Breckenridge in the summer — Photo courtesy of Jeff Andrew, Vail Resorts
Colorado is the No. 1 ski destination in North America, according to the official site of Colorado Tourism. And its 25 different ski resorts and areas drive millions of tourists to the state every winter.
But Colorado’s ski towns offer much more than just a winter wonderland. During the “mud season,” early spring right after the ski season ends, the hotels and restaurants that stay open offer dramatic price cuts, small (if any) waits and personalized attention, due to the dramatic drop in visitors.
During the summer, the ski towns transform into a paradise for outdoor activities and adventures. The mountain highways aren’t as icy or as busy during the spring and summer (although there’s never a good Friday after work to be headed up I-70 or a good Sunday afternoon to be headed back down). This makes April through September the perfect time of year to plan a road trip through Colorado’s ski towns.
We love the trek up I-70 through Summit County, then Vail Valley and then through the impressive mountain ranges north to Steamboat Springs.
As a bonus, these mountain resorts are known for their posh businesses. So while many people think of a road trip as a cheap alternative to air travel, if you travel in the off-season, you can experience some of Colorado’s top amenities for a quarter of the price, and often with better service.
Here are 10 things you must see and do when you take a warm-weather road trip through Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek and Steamboat Springs.
Visit the highest distillery in the world.
The Breckenridge Distillery is Breck’s only distillery, and although relatively new (it started in 2007), this hooch factory has already earned some mega honors; it was named the 2013 Distillery of the Year by the New York International Spirits Competition.
The Breckenridge Distillery offers free tours of its on-site factory, complete with less-than-stingy “tasters” of its vodkas, whiskey and bitters. Then head out front to the new patio, where you can enjoy inexpensive signature cocktails made with the house spirits. Sip a spicy bloody mary or refreshing vodka-infused lemonade on picnic tables with sweeping views of the mountains.
Conquer the mountain at the Breckenridge Summer Fun Park.
If being in Breckenridge has you itching to get on the mountain, hop on a gondola (and sit back; the free gondola ride here provides a seriously lengthy bird’s-eye tour of the grounds) and head up to the Breckenridge Summer Fun Park.
This family-friendly amusement park features a long list of rides, like the Gold Runner Coaster, a one-man alpine coaster that tears through the forest on hairpin curves. For more adrenaline, take the ski lift up to the top of the mountain and hop on a wheeled sled. The Alpine SuperSlide skates down a 2,600-foot-long, concrete half-tube. At the bottom, it dumps you at the foot of a restaurant where you can grab a beer on the patio.
Vail summer wildflowers — Photo courtesy of Leisa Gibson, Vail Resorts
Stop to smell the flowers in the world’s highest-altitude botanical garden.
From Breckenridge, continue west on I-70 until you reach Vail, where you could spend days meandering through the cobblestone-lined downtown, visiting shops, spas and top-notch restaurants. And although the towering pine trees sprouting mountainside steal the show, while in town, don’t miss the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, the world’s highest-altitude botanical garden.
This colorful fantasyland is almost otherworldly, with its breathtaking waterfalls, rock gardens and flora. See some of the world’s most unique alpine plant life, stroll through the Meditation Garden and learn more about the plants and flowers surrounding you in the Children’s Garden.
Treat your tongue with Wagyu beef.
All of the walking and gawking will have you hungry. One blessing–and curse–is Vail is home to some of the state’s best restaurants; while it’s hard to go wrong, it can be hard to make a decision.
We love the off-the-obvious-path journey slightly west to the Atwater on Gore Creek. This tucked-away, riverside hotel restaurant is a hidden gem that many tourists miss, and what a shame. Enjoy Colorado-grown (with cows sent over from Japan) 100 percent Wagyu steak, accentuated by expert wine and beer pairings.
Finish the mouthwatering meal with a beer float, with Lindemans Framboise Lambic raspberry beer for dessert. Everything on the menu here is expertly prepared. But still, the most delicious part is the view, overlooking the river and eye-to-eye with the mountain.
Experience Europe, in Colorado.
Good morning from Austria, er, Vail! One of the most charming features of Vail is its European-influenced architecture. A popular place to stay (that feels like you’ve just hopped overseas) is the Sonnenalp.
This luxurious hotel is well-known as one of Vail’s best and most unique, and it has earned a long list of awards, including being the first hotel in Colorado to earn the Luxury Eco Certification Standard. The indoor-outdoor pool, private golf course and exquisite spa are just the beginning. Wait until you see the bathrooms.
Summer in Beaver Creek — Photo courtesy of Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts
Kick it up with a spicy margarita.
You won’t want to leave Vail, and it’s only a town as incredible as Beaver Creek that could lure you away. Beaver Creek and its sister, Avon, are just a short drive farther west. When you hit Avon, make sure you stop at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa’s restaurant, Maya.
Maya Beaver Creek is the internationally acclaimed flagship restaurant of famous chef Richard Sandoval. Guac is made tableside (try the guacamole tuna tartar), and the food is some of the best Mexican in the state. Maya’s alcohol speciality is fittingly tequila, and you can find a long list of margs. But our favorite is the spicy Marcado, made with serrano-infused tequila, passion fruit puree, citrus and hibiscus rosemary foam.
Relax in a hydrotherapy water circuit.
After the punchy marg and a belly of guac, you’re ready to really unwind. Head into the gated mountain community just past Avon that will lead you to the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek. Here, spend time at the Allegria Spa.
Even if you don’t sign up for a spa treatment, the hydrotherapy circuit in the spa is worth a visit. Visitors move from a hot co-ed mineral pool to a private mineral hot tub. They then cool off in a rain shower, before heading to an aromatherapy steam room with light therapy. The circuit ends in a relaxing room with heated stone, contoured chairs.
Stay in a luxury chalet overlooking Steamboat.
Steamboat Springs is a good two-hour drive from Beaver Creek, but the view along 131 is one of the most scenic, short-road trips in the state. Wind through valleys, past picturesque pastures and farms and through tall tree arches. Once you get to Steamboat, you’ll agree it was worth the drive.
The charming mountain town has a totally different vibe than the I-70 ski stops–more relaxed, yet not lacking a thing. Keep the luxurious feeling and see the entire Steamboat spender from the best view in town, when you stay at a mountain chalet through Natural Retreats, in partnership with Moving Mountains.
This company places visitors in mansions that take five-star lodging to a new level. Natural Retreats will help you plan your Steamboat activities, too, as well as make dining recommendations or even hook you up with an in-house chef if you want to stay home and kick back in the hot tub.
Yampa River — Photo courtesy of Ken Lund via Flickr
Go on a white-water river adventure down the Yampa River.
Outdoor and water activities are favorite activities in Steamboat (especially the remote Strawberry Park Hot Springs amid the rocks and trees), but a great way to get your blood pumping is on a white-water rafting trip down the Yampa River.
Bucking Rainbow Outfitters organizes guided rafting trips for all levels. If you’re traveling with a small group, rent a private raft and work together to make it through the rapids. When you’re not paddling with all your might, you might realize you’re floating past a string of bars and restaurants on the river. You are their entertainment.
Dine by the river and fireside.
Now that you’ve wrestled the river, enjoy it from the shore, and grab a riverside table on Aurum’s patio. The food here is among Steamboat’s best. Although everything on the menu is solid, prepare to weep over the deliciousness of the crispy curried cauliflower appetizer, served with shishito peppers, sultana and pine nuts in a sweet and sour reduction.
After dinner, wrap up your road trip with a Moscow Mule by the fire pit. This refreshing combo of Ultimat vodka, ginger liqueur, ginger beer and fresh lime juice is served in a copper mug.