Surprising Keystone: Old West, New Age, World-Class and Value Packed for Family Skiing

by Karen Rubin

Keystone Ski School kids bound for Ripperroo's Forest, a mountain playground © 2010 Karen Rubin/

There are so many surprises about skiing at Keystone in the Colorado Rockies – beginning with how convenient it is to reach, how breathtakingly beautiful the scenery is, the superb dining, the range of off-mountain activities like a world-class spa and one of the most scenic ice skating rinks imaginable, extraordinary family-friendly facilities like a mountain top SnowFort, Adventure tubing, and a forest playground designed to bump up ski skills; unique attractions like a real Bavarian oompah band and fondue dinner on the mountain summit that transports you to the Alps, and most surprisingly, the value for dollar of a family ski holiday, even coming from long distance.

In fact, you can fly to Denver International airport (three hours from New York), be picked up by Colorado Mountain Express (like Keystone, a Vail Resorts company), and arrive at Keystone, the closest major ski area to the airport, in less time than it takes to drive from New York City to many of the major Vermont and New Hampshire ski areas. But the experience of skiing the Rockies – with its legendary white powder – and views of the Continental Divide, is unmatched.

Even the 50-mile drive from the airport is fun and scenic as we pass by the historic towns of Georgetown (the taverns still have swinging doors), Central City, and Idaho Springs, passed the “space house” that was featured in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.”

But Keystone’s many surprises only just begin with how easy the resort is to reach.

Keystone is the only major Colorado ski mountain to offer night skiing © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Even before we get on the mountain, we experience what makes Keystone so special, and how this destination resort has changed over the decade since becoming part of Vail Resorts: it has this marvelous western look and ambiance, but New Age (natural) wholesomeness and a worldliness that puts it alongside the best resorts in the world, yet it is one of the most affordable of the luxury ski resorts.

We arrive at our lodging, a beautiful, well equipped, and superbly located condo at Expedition Station, which is part of the new River Run base area (owned and developed by Vail Resorts). I drop my things and catch one of Keystone’s free shuttle buses to The Spa at Keystone Lodge, for the treatment that I have pre-scheduled.

Located within the Four Diamond AAA rated Keystone Lodge (also owned by Vail Resorts property and recently renovated), the 10,000-square foot spa is a temple of New Age sensibility, entirely environmentally friendly, from recycled flooring and organic uniforms to organic products, indigenous ingredients and treatments that connect the spa to its natural surroundings. I am scheduled for one of their signature techniques, the Marta Kodo, inspired by traditional Australian Aboriginal methods, designed to unleash blockages, relieve tension and re-align the body’s energy using a combination of pressure, rhythmical spiraling movements and my choice of native Aboriginal aromatic oils. It is heavenly.

The view from the Bighorn Steakhouse at Keystone Lodge & Spa of the Keystone Lake ice rink © 2010 Karen Rubin/

I discover how convenient the free shuttle bus system is (and why you don’t need a car; after regularly scheduled hours, you can phone for a pick-up to take you throughout the resort; a free county bus takes you to Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge). I hop the shuttle bus back to River Run (they come every 10 minutes) and walk over to the ski rental shop to rent our ski equipment to save time the next morning. Because of airlines’ luggage charges, many people are choosing to leave their own equipment home – carrying just their ski boots – and trying out new equipment on their trips.. The ski shop is well equipped, very professional, and conveniently located midway between our condo and the gondola.

We actually could have gone skiing because surprise of all surprises, Keystone is the only major Colorado ski mountain to offer night skiing – on 600 of its 3400 skiable acres including Keystone’s A51 Terrain Park – that’s like an entire Vermont ski resort just for night skiing. In fact, Keystone this season is offering a free night of skiing on the day of arrival.

It is possible to ski from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and if you like, you can use your Keystone multi-day lift ticket to ski at Arapahoe Basin or Breckenridge (another of the Vail Resorts) during the day, and then come back to Keystone and ski at night. From the base area, lighted trails are just magnificent to see.

Weare off to our next surprise, the marvelous dining options at Keystone, enough to try a different one each night of our stay. We hop the bus back to the Keystone Lodge for dinner at The Bighorn Steakhouse.

Breckenridge Mountain viewed from Keystone's gondola; another Vail Resort, you can use your Keystone multi-day lift ticket at Breckenridge © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The Bighorn Steakhouse, very much like Keystone, is a perfect melding of Keystone’s Western ambiance and sophisticated taste; the ambiance is enhanced by the most magnificent viewof Keystone Lake, where you might see ice skaters in winter (or paddle boaters in summer), ringed by the mountain peaks. It doesn’t just have one wine sommelier, it has 7 on staff, and its wine list, which is more of a book, has won Wine Spectator Awards.

