Gemma Bowes, The Guardian, December 16, 2013
With seven of America's 10 most-visited resorts, Colorado is the powerhouse of US skiing. Destinations such as Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone each draw more than a million skiers each season with their large, immaculately kept ski areas, expensive restaurants and good chances of a celebrity sighting. Hardcore skiers flock in growing numbers to cult destinations such as Powderhorn and Silverton, to test their mettle on the steeps then party hard in the wild-west bars.
But at the original Colorado ski resort, all is quiet. Smoke puffs from the chimneys of little log cabins. Sunlight sparkles on a snow-covered trail that runs from the cabins to the slopes, through sedate woodland of blue spruce, aspen and fir. This is Pioneer, which opened in 1939 – the state's first resort – offering a basic rope-tow at first, then Colorado's first chairlift.
Today it is something of a ghost resort, the lifts long closed, the slopes left to deer and bobcat. The few skiers have to be prepared to skin up the steep hill through deep snow. But it remains a wonderful place to stay, largely thanks to the efforts of Matt and Leah Whiting, who have owned Pioneer since 2001 and have given the original guest cabins a new lease of life, lovingly renovating the retro furniture and fittings. For European visitors, these are the wild west cabins of the imagination, with tin roofs, little porches, red doors, and window boxes decorated with crimson ribbons.
"When it opened, it cost $1 a day to ski here – quite a lot of money for the time," says Matt as he shows me around. There were just four runs, including the Big Dipper, a treacherous 45-degree expert run with a 3,900ft vertical drop. The one-seater chairlift was adapted from a piece of redundant mining machinery, bought for just $50. The buckets for transporting ore were replaced by seats, and the whole thing was powered by an old Cadillac engine. "People came from all over, from Texas and Oklahoma – but they must have had quite a rude awakening when they got here. The ski area was very steep."
The hiatus in skiing during the war put paid to Pioneer's initial popularity. Then in the early 1950s, as tourism resumed, a bigger resort was created at Crested Butte, 10 miles up the road, offering easier skiing for all abilities. The Pioneer chair last whirred into action in 1952, before being dismantled and taken off to its new neighbour.
But eight cabins still stand: four studio-style ones sleeping four, built in the 1930s; and four larger ones sleeping six added in the late 1960s. They're strung out in a line above Cement Creek, with names like Cottonwood, Red Fox and Oh-Be-Joyful. Ours, Wild Rose, has an open-plan living space with a kitchen, woodburner, sofas covered in quilts and a double bed all sharing one room. A mezzanine, reached by a ladder, has another bed that's ideal for kids. The sofas and bedhead are made from peeled logs; antique skis and old tin adverts for gasoline, Chrysler and fast food decorate the dark timber walls.
Rather than feeling like a cramped bedsit, it somehow has a Little House on the Prairie charm. I love curling up in bed that night listening to the crackle of the woodburner and the whistle of the kettle on the stove while my partner makes our dinner right next to me.
The next morning we fry eggs from the local store for breakfast, then pull back the checked curtains to see fat snowflakes falling. By the time we reach Crested Butte Mountain Resort, a 15-minute drive away, it's clear this is going to be one of those powder days that excite the locals as much as the tourists. During our first blizzardy chairlift ride up, the guy beside me leans over and grins: "So you called in sick at work too, huh?".
With its long rolling stretches of blue and red runs, the majority of the resort is perfect for intermediates, but there are some fun tree sections, and almost 30 double-black-diamond runs (though for a time the lifts accessing them are closed because of strong winds) and some challenging off-piste slopes.
After a day of powder, we drive down the hill to the historic town of Crested Butte, which feels very different from the more famous Colorado resorts. While Aspen, Breckenridge and Telluride were silver mining towns, with imposing red brick buildings signifying their wealth, Crested Butte was a coal town, more cheaply built in wood. Main Street today is a long row of well-preserved clapboard buildings, colourfully painted and fronted with wooden boardwalks.
A self-guided historic walking tour of the town, following numbered information boards, takes us to old 1800s homes and boarding houses, saloons, the old Company Store (now a wine bar), all with facades that would make Clint Eastwood feel at home.
When the coal mine shut in 1952, the town began to focus on skiing and outdoor pursuits, and they remain at its heart. It's still a cheaper place for ski nuts to move to than the glitzy resorts, and outdoorsy folk from all over the US have migrated here not just to get their adrenalin kicks, but also to bring up families. That, coupled with a thriving arts and music scene, half a dozen parades and festivals a year, endless fancy dress events and opportunities for silliness and fun mean the town has a distinctly relaxed, alternative atmosphere.
