostly cloudy with a few hours of midday sun. Temperatures remained 25-30 degrees and light snow fell around 3pm. While Vince and Rick slept-in I made an early run with my wife Kathy and daughter Suzy down Schoolmarm, Keystone’s famous beginner-low intermediate trail. Schoolmarm is 200 yards wide in spots, a hint that at times it carries heavy traffic. On this April weekday morning, however, we had it all to ourselves. We’re talkin’ 3.5 miles of freshly rolled corduroy with unparalleled Rocky Mountain views of 3,200 acre Lake Dillon and the hulking dome of 12,777’ Buffalo Mountain beyond.
The mellow ski session continued with runs on the now finely manicured Mozart, meandering Foxtrot off the top of North Peak, and picturesque Porcupine in The Outback. After a short break in the North Peak’s classy Outpost Lodge the sun came out and we downloaded on the North Peak Gondola back to the summit of Dercum Mountain. Then we glided down 2,300 fun and ego boosting vertical feet on the green circle run Spring Dipper for lunch at our condo.
In the afternoon the kids went mogul mashing on North Peak and jibbing in Dercum Mountain’s A-51 Terrain Park. Meanwhile, Kathy and I took a husband and wife only romantic gondola ride for some encore turns on Schoolmarm. I hadn’t seen my wife that comfortable on a ski slope in a long, long time. Towards the end of the day Kathy went to check on the kids and I found myself alone one last time at the top of Dercum Mountain. Though I might have preferred to sail the slopes of Keystone to endless oblivion, reality called and I bade farewell with a final cruise down Flying Dutchman.
Keystone’s high elevation location (roughly between 9,000 and 12,000 feet) and extensive snowmaking capability assures a good snow preservation record. Our trip took place during the second week of April and we enjoyed some of the best ski conditions available in the country at that time. This was the final week of ski operations at the resort yet 95% of the terrain was open and in great shape, surely an eye opener for me on how good late, late season can be in Colorado.
I really appreciated that among Keystone’s 20 lifts are nine chairs or gondolas rising 1,300 or more vertical feet. When I’m away from the vertically challenged mid-Atlantic I get a kick out of long, fast lifts. They made it incredibly easy for us to zip around Keystone’s three peaks.
Some refer to the high bowls above The Outback and other parts of Keystone as “backcountry lite.” Accessed by snowcat or hiking, they’re close to lifts, maintained by ski patrol, and we found them to be a perfect introduction for neophytes venturing slightly off the beaten track for a taste of deep, ungroomed snow.
My son Vince liked the steep bumps on North Peak. He also found a few under the Montezuma Chair on Dercum Mountain and around the Oh Bob trail in The Outback. My snowboarding nephew Rick is into terrain park action and he found it on the lower front face of Dercum where dual parks were set up during our visit. They were laid out side by side, though each was serviced by a dedicated chair lift. One park had super-sized three-story hits for a season-closing pro competition, the other had a more conventional assortment of jumps, rails, boxes, tables, etc.
I took an inexpensive prescription of Diamox in preparation for the high elevation and tight timelines of this visit. It seemed to work well countering my past history of susceptibility to mild altitude sickness. Although occasionally short of breath, I had no headaches and beat the non-medicated teenagers to the chairlift on many runs during a full first day. After the groomers did their business by our second day, however, I was back in my customary trailing position behind speedy Vince and Rick most of the time.
As the head of a household of six snowriders I’ve often skied with a mixed ability family group over the last 15-20 years. I’ve seen many fine examples of easy cruising trails, but Keystone’s Schoolmarm has to be one of the longest, widest, and prettiest that I’ve ever experienced. Accessed by a comfortable gondola ride from the River Run base, our springtime turns on Schoolmarm were perhaps the best scenario I could ever devise for my easy skiing wife. A romantic run alone with her under such ideal conditions may be as rare for me as a 15” powder day. You know things are going well with the spouse when the only stops made during a ski run are for the occasional smooch :-)
Keystone has a lot going for it: great snow, diverse terrain, with low crowds and good value in the Spring. Not counting the primarily day-ski areas of Loveland and Eldora it may be the most conveniently located destination ski resort from Denver. After our terrific first ever visit there’s a lyric from one of my wife’s favorite performers, Aretha Franklin, that I think my gang is ready to nominate as Keystone’s theme:
What you want
Baby, I got it
What you need
Do you know I got it
All I’m askin’
Is for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
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