The Edge

Winter Activity Guide

Thanks to another year of early openings, the ski and ride season is officially here. If you've been dreaming about floating in powder or trying out telemark skis, now's the time to get in line. The trend all over Colorado is steep and deep, with sky-scraping backcountry and extremes. Resorts are opening new bowls and formerly out-of-bounds areas to hikers, while making all that hike-to terrain they opened in recent years more accessible with snowcats, higher lifts and even helicopter drops. This insider's guide to the state's winter playgrounds will reveal all the new stashes while reviving some of the old history that's led many a ski bum to fall in love with Colorado's slopes and ski towns.

Arapahoe Basin

hey u gonna be sneaky again? remember me, i am the man who got the last lift ride of the day october 13 2006. u know me, I broke my first board on palavacini back in the 80s. ya know the days of sorrel boots. I hope to see ya soon.

— A post from matthew on the MySpace page of his friend Arapahoe Basin

Arapahoe Basin is a single, sixty-year-old male looking to network. His body type is "More to Love!" And this year, he's gotten a lot bigger — try 80 percent bigger. The Montezuma Bowl was the largest expansion of his life, adding 400 acres and 36 blue, black and double-black runs to his frame, accessed by the new, fixed-grip quad Zuma Lift. This fall, as friends like Matthew Womack waited for A-Basin to announce its opening day — which turned out to be a record-breaking October 10 — they grew more and more anxious to meet the new mountain.

"I'm fiendin.'"

"OPEN...OPEN...OPEN...OPEN..."

"This will be my 21 year of not missing an opening or closing day at the basin :)"

If A-Basin's 542 closest friends are anything like Womack, this enthusiasm isn't specific to the opening of Montezuma. They get this excited for the start of A-Basin's season every year because they simply love the place — the beach, the barbecue, the people, the history, the scenery. All of it.

Womack first discovered Arapahoe in 1988. The skateboarder started off skiing and then got a snowboard before there were snowboarding boots. He got to know the history of A-Basin while hanging out with older guys: "Like really old, like my grandfather's age, and they were still skiing, and they were good." Some of those older guys had been around since the resort's 1946 inception and knew the work and vision it took to make A-Basin a reality. "I dig the whole idea of these old-timers starting the ski industry," Womack says of people like Larry Jump, a 10th Mountain Division veteran who helped found the resort.

But what Womack loved most about A-Basin was the scene on the beach, that bank of snow that meets the parking lot at the base, and the wild camping parties and barbecues at night with dogs running wild and everybody having a good time. "People would take couches and put skis on the bottom, hike up in the middle of the night, and you'd hear this screaming up on the ski slope. People were going down the hill, and of course they couldn't steer," he remembers.

Campers have since been relegated to the upper lot, dogs aren't supposed to run wild, and the parties have mellowed slightly. But the skiing has not. A-Basin is still the highest skiable terrain in North America, and some of the steepest. The mountain also has one of the longest seasons, so that diehards keep coming until June. "Another thing that's a blast is at the end of the year, a little lake forms and people ski across it," Womack says. "It's fun watching people get wet and fall over. My friend Tim went across the lake and went swimming, and it was a cold day. We had to ride the lift to get back down the second half. He was soaking wet. Can you imagine? He wasn't happy, but it's something we look back and laugh about."

With Montezuma opening, Womack's feeling more nostalgic than usual. "It's not going to be the small ski resort maybe anymore," he says. While he's looking forward to the new terrain and excited to see his favorite resort getting bigger and better, he also hopes that things won't change too much.

General Information: www.arapahoebasin.com; 1-888-ARAPAHOE.

Location: 68 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 205, then 12 miles east on U.S. Hwy. 6.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends.

Snow Report: 1-888-ARAPAHOE.

Lift Rates: Early-season adult day pass: $45; early-season youth (15-19) day pass: $39; early-season child (6-14) day pass: $22; early-season senior (60-69) day pass: $42; early-season seniors over 70 day pass: $10; kids under 5 day pass: free. Peak and late-season day passes: TBA.

Terrain: 900 acres, with 105 trails; 10 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 37 percent advanced, 23 percent expert. The base is 10,780', with a 2,257' vertical rise; summit: 13,050'.


Aspen Highlands

It's known as the locals' mountain. Marcus Scarth, an instructor at Aspen Highlands, says that's because it's by far the steepest. The Highland Bowl has a 48-degree pitch and some of the steepest, longest runs in North America, he points out.

His friend Brian Schaefer, who runs the Hotel Durant in Aspen, agrees. "I love hiking the Highland Bowl," he says. "It's a half-hour hike to the summit. The snow is good. It doesn't get skied out very fast. It's steep, and it seems like you can always find a little stash of some good snow."

While Schaefer spends most of his time in the Highland Bowl, Scarth likes the backcountry, lift-accessible runs in the Maroon Bowl and Five Fingers Bowl, too.

Teaching is a weekend thing for Scarth. He wouldn't do it if he didn't enjoy being at Aspen Highlands. He likes that it's the least crowded of the four Aspen resorts, and that everybody gets along. There's no skier-versus-snowboarder friction — and there's definitely a party atmosphere that comes with being the locals' mountain.

In the springtime, people drink outside the Merry-Go-Round restaurant with their shirts off. "It's a wonderful spot, and if you've never been there, you should get there," he says.

General Information: www.aspensnowmass.com/highlands; 1-800-525-6200.

Location: 219 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 82.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $87.

Terrain: 1,010 skiable acres with 125 trails; 18 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 16 percent advanced; 36 percent expert. The base is 8,040', with a 3,635' vertical rise; summit: 11,675'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Aspen Mountain

When he's not traveling the world competing and appearing in films, pro big-mountain skier Ted Davenport prefers Aspen Mountain's terrain to anything else in Colorado. The tree skiing is epic. "It's a real skiers' mountain because of the consistent long terrain," he says. "Five- to seven-minute, top-to-bottom absolute leg-burners with fresh tracks two thirds of the way, at least." Most of the terrain is intermediate to expert — and steep, with 3,000 feet of vertical rise.

In the late 1800s, Aspen Mountain was a mine and Aspen a mining town. That history contributes not only to the culture that Davenport enjoys in Aspen, but to the terrain itself. "The dirt and rock they dug out of the center of the mountain has formed these boulder-free ski trails where, when it snows, it's super-long pitches, with no risk of hitting anything because it's been so mined," he says. "Once the mining industry stopped and the skiing industry showed up, we reaped the benefits unknowingly."

Those benefits are most noticeable in The Dumps, which got its name because it's where all that dirt and rock was dumped — but it also seems to be where all the snow dumps. "On a good powder day, you get to the Dumps as quick as you can," Davenport insists. The best way to get there is to start at the Face of Bell Mountain, and then hop on Chair 6.