The shopping is low-key, with hippy stores and homemade crafts rather than fur coats and high fashion. Many people ride around on super-fat-tyre pushbikes that can handle the snow; stacks of them wait unlocked outside every spit 'n' sawdust drinking hole.
The consensus among residents is that the financial crash saved Crested Butte from turning into another Aspen or Telluride, both of which were once counter-cultural hubs but are now playgrounds for the wealthy. Nevertheless, there's a thriving food scene here: we scoff platters of superior sushi rolls at Lo Bar in a dark, bordello-style interior that later becomes a club; we eat steak at Soupçon, a French fine-dining place that has introduced snails to the wild west; and we slurp cocktails at the sultry Dogwod Cocktail Cabin.
The skiing may not be as extensive as on other Colorado mountains, but there's enough to keep you busy for a few days – making it an ideal stop on a road trip around several resorts.
After four hours' drive south through empty snowy plains, we reach Telluride, which has some of the best skiing in the entire US, and the New Sheridan, a smart red brick reinvention of a historic 1895 inn, that's also home to the town's oldest bar. It's a great place to stay, a boutique hotel exuding the style and character that so much US ski accommodation lacks.
It's just down the street from the site of Butch Cassidy's first heist, on June 24 1889, and we decide to follow in the outlaw's footsteps, driving on 20 miles south to the ghost town where he's said to have hidden following the bank robbery. From the outside, the 18 wooden buildings of Dunton Hot Springs look much as they would have done when Cassidy got here (and his name is carved on the bar in the saloon). Dunton had been established four years earlier, a busy mining camp of 300 souls. By 1918, though, it was deserted – abandoned, like so many others across the state, after a collapse in silver prices.
Dunton was a hippy hangout, offering cheap accommodation to passing bikers and aspiring poets, when, in 1994, it was bought by Christoph Henkel, a German-born businessman. The Henkel company owns household brands including Persil and Pritt. He and his art dealer wife Katrin spent the next seven years making Dunton into the high-end designer retreat it is today. Pieces from her collection – huge photographs by David LaChapelle and Terry Evans – adorn the walls of a large playroom/dancehall/cinema equipped with bean bags and Pendelton blankets.
Next door the main bar and dining room has a cowboy vibe, with a traditional tin ceiling and bar stools made of saddles. There are cosy touches such as woodburners, roaring fires and a basket of curly-toed felt slippers by the door, along with a pile of ice skates. In winter a mini ice rink is created in the garden and that, combined with the natural thermal waters that bubble up from the ground into the spa shed, the cross-country ski trails and the surrounding aspen-clad hills perfect for snowshoeing, means there's no need for guests to drive into Telluride to get their kicks.
Our cabin has much in common with the one at the Pioneer – rough-hewn logs, cosy rugs – but this is a more deliberately styled version, with Ren toiletries, a Rajasthani wedding bed, and an Indian gown on the wall. Others have kitsch cowgirl-pattern curtains, or wolfskins; one even has a copper slipper bath salvaged from the settlement's brothel, which burnt down in the 1980s while being used as a crystal meth lab.
Today there's a yoga studio and a library cabin with floor-to-ceiling shelves, a bearskin rug and buffalo horns on the walls. The library was created by the owner for his book-loving wife as a surprise birthday present. It's an almost absurdly luxurious reimagining of the wild west – with prices to match – yet the sense of history is strong. We stay for just a night, feasting on Rocky Mountain elk chops with green chilli cheddar polenta then setting out along a path cut like a canyon between high snow banks to our own, tiny, Colorado cabin.
Flights were provided by British Airways (ba.com) which flies from Heathrow to Denver from £720 return in winter. Internal flights from Denver to Gunnison/Crested Butte from $413 return with United (united.com).
Where to stay
Accommodation was provided by Pioneer Guest Cabins (+1 970 349 5517, pioneerguestcabins.com), cabins sleeping four cost from $119 a night; Dunton Hot Springs (+1 970 882 4800, duntonhotsprings.com), cabins for two from $600 all-inclusive; and the New Sherdian (+1 800 200 1891, newsheridan.com) in Telluride, doubles from £95 room-only.
colorado.com and visitcrestedbutte.com
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk