Winter storms have been hammering the mountains, and early-season sliding is already afoot: Ski and snowboard season is upon us. Our annual winter activity guide is here to help. We tracked down more than two dozen intrepid explorers with expertise on each local mountain to give you the inside edge. New terrain, new technology and new temptations await at all 25 Colorado ski areas and surrounding environs, so wax your sticks, tighten your bindings, stuff this copy of The Edge in your gear bag and head for the hills, where your winter wonderland awaits. — Colin Bane

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Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

Arapahoe Basin scored a coup this year when SkiResorts.com named it number one on its 2010 list of Top Mom & Pop Ski Areas, especially since A-Basin has been owned by Toronto-based Dundee Resort Development since 1997. But it's mostly true all the same: A-Basin hasn't changed a whole lot in 65 years. It's still steep, deep and (relatively) cheap, still boasts some of the most challenging terrain in the state, and you can still get a hot toddy at the A-frame base lodge or BYOB to the anarchic party at the parking lot "beach." "The legend is still going strong after all these years," says mountain spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer. "Our history, our terrain, and our old-school hometown ski-area vibe are all very important to us."

A-Basin is always one of the first to open and will assuredly be the last to close, some time in late spring, but the best time to hit the mountain is after a big winter snow, when the East Wall chutes on Lenawee Mountain and back bowls serviced by the Zuma lift are open.

The biggest news this season is the opening of the new Black Mountain Express lift, a high-speed quad replacing the old Expedition lift (circa 1978), which will halve the ride to the Black Mountain Lodge at midway. "The new lift is the single biggest improvement we've made to the skiing experience at A-Basin since we opened the back bowls," says Hierholzer. "It's faster, more efficient, more kid-friendly, and will have less stops and starts."

And as usual, the famed Pallavicini run will attract a lot of attention from skiers practicing for the annual Enduro race, in which skiers compete to see who can make the most laps down in a single day. A-Basin ski patroller Jamie Ober is the current record-holder, but you can challenge him on April 13, 2011. "We've got a lot of great terrain here, but when it comes to bragging rights, it always seems to come back to Pallavicini," Hierholzer says. "And when it comes to Pallavicini, you'll have to get through Jamie Ober. He's some kind of superhuman."

Although A-Basin is short on amenities, its Black Mountain Lodge, at 11,500 feet — specializing in all things smoked and grilled — is still the best bargain in on-mountain dining anywhere in the state. For a more glamorous experience, sign up now for one of five Full-Moon Snowshoe dinners at the lodge — December 31, January 19, February 19, March 19, April 16 — prepared by chef Christopher Rybak ($89, gratuity included). You'll ride the Black Mountain Express up, stuff yourself silly, then prowl down on snowshoes like a contented yeti. Last year's Full-Moon dinners all sold out in advance, so don't sleep on making reservations.

General Information: www.ArapahoeBasin.com; 888-ARAPAHOE.

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

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekends.

Snow Report: 888-ARAPAHOE.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $54 through December 17; regular-season rates TBA.

Terrain: 900 acres with 105 trails; 10 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 37 percent advanced, 23 percent expert. Base is 10,780', with a 2,270' vertical rise; summit: 13,050'.

 

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Aspen Highlands

As a teenager from Basalt, Mac Smith loved to terrorize ski-schoolers and out-of-towners at Aspen Highlands. "I guess my reputation's preceding me," Smith says. "I was always a bit of a hell-raiser, and I was brought up around a lot of cowboys and didn't have a lot of boundaries back then." Smith's biggest pet peeve was the large groups of people in ski schools sidewinding their way down the mountain. "My friends and I figured out that if you dropped in fast and skied right over somebody's skis, you could get the whole line of them to go down like dominoes," he recalls. "It only took doing that a couple of times for a patroller to grab me by the scruff of the neck and tell me, 'I never want to see you on this mountain again as long as you live.'"

So it's only fitting that Smith is now Aspen Highlands' ski patrol director. "Sometimes fate likes to have a little fun with you," Smith says. But he still thinks Aspen Highlands is best left to the locals and serious skiers. "People who ski well love it here, and people who don't, don't," Smith says. "It's a mountain for advanced skiers, and you either have to know it really well or come up here ready to explore and seek out all its hidden secrets."

For starters, take the Loge Peak lift to Steeplechase and Temerity, two of Smith's favorite lift-serviced areas, and try not to sidewind your way down the steep terrain in case the next generation of future ski patrollers are out raising hell. The Exhibition lift from the base serves up some green and blue runs, but you'll be on blue, black and double-black runs just about everywhere else. When the snow comes in, head for the hiking trail up to Highland Bowl.

"White Kitchen is my favorite in the bowl," Smith says. "But the best tip I can offer in the meat of the snow season is to really examine where everyone else is coming down and then go somewhere else. People tend to be followers, and some areas will get tracked out, but there are always ribs and deltas that people miss, and you can almost always get some fresh tracks up there. The farther you hike along that ridge holding out for something better, the more fun you're going to have coming down. It's worth exploring."

