The Keystone, Colorado Skiing Experience

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The Flying Dutchman slope on Derkum Mountain at Keystone, Colorado. Margherita Bassi photos.
The Flying Dutchman slope on Derkum Mountain at Keystone, Colorado. Margherita Bassi photos.

Since 1970, Keystone Colorado Has Provided Long Ski Hours and a Skiing on Three Mountains

By Margherita Bassi

When it comes to skiing in Colorado, the question is: which of the more than 30 resorts to choose from?

Fresh Colorado powder on Wapiti Peak at Keystone.
Fresh Colorado powder on Wapiti Peak at Keystone.

With so many famous locations, Colorado always makes the list of top ski destinations in America. From Vail to Telluride, the state is consistently flooded with international skiers looking for the best powder.

My family and I chose to spend four days in March at Keystone, and experience the ins and outs of the three-mountain resort.

Arrival at Keystone

We flew into Denver International Airport. While DEN is Colorado’s largest airport—with flights to 160 domestic destinations and 26 international airports—and the world’s third busiest airport, it is not the closest to Keystone. It is, however, likely to have the cheapest flights.

Built to support an enormous ski tourism industry, the first thing I noticed in the airport is the vertical luggage belt made especially to deliver ski and snowboard equipment. We don’t have that in Boston!

Unfortunately, it was not very easy to reach Keystone Resort from Denver Airport. Though a rental car would have been the much cheaper option, our flight landed very late at night, so we chose to use a private charter service instead of navigating the unfamiliar roads ourselves. There are also shuttles that travel between DEN and Keystone at regular intervals which are more affordable, between $79 and $119 per passenger.

Keystone Resort, Since 1970

Founded in 1970 by Max Dercum and his wife Edna, Keystone Resort is located in the Rocky Mountains in Summit County, Colorado, and sprawls across three peaks: Dercum Mountain, North Peak, and Outback. With over three thousand acres of skiable terrain, the resort proudly hosts the longest ski day in the entire state (8:30 am to 8 pm on days that have night skiing).

Mom on the slope at Keystone
Mom on the slope.

The family-friendly resort has a wide variety of lodgings available throughout its three ski villages, from hotel rooms to apartments, depending on your preference. My family booked an apartment in Jack Pine Lodge in the River Run Village through AirBnB because of its walking distance from the slopes, rental shop, and restaurants.

The resort is at an elevation of over nine thousand feet, so some visitors might feel altitude sickness including headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath upon arrival that should fade as our bodies adjust. I felt noticeably more tired during my first day of skiing, but by the second day, I was already acclimated. For those that take longer to adjust, some shops also sell mini oxygen tanks that work similarly to inhalers.

 

Preparing for Our Ski Day

If you don’t own your own ski gear, the Keystone website urges visitors to book their rentals ahead of time. This is good advice, since they have limited capacity because of Covid, and you also get a small discount for online purchases. The same goes for ski tickets. There are many different ski pass options, and most are valid in any Vail Resort across America, Canada, Australia, Europe, and even Japan.

Keystone has three separate mountains.
Keystone has three separate mountains.

We purchased a 4-day ski pass, but if you buy an Epic Pass you can also enjoy a discount at various slope-side dining lodges. Once you purchase your pass, the reloadable card is mailed to you ahead of your arrival. You should keep it to load future tickets onto it! Jack Pine Lodge also has a locker room with a designated ski gear storage space for each apartment, so we were glad to not have to haul our snowy gear back and forth from our quarters.

Those of us that had rented gear from Keystone Sports – River Run Sports were fitted by a friendly staff our first morning and dropped their skis, boots, poles, and helmets off in marked bins outside of the rental shop at the end of our last day.

River Run Village at Keystone, Colorado.
River Run Village at Keystone, Colorado.

The Slopes of Keystone

The first ski lift and gondola start at 8:30 am, but since we had flown across the country just the night before, we took our first day a bit slower. The slopes were walking distance from our lodge, so we had breakfast in our apartment and meandered over around 10:30 am.

The River Run gondola.
The River Run gondola.

The ski lifts and gondolas create a network of transportation that spiderwebs across Outback, North Peak, and Dercum Mountain, and bring skiers to a wide variety of slopes. We were pleasantly surprised by how long the slopes were; we’re all competent-to-experienced skiers, and it took us between twenty minutes and half an hour to reach the bottom of your average blue trail.

All the slopes on both Outback and North Peak ultimately lead to a common, relatively flat slope that guides skiers either to the Outback Express lift, the Wayback lift, the Santiago Express lift, or the Ruby Express lift, the latter of which takes you up Dercum Mountain.

From there you can ski down to the terrain park, to more family-oriented slopes, and to the ski villages. This layout is super convenient because it makes it easy for a group with different skiing preferences and abilities, like ourselves, to split up to ski trails and rejoin quickly at the bottom of the mountain.

Trekking Higher on Foot

The top of every peak also has the option to trek on foot to an even higher point in the mountain range from which you can ski much different black diamond, powder, and extreme terrain trails that would be otherwise inaccessible by ski lift. They do this to save the fresh snow for those who are really committed and to keep amateurs off difficult slopes.

These trails are sparsely marked and definitely only for experts—but if you’re up for the challenge of trekking up to three miles through knee-deep snow, the reward is worth it, and you should aim to do it in the morning. These trails close at 1 pm.

The back entrance of Jack Pine Lodge at Keystone.
The back entrance of Jack Pine Lodge at Keystone.