Davenport loves the Aspen vibe almost as much as he does the terrain. "We kind of are a little egotistical," he says of Aspen skiers. "We feel these ski areas are the best place in Colorado, bar none, because the ski area was built from out of the town as opposed to the town being built for the ski area. Aspen the town has been around for a hundred years. There's a lot of loyalty. It's a very special place to live."

General Information: www.aspensnowmass.com/aspenmountain; 1-800-525-6200.

Location: 219 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 82.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $87.

Terrain: 673 skiable acres with 76 trails; 48 percent intermediate; 26 percent advanced; 26 percent expert. The base is 7,945', with a 3,267' vertical rise; summit: 11,212'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Beaver Creek

Brian Hulick, a sales rep for Marker skis, has lived and skied in Colorado just about his whole life. After nine years on a freestyle mogul team in Steamboat, he moved to Avon and got to know Beaver Creek. He calls it the locals' jewel. "They have a lot of hidden gems," he says. "Nobody's there on the weekends. It's pretty much the place I go. The skiing's always good. Everything about Beaver Creek is pretty nice."

By everything, he means the couple of parks, with a good little half-pipe, and the hike-to terrain he frequents. The Grandpa Glades require "just a little bit of a hike, not too much" to get to a good stash of powder in the trees. "It's just a little bit steeper, untracked snow," he says.

The Y Chute is a more unknown area — but with a 40- to 45-minute hike to get there, it's much less accessible. "There's a little bit of avalanche slide [potential]," he says, "but it's not a super-long run-out. It's not something that would take you and carry you forever. If you're ever looking for some untracked snow, it's got it. It opens up and then narrows out. It's got some trees."

On the east side of the mountain is Stone Creek Chutes — an area that opened up to the public for the first time last season, but that locals had known about for years. "They're trying to open some more challenging terrain for people," Hulick says. "Stone Creek is short but sweet: narrower chutes, rock drops, lots of good trees, lots of aspen skiing. Since it's become open terrain, it's gotten skied out a little more, but if you get out there on a good, snowy day, you can find some tree runs that are probably some of the best on the mountain."

As for the resort itself, Hulick points out that everything is centrally located, which gives it a close and quaint feel. "Avon's down the hill. There's everything you need as far as restaurants and children's ski school. It's family-oriented," he says, "which is probably what makes it so accessible on weekends. People coming up from Denver are just like, 'Oh, let's go to Vail.' They don't really know about Beaver Creek, and that's why the locals tend to go there on Saturdays and Sundays." But still, you'll have to head out early if you want the fresh stashes on a powder day.

Beaver Creek does have a couple of drawbacks. The parking is far out, unless you want to pay, and then it's "spendy" — which shouldn't shock anyone who skis in Colorado. But the parking is still less of a hassle at Beaver Creek than it is at Vail if you get there late, and for those willing to pay $30, Mountain Valet will park your car at either Beaver Creek or Vail. This season, the new Riverfront Express Gondola will also provide a fast route from Avon to the resort, and another gondola, the Buckaroo Express, is opening in the kids' learning area.

General Information: www.beavercreek.snow.com; 1-970-845-9090.

Location: 110 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 167.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through December 13; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. December 14-April 13.

Snow Report: 1-800-427-8308.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 1,805 skiable acres with 148 trails; 19 percent beginner, 43 percent intermediate, 38 percent advanced and expert. The base is 8,100', with a 4,040' vertical rise; summit: 11,400'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Breckenridge

Breckenridge has an assortment of parks to choose from, with a good progression from beginner boxes and little jumps to Freeway Terrain Park, Peak 8's "big boy park" and the favorite place to play for pro rider and Breck resident Ryan Thompson. "It's pretty much where I spend most of my time," he says. "They do a good job maintaining it and keeping it center stage. They give it more attention. Everything's more. The half-pipe is pretty much perfect at all times." It's so center stage and perfect that sometimes families come around to watch and oooh and aaah. Although a gawker occasionally gets in the way, for the most part the park doesn't get too crowded, Thompson adds.

Breckenridge has seen some major changes in recent years, what with the addition of the Imperial Express SuperChair — North America's highest chairlift — and the BreckConnect gondola linking the town of Breckenridge to the resort. For this season, the main addition is a new terrain park on Peak 8. Instead of having parks of differing difficulty levels scattered across two peaks, the new park has put a progression system in one place. Skiers and riders will be able to move seamlessly from Trygve's beginner park to the new Park Lane intermediate park to Freeway. Park Lane sits next to Freeway, but the run has a longer, milder pitch, making it an ideal place for intermediate hits and rails.

Even though Freeway is his favorite, Thompson says there's a lot of other terrain he likes to hit at Breck. He usually warms up cruising around Chair 6, on the south side of Peak 8, especially when the snow is fresh. "That's where you kind of weed out most of the tourists from the local people," he says. When he's looking for powder, he goes to the south side of Peak 10. "And if you're willing to take a hike, go up to Windows," he urges.

Après-ski, you're likely to find Thompson — who recently graced the cover of TransWorld Snowboarding magazine — at Clint's Bakery. "It's always super-good," he says. "Everything's homemade there, and the girls who work behind the counter are really pretty."

General Information: www.breckenridge.snow.com; 1-970-453-5000.

Location: 80 miles west of Denver on I-70, (exit 203), Colo. Hwy. 9 to Breckenridge.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-453-6118.

Lift Rates: Early-season adult day pass: $59; early-season child (12 and under) day pass: $39. Rest of season TBA.

Terrain: 2,358 skiable acres with 155 trails; 15 percent beginner, 33 percent intermediate, 31 percent advanced, 36 percent expert. The base is 9,600', with a 3,398' vertical rise; summit: 12,998'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Buttermilk

This will be the seventh year in a row that ESPN's Winter X Games come to Buttermilk — bringing more than 250 of the world's best ski, snowboard and snowmobile athletes along. And with the X Games committed to Buttermilk through 2010, this little mountain must be doing something right.

According to Peter Olenick, a Carbondale freeskier who competes in the games, that something is the superpipe, considered the best in the world. "It's perfect," he says. "They have it up year-round in great condition. It's like three whole hits longer. Most pipes are four, maybe five hits, and this one is like seven or eight hits."

Like the local kids, Olenick goes to Buttermilk to lap the park all day. "I like that they have a bunch of rails you can hit all the way down before you even get to the main park," he says. "There's just rails everywhere." The last jump, which is next to the pipe, is a favorite: "It's really fun to train on that jump. It's like a sixty-footer," he says of the spot, where he'll usually attract an audience: "There's a pretty good little crew of skiers there." In all, it takes him about ten minutes to get down, and at the bottom, the lines aren't bad.

Beyond the park, Buttermilk has a lot of beginner terrain for those just learning (hence its name), or anybody else who wants a nice, easy day of cruising wide-open groomers.

General Information: www.aspensnowmass.com/buttermilk; 1-800-525-6200.

Location: 218 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 82.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $87.

Terrain: 470 skiable acres with 44 trails; 35 percent beginner, 39 percent intermediate, 26 percent advanced. The base is 7,870', with a 2,030' vertical rise; summit: 9,900'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-800-525-6200.