Another insider's tip from Smith: Ask a ski patroller for recommendations. "My guys are animals, and from November 1 through Christmas, they'll have had their feet on every inch of this mountain, stapling it down so we can have a base to ski on," Smith says. "The snow blows around quite a bit up here and comes in from a lot of different angles, and these guys will know exactly where it's piling up on any given day."

General Information: www.AspenSnowmass.com/Highlands; 800-525-6200.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: TBA; book seven-day advance multi-day visits online for best discount.

Terrain: 1,029 skiable acres with 119 trails; 19 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 15 percent advanced, 36 percent expert. Base is 8,040', with a 3,635' vertical rise; summit: 11,675' (lift-serviced), 12,392' (hike-to).

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Aspen Mountain

Despite its reputation as a playground of the rich and famous, there's no beginner terrain at Aspen Mountain, and most of the posers never even make it on the hill. So if you're up to it, get to the best of Aspen Mountain from the Silver Queen Gondola. Hold out for a red cab (every fifth one) if you want to rock out: Each one now comes with an iPod dock and speaker system.

To get the lie of the land, find an Aspen Ambassador at the guest services center and ask for the free Ambassador's Tour. "They'll take you anywhere you want to go, and it's worth doing to find the terrain best suited to your skiing or riding ability," says Aspen/Snowmass spokeswoman Meredith McKee. "They'll even take you to see the shrines hidden in the woods if you want." The shrines are dedicated to fallen ski heroes, historic Aspenites and beloved celebrities like Jerry Garcia and Elvis Presley.

You can also live like a rock star yourself — this is Aspen, after all — and book a luxe trip with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours (call 970-920-0720 for reservations; rates fluctuate throughout the season) to get into the Elk Mountain backcountry and find out why Aspen likes to keep some things exclusive. "The Powder Tours operate outside of our boundary area with a special permit, and it's an amazing experience," says ski writer Greg Fitzsimmons. Snacks, drinks, and a "hearty" gourmet lunch are included.

For free freshies in-bounds, call 970-925-1220, ext. 3543, on the night of a storm to sign up for the next morning's Fresh Tracks experience: As a job perk, Aspen lets its Ski & Snowboard School pros take a warm-up lap before lessons start, and you'll get on the mountain with them before the lifts officially open. "On a powder day, Bell Mountain is a real good place to start," Fitzsimmons says. "The key to skiing Bell Mountain like a local is to follow the sun: You start on the east side on the back of Bell, move up to the ridge at midday, and end on the face and in the trees. Another good spot to hit after a storm is Walsh's, which requires a short boot pack but is absolutely worth the hike. It's the steepest terrain in Aspen, and you'll have some really fun stuff all to yourself in there." Make a few days of it: Aspen's lift tickets are good at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, with free shuttles between mountains. Order multi-day tickets at least seven days in advance at AspenSnowmass.com to save big.

General Information: www.AspenSnowmass.com/AspenMountain; 800-525-6200.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 675 skiable acres with 76 trails; 48 percent intermediate, 26 percent advanced, 26 percent expert. Base is 7,945', with a 3,267' vertical rise; summit: 11,212'.

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Beaver Creek Resort

Beaver Creek, the story goes, is all about pampered guest services and nice touches like complimentary slippers at the mid-mountain restaurants and free chocolate chip cookies, not steep extreme skiing. Big-mountain skier Chris Anthony says that's all part of a veil of secrecy he'd like to keep. "People from Denver seem to think Beaver Creek is this posh place for the hoity-toity, and that's great. Go ahead and let them think that. Meanwhile, we're blasting down Birds of Prey, Grouse Mountain and the Alta Chutes, keeping some of Colorado's best runs to ourselves," he explains. "People in Denver just can't seem to get past Vail; it's a habit they just can't break. Even when Beaver Creek has ten more inches of snow, all the traffic will still turn off at Vail. It's only nine more miles to get to Beaver Creek."

And this year, Anthony, who has skied at exotic locales all over the world for the past 21 years while filming with Warren Miller Entertainment, got to stay in his own back yard for the company's latest production, Wintervention. "The footage we shot is in the Stone Creek area on the east side of Beaver Creek, in these steep little pillow-line chutes that they just opened up a few years ago," he says. In it, you can see super-slow-mo shots of him throwing powder all over the place, filmed with a special camera shooting 350 frames per second. "It's a spot some of us locals have been charging for years, and the chutes are now officially part of the ski area. Wait for a really big storm and then get back there and go nuts."

But when there's no new snow, Beaver Creek has great groomers as well. "I'll happily spend the whole day under Centennial riding the same three runs over and over again," Anthony says. Beaver Creek also has the McCoy Park Nordic Center for cross-country skiers or snowshoeing, as well as terrain parks and the kid-appropriate Bachelor Gulch and Arrow Bahn areas.

