Skiing in Colorado with Car Hire from Denver

We recently put together an information page here about skiing in America with regard to hiring a car. David is a regular TripWheels customer who has skied in Breckenridge with his family, for about 20 years, and has very kindly put together some tips, thoughts and suggestions for anyone looking at hiring a car from Denver Airport for a ski trip in Colorado. We are delighted to share that information here. 

No car rental provider is in-terminal, they are all shuttle buses to their own facilities a couple of miles away from the terminal, but still within the airport grounds.

The airport itself is fab, about 10-15 years old, miles out on the plains (it’s about 12 miles from the entrance sign to the terminal) and features an exterior design reminiscent of Indian tepees [and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains]. It had trouble at launch with its state-of-the-art baggage system, blamed locally for the airport being built on top of an old Indian burial ground…

the roof peaks of denver international airport

Photograph Provided Courtesy of Denver International Airport

There’s no reason not to take your own skis as I think their carriage is included in transatlantic airlines’ baggage allowance [please check with your airline] and Denver Airport handles them (not surprisingly) very well with a vertical luggage carousel dedicated to skis.  If you do take your own skis you will need to either rent skis racks with the rental car or, as we do, have a 7 seat people carrier or full-size SUV as the skis can slide under the seats from front to back.

It is not recommended to pick a vehicle up, then drive up to the resorts on the same day (apart from Winter Park which is much closer) as it can be a challenging (but simple Interstate 70 journey almost all the way) 2-3 hour journey. But to spend the night in Denver (nice city) or, if a late arrival into DEN, then at one of the main chain hotels clustered around the airport perimeter.

Driving itself is as easy as anywhere else in the US. Most of the seasonal snow falls in the mountains, rarely reaching Denver itself, so you’d be unlucky to be driving in snow from the airport. Because it is very dry, you are never clearing frost from a vehicle left overnight, only the dry sugary ‘powder snow’ that is typical of Colorado.

We’ve only been in March/April (April being the snowiest month of the year co-incidentally) and have almost never needed 4 wheel drive in 20 years. 95% of the time, a front wheel drive rental vehicle is sufficient, but I’d understand why first timers would want 4 wheel drive. To be fair, many of the SUV category vehicles in Denver (which would be just Front Wheel Drive versions in Florida) would have All Wheel Drive [availability of AWD or 4WD is never guaranteed].

Vail is a long journey, but do-able if you’ve had an overnight rest. Breckenridge (the most popular resort for British families) is just over two, crossing one major mountain top by passing through the Eisenhower Tunnels after a long ascent. At this altitude (when you landed in Denver, you were already 1 mile above sea level and now you’re climbing at 10,000 ft), engines lose 10-15% of their power output (less with turbo-charged engines), so a full-loaded vehicle may be making a lot of engine noise as it struggles to maintain the set speed, often dropping 2 or 3 gears to maintain momentum.

In the Spring, Interstate 70 has had a winter of trucks with snow chains on pounding the road surface and it is often in poor condition on the upward slopes. The road is usually clear of any recently fallen snow, but the broken surface is sometimes obscured by loose powder, leading to the odd surprise bump!

As you enter the Front Range (as the start of the Rockies is called), you pass a ‘Buffalo Overlook’ on the right hand side, which gives you the rare (even for Americans) chance to see big black buffalo roaming a dedicated area.

Georgetown makes a good stopping point for coffee as it is positioned just before the big climb up Eisenhower.

For those wanting to have a day’s break in their skiing, then a well-worth 1/1.5 hour journey from Breckenridge (1 hr from Vail) is to go to Glenwood Hot Springs which features a couple of large outdoor swimming pools naturally heated to 100F. The route (direct on Interstate 70) also takes you through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon which (at the time of construction) was the most expensive piece of Interstate (on a per-mile basis) ever built as it twists its way at multiple levels round and through the canyon. Your drive is often accompanied by a 50-100 car rail-road freight train on the other side of the river.

We have twice combined our skiing week with a road trip across neighbouring Utah to Las Vegas. Some of America’s most spectacular National Parks line this route, including Bryce Canyon, Moab, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion and, ultimately, Grand Canyon. If you are 4 adults or 2 adults + 2 teenagers, then a minivan is highly recommended for the journey as you are in the vehicle for long stretches of Interstate.

We are extremely grateful to David B-E. for permitting us to share these insightful tips with you.