The Bighorn offers the finest cuts of corn-fed American beef while wild game, fresh sustainable seafood, chicken and other specialty entrees.

We boldly try the venison soup and find it rich in flavor but not too heavy. The steak is indescribably delectable, with the flavor seared in, and the prime rib is spectacular. We begin to see a pattern to the chef’s style, which breaks with traditional steakhouses: he is masterful with bold flavors that surprise but don’t overpower.

It seems that Keystone has an ace-in-the-hole when it comes to fine dining: the Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute – part of Colorado Mountain College – is located here, a partnership between the school and Keystone for past 15 years. Its students apprentice in the various restaurants; the Bighorn Steakhouse’s Executive Sous Chef Scott Przymus was a 2002 graduate.

Kids of all ages show their stuff at the A-51 terrain park © 2010 Karen Rubin/

We quickly discover that Keystone’s Chefs seem to try to outdo themselves with unusual flavor combinations and presentation (much to the benefit of all of us), and we find ourselves constantly surprised by the variety, quality, and settings for dining that so add to the travel experience.

Keystone’s Mountain Playgrounds

Our first morning at Keystone, we make our way to the gondola at River Run, walking distance from the condo at Expedition Station. Keystone debuted a state-of-the-art eight-passenger gondola in River Run Village just two seasons ago, and extended a bridge so you don’t hike so far with your skis, and there is now a customer service and ticketing building right there (where you would also pick up tickets for on-mountain tours and dining), and restrooms.

Along the way, we are greeted by Mountain Ambassadors who cheerily hand us granola bars and trail maps. I am thrilled when I discover that the Ambassador handing me a map is Ina, herself, for whom Ina’s Way trail is named.

A view of the back bowls from Keystone's North Peak © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Located in the White River National Forest, Keystone is a massive but not overwhelming. It is actually three mountain playgrounds – Dercum Mountain, North Peak, and The Outback – linked by gondolas that carry you in absolute comfort up almost magically over the most magnificent scenery you can imagine.

With a vertical of 3,128 feet, rising from a base elevation of 9,280 to the summit at 12,408, feet, 135 trails and 3,148 skiable acres of bowls, bumps, glades, steeps and groomers, Keystone has a lot for every level and every kind of skier and rider (see trail map).

At 11,640 feet, Dercum Mountain is the best for long green and blue runs and perfect groomers to keep you cruising all day. This is a great place to start for beginners and intermediate skiers and snowboarders, including the most magnificent and scenic of trails, the 3.5-mile long Schoolmarm from Dercum’s summit with the craggy peaks of the Continental Divide laid out in front of you.

Keystone’s A51Terrain Park is consistently named among the best in North America. Take a dedicated chair lift to the park and spend the day on rails, jumps, jibs, in the Super Pipe. There are features for every skill level, and it’s a great park for families to experience together. There are even snow playgrounds along some of the trails. The park is well groomed and always changing. And, it’s Colorado’s only night park.

Keystone has what may be the largest Snow Fort in the world © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Rising to 11,660 feet, North Peak is the place for skiers and riders that love long trails full of bumps. Here is where you can flex your skills on a variety of blue intermediate and black expert runs.

Keystone’s tallest mountain, The Outback peaks at 11,980 fee and offers 800 acres of gladed terrain and bowls. With steeps, trees and bumps, The Outback is for intermediate to expert skiers only, who will find plenty of long, well-groomed runs, powder and bumps. As a bonus, there is some of Colorado’s best tree skiing in the North and South Bowls. You can hike or take The Outback shuttle to access these epic bowls.

If tree skiing is what you’re after, you can access The Windows – truly legendary tree skiing. High above the green and blue runs, you’ll find Bergman, Erikson and Independence Bowls. Guided snowcat tours give skiers and riders special access to nearly 300 acres of Keystone’s most challenging terrain.

The Keystone Ski & Ride School has a superb program that gets kids engaged with a fun-filled experience. Adults can also benefit from lessons are also tailored specifically for their abilities and interests.

We get to ski around with Dan, one of Keystone’s senior instructors, who has this marvelous sense to size up his charges and make skiing as pleasurable as possible. There are such benefits to go around with an instructor or a guide – you get to experience trails and parts of the mountain which you might have trepidation about trying, and just being in the care of an expert builds confidence and makes you ski better.

Family Fun

Adventure Tubing is an amazing thrill, with four tracks © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Keystone is among the best of the major ski resorts in simply being family-friendly and fun for kids, and one of the most pleasant surprises is a magical area, just for kids, tucked in on Dercum Mountain.

Conveniently located near the beginner area off of the Schoolmarm trail, Ripperroo’s Forest adds a whole new dimension to children’s ski school. Named after Keystone’s Children’s Ski School mascot, the kids-only area has young skiers and riders learning new skills and while experiencing new thrills. Ripperoo’s Forest has been enhanced this season with new features and new adventures.

