People's Choice: Breckenridge, CO
Breckenridge is America’s favorite resort for a reason: It’s for everyone. The bombers, the boarders, the tuckers and the huckers—and you. Especially you.
When I was a kid—a Kneissel-skis, jeans-tucked-in-boots New Mexican kid bumping around the greens of Sandia, Santa Fe and Pajarito—my older brother took a Big Boys’ Trip to Breckenridge. When he returned a week later, the Breck pin another shiny feather in his ski cap, my brother would only moan, “It hit 70 below with the wind chill!” But his goggle-tan told a different story: The bugger had been out all day, every day, gnashing through squalls of new snow. Check out more pictures from Breckenridge, CO.
Twenty-some years later, our stories have changed. While my brother’s stuck in a peripatetic job that strands him in such no-snow towns as Columbia, S.C., and El Centro, Calif., I’m living in Colorado, just one leadfoot hour away from Summit County, Breckenridge’s home and the cradle of Colorado skiing. (How do you like that shiny ski pin, bro?)
But Breck’s story is still familiar: Its peaks—the prosaically named 7, 8, 9 and 10—contain more expert terrain than Aspen or Alta. Soft feet of snow still fluff down; the sky does its sunshine-and-blue-sky routine 300 days a year. And the place regularly banks the most skier visits in America—a million four, a million six. But people, often those same millions, love to bitch about Breck.
Intermediate hell, they call it. Breckenfridge. “Oh, it was just so cold up there,” they say. “I couldn’t take it.” If you’ve been to Breck, you know what they’re talking about—those furious winds that come clawing over the Ten Mile Range and turn your Gore-Tex into Kleenex. But ask those same cranks where they’re going this year, and it’s all: “Oh, Breck for sure! We always have such an awesome time.”
The Breckenridge forecast for April 12, 2008, reads minus-1 degree with the wind chill, but the bosom of Peak 8’s base, where the new BreckConnect gondola from town drops the incoming, is booming. “Free Ride,” the king of corny spring-skiing anthems, jangles from the superpipe speakers. Spring break’s been over for weeks—what are all these teenaged bro-dudes doing here? Are they locals? Europeans? Shouldn’t they be in school, or riding bikes someplace sunny?
It doesn’t help that April 11 dropped 12 inches on an already cherry base—and the afternoon is calling for more. “Is it spring yet or what?” a confused dude on surfboard skis asks the gray sky.
Humming up the Colorado quad, alone, I scan the patchy crowd below: bombers, boarders, tuckers, huckers; tentative newbies in Carhartts, their delicate crouches skidding C’s all over the hillside; pinners, parkers, pipers; leashed preschoolers in puffy onesies tied to their parents; geriatric straight-plankers—even a neon monoskier straight from Chamonix. The thick snow has attracted every breed of enthusiast. And the English: Gobs of yobs, all on holiday. Breck regularly ranks as the top resort for Brits in the U.S.; this morning the hills are alive with the sound of Oi, mate!
Other foreigners have followed them. Encamped in a corner of the Vista Haus, a restaurant complex plonked midway up Peak 8, sits a family whose name, if I’m reading their ski passes correctly, is Byyçkcz. (Maybe it’s Fyyçkcz—I don’t want to stare.) And who can only answer “Zsa-zsa-zsa!” when I ask if they are from abroad. Are they Turks? Croats? Cultural signifiers tend to disappear under the universality of Salomon shells. Why here? Sure, skiing in Europe is hard—but so are three plane changes on the way from Wroclaw.
Part of the answer, unfortunately, is this country’s current economy. (If you haven’t heard: It’s tanking.) Another part is that continent’s inferior snow, its superior expense and its certain je ne sais la politesse. “In liftlines in Europe, you have to learn to use your poles, if you know what I mean,” says Peter, a Brit sitting in the Haus’s brown-bag section. “You need to know a few French swear words.”
But why Breck? Why not, say, the big queen of American resorts, Vail? “The other resorts along the highway here, they’re not real,” Peter says. “They’re just purpose-built concrete blocks. They’re soulless, really.”
Recognizing the town as its ace against a full house of bigger, glitzier mountains up I-70, Breckenridge, the resort, has traded on the history of Breckenridge, the rustic mining outpost, almost since its poma coughed up its first skier way back in 1961. As a drink-friendly new pal told me one night in the local bar Downstairs at Eric’s, “It’s the exact picture that pops in your head when someone says ski town.”
Take, for instance, the Gold Pan Saloon on Main Street. Oldest liquor license west of the Mississippi! The original swinging doors! Your average Carhartter loves that stuff. Classic ski-town hokum. But pop your head inside those doors and you’ll see Carhartt buying another round for the liftie crew just off last shift. And that’s what makes Breck what it is: real. Or realer than the concrete blocks, anyway. Particularly to those who want more than just big dumps with their skiing.
One night in March, during one of the last cold snaps before spring, the kind in which your breath freezes all the way down to the bronchioles, there are plenty of wanderers about Breck’s main drag—squawking out of Eric’s or tumbling down from The Cellar wine bar up on South Ridge or stacked in a line outside Crepes à la Cart on Main, young and old, couples holding hands.