Copper Mountain

High Point is the only run that freestyle snowboarder Caroline Onzik needs. "I lap that area all day, and I never get bored," she says. Onzik, who lives in Breckenridge but now always goes to Copper, had just started hitting a couple of freestyle features here and there when she moved to Colorado from Wisconsin six years ago. She fell in love with the freestyle parks around Summit County, but High Point quickly became her favorite.

Now she'll head straight for the American Flyer lift that takes her to the top of High Point. On that run are three parks — High Point, Jibberish and Catalyst — with natural terrain in between, so that the entire run takes at least a half-hour. "High Point has more jumps, but smaller jumps," she says. "And Jibberish has more rails and boxes, and Catalyst has bigger versions of everything and half-pipes. It's a world-class park. I feel like they do a really good job. With so many resorts here, it's hard to be unique, but they pull it off. I love it. At any of those other parks, you can take a park run and maybe hit two features, and then there's not much of a run left; you have to get back on the chairlift. At Copper, you can play around with things from the second off the lift until the bottom. That's what makes it exciting to me." And right next to High Point, you can dip into the trees to find really good tree runs, she adds.

When Onzik can tear herself away from High Point, which is rare, she goes up the backside or takes the T-bar from American Eagle to the very top. "There are incredible tree runs," she says. "You can go even a couple of days after a snowstorm and still find stashes of powder. I go off and explore and still find new runs on powder days. It's pretty huge. Copper has some good natural steeps."

She thinks that something about the way Copper is situated keeps the wind from getting at and dispersing the snow as it does at other places. And after a big snowstorm, Copper often makes out best. "Because I live in Breck, oftentimes it will look like we got a couple of inches here — no big deal — and I'll get to Copper, and they'll have, like, twelve inches," she says. "One day last season I went with a couple of friends, thinking it's going to be kind of fun. We ended up going all over the mountain finding all this powder. We were freaking out. We couldn't believe it. No one was there. It was the greatest day."

This season, Copper's Catalyst Terrain Park and Main Vein Superpipe will host the US Freeskiing Open February 1-3 and the USASA Nationals March 30-April 4.

General Information: www.coppercolorado.com; 1-800-458-8386.

Location: 75 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 195.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends.

Snow Report: 1-800-789-7609.

Lift Rates: Early-season adult day pass: $59; early-season child (6-12) and seniors 70 and over day pass: $35; early-season senior day pass: $50. Rest of season TBA.

Terrain: 2,450 skiable acres with 126 trails; 21 percent beginner, 25 percent intermediate; 36 percent advanced and 18 percent expert. The base is 9,712', with a 2,601' vertical rise; summit: 12,313'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Crested Butte Mountain

Resort

This season, Crested Butte is putting its money where its mouth is. The resort is so convinced that people who get a taste of what it has to offer will become repeat customers that it's letting everyone ski for free.

That's right. Between November 25 and December 15, the Butte's lift tickets are absolutely, positively, 100 percent free. Free Ski is a deal the resort offered back in the '90s, and the Mueller family, who bought Crested Butte in 2004, are bringing it back. April Prout, communications director, says it's the perfect way to show off all the money that Tim and Diane Mueller have invested in the mountain over the past few years — now visible in the form of snowmaking, grooming, more signage and increased staff. Chris Gunnarson, president of Snow Park Technologies and the man who's designed the X Games since 1997, helped do a facelift of the DC Terrain Park, where freestylers will notice twelve new features, including a flat-to-down rail, a thirty-foot rail, boxes as big as fifteen feet, C-boxes and an A-frame rail.

This summer also saw the opening of the Mountaineer Conference Center, with 9,000 square feet of event space that can accommodate groups as large as 500. The development, part of $200 million in improvements currently under way, is exciting for the community, Prout says. It means that more people like her — people who move out to Crested Butte after college to be ski bums — will be able to find jobs and stay. Prout has stayed for 25 years.

"It's what skiing should be and used to be and will always be," she says. "We've got great skiing, great intermediate and beginner skiing, and the best in-bounds extreme terrain in the country. All of our extreme terrain is within our boundaries, so it's all controlled and patrolled, which I think is important rather than going out a gate." Some of the best extremes are to be found in North Face, High Lift and Teocalli Bowl. "You feel like you've gone to heaven when you get up in these extremes," Prout explains.

The resort has some of the best corduroy, too. International is a "navy blue" run, but it's groomed every night, so it makes for excellent steep cruising; Paradise is an intermediate cruiser that goes on for two miles. There's a lot for beginners to get their bearings on, too. When Prout tried telemark skiing last year, she found the runs off the Painter Boy, Gold Link and Prospect lifts were good places to start.

With 300 inches a year, the snow is always good, and the old town is worth exploring. "It's the end of the road and exceptionally charming and fun," Prout says. "You're liable to meet your waiter on the chairlift that day. It's really the heart and soul of Colorado, with a sense of home. Rather than a man-made ski resort, it's an old mining town."

General Information: www.skicb.com; 1-800-810-SNOW.

Location: 230 miles southwest of Denver via U.S. Hwy. 285, U.S. Hwy. 50 and Colo. Hwy. 135.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-888-442-8883.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $79.

Terrain: 1,167 skiable acres with 121 trails; 23 percent beginner, 57 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced. Base is 9,375', with a 2,775' vertical rise; summit: 12,162'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-970-349-1707.


Durango Mountain Resort

As a partner in the television and video production company Animas Media, John Trousdale spends a lot of time on Purgatory Mountain because it's so photogenic — particularly that hour in the morning when the sun makes everything look golden. The sun was one of the first things Trousdale noticed when he moved to Durango from Montana two and a half years ago — "chasing snow and, to some extent, a girl," he says. But the snow fell at night, and during the day, the sun was always shining, revealing clear views of alpine peaks and aspens and great secret stashes of powder that lasted weeks after a storm.

Trousdale likes the terrain's "roly-poly" cruisers and groomers on the front side. And on the back, there's steeper, deeper, tighter glade skiing with mini-cliff bands and rock drops. Snag is the run that all the powder hounds gun for every powder morning because of the non-stop jumps all the way down. But Styx, which isn't groomed, is Trousdale's favorite run, with Pandemonium a close runner-up. It's steep, rolling and "total Hollywood" right under the lift line, so you can show off if you're so inclined.

The town itself is a trip, too — a place where the steady stream of hitchhikers don't wait long for a ride, especially if they have skis in hand. "I think one of the things that a lot of people love is a lot of low-key vibe, local flavor, not pretentious, not about wearing the right designer parka — just a bunch of people up there to have a good time," Trousdale says. After turns, he and other locals still in their long johns and boots drop by the Olde Schoolhouse Cafe, for libations and pizza. And anyone visiting Durango has to stop by El Rancho Tavern. "It's more infamous than famous," he says. "That's where you go to tell your lies about how big the cliff you jumped off of was."

