Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone in Late January
February 7, 2020

By Jim Kenney
PugSki Travel Correspondent

I visited Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas in Colorado during mid-week in late January 2020. I skied two days at Breckenridge, one day at Keystone and my final day was Friday, January 31st at Vail. The big take-away from this trip was the confirmation that even at some of the most popular ski resorts in Colorado a late January visit remains a good time for crowd avoidance.

Another nice thing about going to these mountains in late January is that the general snowpack usually has built up by then making off-piste skiing a likely option. And cool temps offer a good chance for a dump or two of fresh snow. But it's that low crowd thing that's the real draw at this time of the season. By late January the college kids are gone and so are any stragglers from MLK Weekend. People aren't even thinking about Presidents Weekend yet.

Not much competition for fresh tracks in Vail's Blue Sky Basin at noon on a Friday in late January, photo by Jim Kenney
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I started my mid-week visit by driving west from Denver via Interstate 70 on a Tuesday morning without a single traffic snarl. I used the free Breckenridge airport parking lot and caught a quick free shuttle to the Breck Connect Gondola. I was on the slopes by the ten o'clock hour.

Light skier density in Beyond Bowl on Peak 6 off the Kensho chair, photo by Jim Kenney
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It was my first morning at altitude, but somehow I was drawn to the expansive high alpine terrain off the Kensho and Imperial chairs. Both top out at an elevation over 12,000'. There were a few rocks here and there, but generally the ungroomed terrain off these lifts skied beautifully with three or four inches of new overnight snow on top of a soft, smooth base. Trail traffic at Breckenridge was even lighter than Interstate 70!

Dropping into Whale's Tail, Peak 8/Imperial Chair, photo by Jim Kenney
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My lodging choice on this visit was an upscale hostel in Breckenridge that I had never stayed at before called The Bivouac or The Bivvi for short. It cost about $80 per night, which is a bit pricey for a hostel, but fairly economical for a single wanting to stay near-slopeside at Breckenridge. The Bivvi was very well run and featured a hot tub and a nice hot breakfast.

The Bivvi Hostel at Breckenridge, photo by Jim Kenney
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I slept downstairs in one of the Catacombs bunkrooms with three other bunkmates and got a lower bunk bed that was convenient and comfortable. The clientele at The Bivvi seemed like seasoned travelers and were quite respectful. I got quiet, restful sleep all three nights I stayed there and also cooked myself simple dinners on two nights in the well equipped community kitchen.

Common space at the Bivvi, photo by Jim Kenney
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I put in a full second day skiing at Breckenridge. The Bivvi is located 100 yards from a Brown Line bus stop and I caught a free and short ride to the Beaver Run Super Chair at the base of Peak 9. I started my second day on the steep groomers of Peak 10. I joked with a passenger riding the Falcon Super chair on Peak 10 that this part of Breckenridge felt a little like Deer Valley because the few people on the mountain were ripping it up with high speed carving.

Selfie on Psychopath, photo by Jim Kenney
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I made my way across the ultrawide swath of Breckenridge by skiing some of my favorite runs from past visits like the cool natural halfpipe of Psychopath off the 6-Chair, the beautiful and scenic Pika trail beside the Horseshoe Bowl T-bar, and just thoroughly enjoying hitting any and every lift on the mountain, none of which had much of a lift line because of the low crowds. My usual strategy at Breck to go high and wide and never return to the base areas until the end of the day got thrown out the window.

Pika trail to left, Horseshoe Bowl T-bar to right, photo by Jim Kenney
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On my third day in Colorado high country I made the 15 mile drive from Breckenridge to Keystone to ski with my friend and PugSki member @bamaman . It was a heavily overcast day and a couple inches of snow fell during the day to soften the slopes. While not a great picture taking day, Bamaman and I had a great time tackling the huge variety of steep groomers at Keystone.
We're a bit long in the tooth to take advantage of it, but we noticed that Keystone also has a huge terrain park that is maintained by a dedicated staff and even has it's own chairlift.

Cruising the North Peak at Keystone, photo by Jim Kenney
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Bamaman visits Keystone often and knows the mountain well. He led me on a dizzying blitz of all three peaks; Dercum, North, and the Outback. We took a long lunch at his slopeside condo in the Silver Mill complex at River Run and kept skiing under the lights until about 5:30 PM. Then we went back to Silver Mill and cooked some ribeye steaks on an outdoor grill while soaking in an adjacent hot tub as flurries filled the air. Thanks for some great southern hospitality Bamaman!

Working up an appetite with night skiing at Keystone, photo by Jim Kenney
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On my final day I woke up to two-degree temperatures in Breckenridge and drove over to Vail. I arrived at the free Donavan Pavilion parking lot near the base of the Cascade lift at 9 AM. The lot was still half empty! From there I walked to the lift and began a great day of mostly off-piste skiing. I used the Game Creek chair and planned to go quickly to Blue Sky Basin, but the snow was so good (about 5-6 inches new powder) that I stayed for one great run beside the Game Creek chair before taking Sun Down Bowl to the backside of the mountain.

Sun Down Bowl at Vail, photo by Jim Kenney
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Friday at Vail was significantly busier than the previous three days at Breckenridge and Keystone. But still I never waited in a lift line for more than three or four minutes and often less. The huge Vail trail layout very effectively spread the moderate crowd out.

Pretty views from Blue Sky Basin, photo by Jim Kenney
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Over in Blue Sky Basin I took Champagne Glade to the base of Earl's Express chair. It was empty and I lapped it about six times. I skied other great nearby runs and didn't leave Blue Sky Basin until about 2:30 PM. I finished the day by skiing across the front face of Vail and making it back to my car near the Cascade lift at 4 PM. The temperatures eventually reached about 20-25 degrees and I was thankful for one of those perfect mid-winter ski days that had featured fresh overnight snow followed by cobalt blue skies.

Champagne Glades, photo by Jim Kenney
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My ode to skiing in Late January: If you are intimidated by the possibility of huge crowds at mega-resorts, consider making a ski trip in late January. The lift lines will be modest. If you're worried about heavy road traffic and clogged access roads, consider making a ski trip in late January. You're GPS navigation system will thank you for a route plan free of back-ups. If you want a good chance to catch some fresh snow, consider making a ski trip in late January. Ullr will most likely bless your initiative to seize the day while others are waiting to travel over the next busy holiday weekend.