When I decided to do some skiing in Colorado, I immediately began my search for somewhere that wouldn’t cost a fortune. I was flying into the Vail area, but at more than $200 for a one-day lift ticket, I quickly ruled that out. Finding affordable skiing in Colorado isn’t easy, but it can be done – I found Ski Cooper, less than an hour from Vail, and it was substantially cheaper. Sure, you won’t be rubbing elbows with the glitzy set at Vail, but you will get some quality skiing in without breaking the bank. Plus, I’m using seventeen-year-old skis and a coat that was on clearance at an outlet mall, so let’s be real – that’s not really my scene anyway. Keep on reading for all the info about my visit to Cooper Mountain and some tips for planning yours.
I found Cooper by searching for the cheapest skiing in Colorado and moving down the list until I found one in the area I would be flying into, and it did not disappoint. I consider myself to be a somewhat mediocre skier, having grown up on the capped off landfills and small hills in Michigan, so with lots of gently-sloping easy-rated runs, it was perfect for me. It reminded me of the ski resort we used to go to in Michigan, but about 4x as tall, so I would highly recommend it if you’re looking for family-friendly skiing in Colorado. It was a holiday weekend, so there were tons of parents out with their little ones, most of whom already showed better skills than I have in my thirties.
I’ll be upfront: Ski Cooper doesn’t have all the bells and whistles you’ll find at a place like Vail. You won’t find gondolas or fancy bars here, and there is no village full of shopping an dining for your apres-ski. However, with the money you save on your lift ticket, you can probably treat the whole family to a nice dinner in nearby Leadwood.
Because I was skiing on a travel day, I purchased a half-day lift ticket for $49 (this is not a sponsored review). There is a $2 fee to set up a Ski Cooper RFID chipped card for your lift ticket, but if you ever return you just need to bring the same card back and you’ll skip the fee. Unfortunately, if you lose or forget your card it’s $5 to replace it. The nice thing about the chipped card is that you can keep it safely zipped in your pocket and the lift operator can scan it right through your coat. I’d recommend keeping it in an upper pocket as that’s where they were aiming the scan gun, but the coat I was wearing that day happened to not have a spot up there, so I just pointed out the correct pocket when I skied up. I was only scanned at the main lift right by the parking lot, called the 10th Mountain Double Chair.
Fun fact about Ski Cooper for this history nerd: It got its start as a training center for the 10th Mountain division During WWII. They played a big role in the Apennines, helping to liberate northern Italy. Almost 5000 of the ski troopers from that division were killed or wounded during the fighting. After WWII, the ski area was opened to the public for recreational skiing. The main lift pictured above is named in honor of the 10th Mountain Division.
When I ski, I like to take easy runs where I can enjoy myself and not stress out about injuring myself because I can’t control my speed. Sure, I probably won’t get much better with that kind of attitude, but when a busted knee could cost me thousands of dollars in medical bills (thanks, America!), I’m happy with my current skill set. Ski Cooper was the perfect place for me because I had lots of long, wide, easy runs to cruise down. There was plenty of room to pull over at the side of the slope when my legs got tired, or when I wanted to snap a photo.
I loved the uncrowded runs and non-existent waits for chair lifts. Parents were out skiing with their kids and beginner adults were picking their way down the mountain. It was great for me because I didn’t feel like I was in anyone else’s way as I proceeded down at what is usually an overly-cautious pace.
I took a couple runs down Molly Mayfield, an easy run that winds its way down close to the 10th Mountain lift and ends at the main entrance to the ski area. It was the perfect way to break in my legs and get comfortable in my skis again after not using them for over a year.
After that warm-up, I decided to explore another area with a few green runs. I took a couple rides down Tenderfoot, and Eagle, which are both nice and easy. I thought the bottom portion where they narrowed a bit and wound through stands of pine trees was gorgeous.
After my runs there, it was close to closing time, so I took another one down Molly Mayfield for what I thought was my last run of the day. I made it down in record time (for me) and had just a couple minutes before the 10th Mountain lift closed so I hopped back on. I was one of the last ones on the lift and was one of only a couple skiers still on the mountain as I finished my last run down.
Tennessee Creek Basin
If you’re looking for more challenging terrain at Cooper Mountain, check out the newly opened Tennessee Creek Basin. It features a whole set of double black diamond runs and is serviced by a brand new T-bar lift that was just constructed for the 2019-2020 season. I’m sure it’s lovely, but I did not venture anywhere near the area because I know my skills and didn’t want to die.
Food at Cooper Mountain
Food options are limited, but you’ll have enough to fill you up for a day of skiing. You’ll find a standard cafeteria with an outdoor deck at the base of the mountain serving breakfast and lunch with snacks and beverages. There is also an Irish pub called Katie O’Grady’s, which serves up more substantial food and drinks. If you venture across the parking lot, you’ll also find a small café with light meals and a limited selection of alcoholic and soft drinks.
For a bite to eat atop the mountain, check out the yurt at the top of the 10th Mountain lift. You can get limited lunch options and drinks here and enjoy them from the outdoor deck with a view of the mountains. For a special (and expensive) experience after normal ski hours, Cooper also offers fancy dinners at the yurt on select days throughout the winter. You’ll be driven up the mountain on a Snowcat and have your dinner at the yurt before returning to the base on the Snowcat.
Getting to Ski Cooper
The mountain is located off US-24 approximately 10 miles/15 minutes north of Leadville, Colorado. If you’re flying into the area, Eagle County Regional Airport (also sometimes called the Vail airport) is the most convenient. It’s slightly more than an hour away from Cooper Mountain in good driving conditions. Aspen, Colorado’s airport is approximately the same distance from Cooper Mountain, but is not recommended for winter visits because Colorado 82 closes for the season and you have to add an extra hour and a half of driving to get to the mountain – which takes you right past the Eagle County airport. If you’re looking for a major airport with budget flights and lots of direct flights, Denver will be your best bet. It’s located just under 2.5 hours from the ski area.
Expect to require more travel time in snow and ice, and be prepared with snow chains as they may be required on some roads. If road conditions are too dangerous to make it safely, call it a day and skip the slopes – it’s not worth it.
Where to stay
Nearby Leadville has numerous small hotels and B&Bs. You’re not going to find big chains here, but there are plenty of accommodations for a range of budgets. The old mining town has lots of charm and is only fifteen minutes from the Cooper Mountain ski area.
For something a little more unique, and even closer to the mountain, check out the Tennessee Pass Yurts, which offer much more rustic accommodations, but with an Instagram-worthy interior.
Equipment rental at Ski Cooper
Cooper offers both ski and snowboard rental packages for adults and children. You can do daily rentals or purchase a full-season package. You also have the ability to pre-register for your rental to save yourself some time when you arrive at the mountain. They also offer custom rentals such as boots only or poles only in case you’re just missing a piece of equipment. They don’t list those prices on their website though, so you’ll have to give the rental shop a call to see how much it will cost for what you need. There is also a small shop where you can purchase ski gear and souvenirs.
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