The weather in the southwest corner of the state isn't bad, either, and the lower elevation at Durango means that late in the season, you can leave Purgatory Mountain in your ski gear and put on shorts when you get to town.

General Information: www.durangomountainresort.com; 1-800-982-6103.

Location: 340 miles southwest of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 550 south.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-247-9000, ext 1.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $60-$65; child (6-12) day pass: $32-$34; student (13-18) and senior (62-69) day pass: $44-$48; senior 70 and over day pass: $20.

Terrain: 1,200 acres with 85 trails; 23 percent beginner, 51 percent intermediate, 26 percent advanced/expert. The base is 8,793', with a vertical rise of 2,029'; summit: 10,822'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Echo Mountain

Echo Mountain Park is no longer. Denver's "newest, closest and cheapest" ski resort is growing up, and it wants to be known as Echo Mountain from here on out. "There's a misperception. People think it's only a park," explains Chad Lee, Echo's marketing director. And this year, Echo is going for a broader appeal. Intent on attracting more traditional riders and skiers, it's enhanced its tree skiing, thinning trees and adding new wood features. There's also a new beginner area with a handle tow lift, and programs for kids and families.

Echo Mountain got its liquor license at the end of last season, and now has a full bar. The next project could be something like a softball beer league, but for skiers and riders. Teams will be able to compete in the evenings in a boardercross or snowcross-type event; the terrain will have some turns and rollers, but nothing too intimidating. "It will be more social than competitive," Lee says. "Have a few beers and ski at night."

And why not? Because not only is Echo Mountain 100 percent snowmaking, but it's 100 percent lit and 100 percent wired with music.

General Information: www.echomt.com; 303-325-7347.

Location: 19285 Hwy. 103; 35 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Hwy. 103.

Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed-Sat.; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. and Mon.; closed Tuesdays.

Snow Report: 303-325-7347.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $39; kids (6-14) day pass: $25; 5 and under: free.

Terrain: 65 acres; 4 terrain parks, groomers and tree skiing at 10,650'.


Eldora Mountain Resort

Set in Boulder's back yard, Eldora attracts a lot of kids from the University of Colorado. Kids like Jon Delk, who picked up his first $99 college pass when he was a freshman and spent his whole first season riding blue groomers. When he came back his sophomore year, he got a job as an instructor. "I can't think of a better way to become a better skier or snowboarder than to be forced into situations where you have to teach it," he says. "As I progressed as a rider, I realized there was so much more on that mountain. If you want to truly appreciate everything the mountain has to offer, you need to get your skills in check."

The next year, he became a skier, which opened his eyes to even more options on the mountain. Now that he's graduated from CU, he works as the private lesson supervisor at Eldora while still finding newer and crazier places to ride and ski. For starters, he recommends West Ridge. "Read between the lines. Don't get caught up on the runs," he says. "Definitely spend time in the trees. There's always good stuff in the trees."

Don't ignore the trees on the front side of Challenge Mountain, either, he says. And if you really want to learn the mountain, take a lesson or even apply for a job. "We're looking for good people," he says, "not necessarily great skiers." Because that will come.

But Eldora isn't just for college kids. "We continue to grow and become more and more popular as I-70 continues to become more and more of a parking lot versus an interstate," says the resort's Rob Linde. The traffic situation has encouraged many Denverites to discover Eldora, where they find a range of terrain, including backcountry.

"We have two out-of-bounds Forest Service gates off the top of the mountain, on the Corona Bowl side, that access some pretty amazing terrain, with an access gate at the bottom to get back in," he says. "It's becoming more popular for thrill-seekers looking for the inbound/outbound experience. That's certainly a trend right now. I find myself going out there more and more. Lost Lake is out there, and if you can find it, some chutes above Lost Lake are as steep as it gets in Colorado."

General Information: www.eldora.com; 303-440-8700.

Location: 45 miles northwest of Denver via I-25, U.S. Hwy 36 west and Colo. Hwy. 119; 21 miles west of Boulder.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 303-440-8700.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 680 skiable acres. The base is 9,200'; summit: 10,800'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Keystone Resort

Eleven years ago, Brad Russer came to Colorado to be a lift operator and figure out what he was going to do with his life. "And, of course, I'm still here," says the Keystone patroller. "Or you could say I figured out what I wanted to do as soon as I got here. There's no way I'd ever leave. I love Summit County, and I ooze Colorado. My patroller friends have become my family and my life."

And after seven years at Keystone, Russer knows the resort like the back of his hand. "I try to ski 150 days a year," he says. The front side is all pretty easy stuff, except for the terrain park, which is one of the best in the state — and a little too good for him. "I can't go to the terrain park," he says. "I'm too old. I have an easy time hurting myself. Four surgeries in four years. I just shattered my clavicle mountain biking a few months ago."

Instead, Russer frequents the backside of Keystone, with laps on Bushwhacker and North Bowl and South Bowl. Since it only takes eight minutes to get up there on the express chair, Russer could happily ski those runs all day long. "The access, how fast you can get out there, is pretty amazing," he says. "I can find tons of stuff to get in trouble with at work. You can find as good tree skiing at Keystone as you can anywhere."

When he has a little more time, he heads out to Bergman Bowl, Erickson Bowl and Independence Bowl. The more than 1,000 acres of trees, chutes, bowls, ridges and powder in the three bowls can now be accessed by snowcats, or good old-fashioned hiking. Russer and his friends have been hiking to these bowls for years, but now he'll jump on the cat to catch a ride any chance he gets. Skiers willing to pay to ride on a cat this season will also get to use the 25-by-35-foot deck Russer just finished building at the bottom of Independence. The deck is topped with a yurt. "It will be a warming hut for the cat ski program," he explains. "I'm about as happy as I can be with the work we've done down there."

There's one other spot locals like to go, he says: "It's a place called 'The Playground' on North Peak, but if anybody wants to find that, they're going to have to look for it."

General Information: www.keystone.snow.com; 1-800-468-5004.

Location: 90 miles west of Denver via I-70 to exit 205 at Dillon, 6 miles east on Hwy. 6 to Keystone.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; or 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on night-skiing days.

Snow Report: 1-800-468-5004, ext 1.

Lift Rates: Early-season adult day pass: $59; early-season child (12 and under) day pass: $39. Rest of season TBA.

Terrain: 3,148 acres, with 121 trails; 19 percent beginner, 32 percent intermediate; 49 percent advanced/expert. The base is 9,280', with a 3,128' vertical rise; summit: 12,408'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Loveland Ski Area

Beth Jahnigen is the author of "Mountain Girl" — a tongue-in-cheek-column in Ski Press magazine about being a girl in a ski town. But she grew up skiing Loveland, a mountain with no town, and as an adult started spending time at big resorts. "In the last couple of years, I think I've rediscovered Loveland," she says. "I'm realizing how cool it was." And is.