I waylay an accented trio: Germans on holiday. What do they think of Breckenridge? Oh ho ho, they love it here. They love the town. The snow. The flair. (Was es ist, dieses “flair”?) He loves the architecture. She loves the shopping. “And of course it has the skiing.” What about the skiing? “Oh ho, we do not ski,” Stefan says. “But we have tried the nordic center. Excellent!”
If you listen to the Negative Nancies, that might tell you everything you need to know about Breck: the real mountain town, where a romantic moon lists over the old saloons and Victorian boutiques; where the day brings friendly breakfasts in nookish cafes like Clint’s on Main, and the nose-ring on your waitress doesn’t mean she won’t wish you a good morning heartier than your stack of buckwheats and bacon. But the skiing? Nothing to write home about, right?
Even Breck’s new COO, Lucy Kay, owns up to its rep as an intermediate mountain. “It comes back to the demographic,” she tells me. “When you look at who’s coming here, our biggest group is intermediate skiers. And they’re skiing on intermediate terrain.”
Families, be they from France or Fargo, are Breck’s chief attendees. (Perhaps this was why the resort was one of the first to welcome the then-fringe sport of snowboarding way back in 1984. Anything to keep the whippersnappers happy—and coming to the mountain with their folks.) Most families average out to an overall blue—the ripping mom, the bumbler dad, the learning kids. And it seems as though the resort’s focus has most often been on getting more of those averages on the hill, and faster: The world’s first high-speed quad and the country’s first six-pack chair both belong to Breck.
Asked for evidence to counter her resort’s blue reputation, Kay clenches up enough that I wonder if she’s wondering if I know exactly whom I’m talking to. “Well, you know that the bulk of our terrain”—36 percent—“is expert-rated, of course.”
Of course. Because for the duration of our interview I’ve been reminded of said terrain by the twanging rubber bands that constitute my hamstrings, tingling to sleep in this conference-room-issue chair. Twenty-four hours earlier I had been escorted across the mountain by a couple of bears in ski suits sent by Breckenridge Mountain PR, bent on showing me that Breck skis as hard as any Colorado-bro hill or Wasatch monster.
I was ready for it. Even though I had been a semi-regular Brecker since moving to Colorado six years ago, I was unsure of the mountain. We had had our delicate explorations and fitful forays, moved through a few cycles of overexpectation and understimulation—like a first date that had gone on too long—but by this point I had found my routine runs and skied them like I was brushing teeth. (Chair 6, Chair 6, Chair 6; E Chair, E Chair, E Chair.)
The complainers complain that Breck is a confusing mountain. Breck’s trail map, a lot of lift-representing lines running hither and yon to cover what is not the country’s largest ski hill, hints at the problem. So skiers tend to stick with what they know, and tend away from investigative dips hither and yon.
On skis, each peak can act like a trap: Start on Peak 9, stay on Peak 9. Because a side trip down, say, Volunteer drops you at the top of Shock, which sounds scary but isn’t really (but dude I’m not going to try it dude you try it no dude let’s just go this way). Which leads you—slowly, pokily—back down the mountain to a Sawmill or a Sundown along with the other tentatives sticking to the same hillside, over and over, maybe all week long.
But these sadists now towing me around the mountain open my eyes to an unseen Breck, one for which the calculation should have been obvious. Yeah, it’s a blue mountain—which means no one is skiing the blacks.
Not the “look, Ma!” circus under the new-as-of-2006 Imperial Express six-pack, which is full of—let’s be honest—plenty of people who should know better. And not just the crisscrossing (but too short) blacks north of my familiar Chair 6. And no, not just the Antarctic powder fields of Horseshoe Bowl, either.
But also Peak 10’s Trinity and Quiver, both of which are inexplicably holding snow in the spring sun—great lumps of it, like albino baby hippos—but are lonelier than the Sahara. Or the hike out to Peak 7’s summit, which drops into steep treelessness and doesn’t stop dropping until the runout flats back to the T-Bar. Or the hike-to Lake Chutes terrain off the Imperial that—let’s be honest—should have had me opting for the lodge. (“Thanks, Sven, but I think I hear Bartles & Jaymes calling my name.”)
Part of me thinks my guides are playing a popular game: Let’s Outski the Ski Writer! They’re certainly trying to disprove Breck’s rep as a middling mountain. (A day on Peak 7’s lower stretches—rollers and groomers that must look like real hills to prairie folk—certainly didn’t convince me.) But most likely they’re just Breck dudes doing their Breck thing: banging out big runs like they don’t care who says what.
Not everybody lives in Breck’s negatives. The lifties love the place. Corner any one of the dozens congregating at Eric’s, they’ll tell you all about community and the brotherhood of Breck workers. The backroom ski shavers love it: Breck is so laid back. The $2.13-an-hour-plus-tips waitresses hanging around the shavers and lifties love it. The COO, of course, adores it. The two-weekers over from Europe can’t get enough of it. You’ll never hear them say a bad thing about Breck.
Who says bad things about it? Coloradans, mostly. Day-trippers from Denver, obviously haunted by their I-70-on-a-Sunday headaches. Vailies, too proud to set skis on any resort with free parking.
