On Tuesday, December 10, 2019, I experienced a bunch of firsts.
I made my first turns of the season.
I skied Colorado’s Keystone Ski Resort for the first time.
And I skied for the first time on brand new skis, wearing brand new boots.
Recently, some family members moved from the East Coast to Denver, Colorado. Initially, I was sad about this move, as it meant family would be farther away. But this sadness quickly dissipated when I realized I would soon have many reasons to visit one of my favorite states. With free lodging suddenly available in Denver, the economics of visiting Colorado started to shift. Thanks to a cheap Southwest ticket from BWI to Denver, I landed in Colorado about a week ago.
My first priority? Buy a set of ski gear to keep in Colorado (another perk of having family there with some extra storage space to spare). That way, I could hop on a plane with little more than a backpack, reducing the hassle of traveling across the country to ski.
I set up a private bootfitting appointment at the Denver evo ski store, where a helpful and patient employee named Jeremy shared his expertise on boots and skis. After a couple hours, I had settled on a pair of Nordica Promachine 120 Ski Boots and Elan Ripstick 96 Skis.
I couldn’t avoid visiting the REI Denver flagship store, even though every visit there seems to take a dent out of my credit card. Sure enough, it did, as I walked away with a new helmet and goggles.
Fully equipped with brand new equipment, on Tuesday, December 10, 2019, I decided to use the Epic Local Pass for the first time.
You’ve probably followed some of the twists and turns that have affected the Mid-Atlantic ski market the past couple years.
First, Pennsylvania resorts Liberty, Roundtop, and Whitetail were sold from long-time owner Snow Time to Missouri-based Peak Resorts.
Then, just this past Fall, Vail Resorts purchased Peak Resorts.
Vail offers multiple season passes, but the most compelling option for me was the Epic Local Pass. The pass provides unlimited, unrestricted access to 26 ski areas, including Liberty, Roundtop, and Whitetail, as well as Colorado’s Breckenridge, Keystone, and Crested Butte. It also provides 10 holiday-restricted days across Vail, Beaver Creek, and Whistler Blackcomb, and 2 days each at Sun Valley and Snowbasin.
Essentially, the pass would cover all of my local skiing, as well as any days I found myself in Colorado. So the economics of it made sense for me this winter.
Afer reviewing a few options, I settled on a day trip to Keystone Resort. I had never been there before, and it was the closet Epic option from Denver. In recent days and weeks, Colorado ski areas had received some nice dumps of snow. Most areas had opened up around 25% of their terrain — far from 100%, but still plenty of acres to play with.
There are a lot of things I like about Denver, but traffic is not one of them. Driving in or near the city can be a painful experience. But after sitting in traffic for awhile, I finally broke free from the gridlock and began climbing the Front Range on I-70.
As I drove deeper into the mountains and gained in elevation, the mercury began to drop. Isolated spots of snow in the foothills soon turned to deeper stashes of powder, and by the time I passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel, the temperature was just below freezing and the ground was covered with powder, courtesy of a snowstorm the day before.
Keystone is quite easy to get to: depending on traffic, you can be from downtown Denver to the slopes of Keystone in about 90 minutes. Most of that trip is along the well-maintained I-70. Once you reach the town of Dillon, you follow US-6 East about 8 miles and you’re there. Breckenridge (also on the Epic pass) is not far away.
Keystone is an unassuming resort. It does not have a built up, Disney-esque base area like Vail. It does have a small base area with a selection of shops and restaurants. It also has something quite unusual for a Colorado resort: free parking. The River Run lot provides lots of spaces about a 10-minute walk away from the River Run Gondola, but the spaces can fill up by mid-morning on weekends. Shuttle-served overflow parking is available just down the road. A few paid lots are also available, providing a spot right near the lifts if walking 10 minutes in ski boots isn’t your thing.
Free parking isn’t the only rare aspect of Keystone. Unlike most Colorado resorts that shut lifts down by 4 p.m., some of Keystone’s slopes are lit for night skiing. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try night skiing, as it is only available on weekends in the early season. I imagine nights could be frigid on the mountain above 10,000 feet in elevation.