We spent the first half of most days on Outback and North Peak, whose lifts close earlier than the Montezuma and Summit Express on Dercum Mountain, which we skied during the second half of the day to be closer to home. We generally stopped for lunch around 1:30, then skied again until 5:30. The hours of ski time at Keystone are a bit wonky: Wednesday through Saturday slopes close at 8:30 pm to accommodate night skiing, Sunday at 8 pm, and Monday through Tuesday at 4 pm.

Hiking to Wapiti Peak

On Tuesday, our last day, I let my father and boyfriend convince me to wake up early enough to make the first ski lift, and hike our way up the one mile to Wapiti Peak, which is just behind Outback. Needless to say that the ascent was very difficult and temperatures along the exposed ridge were colder than the slopes below, but it was worth it.

We ended up doing it twice—the first time skiing black trails down into the South Bowl, and the second time into the North Bowl (literally called bowls because that’s how the two valleys on either side of the ridge are shaped!). The views were stunning and it was my first experience on completely untouched snow. It was a great way to get around from the crowd for a bit.

My brother instead solo-hiked from our same starting point all the way to Keystone peak, for a total of three miles. He said the temperatures were freezing and the footing was treacherous for the last mile, during which he had to use his snowboard as an ice pick to pull himself up the side of the icy mountain. By the time we met back up at the Outback Express lift, however, he was the most exhilarated I’d ever seen him.

The Outpost, our preferred slope-side lodge for lunch.
The Outpost was our preferred slope-side lodge for lunch.

Dining at Keystone

Most would agree that the best part of skiing is the après ski and the dining. As for lunch, it got a little tricky.

The resort staff begged us through every notification and method of communication possible to make a slope-side lodge lunch reservations ahead of time, or else seating would not be guaranteed.

Ever the organizers, we diligently booked a lunch reservation at the Summit House for our first day, only to find that it was absolutely useless.

The staff checked our vaccine status (a picture of a double dose was acceptable) and asked if we had a reservation (without checking the booking), but then left us to fend for a table on our own. Luckily most skiers were heading back to the slopes, so it wasn’t too difficult to find a table.

We weren’t impressed with the food, however (they had already run out of chili) and so opted to eat at The Outpost for the rest of our time at Keystone. We made reservations just in case, with varying results. On Sunday we weren’t asked for our reservation, but once inside, a helpful staff member helped us locate seating for the five of us.

Dining Was a Hassle

On Monday they diligently checked our email confirmation and reservation time, and still, we had trouble getting in just fifteen minutes early even though the dining area was not nearly at capacity. On Tuesday we experienced similar chaos. Ultimately the process was unreliable and disorganized for lunch hours across both lodges, but the food quality and service were certainly better at The Outpost, whose space is also esthetically more beautiful.

The menu varied slightly day-by-day, but they had a constant supply of chili (thank you very much), the expected burgers and chicken finger meals, pizzas, and even a ramen station.

Dinners were, thankfully, less complicated. After a significant time spent in the hot tub (Jack Pine Lodge has a hot tub, sauna, steam room, and exercise facility) our first night we dined at the Snake River Saloon and Steakhouse, apparently a Keystone legend since 1975 that specializes in steak, seafood, and live entertainment.

The view from the entrance to Jack Pine Lodge at Keystone.
The view from the entrance to Jack Pine Lodge.

Escargot in Colorado!

We walked over even though it was outside of our ski village and had to use our phone’s flashlights to make it from light post to light post. At the restaurant, a sweet waitress brought us freshly baked bread with a choice of plain whipped butter and whipped honey butter, and we were surprised to find escargots in their appetizer menu.

While they were certainly made a-la-Colorado (sauteed in gravy-looking sauce and served with mushrooms) we still enjoyed the detour from our expected steak dinner. I followed the appetizer with the black forest pork chops accompanied by a lovely but strong homemade black cherry sauce. It’s easy to make reservations through their website, and make sure to do so—I don’t think we would have gotten in otherwise!

Pie from Pizza on the Run at Keystone.
Pie from Pizza on the Run at Keystone.

The second night we ordered take-out pizza from Pizza on the Run, which came highly recommended by our apartment owner and was just around the block from our lodge.

We, unfortunately, found the pizza to be mediocre and wildly expensive (a 12-inch cheese pizza is $16 and every additional topping is $2!) but perhaps our standards are higher than most—we’re Italian immigrants!

To make up for it, we picked up dessert crepes at The Crepe Stand. I had a nutella crepe, and though the mix was a bit overcooked, it was still good.

The second recommendation from our apartment owner was the Montezuma Roadhouse, which we tried on Monday. I placed us in a virtual line through the OpenTable app around 6:15 pm, and then we hosted our own happy hour at our apartment.

We were 18th in line behind a party of 30 (yes, you read that right—30 people!) but by 7 pm we were second in line and walked the thirty seconds between our apartment and the restaurant. The service was on the slower side, but their cocktails were excellent.

Time Well Spent

Ultimately, our time in Keystone was well spent, and we were grateful to have done our research ahead of time to be best prepared for the bureaucracy. Though our first day hit some light snags—between trying to figure out the lunch reservation situation and walking in the dark to get to the Snake River Saloon—we quickly became experts on the ins and outs of both the ski village and slope dynamics.

If you’re reading this and thinking that it’s too late in the season to think about skiing, you’re wrong! Besides the fact that the Keystone winter season has often extended all the way into mid-April, spring is actually the best time to buy ski passes for the following ski season (as outlined in this great GoNOMAD article).

What are you waiting for?

Margherita BassiMargherita Bassi is a Boston-based tri-lingual storyteller, freelance journalist, and aspiring novelist. You can read more of her writing at www.margheritabassi.com