KEYSTONE — It was 80 degrees on a sunny, breezy July day at Keystone Resort as Jessica, Lisabeth and Brendon Samuelson — ages 10, 8 and 5, respectively — used chalk to draw dogs and cats on the sidewalk in the gondola plaza play area at Keystone Resort. The Denver-based Samuelsons were in Keystone for the Kidtopia Kidfest event, but they have every intention of returning for their fifth winter as a family that skis Keystone.
"We just drive up for the day usually," says mom Carol Lee, who grew up in Nebraska and spent winter weekends skiing most of the Interstate 70-corridor ski areas with her family. Dad Rob Samuelson doesn't downhill ski; he prefers to strap on a pair of cross-country skis to head into the surrounding White River National Forest for some quiet time. "If we can swing it," Lee adds, "we'll stay the weekend for the kids' school holidays, but sometimes those sell out really fast. But it can be worth it, because they get the free passes."
Keystone's Kids Ski Free program is slightly different from other ski areas in that it's tied to lodging rather than adult lift tickets — kids get a free lift ticket for all of their stay starting the night of arrival, as long as the family stays a minimum of two nights, no other strings attached. Last season, the resort says it gave away more than 25,000 free tickets for kids ( keystoneresort.com/kidsskifree).
It's just one of many family-friendly amenities at this resort — the largest in Summit County, with 3,148 skiable acres — that sits only 90 minutes from the Denver area.
"This idea of being what we call family-centric rather than family-friendly, it started with the founders," says Keystone communications manager Laura Parquette. "I don't see that changing anytime soon. We're really proud of our commitment to families."
As with so many Colorado resorts, Keystone, which turns 43 next month, was originally a logging and mining concern; it took its name from Keystone Mountain itself. Founder Max Dercum, who died in 2011, has a mountain named after him; he and his partner, Bill Bergman, who has Bergman Bowl as a namesake, were adamant that trails and lifts be named after the area's rich history — famous runs such as Flying Dutchman, Wild Irishman and Paymaster take after mines; Saw Whiskers, Ball Hooter and Go Devil are logging terms.
Current owner/operator Vail Resorts took over in 1997, when Keystone and Breckenridge merged with Vail and Beaver Creek. Vail was vocal from the start about its intentions to make Keystone the most family-friendly resort in the country. Over the years, while other ski areas put their capital improvement funds into higher-speed gondolas and glading terrain, Keystone focused on the family, adding a weekly parade led by a professional float, building an enormous snow fort and snow maze at the top of Dercum Mountain, increasing the wagon fleet and, this year, adding golf carts to transport guests from the free parking lot, which also offers three rows of designated high-occupancy vehicle-only parking to get families to the mountain faster and more easily.
"What we've always liked here is that it just has this great setup and safe vibe," says mom Lee. "And there are all of these long, easy runs where we might zig-zag around other people ... but not worry that anyone is going to get lost or that we won't all wind up together again."
This year's improvements include a new ski trail called the SchoolYard, designed to entice families to progress together as skiers and snowboarders in a fun atmosphere. The SchoolYard — which debuts when the resort opens Nov. 1 — has a signed entrance halfway down longtime green cruiser favorite Schoolmarm and will feature rollers, small moguls and other varied terrain.
Other changes this season are more subtle but intended to tweak concepts that were already in place, such as the renaming of the terrain park Freda's Incubator, a small area near the SchoolYard for beginner or practicing riders and skiers looking to improve their skills. This year, the park will be called Easy Street, and like SchoolYard, the goal for the area is to encourage progression and practice.
"Everyone is certainly welcome, and we're not going to exclude anyone, but obviously in areas like those, we're aiming at a particular audience," says Parquette. "Easy Street will be for those looking to play around on small stuff, or for those of us getting older and looking for less consequences as we try new moves. It's a great way to hit a couple of boxes, try rails, do a small jump, in an area where you feel more comfortable and safe."
