Updated: January 5, 2014 at 5:00 pm
Every media outlet from Forbes to FoxNews has released a "top 10 ski areas" list, and every list typically touts Vail's bowls, Aspen's steeps and other world-class mountains in Colorado. But what are the best ski areas for learning? That's a different list entirely. After all, double blacks and endless blues don't count for much when you can barely make it down a green. And five-star resorts with epic nightlife are hardly a draw for young families trying to carry three pairs of skis while wiping a nose.
With that in mind, we set out with a 4-year-old correspondent to find the best place to learn to ski based on four factors: cost, travel time ("Are we there yet?"), quality of bunny hill and fun. Our list is aimed toward kids, but our focus on ease and beginner terrain makes these spots ideal for beginners of any age.
1. Monarch Mountain
This little mountain is a perennial favorite of dedicated local skiers. It is close to Colorado Springs (about 2 hours, 20 minutes) and lacks the crowds of Summit County but has enough steep runs and snow to keep even seasoned powder hounds happy.
Monarch shines in almost every category. Pull into the parking lot - even on a busy day - and you park only steps from the slope. This is key when you likely will have to return to the car at least once for dry mittens, fruit snacks, etc.
Step up to the ticket window and the love continues. At most resorts, the cut-off age for free skiing is 4 or 5. At Monarch, it's 6. And even after that, kids under 12 are only $25. Compare that with $79 at Vail.
The standard adult ticket is $65, but you can get buy-one-get-one vouchers by filling your vehicle with gas at Front Range Shell stations.
Terrain at Monarch is a great match for first-time skiers. The bunny hill is broad, gentle and served by a covered conveyor belt, called a Magic Carpet, that protects kids from the wind. Skiers then can graduate to a pair of mellow green runs off the Tumbelina Lift that are never too crowded. Adults splitting kid duty can find plenty of thrilling terrain and still shoot back in a few minutes to meet at the base.
Many larger resorts have a kids' fun run through the trees with small bridges, tunnels and other fun obstacles. Monarch does not. This is a mark against it on the fun factor. On the other hand, Monarch has free stickers in the lodge, which go a surprisingly long way.
2. Ski Cooper
This little publicly-owned ski mountain doesn't have much in terms of steeps, but it's a beginner's paradise.
Though slightly farther from Colorado Springs than Monarch, those extra minutes are spent on a stunning highway tucked between the Arkansas River and the snow-capped Sawatch Range. Like Monarch, the crowds are small. Expect to park mere steps from the slope, where you'll find a long, broad beginner area served by the longest Magic Carpet in the Rockies. Unfortunately, it isn't covered so little guys can get chilled, but the ride down is broad and perfectly groomed.
Beginners who graduate to the big mountain encounter ideal terrain. The Molly Mayfield trail, which runs straight down the mountain from top to bottom, is one of the great beginner trails in the state: gradual, even and as broad as a football field.
Like Monarch, Cooper lacks a kids' fun run, but there's a bonus for parents. Because most skiers here are novices, the powder stashes in the trees can lay untouched for days on end.
Technically, Breckenridge is closer to Colorado Springs than Cooper or Monarch, but factor in parking in the free lot and catching the shuttle to the gondola that takes you to the base, and you easily add 30 minutes. If you have a young skier who is enthralled by things such as buses and gondolas, it ups the fun factor, but at the same time, it cuts into your ski day.
Breckenridge has two learning areas: Peak 8 and Peak 9. Both have multiple Magic Carpets, though some are reserved for lesson takers. Neither has as good of a bunny hill as Cooper or Monarch, but the next step up is a big improvement. On Peak 8, the two trails accessed by the beginner chairlift, Rip's Ride, are the right length for little skiers and feature a kids' fun run that goes through a small castle hidden in the woods. Peak 9 has the Quicksilver Chair - a six-person lift that accesses a learning area that is more gradual than Peak 8 but also more crowded. This area, too, has a kids' run, called Ripparoo's Forest, with tunnels and bridges that kids love.
The downside here is cost. Kids 4 and older need to buy a ticket. During peak season, it costs $64 - a lot for skiers who might decide after one run that they want to sit down and eat snow.
4. Copper Mountain
Of the Summit County resorts, Copper is the most generous with letting little kids ski free. Anyone 5 and under does not need a ticket. The kid terrain here is hard to match. The learning area is set apart from the rest of the mountain so there is no need to worry about expert skiers tearing down the greens and plowing down junior. A few short Magic Carpets at the base get skiers started, and then they can take it to the next level on the Kokomo and Lumberjack lifts, which access plenty of green terrain.
The drawback here is the "are we there yet?" factor. The 2-hour, 30-minute drive only gets you to the vast parking lots by the interstate, and then you have a long bus ride to the learning area.
5. Winter Park
Winter Park has a deal that can't be beat. All kids get free rides on the Galloping Goose lift, which serves the bunny hill at Mary Jane. Adults can do the same for only $10. Winter Park has lots of family friendly terrain, though a ticket for other lifts starts at $52 for kids 6 and older.
The other problem is traffic. Google estimates a drive time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, but on weekends or holidays add another hour at least, maybe more. Don't forget to consider the family friction that comes with being stuck in traffic.