Another that is sure to stop you in your tracks is the Adventure Center atop Dercum Mountain, which delights skiers and non-skiers alike (in fact, it is amazing to see a family wheeling their baby carriage in the snow there).

From the 11,640 feet-high summit at Dercum Mountain, even beginners and intermediates have sensational trails; a favorite: the 3.5-mile long Schoolmarm trail c© 2010 Karen Rubin/

The first feature you spot is a HUGE Snow Fort – big enough to climb in, on and around, in fact, they claim it is the world’s largest.

Adventure Center also offers Adventure Point Tubing,a huge, four-lane track on a big hill with its own tubing lift – during the day or under the lights with music to accompany the ride. Here you can also enjoy slopecycles, snowbikes, peak-to-peak snowshoe tour, and mountaintop snowcat tours.

The Snow Fort and other kids features on the mountain are central to The Keystone Kidtopia Festival. Kids explore the Snow Fort, dance to live music in the plaza, join in on Ripperoo’s Parade, make arts and crafts, go disco tubing and join the fun-filled activities both on and off the slopes. (This year’s Kidtopia dates are Dec. 27-Jan. 2, Jan. 14-17, Jan 29-30, Feb. 18-21, and Mar. 12-20).

Snowtubing continues throughout the spring and into summer (the goal is to keep the tubing hill open through July 4). When they finally knock the snowfort down at the end of the last Kidtopia Festival of the season, they use that snow to replenish the tubing area. (That means you can do snowtubing, mountain biking, golf, horseback riding, and river rafting all in the same day!).

For our second evening, we get to experience an iconic place and uniquely Keystone restaurant: Ski Tip Lodge, with a deserved reputation as one of Keystone’s best, with an enchanting, cozy ambiance – low ceilings, candlelight, fireplaces, wood beams, stucco walls.

Ride along in the cab of the snowcat mountain tour for an extra special thrill © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Ryan Whaley, of Keystone’s communications department who has arranged our visit, tells us that Ski Tip was an 1800s stagecoach stop that has been transformed into an utterly charming BnB that’s family friendly (just 10 rooms including 3 family suites and no TVs in the rooms). Keystone founder, Max Dercum opened Ski Tip in 1947 as Colorado’s first ski lodge, and it is now owned Vail Resorts.

Even this intimate restaurant has a sommelier. Megan travels the world and brings back her discoveries – like a wine from Lebanon that has an unusual blend of grapes (one of the pricier bottles on the menu, at $100). At Ski Tip, there is a rotating four-course prix-fixe dinner menu with marvelously creative selections: soups like Elk and Sweet Potato Stew with Tart Cherries and Olathe Sweet Corn Cream Rosemary; and main courses such as Pine Honey Marinated Lamb Chop; Blackberry and Sage Marinated Muscovy Duck Breast with Black Barley with Caramelized Pears and Walnuts, Apricot Maple Poultry Reduction.

You can top off the night in a comfortable seat next to the rustic fireplace with a selection from Ski Tips famed desserts, such as its signature apple cobbler.

Snowcat Tour, Nordic Skiing, Ice Skating

We ski the mountain in the morning, and in the afternoon, we experience one of the Keystone adventures: a Mountain Top Tour by snowcat, through the back mountains of Keystone, to a high point where (on a clear day) there are spectacular views along the Continental Divide, Ten Mile Range and the Gore Range. On this day, though, snow is falling in white sheets but the trip is a thrilling experience, nonetheless.

River Run, Keystone's newest base area, at night © 2010 Karen Rubin/

For our fourth day, we sample cross-country skiing at Keystone’s Nordic Center facility on what would be the golf course. The trails lead us up to a hill top with magnificent views of the mountains and valley. If you are lucky to be in Keystone when the moon is full, there are moonlight snowshoe tours.

Families will also enjoy ice skating on Keystone Lake, voted one of the best outdoor ice rinks in North America by MSNBC, probably because the five-acre rink is set amidst these incomparable mountain peaks.

Added Value, Rounded Experience

Keystone’s “Three for Free” program means that when you book lodging through Keystone-managed properties, you get to choose 3 Free activities during your stay out of a list that includes free ice rink admission, free Nordic trail fee, free scenic sleigh ride, free intro to snow biking, free mountain tour, free hot-cocoa and free spirits tasting.

How’s this for fun: Keystone offers a daily modern day treasure hunt daily, and it’s free! You pinpoint a hidden “treasure” by entering pre-determined latitude and longitude waypoints in to a Garmin eTrex Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and then use it to find up to three hidden caches along Keystone’s biking and hiking trails. Visit the Keystone Mountain Concierge in River Run to check out a GPS unit and get your instructions (970-496-4386, ).