Soon after parking, I was sitting in the River Run Gondola heading up the mountain. Although most of the River Run parking lot was full, I never experienced a lift line.
The River Run Gondola takes you to the top of Dercum Mountain, assuming you don’t hop off at its mid-station, about 1/3 of the way up. Dercum Mountain is one of three lift-served peaks at Keystone, and closest to the base area. At 11,640 feet above sea level, it’s the “shortest” peak at Keystone, but not by much — behind it are the North Peak (at 11,660 feet) and The Outback (at 11,980 feet). All beginner terrain at Keystone is found off of the front peak; North Peak and The Outback only have intermediate and expert trails. The total vertical at Keystone is a respectable 3,128 feet.
With new skis and boots, I opted to make my first run on beginner Schoolmarm, which also happens to be the longest trail at Keystone, at 3.5 miles. The snow conditions were phenomenal packed powder, and I loved every inch of Schoolmarm. With a steady pitch, it curved its way down the mountain, occasionally offering fantastic views of the Dillon Reservoir in the distance.
With some miles under my belt, I had warmed up and adapted to my new skis and boots. It was time to head over to more advanced terrain. I made my way back to the top of Dercum Mountain and skied up to a trail map sign. Several Keystone courtesy volunteers stood by the sign, ready and eager to answer any questions. I pointed my ski pole to North Peak, and asked “how do I get over there?”
“The easiest way is by helicopter,” deadpanned the volunteer.
“Hmm, I left mine at home,” I replied.
He then pointed me to the terminal for the Outpost Gondola, a short distance away. The Outpost Gondola provides out-and-back service to the North Peak, and is the quickest way to switch peaks. Alternatively, you can take the intermediate cruiser Mozart to the bottom of the Santiago Express lift, and then take Santiago up to the top.
After arriving at North Peak, I took Spillway down to the base of The Outback. There, I took a ride on the Outbook Express to the top of the mountain. The top of Outback provides views of Breckenridge in the distance, and is the launching point for some excellent advanced terrain. You can also hike a mile up to the top of North and South Bowl to find some non-lift-served bowl skiing. There are multiple places at Keystone to hike to bowl skiing, but if your sea level-calibrated lungs aren’t thrilled about hiking through snow at 12,000+ feet, for a modest fee Keystone will give you a ride in a snowcat. But, it was still a bit early in the season for that terrain to be accessible and skiable.
I had a lot of fun at The Outback, finding paths through the trees between intermediate Elk Run, Oh, Bob, and the gladed expert The Grizz. I began to wonder why Keystone only had about a quarter of its terrain open — there was plenty of snow everywhere and I managed to get in some tree skiing without gouging my new skis. Well, fast forward a week and another 2 feet of snow: Keystone has now opened 64% of its terrain, as of December 17, 2019.
After an afternoon of skiing at Keystone, it was time to make my way back towards the base area, and as I walked back to my car with my skis on my shoulder, I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face. Before getting back on I-70, I stopped by Chipotle in Dillon for a late lunch/early dinner, and it’s possible I also stopped at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company just next door to Chipotle for some chocolate treats for the drive back to Denver.
Two days later — on Thursday, December 12, I once again found myself driving up I-70 towards Keystone. A winter storm warning was in effect starting that evening, but I figured I could sneak in and out of Keystone before roads got bad.
By the time I hit the Eisenhower Tunnel on the way up, it was already starting to snow steadily, and the road was starting to get slick. Arriving at Keystone, I splurged for close-in parking ($30 — and it was worth it) and was quickly on the River Run Gondola. While Tuesday had been sunshine and blue skies, Thursday was a snow day, with light snow consistently falling throughout the afternoon. The surface conditions were excellent and once again, a broad smile was on my face as I carved and explored more of the mountain.
After another wonderful day of uncrowded slopes, beautiful views, and perfect conditions, it was time to head back to Denver. And once again, I made a stop at Chipotle and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company. I think a tradition may be beginning.
