Ahhhhhhh. Springtime in Colorado: those sloppy, unpredictable months when the groomers are lousy for skiing, many resort-town businesses shut down, and most trails are still too slushy to enjoy. Conventional wisdom says to avoid the mountains during April and May, but we found 24 reasons—from sublime spa deals to epic bike rides to effortless fly-fishing—you should head for the hills right now.
Editor’s Note (4/20/21): This story has been updated to show current prices and dates.
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- Where We’re Eating, April 2018
Go Gravel Riding
In the world of cycling, roadies and mountain bikers don’t always agree. (Roadie: Why risk your life bombing a rocky downhill? MTBer: Why risk your life riding alongside semitrucks?) But if there is a happy medium both cycling subcultures can enjoy—especially in spring, when trails are still tender and susceptible to damage—it’s gravel riding. Typically, gravel/adventure road bikes feature beefier tires and more relaxed frame geometry than their road biking counterparts, and that means limiting loops to pavement isn’t necessary; hard-packed dirt is conquerable too. (See: the biennial Boulder Roubaix race, which covers 18.5 miles of back roads that are 60 percent dirt and 40 percent paved.) That best-of-both-worlds combo is precisely why gravel riding has become one of the fastest-growing styles of cycling over the past few years, according to Bicycling magazine. “Gravel riding opens up new route possibilities, new challenges on the bike, and in reality it’s safer,” says Eagle resident and team Topeak-Ergon endurance mountain bike racer Jeff Kerkove, citing the sport’s decreased exposure to traffic. The way we see it, that’s reason enough to hit the road—paved or not. —Jeff Waraniak
Never heard of gravel riding? Consider booking a skills tutorial with Aspen’s Sun Dog Athletics. This past September, the nearly 22-year-old adventure sports school began offering two- to four-hour gravel biking trips—rates start at $80 per hour, per person—on rural roads throughout picturesque Aspen and Snowmass. (One classic route starts in Woody Creek and winds about nine miles to the ghost town of Lenado.) Along the way, you’ll receive instruction on proper braking techniques, shifting, body positioning, and more. The best part? The skills you pick up will transfer to just about any cycling discipline.
With hundreds of miles of singletrack and a relatively dry winter climate, Salida is beloved by mountain bikers from all over the country. But, Kerkove says, gravel riders will find plenty of routes to suit their needs too. For a quintessentially Western adventure, tackle the 25-mile out-and-back fire road from Riverside Park to the former mining town of Turret. You’ll climb about 1,500 feet up Ute Trail/County Road 175 before turning left on County Road 185, taking the second left on County Road 184, and gliding along the rest of the trail. Soak in sweeping vistas of the Collegiate Peaks, and once you’ve checked out Turret’s historical structures, enjoy the rewarding downhill cruise to Salida.
If you’re going to punish your quads—and the rest of your body—with a multimile gravel ride, you might as well distract yourself with some killer views. That’s why Kerkove recommends the Muddy Pass Loop: a 55-mile route split between paved and dirt surfaces that provides breathtaking panoramas (max elevation is around 10,600 feet) of the Gore Range. Start outside Eagle-Vail on U.S. 6 at the Meadow Mountain parking lot, climb north on CO 131, and make your way back south to Vail via Muddy Pass Road. Stop at the Vail Ale House on North Frontage Road to claim your reward: a burger and a pint of the pub’s eponymous pale ale, made by Eagle’s Bonfire Brewing.
Stay For A Steal
Mud season’s dearth of tourists means you can score prime mountain lodging at motel prices.
April and May have long been snubbed by fair-weather snobs who avoid resort towns whenever the peaks aren’t glistening with multiple feet of lift-accessible snow or exploding with wildflowers. But there’s a major upside to all this, well, mudslinging: You can enjoy some of the most luxurious accommodations in the mountains for a fraction of what they would cost during Colorado’s more popular tourist months. As visitor numbers plummet during shoulder season—Crested Butte’s occupancy rate, for example, drops by about two-thirds—hotels offer tantalizingly low prices to entice guests to fill otherwise empty rooms. The city of Breckenridge reports that its average daily rate for lodging is about 50 percent lower during mud season, and some high-country hotels even offer specials specifically for Colorado residents eager to visit once the out-of-staters (ahem, Texans) disappear. Rates vary, but for the best deals, simply ask—which is how we dug up these comparisons. —Katie Ciaglo
Beaver Run Resort, Breckenridge
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $471
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $222
Elevation Hotel and Spa, Crested Butte
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $300
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $215
Fraser Crossing/Founders Pointe, Winter Park
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $399
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $114
Limelight Hotel, Aspen
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $400
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $210
Park Hyatt Beaver Creek
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $900
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $199
Sonnenalp Hotel, Vail
Typical nightly rate during peak season: $800
Typical nightly rate during mud season: $295
Travel Hack: Bargain Hunting
Offseason savings don’t end with where you lay your head. In fact, some locals and PR pros refer to this time of year as the “secret season” because of the deals you can discover at restaurants, outfitters, spas, gear shops, and more—if you’re crafty enough to navigate reduced hours and closings. Visitor center and tourism websites are great places to start, but once you’ve narrowed your wish list, the best strategy is to pick up the phone.
Paddle A WhiteWater Park
Snowsports enthusiasts’ loss is white-water fanatics’ gain as high-elevation powder melts and begins fueling the state’s rivers for paddling season. For ease of access, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and river surfers can’t beat Colorado’s plethora of urban white-water parks: sections of rivers modified with boulders and drop structures (think: mini waterfalls) to create play waves and turbulent riffles. Although the timing varies by year, location, and design—a few Colorado installations have controls that keep water levels steady—most white-water parks become runnable in mid- to late April. Those willing to brave the cold (dry suits or wetsuits are highly recommended in the spring) are rewarded with manageable flows and smaller crowds, a combo that creates ideal conditions for novice paddlers to learn white-water skills. As the rivers’ cubic feet per second (CFS) increases throughout May, experts will find features at prime levels for play and practicing new tricks before navigating peak volumes in late May and early June. —KC
Eagle River Park
The state’s newest white-water park, which is built on a stretch of the Eagle River beloved for its dramatic elevation change, will contain four features that decrease in difficulty as you paddle downstream. The bottom two should be ready for use this month, provide the perfect venue for beginner and intermediate boaters to practice their kayak and river-surfing skills—especially in the gently sloped, low-drop fourth feature. Two high-energy holes are runnable for advanced boaters at the top of the park, with a bypass channel providing newbies safe passage to the less daunting area of the river.
Steamboat Whitewater Park
River rats can hit this Yampa River park beginning around the end of April, once flows reach 300 CFS. The park’s downtown stretch reaches from Dr. Rich Weiss Park to West Lincoln Park, with a variety of holes and waves in between. Beginners will enjoy Rabbit Ears Hole and the 5th Street Wave near the top of the run; paddleboarders will dig surfing the recently reconstructed A Wave and Toots Wave near Little Toots Park; and more experienced boaters can shred the riverwide C-Hole and D-Hole at higher volumes. Bonus: Nearby Mountain Sports Kayak School offers kayak and paddleboard rentals and lessons, including its Never Ever lesson ($75 per kayaker, $65 per paddleboarder in groups of four or more) for first-timers.
Buena Vista River Park
This park’s five Arkansas River features are fun and functional at a huge range, from 200 to 4,000 CFS. To get a feel for the area, park at Staircase Wave (the second element from the top), walk five minutes upstream to Uptown Wave, just past Barbara Whipple Bridge, and then float the whole course, ending at LoDo Wave before walking another five minutes back to your car. During April and early May’s low to medium levels, focus on the three middle features (the Staircase, Pocket, and Downtown waves) for a wide variety of action in a condensed space. Pocket Wave is especially popular during low springtime flows, with its deep pool making the obstacle enjoyable for all kinds of boaters, even at 200 CFS.
If The Shoe Fits
Colorado footwear that will keep the whole family from slipping in the season’s namesake muck.