That's not to say that families are the only ones who feel welcome at Keystone, where men's slopestyle competitors Mark McMorris and Torstein Horgmo will practice in the A51 terrain park for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The ski area also has been famous for its night skiing (weather permitting) since 1985, and "not only do we have the most skiable terrain in Summit County, but we also have these award-winning terrain parks and amazing in-bounds cat skiing," says Parquette.
The cat skiing program is available throughout the season, weather-permitting, and allows guests to take a full-day tour with a guide in the bowls. "You usually get in six to eight runs, and there's a catered lunch" she adds. "This is a high-intermediate experience above treeline for skiers and riders who are comfortable in black terrain and looking to move up. It's a great way to dip your toes in that water; no cliffs or super-extreme stuff, just great open-bowl skiing."
Keystone also offers a cat shuttle that leaves from the top of Outback, off the Outback Express lift, and goes to the tops of North and South bowls. "It's a $5 cash-only shuttle that is just for those who want to access that terrain without having to hike to it," Parquette says. "It's a nice option to have."
Most of the activities are free, although some, like tubing, have a fee. Others, such as DJ-led ice skating, are free if you bring your own skates. Many don't charge extra if you're already on the mountain, such as skiing or snowboarding with Ripperoo (the resort's doglike mascot) or the family scavenger hunts. And many are activities that all ages can enjoy, including fireworks Saturdays Dec. 22-Mar. 23, and free shows put on by the Denver Figure Skating Club on Keystone Lake during select weekends.
And then there's Lisabeth Samuselson's favorite, free hot chocolate and cookies daily at 4 p.m. at Dercum Square in River Run.
"It's cold after you ski," Lisabeth says as she chalks in the finishing touches on a creature she announces is half-dragon, half-horse. "Hot chocolate is good."
Kyle Wagner: 303-954-1599, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/kylewagnerworld
Keystone Resort insider's guide
Get there and around
Keystone is 90 miles west of Denver via Interstate 70 (Exit 205, Silverthorne/Dillon), and U.S. 6. Free shuttles operate within the resort, picking up every 20 minutes at designated stops.
Keystone has an abundance of condos, the ideal option for families, with fully stocked kitchens and plenty of wiggle room. Some offer hot tubs and fireplaces, as well as game rooms and heated outdoor swimming pools. Keystone Resort has pools at some complexes that are available to guests staying at related lodgings. For more info, visit keystoneresort.com/plan-a-vacation/lodging/lodging-results.aspx
DineDer Fondue Chessel (on the mountain, 800-354-4386, keystoneresort.com) is an experience, so plan on spending the better part of the evening. Take the gondola to the top of North Peak, where everything fondue-related is available, from meat and seafood to vegetables and cheese to chocolate for dessert, with live music and people doing the chicken dance. Kids can get antsy if things take too long; best to try for an early reservation for young ones.
Haywood Café (23110 U.S. 6, 970-262-9300, haywoodcafe.com) is the place to be if a game is on, with TVs hanging around the dining areas and a laidback feel. Three meals daily, including a top-notch breakfast (try the Sexy Mexy Benny, with chorizo, pico de gallo and hollandaise) and a ski season happy hour menu that features a $1 mystery draft beer and $5 food specials (pork sliders, wings, onion rings), as well as steaks, sandwiches and burgers and a $6 kids' menu.
Luigi's Pasta House (140 Ida Belle Dr., 970-468-0300, luigispastahouse.com) does family-style pastas that serve 2-3 or individual servings of favorites like linguini Alfredo and spaghetti Bolognese, as well as flatbread pizzas and meatball hoagies. The white linen tablecloths belie the casual, family friendly setting, and the surrounding windows make for great River Run people-watching.
Pizza 101 (23024 U.S. 6, 970-262-0200, pizza101.biz) serves crispy-spicy chicken wings and calzones along with its medium-thick, oven-fired pizzas, and delivery around town is free.
Pizza on the Run (140 Ida Belle Drive, 970-513-6636) serves thick-crust pies so hearty that a slice could almost be a meal, with braided crusts and piled-on toppings. The menu also features soups and salads, and the River Run location is easy to get to and delivers in the village.