On the snowy drive back to Denver, I had a chance to reflect on my first two days of skiing at Keystone. I was really impressed with the resort. It’s not the largest ski area at Colorado, but with 3,149 skiable acres and a large variety of terrain, there’s no risk of getting bored. It doesn’t have the fanciest base village, but it has the basics and you can’t beat free parking. And the whole vibe was friendly and fun. It seemed to attract a lot of locals.
As I was gearing up in the parking lot, a car pulled up beside me, and a friendly labrador hopped out when his owner opened the doors. The lab ran up to me, tail wagging furiously, and hopped in the back of my car!
“That’s not your car!” said the owner.
I then chatted with the lab’s dad for a few minutes. He was from Colorado, and had taken the day off to go skiing.
“Keystone is one of my favorite areas,” he said.
“It just has a nice vibe.”
That nice vibe extended to employees. When the River Run Gondola slowed down and the doors opened at the mid-station, a Keystone liftie stepped inside and spent a few seconds saying “hi” and asking how my day was going, before stepping out and sending me on my way.
It’s possible that Keystone becomes crowded on a mid-season or holiday weekend, attracting a lot of Denverites, but I suspect its 129 trails and 21 lifts — the majority high-speed — help spread out the crowds.
I look forward to revisiting Keystone later this winter to experience more of its terrain, and maybe even some night skiing. I’m sure I’ll make it to Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek as well, but I’ll have to pass Keystone to get to those resorts — and I may just be tempted to stop at Keystone before I get there.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
Nice report. It looks like the snow gods were generous to you for this break. ? What skier level is Keystone best suited for? It seems good for intermediates, but that is my inference from some of your photos.
Also, do you intend to use the new skis on the East Coast or leave them in CO? 96 seems a bit wide for an East Coast All Mountain.
Hi John! There's a lot of nice beginner terrain towards the front of Keystone Resort -- so I don't think beginners would be bored -- but the majority of the terrain at Keystone is intermediate and advanced. So it might not be the best option for novice skiers -- they might be more comfortable at Beaver Creek, Snowmass, or other areas. I did see plenty of new skiers having group lessons in the beginner areas, and Keystone took the "slow ski area" zones seriously.
I'm leaving the new skis in Colorado. The evo employee thought they'd be a good fit for the kind of skiing I'd do in Colorado (and the kinds of conditions I could expect there), and I think he got that right -- based on my first two trips with them, I'm really pleased. They handled the groomed slopes with ease and were nimble when I darted off into untracked areas. I always felt like they were "working with me." Plus, they're neon green. :)
Hey Scott, Nice report. Glad you had a good time.
I've got hundreds of days behind me a Keystone. Fridays Saturdys and Sundays will give you long lift lines. The key on those days is to start at *8:30 by immediately getting to the Outback. It will fill up by about 11. Outback Express and Santiago will be zoos. So will the gondola and River Run chair.
Monezuma will be better but still crowded. Peru is my choice when the rest of the lifts get crowded. There are a few interesting blues to take (Hoodoo comes to mind), and a few double pitched blacks.
My rule of thnmb is to never ski on weekends unless it is a big powder day, and the next rule is to always start at 8:30 on those days.
Getting back to Denver is a challenge on weekends f you leave Keystone after about 1:30. You will be amazed at the amount of traffic.
The big news at Keystone is that it plans to put a lift in Bergman and Erickson bowls, adding about 500 acres of above tree line skiing akin to Breck's Peak 6 terrain. Look for it in abot 3 years. It's the first terrain addition since the Outback in I believe 1991.
Always love Keystone, just wish I could get there more. In answer to the question on what level of skier it is best for definitely agree it's great for intermediates, all three mountains have tons of blue trails that are nice and long and provide good variation. Beginners really just stick to the main mountain, but as you saw in the pictures there is a 3.5 mile run that is great for families to ski together, there are some various ways you can get down it so it's not just the one run over and over again. There are some easier blues for those trying to transition from the greens to the blues that are a great next step.
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