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Best Ski Pass for Snow In Colorado – Epic or Ikon?
BY Christopher Steiner

Article Updated August 2, 2019

Ikon Pass adds A-Basin: In a move that surprised a lot of ski industry observers, A-Basin announced it would not, in fact, go it alone after leaving the Epic Pass earlier this year. For Colorado snow chasers, A-Basin offers great terrain, but less snow than some Epic Pass resorts in the same area: Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge. What A-Basin does offer, however, is great spring conditions, as the resort's high elevations and north-facing slopes preserve snow well into April.

People move to Denver with the full intention of becoming habitual mountain dwellers. They'll climb the corporate ladder in the city during the week, and battle in high elevations on the weekend.

Specifically, many of these people dream of powder skiing. This is why you move to the mountains, this is why you move to Colorado. It's a path that many have lived out, as booming Denver welcomes more and more transplants.

Every off-season, we're faced with the decision of which ski pass to buy. The intricacies of the decision change year to year, with new passes popping up (the Ikon) and resorts shifting teams (Sun Valley, Snowbasin).

For Coloradoans who are bent on chasing powder, the decision of which pass to buy comes down to annual snowfall averages, standard deviations and crowds.

With being said, we're going to leave all other considerations out of this ski pass article other than those regarding snow and how to ski more of it.

The best ski resort for snow in Colorado—Wolf Creek—is actually in the southwest corner of the state, and it's not on either of these ski passes. See our full snow rankings here.

Next up is the Winter Park, which is on the Ikon Pass and averages 347 inches of annual snowfall with a fairly narrow standard deviation (that's good) for Colorado. Winter Park also counts 50% of its terrain as north facing and almost none of it as south facing, which keeps snow nice and cold.

After that, the next best two come from the Epic Pass: Vail and Beaver Creek, which both have strong snow profiles. Vail actually receives slightly more snow than does Winter Park, but its terrain isn't as hospitable to preserving it, which is why Winter Park holds the edge in our view.

Vail ranks highly for snow in Colorado.
Vail ranks highly for snow in Colorado. Courtesy: Vail.

Next from these two passes, in terms of snow quality, is Aspen Snowmass, which is on the Ikon. It receives 295" of snow a year and a huge swath of its terrain, 60%, faces north.

For snow quality, it's just about a tie. Winter Park has great snow into the spring, as does Copper Mountain, and Aspen's higher reaches are great in the spring. Vail is decent here, as well, while Telluride is excellent and Breckenridge is strong.

Immediately following Snowmass is Steamboat, which receives more snow than anywhere in Colorado other than Wolf Creek, but loses some points for its low elevation and rather high percentage, 23%, of south-facing terrain. That said, these factors don't matter as much in December and January, which makes Steamboat one of the best places to hunt for powder in all of North America during the early season. See our full guide to the North American early season here.

After that, you have two mountains, one on each pass, that are superlative for spring skiing thanks to high elevations and a preponderance of north facing terrain: Copper Mountain (Ikon) and Telluride (Epic). Telluride also has the best in-bounds steeps in Colorado. Following it is Crested Butte, which is also on the Epic Pass.

Breckenridge is the other notable card here, as its high elevations help preserve snow well into the spring. Breckenridge is on the Epic Pass.

For out and out snow volume, there is a slight advantage to the Ikon Pass, whose tandem of Steamboat and Winter Park edges out Vail and Beaver Creek.

For snow quality, it's just about a tie. Winter Park has great snow into the spring, as does Copper Mountain, and Aspen's higher reaches are great in the spring. Vail is decent here, as well, while Telluride is excellent and Breckenridge is strong.

We would separate things like this: for those looking for those early-season powder days before the tourists have totally shown up, the Ikon Pass has the edge, because of its access to Steamboat and Winter Park. But for spring skiing and finding that chalky stuff into April, the Epic Pass takes it.

For out and out steep skiing, the edge goes to Epic as Crested Butte and Telluride are the two most technical mountains in Colorado that are part of these passes.

For out and out steep skiing, the edge goes to Epic as Crested Butte and Telluride are the two most technical mountains in Colorado that are part of these passes.

The other consideration here, one that doesn't directly relate to the volume of fallen snow, is crowds. Skiing powder, even on a huge snow day, can be a short-lived pleasure if the mountain is full of people. That's more likely to happen during the weekend at any of these places than during the week, obviously, but some resorts simply see less people.

The goal should always be finding snow like this.
The goal should always be finding snow like this. Courtesy: Vail.

Resorts closer to Denver, particularly Breckenridge and Keystone, are going to see heavy pressure on powder days. Vail and Beaver Creek will also see crowds here, and get a decent dose of local skiers from the 30,000 or so people who live full-time in Vail, Avon, Eagle, and Edwards.

Winter Park sees less pressure overall as it's removed from I-70 and its valley is home to fewer people—with only 2,500 people or so living in Winter Park and Fraser—which means less local pressure, something that manifests most heavily on powder days.

Local skiers make a difference in Aspen, where more than 30,000 people live in the Roaring Fork Valley. Locals don't ski on random Tuesdays much, but they do come out in droves when it snows.

The 12,000 locals can also be felt on snow days at Steamboat, but it's a big mountain and it gets a ton of snow, so it can be less of an issue here.

The mountains with the least amount of variable skier pressure on snow days are Telluride, which, combined with the town of Mountain Village, is only home to 3,800 people; and Crested Butte, where only 1,700 people live. Both are harder to get to from Denver, of course—which makes the powder days all the more valuable in these places. Both of these resorts are on the Epic Pass.

So from a crowd-to-powder standpoint, we consider the passes fairly even, with an edge to the Ikon Pass for Denver residents who are not willing to drive as far as Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat or Telluride.

For those willing to drive four hours, the balance tips to Ikon further, with Aspen and Steamboat in the fold. For those willing to push a bit beyond that, the two least crowded major resorts in Colorado, both on the Epic Pass, enter the fold in Telluride and Crested Butte.

So taking the state as a whole, the crowd issue is about even.

No matter which pass powder-chasing skiers buy, the most important factor is getting some flexibility to ski on non-weekends. That changes the equation and will get skiers more powder than anything else.

Christopher Steiner is a New York Times Bestselling Author of two books, a powder chaser, and the founder of ZRankings. Find him on Twitter.

Top photo credit: Vail Resorts