Founded in late 2013 by alums of Crocs and Reebok, SoftScience moved its headquarters to Denver from Oceanside, California, in mid-2017. After initially targeting the podiatry sector, the company is now marketing high-comfort models like the SailFin ($40-$90)—with versions for men and women (pictured)—to active demographics such as sailors and fly-fishers.
SoftScience’s fancy proprietary copolymer (called Trileon), used in the outer sole and footbed, cushions your foot from the inside and conforms to what you step on—say, a rock in the middle of a trail—to keep your foot level. Holes in the sole wick water away from your feet, while the topsides are made from quick-drying canvas and mesh. After a slushy trail hike, you can remove the insole and chuck the rest of the shoe straight into the washing machine.
Since their release in 2002, Crocs’ iconic function-over-fashion clogs have been making adults around the globe look, well, completely ridiculous. But everything’s cuter in miniature—and the Niwot company’s Kids’ Handle It Rain Boots ($35) are downright adorable.
Like most of Crocs’ products, these boots are made of soft Croslite foam resin that’s so lightweight your tyke should make it until at least lunchtime before asking to be carried. Sturdy handles make it easier for little ones to get themselves ready for outdoor adventures. Crocs’ waterproof, just-hose-’em-off nature means you can encourage your youngsters to aim for puddles instead of hollering at them to avoid soggy spots.
DogMocs’ paw-protecting canine booties—made of deerskin and dreamed up by Loveland’s Mark Haines when his German shepherd, Storm, began dragging his back legs due to spinal issues—retail for around $30 per pair. Visit DogMocs’ website for a list of local retailers.
Unlike the rubber used for most dog bootie soles, leather doesn’t block canines’ much-relied-upon sense of touch. Deerskin dries soft and supple, meaning it won’t harden and crack like other leathers after getting wet. DogMocs are so breathable, tough, and reliable (thanks to their ankle-tie design), they’re worn by U.S. military pooches in Afghanistan and Iraq—so we’re pretty sure they’ll hold up on your dayhikes.
Travel Hack: Dining
Generally speaking, more fine-dining restaurants tend to take seasonal breaks than casual eateries and bars, which usually stick it out through the shoulder season. Translation: lots of pub grub. If you’re looking for a more elevated meal, search for area cooking classes such as Colorado Mountain College’s demonstration-focused Chef’s Dinner Party ($65 per person, includes dinner and one glass of wine) on June 25 in Breckenridge.
Hit the Backcountry Slopes
For some Coloradans, prime ski season begins just as the lifts start shutting down: Schussing in the backcountry keeps many die-hard skiers on the slopes well into June, for three reasons. The first is corn snow, that forgiving, easy-turning granular surface that magically appears midmorning when frozen-hard snow melts—just enough—in the warm spring sun. Time it right and you’ll make hero turns for miles. The Front Range also generally gets more of the white stuff in spring than in any other season, and unlike in midwinter, it doesn’t all blow away to Kansas as soon as it falls. Finally, backcountry cruising (try frontrangeskimo.com for maps, photos, and detailed descriptions of routes) is just friendlier in the shoulder season than it is in winter. The days are longer; you’re more likely to suffer sunburn than windburn; and avalanche danger*—while still present—is easier to predict and manage. So don’t put away your snow gear just yet. —Dougald MacDonald
Golden Bear Peak
Few spring ski descents are more accessible than Golden Bear Peak, just off I-70. The south and east sides of the 13,010-foot mountain are part of the Loveland Ski Area, but the north side is pristine backcountry terrain. Take the Loveland exit (Exit 216) and make an immediate hard right onto a dirt frontage road; drive about a quarter-mile to a closed gate and park. You’ll skin up the old road beyond the gate into the Dry Gulch area and continue past the highest firs into a wide-open bowl. Switchback up to Golden Bear’s summit before picking a line down into the mellow northeast bowl and cruising Dry Gulch back to your car.