What she loves about Loveland is its old-school feel. "You pull into the dirt parking lot," she explains. "You don't have to pay for parking. There's hardly ever a line. Two-person chairlifts. The beer is cheap. It's like the last of a dying breed. I love the big resorts, but it's the antithesis of that, which is a refreshing change after a while. I just love it because it's kind of overlooked. It's the ski experience at its most simple form."

In the early season, Chair 1 is the only place to go, and Jahnigen uses its steep groomers to get her legs back in shape. Once the snow starts rolling in, she likes the glades of South Chutes. And the area above there, and above the tree line, is well worth the hike. "It's beautiful," she says. "It sits at a high elevation. You're hanging out on the Continental Divide. It can get windy at times, so it can be chilly. But on a good day, it's by far my favorite place to be."

Loveland has added new trail signs this year, which should make the resort easier to navigate. But for Jahnigen, it will always be a familiar old friend.

General Information: www.skiloveland.com; 1-800-736-3754.

Location: 56 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 216.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends.

Snow Report: 303-571-5554.

Lift Rates: Early- and regular-season adult day pass: $42-$54; early- and regular-season child day pass: $20-$24; late season: TBA.

Terrain: 1,365 skiable acres, with 70 trails; 13 percent beginner, 41 percent intermediate, 46 percent advanced. Base is 10,600' feet, with a 2,410' vertical rise; summit: 13,010'.


Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area

You only live once, and Loni Walton named her Salida clothing store Yolo to remind people to have fun and not take things too seriously. She certainly doesn't: During the ski season, that store isn't open until at least eleven, because Walton wants to be sure to get in a few runs at Monarch first.

Walton grew up in Salt Lake City and has been in Salida the past eighteen years, skiing at Monarch all that time. "I love both the area and the backcountry skiing, especially the hiking and snowcat tours area," says the telemark skier. "It's small, but with awesome natural snow. That's definitely what kept me coming back."

She likes to lap Mirkwood Basin, which takes about a fifteen-minute hike. Now her thirteen-year-old daughter can ski Mirkwood, too, though most of the time Walton does the hike-to and steeps with her friends while her daughter does the easier terrain. She also likes Outback. "It's one you hike to a little bit, too," she says. "The snow is always fresh and awesome. It typically doesn't get tracked up at all."

This year, the hike-to and snowcat terrain has expanded, according to Monarch's Greg Ralph. "Our snowcat terrain, right on top of the Continental Divide, is 1,000 skiable acres," he says. "We've added another 300 acres on the west side of the Divide into Gunnison National Forest. Our cat terrain covers both sides with really nice, gladed tree skiing." Having runs in the snowcat terrain that face every direction ensures that after a storm, there will always be good snow somewhere. "Sitting on top of the world helps, too," Ralph adds.

He expects more people to check out Monarch's fresh snow this year because for the first time, ten of the state's small resorts are working together so that their season passes can be used for days at other resorts. "For most places it's a three-day exchange, so you could get three days here on your Loveland pass, etc.," he says. "We've had reciprocal agreements with a couple of areas in the past, but never this many. Ten areas is pretty substantial."

General Information: www.skimonarch.com; 1-888-996-7669.

Location: 157 miles southwest of Denver via U.S. Hwy. 285 south and U.S. Hwy. 50 west.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-888-996-SNOW.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $27-$52; teen (13-15) day pass: $20-$32; junior (7-12) day pass: $15-$20; senior (62-69) day pass: $18-$28; children 6 and under and seniors 70 and over: free.

Terrain: 1,000 snowcat acres, 800 skiable acres, with 63 trails; 14 percent beginner, 28 percent intermediate, 27 percent advanced, 31 percent expert. Base is 10,790', with a 1,162' vertical rise; summit: 11,952'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Powderhorn Resort

"People look at smaller places and think they're going to get bored, and it's not true," says Leah Allard. "There's tons of great runs to explore, and always stuff to get better on." Allard, a student at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, calls Powderhorn her home mountain. It has all the terrain she needs: glades, carved runs, powder, small moguls. And with one main lodge where everyone gathers, she sees familiar faces all the time.

"Powderhorn doesn't have any real backcountry skiing, if you compare it to places like Telluride and Crested Butte, but they're expanding the boundaries so that the stuff the locals would usually ride, you can get to it with greater ease," she says. "It's nice to go to big places, but it's always nice to come home. The stuff you get tired of on vacation, like that was great for a weekend but there were too many people and it was too expensive.... Powderhorn takes all the great stuff you love about powder and great runs and takes all that extra crap away."

As for those great runs, Allard's favorite long groomer is Bill's Run. She knows where to find the powder stashes, and identifies them by landmark and practice. "There are some stashes that are not on the map, like Ben's Bend is a great powder run that's not marked," she says. "You've got to know which tree to get by." The lift on the far west side of the resort, which locals call West End, is the place you want to go on a powder day. "It's not right by the main lodge, so you kind of have to work your way there," she explains. "You just want to stay over there all day. There are a couple of intermediate blues, but a lot of blacks and a lot of glade skiing. You can't see the lift or too much of the terrain from the day lodge, so you kind of feel secluded in your own area, and beginners don't work their way to West End."

Feeling secluded is nothing new at Powderhorn. There's rarely a lift line, even though those lifts are slow. Some people complain about that, but the way Allard sees it, a slow lift keeps people dispersed. "If we had a high-speed lift, everyone would be there at the same time," she says. "What I love about Powderhorn is you can sometimes have a run completely to yourself."

General Information: www.powderhorn.com; 1-970-268-5700.

Location: 250 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 49 to Colo. Hwy. 65.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-268-5300.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $49; student (7-18) and senior (60-69) day pass: $39; seniors 70 and over: $15; kids 6 and under: $10.

Terrain: 600 skiable acres, with 40 trails; 20 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate, 15 percent advanced, 15 percent expert. Base is 8,200', with 1,650' vertical rise; summit: 9,850'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Silverton Mountain

Aaron Brill is proud of the fact that prices at his no-frills, advanced-terrain ski resort haven't gone up in three years. "Our goal is to make things as affordable as possible so that people with less money can have a really good-quality ski experience," he says. "Silverton is all about the quality versus quantity, and I think that's an important thing that gets lost in the ski industry. It's all about high-speed lifts. It's a different experience here."

Sally Rockwood would have to agree. Her first experience at Silverton was before the resort opened, walking down avalanche paths, "boot packing." That was a way to punch down layers of snow, to start avalanche mitigation and increase visibility. Four years ago, Rockwood and her boyfriend were driving to the East Coast from their home in Utah when they heard about this new resort opening and stopped to check it out. Her now-fiancé decided he wasn't going back to Utah, and stayed to work at Silverton. She eventually followed.

"I love it because it's always an adventure," she says. "I love the group of people who ski up there. It's nice to see familiar faces without the ego or the scene. And I love it because there's just always great skiing to be had. I have never gone up to Silverton and not had an incredible day of skiing."