Cross-country ski trails at Keystone's Nordic Center bring you to gorgeous views of the mountains and valley © 2010 Karen Rubin/

And here’s a clever way to save: Vail Resorts has introduced Lunch for Less on-mountain meal offered at all five of mountain resorts for just $9.95 including an entrée, side and drink every day. Also look forVail Resorts’ Appetite for Life program which serves organic dairy and locally grown food. Back again, experience the signature Epic Mountain Burgers and Yogurt Parfait desserts. Look for gluten free items too. It’s the largest program of its kind.

For true novelty this season, Vail Resorts has introduced EpicMix, a digital application that guests can access online, at their computer or via a free mobile application that can be downloaded for the iPhone, Android or other smart phone. EpicMix automatically captures your activity throughout each of the Vail Resorts, by leveraging Vail Resorts’ state-of-the-art radio frequency (RF) scanners that are being installed at each of its 89 lifts across all five mountain resorts. An RF-enabled chip embedded in Vail Resorts’ season passes and PEAKS lift tickets automatically tracks your lift rides, calculating vertical feet skied and days on the mountain and recognizes special achievements and accomplishments by granting you commemorative, collectible digital pins. EpicMix will have hundreds of available digital pins for a multitude of unique experiences available at each resort (For more information visit

Our stay at Expedition Station, one of the River Run condos right at the River Run base, has been ideal. Walking distance to the gondola, shops, dining, a market. We loved the Western ambiance, the pool table in a cozy lounge, fitness room and outdoor pool, heated so you can enjoy a swim as the snowflakes fall, and hot tub, and there is always a bowl of granola bars on hand. And our unit is a complete apartment with all the amenities of home, only better.

Indeed, River Run base area has a delightful assortment of eateries, pubs, shops.

Cross-country skiing from Keystone's Nordic Center is another way to enjoy the outdoors © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Inxpot Coffee House, for example, perfectly captures the quirky and interesting character of Keystone. This is a colorful coffee house with personality and pedigree – a lending library, profound quotations chalked on the walls and ceiling, and classic movies presented on Friday nights.

Luigi’s Pasta Houseis a delightful Italian restaurant in River Run where we savor penne a la vodka for a casual dinner.

Der Fondue Chessel

Perhaps the biggest surprise came as a sort of farewell to our all-too-brief visit to Keystone: dinner at Der Fondue Chessel, at the Outpost atop North Peak at 11,444 feet.

Dinner at Der Fondue Chessel is a uniquely memorable experience atop Keystone's North Peak © 2010 Karen Rubin/

You don’t just walk in though – you get there via a spectacular gondola ride that is absolutely magical in the night, for the most unusual and enchanting experience of all.

The ski lodge where we had enjoyed the endorphin-rush of lunch on the patio amid these mountain peaks has been transformed into a Bavarian social hall, with long tables where families and friend share platters of food and cook in a fondue pot. Best is the live Bavarian music by “Those Austrian Guys,” – actually ski guides from Austria who love to play their music; wearing their traditional lederhosen, they stroll around the room, coming to various tables, and soon enough, people are up and dancing in the aisles – at one point, a group from Austria stood to sing “Edelweiss” together.

Costumed servers bring four courses of food – beginning with a cheese fondue, the main course of a selection of meats, fish and vegetables which you grill and then dip in various sauces, and the piece de resistance: chocolate fondue with various fruits to dip. They even provide a bottle of wine. The setting on the mountain top, snow all around, flags hanging from the rafters, a roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace, and you are absolutely transported. As we left, snow like crystals were falling. (The gondola operates until 11 p.m.).

Not surprisingly, Der Fondue Chessel is one of the popular venues at Keystone for weddings, year-round.

Der Fondue Chessel is fabulous for a family gathering © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Der Fondue Chessel is adjacent to Keystone’s finest Alpenglow Stube, in fact the highest AAA Four-Diamond dining experience in North America. The gondola delivers you to the top of North Peak at 11,444 feet where an intimate dining experience awaits. Kick off your shoes and slip into fuzzy Austrian slippers provided by the Stube. Then savor a culinary masterpiece of cuisine with a contemporary, Bavarian influence, for lunch and dinner.

As we ride back to Denver the next morning, we reflect on all we had experienced within this compact, yet expansive area – from the mountain slopes to the cross-country trails, the dining to the spa, and feel we have really made a destination “find.”

Bottom line: Keystone Resort is supreme blend of Western ruggedness, New Age sensibility and world-class sophistication, value packaged for families looking for a memorable ski/riding holiday.

For information, contact Keystone, 800-328-1323 or 970-496-4500 or online at www.keystoneresort.comwhere there are great vacation planning tools and special deals, happenings at, or through Vail Resorts at

Friday, 10 December, 2010


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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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