The early season is a time of hope, wonder, and… impatience.
Last year, I logged (let’s see, let me check my notes to make sure I get this right) precisely ZERO ski days, courtesy of a balmy Mid-Atlantic season that — let’s be honest now — we’re all desperately hoping isn’t in the process of playing out again this year. Not willing to go another season without skiing, I decided to get a head start by booking an early December trip to Denver, hoping that some Colorado ski areas would have snow.
“Hope” was the operative word. At the time I booked my trip, the Aspen trees dotting the Colorado mountainsides were just beginning to transition to magnificent golds and yellows, still weeks or months away from being dusted by the first snowfall. While some Colorado ski areas can begin opening in late November or early December, there can be lean years when the snow takes its time arriving. As western resorts rely almost exclusively on natural snow, open terrain in December can be extremely limited, with thin cover just raring to slash a gash in the bottom of your freshly-tuned skis.
On the other hand, there can be many benefits to booking an early season trip to Colorado. The crowds don’t start arriving until around Christmas, so if you visit a Colorado ski area midweek in mid-December, you’ll likely be sharing it with just a few others — often friendly retirees who will regale you with fascinating stories on otherwise lonely lift rides.
Lodging can also be scored for a fraction of the mid-season rate. And if you’re really willing to gamble, you can snag incredible deals on early-season lodging, by selecting the “pay now” (with no cancellations and no refunds) option that many hotels are now eager to offer. Of course, if it turns out there’s no snow, there are no take-backsies: you’re stuck with that room, your wallet forever dented by a bad bet.
Browsing through properties at Vail months ago, I noticed a huge difference between the standard reservation price and a “pay in full with no cancellation” option, including some nice hotels within steps of the slopes.
But I didn’t feel comfortable pulling the trigger. After all, staring out looking at bare slopes from a posh, slopeside hotel room with turndown service is only slightly more comforting than seeing the same bare slopes from miles away in a more rustic room.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, I started a daily ritual of checking the web sites of Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek (any guesses as to which mega pass I have?). Had any of the resorts received snow? What was their trail count and open terrain % up to? Were there snowflakes in the forecast?
After a couple of early snowstorms, things seemed to stall, leaving only a small handful of trails open — likely the very few that are covered by artificial snowmaking.
Things weren’t looking promising. I was starting to feel glad I hadn’t booked non-refundable lodging.
But it’s amazing what one or two snowstorms can do.
For a while it seemed like Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek were all roughly comparable, like horses in an even race. Each was less than 10% open, which seemed quite low, although I kept reminding myself that 10% of Vail is still like several dozen Mid-Atlantic areas (on their best day).
But then, Vail suddenly surged ahead, thanks to a few generous snow dumps that seemed to (conveniently) stall right over Vail’s peaks, as if to slight neighboring resorts. A storm from December 1-4, 2023 dropped 22 inches of snow on Vail, followed by another 21 inches December 8-11.
That’s a strange thing about Colorado: weather patterns can change dramatically from one mountain ridge to the next. While Vail received a generous helping of snow from those early December storms, Beaver Creek — literally just a few miles away — did not. By the time Vail surged past its peers in open terrain, the lodging prices had similarly surged. Which, sadly, put it well outside of my price range.
So I fell back on a trick I’ve used in the past: I booked a (relatively) inexpensive roadside hotel in Eagle, Colorado, about 30 minutes west of Vail. The kind of hotel that you drive up to and think, “um, I guess this will be OK? I mean, I’m just sleeping here. Hopefully the sheets will be clean.”
(Spoiler alert: the sheets weren’t clean; the place smelled funky; and the walls were so thin that I thought a jet engine was taking off inches from my head when my neighbor turned on the shower. But I at least had a roof over my head, and saved so much money I was able to eat a cheesburger twice at Vail. With fries, even.)
After arriving at the hotel on a Tuesday evening, I was ready to begin my three-day adventure at Vail the next morning. So I dragged my ski boots back to the car (important tip: never leave your boots in a cold car overnight, or your feet will instantly freeze the second you cram them into them), and headed back East, arriving at the Lionshead parking garage about 25 minutes later.