Solid on black diamond runs but not as confident in your out-of-bounds skills? Vail-based Paragon Guides has you covered with its $130 group tours. On the company’s upcoming April 24’s annual Corn Fest tour, you’ll hit whatever nearby spot has the best conditions. Or sign up for Paragon’s Uncle Bud’s Ski Mountaineering Clinic. Over three days and two nights at a 10th Mountain hut near Leadville, you’ll assess avalanche risk, climb steep snow with an ice axe, and, conditions allowing, climb and descend 12,893-foot Galena Mountain.
Combine two of Colorado’s favorite pastimes on the Indian Peaks Wilderness’ 12,979-foot Mt. Toll. The winter gate on the Brainard Lake access road (about an hour west of Boulder) is usually closed until June, but savvy skiers know this paved road often melts out by April or May. So strap your sticks onto your pack or mountain bike and ride about four miles up the gentle grade to the Mitchell Lake trailhead. After locking your bike to a convenient tree, skin approximately 2.5 miles to Blue Lake, then follow Toll’s southeast face to the summit for stunning views of the Continental Divide. To descend, head back down the elegant strip of snow that curves around Toll’s south and east flanks—visible from east Boulder—and glide all the way to your car, first on two planks and then on two wheels.
*Only those with avalanche safety training and appropriate gear should venture into backcountry terrain.
The Big Thaw
Just can’t wait to get out on the trails? We rounded up a few ideas* for early season trekking.
Try: Sunnyside Trail
Because: True to its name, this nine-mile (one way) path curves around the south side of Red Mountain and melts out faster than the northern half of the loop, the aptly named Shadyside Trail. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy the aspen groves and views of town without worrying about getting clipped by the mountain bikers who frequent this trail
later in the year.
Try: Upper Blue and Dillon Reservoir rec paths
Because: OK, so it’s a stretch to call this paved route between Breckenridge and Frisco—part of the Summit County Recreational Pathway System—a “hike,” but because many of Breck’s trails are north-facing, your options are slim in early spring. Don’t worry, though: April is a great time to earn your lunch at Frisco’s Bread & Salt by strolling this 10-mile-long glorified sidewalk, part of which follows the Blue River. Catch the free Summit Stage bus, which picks up at Main Street and Sixth Avenue in Frisco about every half-hour between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., to return to Breck.
Try: Jud Wiebe Trail
Because: This beloved three-mile loop, which cuts across the mountain north of town, gets ample sunshine all year long—but sees fewer footfalls in the shoulder season, when you might still run into shady patches with snow (wear boots with good traction). From the trailhead at the northern terminus of downtown’s Aspen Street, cross the Cornet Creek bridge before beginning the steep ascent. Keep an eye out for a couple of wooden benches from which you can ogle Telluride’s charming collection of shops, restaurants, and Victorian homes.
Try: Blackmere Drive
Near: Steamboat Springs
Because: The wideness of this dirt road to the Emerald Mountain Quarry overlook will help you resist stepping off-trail to avoid still-muddy spots (you wouldn’t even think about crushing sensitive vegetation…right?). Two miles and almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain deliver you to an Instagram-worthy overlook of Steamboat Springs and Mt. Werner’s patchwork of ski runs.
*Weather and trail conditions change quickly and often in the mountains during springtime—that’s why, in part, your hotel room was so cheap. Always check the forecast and trail status with a local visitor center or land manager before setting out.
Travel Hack: Nightlife
Mud season’s lack of tourists can lead to a lackluster bar scene: Clubs like Aspen’s subterranean Escobar don’t feel quite as cool when it’s just you and the DJ. Instead, get your (boozy) kicks by exploring the high-country’s plethora of distilleries. Take a free tour at Durango Craft Spirits, or hit up Marble Distilling Co.’s Carbondale tasting room, which is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Cast From the Shore
Normally, fishing in Colorado’s high-country lakes and reservoirs requires making your way to their deep centers, but as the ice recedes during April and May, hungry and spawning fish can be found in shallower waters—no boat required. “Fish are in a very good mood when the ice cap goes away,” says Chad LaChance, founder of Fishful Thinker, a website and guiding company, as well as the host and executive producer of Fishful Thinker TV on Altitude Sports and Entertainment. “Everybody’s on the chow.” Even river trout—especially those living in mountain streams when the flow is low before the May runoff—are looking for tasty snacks. For fly-fishers, LaChance recommends streamers or egg patterns, which mimic the eggs trout are laying on the rocks this time of year; good conventional tackle choices include large hard plugs and tube jigs. For statewide stocking, fishing, and ice-out reports, visit the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website and fishexplorer.com—or simply cast from just about any rocky shoreline into one to four feet of water to haul in everything from lake trout to the Centennial State’s famed rainbows and browns.
