Editor’s note: This is part of our series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we will offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).
As far as I’m concerned, Colorado has by far the most fascinating ski history of any state in America. It deserves a museum worth of that legacy, and I’m thankful it has one: the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail.
I have been there many times, and every time I visit, I’m inspired by the colorful characters who created that legacy and intrigued by the many cool objects that help tell their story.
Created as the Colorado Ski Museum in 1976 and renamed after a $2.6 million modernization in 2018, it’s conveniently located in the Vail Transportation Center. Admission is free.
It moves me because I am a passionate skier, of course, but it goes much deeper than that. Colorado ski history is largely built on the legacy of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained for mountain warfare at Camp Hale near Leadville during World War II before fighting heroically in Italy’s Apennine Mountains in 1945. When I took a friend there last year, I got teary-eyed watching Chris Anthony’s film about the 10th, “Climb to Glory,” which the museum shows on a continuous loop. When I looked over at my friend, she had tears in her eyes as well.
After the war, many of those men started ski areas around the country, among them Aspen, Arapahoe Basin and Vail. Not far from the exhibits in the museum’s extensive 10th Mountain Division collection is an original Vail gondola car, circa 1962. Inside is a monitor depicting images from Vail’s early years, including one of Pete Seibert, the 10th Mountain vet who co-founded Vail.
The 10th Mountain exhibit includes winter combat gear (camouflage white), skis, crampons, a climbing rope and an ice ax used by 1940s ski troops, all of which are sure to stir the heart of any mountaineer. Visitors can read how 33 Camp Hale soldiers did the original “Trooper Traverse” when they skied 40 miles from Camp Hale to Aspen in a four-day journey over the Continental Divide, an epic achievement in the annals of American ski mountaineering.
There are maps, diagrams and descriptions of the 10th’s battles on Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere, and in the Po River Valley. There is a collection of war booty taken from Mussolini’s villa after the 10th occupied it during the final days of the war. (The Italian dictator had fled before they got there.)
Around the corner is a collection of skis and boots through the evolution of skiing; a single chair that hung on Aspen’s Lift 1 when the area first opened in 1947; and an exhibit honoring ski teams from the University of Denver and University of Colorado, They are the two winningest programs in collegiate ski history, accounting for 44 national championships between them.
The museum has a large area devoted to World Cup and Olympic ski racing that includes the crystal globe trophy Phil Mahre claimed when he won the first of his three World Cup overall titles in 1981 (he was the first American to claim skiing’s greatest prize), along with the second of Colorado native Mikaela Shiffrin’s three overall globes. The one we see here has a big crack in it. It was already cracked when she was awarded it in 2018, so the International Ski Federation sent her another, but the cracked one lives here.
Nearby is Lindsey Vonn’s Red Bull race helmet and Picabo Street’s ramshorn helmet (they are America’s winningest female downhillers). Opposite that exhibit is a 19-foot long interactive monitor that covers 11 decades of the Winter Olympics, plus the four world alpine championships held in Colorado (Aspen in 1950, and Vail in 1989, 1999 and 2015).
The museum also is home to the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame, which has 239 members. An interactive touchscreen monitor allows visitors to read bios and watch videos that tell the stories of those Colorado ski icons.
Plus, there is a great gift shop that sells really cool vintage ski posters, high-quality gifts and lots of great books. I always have a hard time getting out of there without spending money.
It’s hard for me to visit Vail without stopping at the museum, too. After all, it’s right there on the third floor of the Vail Village parking structure, a short walk from the base complex. Parking is free after 3 p.m.
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