Originally I had planned to spend a day at Beaver Creek, which sat between my hotel and Vail, but only a handful of trails were open at Beaver Creek and the situation didn’t change during the week. In fact, near Beaver Creek, you could still see red rocks dotting the nearby hills; Beaver Creek had not yet been blessed by the snow of its close neighbor.
The Lionshead parking structure is one of two convenient parking garages in the town of Vail; the other is in Vail Village. I prefer to start and end my ski days at the Lionshead base area, perhaps for no other reason than that’s what I’ve always done, and I’m a creature of habit. For the 2023-2024 winter season, parking at either garage for 4+ hours will run you $30 during non-peak days, and $40 during peak days. That can add up, but it places your car a short walk from the base area.
When standing in the town of Vail looking up, the mountain doesn’t look all that impressive. Nestled in a fairly narrow valley that has the unfortunate effect of amplifying road noise from I-70, you can only see the bottom of some frontside slopes. The full scope of Vail is hidden, revealed to you in layers only as you begin to ride its modern, high-speed lifts and explore the full mountain.
And what a mountain it is. Over 5,200 acres of skiable terrain place Vail as the fourth-largest ski area in North America, just behind Whistler Blackcomb, Park City Mountain Resort, and Big Sky. Vail is perhaps most known for its Back Bowls, a 6-mile wide expanse of mostly wide-open skiing across 7 distinct bowls. And if that doesn’t keep you busy, you can go even deeper into the mountains until you reach Blue Sky Basin, which really feels like skiing in the wilderness.
With only around 20% of terrain open at the beginning of my trip, I tempered my expectations, knowing that the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin would likely have to wait for another visit.
On the first day, the sun played a game of hide and seek, occasionally revealing its bashful self in between drifting clouds. Each time it disappeared behind the clouds, the lighting became so flat that I felt like I was skiing across the smooth surface of a bowl of potato soup.
The flat lighting might have been more challenging if the terrain was thin or icy, but every trail I skied had perfectly forgiving packed powder, offering no surprises. In fact, the only surprise was how great the conditions were, given how early in the season it was. As a bonus, the temperature was perfect: in the mid-to-upper-20s. That’s low enough to keep the snow in pristine shape, but high enough to keep you comfortable, right in that perfect zone where you warm up skiing down the slopes and then get a bit chilly for the lift ride back up.
With no strategic plan, I simply began skiing randomly across the mountain. Eventually, I could no longer ignore my growling stomach, and found myself in a very uncrowded mountaintop Two Elk Lodge, which provides a great view of Vail’s Back Bowls. While I originally planned on just grabbing a cup of free water and eating a granola bar I stashed in my pocket, the lure of a bacon cheeseburger — my ski resort kryptonite — beckoned. The print on the menu was too small for my tired eyes to read, so I couldn’t see the price. But how expensive could a cheeseburger and fries be?
“That will be $36.15 with your Epic Pass discount,” the courteous cashier said as I slid my tray forward.
I managed to keep a poker face, perhaps conditioned to think that’s a reasonable lunch price after recently spending 5 weeks visiting Switzerland, a place known for its high prices. To be fair, my tray included the cheeseburger, fries, and a bottle of water.
Now I know you all only clicked on this Firsthand Report to find the answer to the perennial question: “did Scott enjoy the resort cheeseburger?”
I’m pleased to report that it was quite good. Is it the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had? No. Did it have one of the best views? Certainly. As they say in real estate, location is everything.
The next day, I returned to Two Elk Lodge to buy the cheeseburger again. As I took it from beneath the heat lamp and walked away, I overheard a comment from the nearby line cook that made me chuckle and appreciate his pride.
“Oh man, someone just took my only cheeseburger. It was perfect too. Now I have to cook another one.”
And then something mysterious happened when I went to cash register.
“That will be $21.35 with your Epic Pass discount,” the (same) courteous cashier said.
The price had dropped by $14.80. Some of that made sense — I had wisened up and didn’t buy the bottle of water when perfectly fine free cups of water were available mere steps away. But I don’t think a bottle of water costs $14.80. So was I overcharged on the first day or undercharged on the second?
The cold reality is I have no idea what a cheesburger and fries costs at Two Elk. I apologize; I’m a bad reporter.
After enjoying the first day’s cheeseburger, I exited Two Elk and gazed with envy towards the still-unopened Back Bowls, assuming it would still be weeks before they would open.
“Maybe next time,” I said to myself, as I watched a bird soar across the terrain.
But then I heard a snow cannon go off, causing the majestic bird to flee with a squawk. Somewhere unseen, Vail’s Ski Patrol was performing avalanche control in the Back Bowls — or maybe just training? Perhaps they were getting ready to open the terrain sooner than expected?
After wrapping up my ski day, I returned to the parking garage and swapped my ski boots for shoes, then walked from Lionshead over to Vail Village to perform some Christmas shopping. After buying a sweatshirt for my niece and an ice cream sundae for myself, I made the drive back to Eagle.
Day 2 began with a ride up the Born Free Express lift. Climbing the mountain in the crisp Colorado air, the sun’s early morning rays transformed the snow-covered slopes below me into a breathtaking spectacle, mirroring the effect of millions of sparkling white LED lights, flickering in a harmonious and endless dance. A smile crept across my face as I witnessed the unique effect.
“This is why I ski,” I thought to myself.
The smile broadened as I worked my way up to the top of the mountain and realized that Game Creek Bowl had just opened. Although hidden away to the right side of Vail and not considered one of the Back Bowls, it provides a great spot to make some runs, with choices ranging from a mogul-dotted bowl to cruisers that wind their way around the bowl.
All trails at Game Creek funnel down to one lift, the aptly-named Game Creek Express. The only downside to that is that the lift can become a chokepoint, with growing lift lines as the day goes on. For that reason, I always like to hit Game Creek early in the morning.
After spending some time at Game Creek, including a less-than-graceful attempt to ski some moguls, I continued wandering across the mountain, discovering additional trails that had just opened that day. It soon dawned on me that the main reason trails hadn’t opened wasn’t due to lack of snow cover; Vail’s fleet of groomers simply hadn’t had a chance to get to them yet.
Eventually my growling stomach led me back to Two Elk, where I enjoyed the variably priced cheeseburger. As I exited the lodge and gazed wistfully towards the Back Bowls, I noticed something different.
“I think the Sun Up Express lift is moving.”
And suddenly, what appeared to be small black ants against a broad expanse of white snow began zig-zagging down the top of Sun Up Bowl.
“Oh my God, I think they just opened the Bowls!” yelled out a skier near me, before popping his boots into his skis and dashing off.
Soon, the sound of whoops and happy hollers began echoing across the mountainside, as skiers and snowboarders flocked to Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls, reveling in the unexpected, late-in-the-day opening.
And thus, I became one of the lucky first couple hundred skiers to experience the famed Back Bowls for the 2023-2024 winter season on Thursday, December 14, 2023. It was the earliest they had opened since 2019.
I might have hooted and hollered a bit myself.
On Friday morning, I checked out of my hotel and prepared to make the drive back to Denver. But as I approached Vail, I decided to exit I-70 and ski a half day. Vail’s open terrain had skyrocketed well past 60% as even more terrain opened overnight. And additional terrain had opened in the Back Bowls, including China Bowl — my favorite. I wasn’t about to pass that by.
I spent the next several hours lapping China Bowl, spending most of the time wandering through the trees. The snow was perfect.
Eventually, my legs wore out and I became anxious to hit the road, hoping to avoid rush-hour traffic in Denver. So I bid adieu to the Back Bowls as I made my way back to Lionshead and back to my car.
I wasn’t expecting much on this early season trip to Colorado, fully prepared to skip the ski resorts and instead find a place to go hiking if the snow conditions weren’t quite there. But it ended up being one of my best trips to Vail yet, with virtually non-existent crowds, relatively inexpensive lodging, and snow conditions that rivaled the best you would find mid-season.
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.
Glad your trip ended with some hero powder days! When the back bowls are in good condition they are one of the most distinctive ski experiences in the USA.
I love cheeseburgers as much as the next guy, but at $30+ I'd have a hard time swallowing. That's about $4 a bite:-)