If your last fishing experience involved a Snoopy rod, consider an outing with Grand County’s Fishing with Bernie guide service. Bernie Keefe, who’s been helping anglers ply Lake Granby for more than a quarter-century, and his team offer six- to eight-hour excursions ($300 per person for a group of three). You’ll hug the shoreline in a 17.5- to 20-foot fishing boat, learning about everything from the lake’s wildlife (ask your guide to point out the mountain lion den) and ecosystem to lure selection and casting technique. Oh, and you’ll also be reeling in rainbows, browns, and lake trout—the four finest of which will be cleaned and packed up for the trip home.
There’s only one public fishery outside of Maine in the Lower 48 where you can reel in arctic char, and it’s Summit County’s Dillon Reservoir. Sure, you’re more likely to pull out brown or rainbow trout or kokanee salmon, but the tantalizing possibility of catching one of these rare swimmers will motivate you and your brood to keep casting. At the Frisco Bay Marina, you can rent a basic tackle box, rod, reel, and line for $20 a day and pick up fishing licenses for everyone older than 15. Then head to Windy Point Fisherman Park, about 15 minutes northeast, where you can park and fish from the banks of the reservoir’s long, skinny Snake River Arm.
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Near Gunnison, Blue Mesa boasts 96 miles of shoreline. Your prey? Lake trout (actually part of the char family), aka lakers or mackinaws. LaChance, however, dubs them “fishcavores” due to their penchant for eating the rainbow trout that spawn along Blue Mesa’s rocky edges. Giant lakers (the 50.35-pound state record setter was caught here) that usually dwell in deep water follow the food chain to feast; do the same by parking at the Dillon Pinnacles trailhead and casting next to Middle Bridge. State rules allow anglers to keep one fish of more than 32 inches, but guide Robby Richardson—who offers trophy trips ($550 for two people) through Sport Fish Colorado—requires his clients to release all mackinaws, which can live to 60, larger than 22 inches.
Even the most watertight plans can be ruined by a freak snowstorm, but one activity is immune: a spa day.
Ranch Creek Spa at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Tabernash
The Spa: This retreat near Winter Park has plenty of nooks for a pretreatment snuggle with your plush-robe-clad partner.
The Treatment: The Elemental Reconnection package begins with a private soak in a large copper tub to loosen you up for a couple’s massage on Pendleton-blanket-topped tables.
The Extras: This month (if you ask nicely), Ranch Creek will give you and your sweetie exclusive access to its overflow changing area, steam room, hot tub, and sauna.
The Deal: Normally the massage lasts 80 minutes, but in April you’ll get 100 minutes for the same price ($455 per couple).
Waterside Day Spa, Steamboat Springs
The Spa: This spa is unusually family-friendly thanks to the welcoming attitude of owner (and mother) Lexi Budler.
The Treatment: Call ahead to enjoy the respiratory benefits of halotherapy—breathing in tiny salt particles is said to boost your immune system and cleanse your lungs—with your whole clan in Waterside’s 200-square-foot salt room.
The Extras: A giant basket of toys will entertain your young ones, or Budler can arrange for a kid-friendly yoga class.
The Deal: Typically $40, 45-minute sessions are $20 per person from now until June 15. Kids 12 and under are always free.
Travel Hack: Culture
It can be difficult to give up a sparkling summer afternoon or a powder day to explore ski-town museums—but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth an offseason visit. A couple of rainy-spring-day favorites: the Cozens Ranch Museum (near Winter Park), located in a restored house that was part of the Fraser Valley’s first homestead, and Aspen’s Red Brick Center for the Arts, which hosts 12 resident artists and shows for-purchase works by local creators in its gallery.