Rockwood has never skied anywhere with as much vertical or variety as Silverton, but she doesn't consider herself an extreme skier, or Silverton an extreme place. "It can be as extreme as people want to make it," she says. "Obviously, it's an extreme mountain. There are no groomers, but it can be accessible." She often hears people say they'd like to ski Silverton but they don't know if they could handle the terrain. "The people who feel intimidated are the ones who would probably be fine," she says. And she should know: Rockwood teaches second and third grade and also coaches a local ski team, and when she brought a couple of twelve-year-old girls from the ski team here, they loved it.

But usually Rockwood is on her own at Silverton, enjoying the steeps and the powder. "There's so much to ski above tree line, which is something we never get to do," she says. And every time she goes anywhere but Silverton — places with lots of people and electronic signs and ticket scanners — she's reminded of how unique Silverton is.

Brill says he's making Silverton even more unique this year with helicopter ski drops. Selling $150 spots for drops will help defray the cost of the avalanche control he's already doing with those helicopters. The ski drops will be offered on just a few days, and he won't know the dates until the nights before. Anyone interested in knowing more should get on Silverton's e-mail list.

General Information: www.silvertonmountain.com; 1-970-387-5706.

Location: 300 miles southwest of Denver via I-70, Colo. Hwy. 550 south, and Colo. Hwy. 110. Base is 6 miles from Silverton.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekends only, or Thursday-Sunday depending on time of year.

Snow Report: www.silvertonmountain.com.

Lift Rates: Day pass: $49; Day pass with guide: $99; Guided only skiing Jan. 17-April 1.

Terrain: 1,819 acres; expert and advanced only. The base is 10,400'; summit: 12,300'; hike-to summit: 13,487'; vertical drop of 3,000' possible with hiking.


Ski Cooper

Many of the instructors at Ski Cooper's ski school learned how to ski there as toddlers. It's common to find a grandparent teaching his grandkids to ski in the same spot where he himself started and later taught his children. "I think most people like Ski Cooper because it's not a big resort area," says Bob Casey. "It's a family-oriented, affordable ski area. We don't have the hustle and bustle of the bigger resorts, and you can't lose your kids at Ski Cooper."

The terrain is beginner, intermediate and advanced, with a few expert runs. And the snow is all-natural, with no snowmaking ability. "It's a great place for people to learn, and we have an excellent ski school," Casey says. For years, that award-winning school has been run by Franci Peterson, who is in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.

Casey himself has skied at Ski Cooper since he was a kid; over the years, he worked for the resort in a variety of capacities. And after he retired from public life, the former county commissioner went to work for the resort full-time. "I paid my dues," he says. "This is a lot more mellow."

But even though it's small, Ski Cooper keeps up with big innovations. This year it's embracing technology in the form of an electronic ticketing system, which should make getting on the lift a lot more convenient.

General Information: www.skicooper.com; 1-800-707-6114.

Location: 120 miles west of Denver via I-70 and U.S. Hwy. 91.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-719-486-2277.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $39; child (6-14) day pass: $20; senior (60-69) day pass: $28; senior 70 and over day pass: $15; kids 5 and under: free.

Terrain: 2,400 snowcat acres; 400 lift-served acres with 26 trails; 30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert. Base is 10,500', with a 1,200' vertical rise; summit: 11,700'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-719-486-1750.


Snowmass

Snowmass has everything. That's what Kiffor Berg, two-time defending champion of the Colorado Freeride Championships, likes about it. "Snowmass is great because it has whatever you want to do in any given day," he says. "Terrain park. Trees. Powder stashes. It's all there for you. There's so much terrain, you'll find the untracked and the fresh snow. There are always big lines to ski and big rocks to drop. It's definitely one of my favorites."

Berg particularly likes the Hanging Valley Headwall — a wide open bowl with rock features — as well as the newer Burn Cliffs area of trees with unique pillow drops throughout. "You can find a new way down every time," he says. But there's no easy way down; it's mostly mandatory airs.

Snowmass has great groomers, too, and a daily noon groom (check the day's conditions report to find the run). And after a storm, Berg tries to get in a fast lap at Sam's Nob before it's all crudded up.

"It's very casual," he says of Snowmass. "There's a lot of great locals there, but not local attitude. Everyone's out there having fun and helping each other out and not afraid to tell you where to go or where you might find the better snow. And the après on the mall is always a great scene."

This year, Snowmass has expanded its learning and kids' amenities, too, with the new Elk Camp Meadows mid-mountain learning area, a bigger and better terrain park, and the $17 million Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center.

General Information: www.aspensnowmass.com/snowmass; 1-800-525-6200.

Location: 209 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 82.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $87.

Terrain: 3,132 acres, with 90 trails; 6 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate, 12 percent advanced, 32 percent expert. Base is 8,104', with a 4,406' vertical rise; summit: 12,510'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-970-923-0959.


SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch

By all accounts, SolVista is a family-friendly place. Kim Jensen started going there five years ago, when her oldest daughter was learning to ski at eighteen months. "It has amazing terrain for the little kids, and it's really nice to know everything dumps out in one place," she says. "You're not going to lose your children as they gain a little more independence. You don't have to worry they're going to be in the back bowls."

There's never much of a wait. Even on the busy Presidents' Day weekend, Jensen says the longest line was ten minutes, max. The lodge is set up so that a parent can see the beginner lift from inside, and the easy and intermediate runs are side by side so that Mom and Dad can do the harder terrain and then meet their kids at the bottom. SolVista's lower elevation even makes a family-friendly difference in temperature. "It tends to be a little warmer, which bodes well for keeping kids happy with middle-of-the-winter weather," Jensen says.

That also makes for pleasant night skiing under the lights, which the resort offers free a few times throughout the season, complete with live music and s'mores around the campfire.

"The thing I would say about SolVista is their terrain is pretty gentle," she says. "They have some black runs, but they're not terribly long and challenging, and there are not very many of them. So if you're going just to ski yourself and you're an avid skier, you might not find enough terrain there to keep you entertained. Their niche is the intermediate skier."

But it's a pretty good niche. Jensen loves it that the lodge is an easy hundred feet from where she parks, so if the kids forget something in the car, it's not a huge ordeal to get it. And this year, she can't wait to see that lodge: SolVista took the old building down to its studs and did a $5 million renovation, complete with a restaurant with a wood-fired pizza oven. That's another thing about SolVista, Jensen adds: Food and drink prices are reasonable.

General Information: www.granbyranch.com/ski; 1-888-850-4615.

Location: 78 miles west of Denver via I-70 to exit 232, U.S. Hwy. 40 west over Berthoud pass, through Winter Park, 2 miles south of Granby.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 800-754-7458.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $47-$49; child (5-12) day pass: $25-$27; senior (61-69) day pass: $33-$35; seniors 70 and over and kids under 5: free.

Terrain: 287 skiable acres with 33 trails; 30 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced. The base is 8,202', with a 1,000' vertical rise; summit: 9,202'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Steamboat

Back in New York, Cathy Wiedemer and her friends decided they wanted to live in ski towns. She came out to Steamboat to be a camp counselor the summer between her junior and senior years of college, and after graduating, she and her friends all moved to Steamboat. They got restaurant jobs so they could work at night and ski all day. Wiedemer's friends have since moved back to the Big Apple, but she's stayed for twenty years now and has no plans to leave. She's been a ski instructor and mountain host, helped run the bike program and worked in marketing at the resort. When she left to form her own PR company, she named it after a run at Steamboat and put a picture of herself skiing that run in powder on her business card. The run is East Face, but locals call it First Pitch, so that's the name she chose for her business.

Originally an alpine skier, Wiedemer quickly picked up telemark because of all the great backcountry at Steamboat. "There's just something about Colorado snow you can't find anywhere else," she says. "That wave coming up your shins and thighs and up to your jacket — there's nothing like it."

On any given day, Wiedemer usually heads first to Storm Peak, where she stops to take in the view of the valley, then she'll do a cruiser, head back up Storm Peak and do some trees. Then maybe a hike in the backcountry. She always takes the recent snowfall into consideration and picks up a grooming report to seek out the fresh corduroy.

This season, she's pumped to hop on the new six-passenger, high-speed Christie Peak Express — part of the $16 million spent for on-mountain improvements.

General Information: www.steamboat.com; 1-970-879-6111.

Location: 160 miles northwest of Denver via I-70, exit 205; north on Colo. Hwy. 9 to Kremmling, west on U.S. Hwy. 40 over Rabbit Ears Pass.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-879-7300.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $68-$85; senior (65-69) day pass: $58-$65; teen (13-17) day pass: $50-$65; child (6-12) day pass: $39-$52; senior over 70 day pass: $33; kids 5 and under day pass: free.

Terrain: 2,965 acres, with 165 trails; 14 percent beginner, 42 percent intermediate, 44 percent advanced. Base is 6,900', with a 3,668' vertical rise; summit: 10,568'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-970-879-6111.


Sunlight Mountain Resort

Sunlight has played a big part in Ben Sarno's life. He first went there with his pre-school class, and he was married there three years ago this month. "It's a great mountain," he says. "Two weeks after a snowstorm, you can still find powder stashes nobody else knows about."

Because he likes his runs fast and steep, Sarno spends most of his time in the east ridge area, flying down steep chutes like Gnarly Knob, Banzai and Teed's Run, named for the man who died in an avalanche there. "I don't mind some air, but I'm not pulling off any backflips," Sarno says.

As much as he likes the skiing, he also likes the mood at Sunlight. "It's pretty laid-back," he says. "If I had to compare it, I'd say it's very similar to the culture at A-Basin." There's a great deck where you can sit and watch big air or bumps contests, and the bar features live music on Saturday afternoons.

And new this year is Pump Haus Park, with five new toys for jumping and jibbing.

General Information: www.sunlightmtn.com; 1-800-445-7931.

Location: 160 miles west of Denver via I-70, Colo. Hwy. 82 and Four Mile Rd. (County Rd. 117).

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-945-7491 or www.sunlightmtn.com/the-mountain/snowreport/.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $48; child (6-12), senior (60-69), and disabled day pass: $38; kids 5 and under and seniors 70 and over day pass: $10.

Terrain: 470 skiable acres, with 67 trails; 20 percent beginner, 55 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced, 5 percent expert. Base is 7,885', with a 2,010' vertical rise; summit: 9,895'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Telluride

"I haven't seen the world, by any means, but I know Telluride is one of the best spots on it," says Tom Watkinson. "I can't seem to leave." A 34-year resident of the town, Watkinson was a guide at Telluride for a decade. He tried to go into real estate, but got his license just before 9/11 and then couldn't make a living. But real estate wasn't his thing, anyway; he's more into selling Telluride figuratively than literally. As a guide, he liked to be sure that people appreciated where they were. "It would drive me crazy when you hear someone say, 'It's nothing like Aspen or Vail.'"

Because that's exactly the point of Telluride.

"People come to Telluride not to be seen," he continues. "It's down-to-earth, very historic. You get that true feel of what it was like a hundred years ago. Original buildings. No chain restaurants or stores. You are truly getting away from it all." Included in Telluride's history are Butch Cassidy's first successful bank robbery; world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey's first fight while he was working as a bouncer in a couple of the bars and brothels in Telluride's red-light district; and the first use of alternating current electricity. Nikola Tesla tried it in Telluride because the cost of shipping coal up to the mining areas was too high.

The skiing drops into two towns — Mountain Village and Telluride — and the terrain is split into thirds according to difficulty level, but it all links together nicely so that every restaurant and facility can be accessed by skiers of any ability level. Telluride has some of the steepest bump runs in the country, like the Spiral Stairs and the Plunge. But four expert runs are also groomed daily. There are beginner and intermediate runs, as well as an expert terrain park with a superpipe.

And this season, eight new runs are opening in the hike-to Black Iron Bowl, where previously people could only ski with guides. The area, beside the breathtaking Prospect Bowl, sits against the dramatic backdrop of Palmyra Peak, where over 200 acres of new hike-to terrain are also opening this season.

Watkinson knows that anyone coming to Telluride from Denver will pass a lot of resorts along the way. But once you're there, he says, you'll understand why the trek was worth it.

General Information: www.tellurideskiresort.com; 1-970-728-6900.

Location: 335 miles southwest of Denver via I-70 to Grand Junction, Colo. Hwy. 50 south, Colo. Hwy. 550 to Ridgway, Colo. Hwy. 62 and Colo. Hwy. 145 to Telluride.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-728-7425.

Lift Rates: Adult day passes: $64-$85; child (6-12) day pass: $39-$52; senior 65 and up day pass: $52-$69.

Terrain: 1,700 acres, with 92 trails; 24 percent beginner, 38 percent intermediate, 38 percent advanced/expert. Base is 8,750', with a 3,530' vertical rise; summit: 12,255'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Vail

Vail has everything, which translates into something for everybody. It also translates into a lot of ground to cover before you figure out what you like best. Anyone unfamiliar with the mountain tends to waste a lot of time on catwalks, trying to get around, or just stays in one place and misses what the rest of the massive mountain has to offer.

Luckily, Derek Pappas, a rep for K2 Skis, has already done the hard work for you. He knows the mountain so well — knows where all the best runs and powder stashes are to be found — that he has his daily route planned to an exact science. It starts at 7 a.m., when he gets to the parking structure well before the lifts open to make sure he's first on the mountain. He heads to Vail Village, stopping at Covered Bridge Coffee. Then he takes the Vista Bahn Express to Chair 4 to Chair 11. "I usually work Chair 11 or the Northwoods area until they open up the back bowls," he says. When the bowls are about to open, he cuts over a few runs from Chair 11 to go to Chicken Yard and work Chair 5. Two or three runs on Chair 5 gives patrol time to open Tea Cup Bowl or China Bowl. By then, Pappas is working his way over to Chair 36. He does another two runs there, and then hits China Bowl. Then it's out to Red Square or Rasputin's Revenge right after patrol does its avalanche-control work. After doing one of those runs a couple of times, it's already about noon. "By then, the mountain is skied up," he says.