Or maybe the complainants are stealth Breckers, thinking if they squawk loudly enough about the cold, the crowds, and the hundred-mile-an-hour winds, the millions of New Mexicans and Nebraskans and Turks and Carolingians will stay away. Or at least keep driving to Vail.
Bad news, guys: Breck’s got a spot for everyone in her big heart. And it’s about to get bigger.
Another cache of big bowl terrain—Peak 6—is under Forest Service review as a possible new number in Breck’s mountain chain. But it’s not just the skiing that’s upsizing: A Bachelor Gulch–like enclave—Crystal Peak Lodge—arose this season at the base of Peak 7. Next year, a 5,000-bed complex of lodging, shops and cloth-napkin restaurants—One Ski Hill Place—will synthesize what is now the wood-paneled hodgepodge of Peak 8’s is-that-an-eatery and where-do-I-buy-lift-tickets base area. The BreckConnect gondola will tie the two—and keep a much-needed link between the town and the down-jacket crowd on the hill.
Riding one of the doubles still creaking between Breck’s treetops—“I think it’ll be a long time before we don’t have any double chairs,” says Lucy Kay—the longtime instructor showing me around points to a few fur-lined ladies side-slipping their way through a bump field. “With the new development, you definitely see changes in the profile and style of the Breck skier,” he tells me. “But we still get the old guys skiing in their Carhartts.”
SIGNPOST: Breckenridge, CO
2,358 skiable acres; 3,398 vertical feet; base elevation 9,600 feet; summit elevation 12,998 feet; 300 annual inches; 155 trails; 29 lifts, including one gondola, two six-packs and seven quads. Lift tickets: $86; children $71; seniors (65 and over) $55
Lodging: New this season, Crystal Peak Lodge offers ski-in/ski-out luxury with spacious one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom condominiums, close to the Independence Superchair; $300–$1,328; breckresorts.com; 888-400-9590. Find studio to four-bedroom suites and two- to three-bedroom town houses with a fitness facility and ski-in/gondola-out convenience at the Mountain Thunder Lodge; $212–$800; breckresorts.com; 888-400-9590. For a quiet, romantic setting, try the Barn on the River B&B, whose location is set against mountain views yet still within walking distance of the gondola and town; $169–$289; breckenridge-inn.com; 800-795-2975.
Dining: Mi Casa has some of the best Mexican in Summit County. Try the grilled salmon with avocado serrano sauce—and the famous margaritas, of course; 970-453-7788. For an intimate experience, head to Hearthstone Restaurant. The award-winning wine list will take some perusal, but the menu is easy: Order the elk with blackberry demi-glace and garlic granola crust; 970-453-1148. Check out the Breckenridge Brewery for some local flavor and a pint (or three) of their signature Avalanche Ale; 970-453-1550.
Après-Ski: Mi Casa is a happening place to be after the lifts close, as locals flock to devour the free happy hour appetizers; 970-453-7788. At Cecilia’s dance club and martini bar, happy hour lasts from 2 to 8 p.m.; 970-453-2243. For a relaxing scene, stroll over to the St. Bernard on Main Street; 970-453-2572.
Getting There: Breckenridge is approximately 80 miles west of Denver. From I-70, exit Breckenridge/Frisco and continue on Highway 9 for 10 miles. The drive from Denver International Airport to Breckenridge is approximately two hours.
Info: breckenridge.com; 970-453-5000
It’s the most visited ski resort in America—and it’s one of the hardest to navigate. The result is bottlenecks at the predictable places—and fresh tracks at the rest. Here’s your insider’s guide. Check out a trail map and learn more about Breck here.
To avoid the crowds, longtime Breck ski instructor Bill Kunckel recommends starting at the Peak 9 base. From there, take QuickSilver Super6 to the Falcon SuperChair on Peak 10 and find morning freshies in The Burn. Off Falcon, try underpopulated mogul runs Quiver and Trinity. To exit Peak 10, Kunckel says, ski down Spitfire, straight across the old Union Road (not marked on the trail map) and hop on the SuperConnect’s midway load, which saves you a few lift rides.
Ride Chair 6 to access the West Snowbird or Psychopath steeps. Rest up on the slow double once more, then catch the Imperial Express. Resist the temptation to ski the bowl. Instead, hike five minutes and enjoy the views of both Keystone to the east and Copper to the west. Then traverse a bit farther to the Lake Chutes or Snow White, or head north and ski Whale’s Tail.
“Stay away from the bottom of Peak 8,” warns Kunckel. “It’s always crowded.” If liftlines for Imperial are long atop Peak 8, head back to Peak 9 and access Chair E from Rendezvous or Lower Boneyard. From there, hike 15 minutes and charge down The Back 9, Broadway or Windows.
If lines are bearable, do a few laps on the legendary T-Bar. Then, from the top, hike 25 minutes for powder on Y-Chute or CJ’s—even at the end of the day. Veer toward Lower Forget-Me-Not and glide down Northstar to the base. Now, kick up your feet and drink a cold one in a lounge chair planted outside the Bergenhof. —Lauren Parker
- SKI MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2009