So, with the backcountry gear he's also brought, Pappas then hikes into East Vail. He skis backcountry down into the East Vail neighborhood, then catches the shuttle bus back to Vista Bahn to start the whole route over again. Vista Bahn to Chair 4 to Chair 11 to Chair 36 to China Bowl... "Usually, that's a day," he says. "I'm pretty wiped out by then, and depending on how everyone's feeling, we usually go to Vendetta's for slices and beers or Los Amigos for margs on the deck."

He's followed that routine every time he's been to Vail over the past eight years, and it hasn't failed him yet. "The key is, you've got to get ahead of the crowd to get fresh tracks," he says. "And if you're ahead of the crowd, you're not going to get bogged down at Chair 5 with the crowds. And it sucks parking on the frontage road. If you're hungry for the powder, you definitely need to put the drink down early and go to bed."

If Pappas's day sounds too intense, he also describes Vail as a great place for intermediate skiers. The bowls are a perfect spot to learn how to ski powder, and there's usually a groomed lane you can escape to.

While Vail's development and parking situation continue to frustrate Pappas, he thinks the resort has done an excellent job with both its terrain and managing the numbers of skiers it gets. "The lifts are incredible," he says. "It's always pretty efficient with all the high-speed quads. They keep the lift lines down."

This year, chairs 10 and 14 have been upgraded to high-speed quads to expedite the trip to Two Elk Restaurant, China Bowl and Blue Sky Basin — cutting ride times in half. The beginner lift, Chair 15, has also been upgraded to a triple.

General Information: www.vail.snow.com; 1-970-476-5601.

Location: 120 miles west of Denver via I-70, exit 173, 176 or 180.

Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-970-476-4888.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 5,289 acres, with 193 trails; 18 percent beginner, 29 percent intermediate, 53 percent expert/advanced. Base is 8,120', with a 3,450' vertical rise; summit: 11,570'.

Cross-Country: Available.


Winter Park Resort

Twenty-six-year-old Kelly Nelson is about to ski her 24th season at Winter Park. It's a family tradition: Her dad was an instructor here for 25 years, starting in 1967. Although she left Fraser to go to school at Colorado State University, Nelson studied natural-resource recreation and tourism there. "I basically went to school to play outside," she says, though she ultimately went to work for a real-estate company.

Even without her family connection to the place, Nelson says that Winter Park would probably still be her favorite resort, because she loves moguls, and moguls are what Winter Park does best. And after 24 years, there's still a bump run on the Mary Jane side that she has yet to conquer: Sterling Way. "I like to ski runs top to bottom without stopping or messing up," she says. And she often does that holding her breath, but "not on purpose. I think it's because I concentrate so much." But she's never made it all the way down Sterling Way without stopping to re-find the line she'll follow down. "It's just very challenging," she says.

She likes groomers, too, and Winter Park has great ones. When she wants powder, she tries to hurry to the far side of Mary Jane before people have had a chance to get there. "You can blindfold me, drop me anywhere on the mountain, and I know where I am just by looking at the trees," she says.

Après-ski, Nelson loves the Winter Park Pub. "It always has great music," she explains. "I'm sore from dancing. Lots of local bands; it's what they're known for." The food specials are good there, too. There's also good food at Mirasol, a little cantina and taco bar hidden next to a gas station.

Nelson has seen a lot of growth at Winter Park over the years, and she thinks it's been done pretty tastefully. She's also happy about the new, $8 million, detachable six-person Panoramic Express lift, which will be the highest six-pack in North America when it opens this season. Locals always complain when a big new lift comes in, she adds, but she's eager to ride it and see for herself what it does to improve access and shrink lift lines.

General Information: www.skiwinterpark.com; 1-970-726-5514.

Location: 67 miles northwest of Denver via I-70 west, (exit 232), to U.S. Hwy. 40.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends and holidays.

Snow Report: 303-572-SNOW.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $59-$83; child (12 and under) day pass: $30-$41; senior (65-69) day pass: $50-$68; senior 70 and over day pass: $35.

Terrain: 3,060 acres, with 143 trails; 8 percent beginner, 17 percent intermediate, 19 percent advanced, 53 percent most difficult, 3 percent expert. Base is 9,000', with a 3,060' vertical rise; summit: 12,060'.

Cross-Country: Call 1-970-726-5632.


Wolf Creek Ski Area

"The powder, the powder and the powder." What Jim Sutton loves about Wolf Creek is what it's best known for: getting dumped on. "It gets more snow than any other resort in Colorado," he says. Last year, that snow added up to 426 inches.

Something about the location on Wolf Creek Pass and the way the dry air from the south meets the cold air creates big storms — and big powder. Last year, Sutton, who directs a health clinic on a reservation, skied fifty powder days. He follows storms and plans ahead, taking off work the day after a dump rather than waiting for the weekend. "It's becoming more crowded if we get a big dump on a weekend, but on weekdays it's still really great," he says.

But enough about the snow. Sutton also likes Wolf Creek because it's a small area that generally doesn't see large crowds. He prefers the ungroomed backcountry component, particularly the Waterfall area and Knife Ridge chutes — but the groomers are great. too. "There's vast intermediate terrain," he says. "Plenty for everybody. And now that they've installed the Raven lift, it gets you up a lot faster. My daughter loves the Raven."

Sutton says Wolf Creek was the perfect place for his now-eleven-year-old daughter to learn to ski. He's been taking her there since she was a baby. "It really has a mom-and-pop feel, a hometown feel as opposed to larger ski areas, where it's real corporate," he says. "You get to know who the folks are that run the ski area and their commitment to the ski area."

Over the summer, Wolf Creek finished a few projects that had been in the works since last season, such as a new patrol building, water-free bathrooms at the top of Raven and the new Divide Shuttle service for skiers who want to use the out-of-bounds area at the western boundary of the resort. "We're a small ski area and have a limited budget of what we can do," explains Wolf Creek's Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher. Last season, the new Raven lift, a detachable quad, didn't open until mid-season, so she's excited to start this season with the lift running. "That's been a great improvement," she says.

Let it snow!

General Information: www.wolfcreekski.com; 1-970-264-5639.

Location: 300 miles southwest of Denver in the Rio Grande National Forest, U.S. Hwy. 160 between Pagosa Springs and South Fork.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snow Report: 1-800-SKI-WOLF (754-9653).

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $48; child (6-12) and senior 65 and over day pass: $26; kids 5 and under day pass: $5.

Terrain: 1,600 acres; 20 percent beginner, 35 percent intermediate, 25 percent advanced, 20 percent expert. Base is 10,300', with a 1,604' vertical rise; summit: 11,904'.

Cross-Country: Available.

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