Speaking of kids, the Chris Anthony Youth Initiative works with nonprofits like SOS Outreach, First Descents and the Children's Hospital Sports Program to help get more kids on the mountain, and this season he's focused on the 10th Mountain Division Film Project, a joint effort with Warren Miller Entertainment and the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum.

"What I want to do is retrace the route that a bunch of guys from the 10th went and did prior to being deployed in Italy in 1943, following their route from Camp Hale to Aspen, skiing and highlighting those mountains and getting into their whole story. There's an awful lot of history in these hills."

General Information: www.BeaverCreek.com; 970-845-9090.

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

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

Snow Report: 800-427-8308.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 1,815 skiable acres with 149 trails; 19 percent beginner, 43 percent intermediate, 38 percent advanced/expert. Base is 8,100', with a 3,340' vertical rise; summit: 11,440'.

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Breckenridge Ski Area

Breckenridge snowboarder JJ Thomas had one hell of a season last year: He won the Winter Dew Tour, shot some footage at Breckenridge with the Warren Miller Entertainment film crew with his teammates Steve Fisher and Zack Black, and started his own business, Boulder-based clothing company YEA.NICE. This season he's got even bigger plans. "I spent my summer snowboarding at the Windell's camp out at Mount Hood and then trained down in New Zealand for the last few months, and I'm getting ready to start riding in Colorado again now that it's snowing like crazy," Thomas says. "I haven't really had a summer, which is how I like it."

Breck's catering to Thomas and his Dew Tour cohorts this season with its first-ever 22-foot superpipe, which will open in time for the Nike 6.0 Open, December 16 to 19. Thomas wants to win on his home turf, and he'll be waving the banner for local pride when he does: "Breck is hands-down the best ski town in Colorado — the best mountain and mountain-town combo you can get — and caters to the top, top tier of professionals and extreme go-getters."

To go get some for yourself, check out the Freeway Terrain Park — home to the new superpipe — on Peak 8. Breck's also offering a new elite Ski & Ride program for advanced and expert skiers and riders looking to step it up, and unveiling a new Peak-to-Peak Challenge for its Breckenridge Adventure Sessions: Register at Breckenridge.com and then attempt to ski or ride ten black runs across all four peaks in a single day.

"Breck is great, because the mountain has a little bit of everything," Thomas says. "I get so focused on training in the pipe that it can be easy to forget."

When you're not tearing it up in the park and pipe, Thomas suggests seeking out the steepest and deepest terrain the mountain has to offer: "Get as far up Peak 8 or Peak 7 as you can to get away from the crowds and really challenge yourself. It's good to get out there and remind yourself what snowboarding's all about."

General Information: www.Breckenridge.com; 970-453-5000.

Location: 104 miles west of Denver on I-70 (exit 203) and Colo. Hwy. 9 to Breckenridge.

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

Snow Report: 970-453-6118.

Lift Rates: TBA; order seven-day advance tickets at www.Breckenridge.com for best discounts.

Terrain: 2,358 skiable acres with 155 trails, 14 percent beginner, 31 percent intermediate, 19 percent advanced, and 36 percent expert. Base is is 9,600', with a 3,398' vertical rise; summit: 12,998'.

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Buttermilk Mountain

Aspen's smallest ski area has developed a bit of a split personality in the fifteen years since it began hosting the Winter X Games: It's now as well known for its big booters and 22-foot Olympic-sized superpipe as it is for its gentle groomers and family-friendly beginner and intermediate runs. Bridging that gap, there's also the Panda Pipe terrain park for beginners, a dedicated run from the top of the West Buttermilk lift to midway.

"We've been able to allow those separate identities to exist without taking away from each other," says Buttermilk terrain park manager Greg Boyd. "It's a cool thing to be able to tell someone who wants to bring their family up here; we've got the pro-level pipe and park, and we still have some of the best snow, one of the best grooming operations, and some of the best intermediate runs anywhere. Those paths never have to cross if you don't want them to, but we're increasingly finding people love Buttermilk for everything it has to offer.

"Even Shaun White likes to blast down a good groomer every once in a while," he adds, "and it's not uncommon to see families heading into the park together."

This season's Winter X Games (15) will be held January 27 through 30, 2011. The X Games are truly a spectacle to behold and — better yet — they're free for spectators. It's Aspen's craziest weekend, so book a hotel room early or get a place out of town, then spend the day exploring Buttermilk (you might just end up on the chairlift with your favorite athlete or celebrity).

General Information: www.AspenSnowmass.com/Buttermilk; 800-525-6200.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: TBA.

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

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Copper Mountain Resort

Want to learn to fly? The ski and snowboard camps at Woodward at Copper will have you soaring with trampolines, foam pits, Snowflex indoor ramps and rails, and an enormous outdoor airbag in the Catalyst Terrain Park. But Woodward program manager Phoebe Mills recommends starting small. "The Eagle Jib park at the top of American Eagle is the best place for absolute beginners, and we're recommending our One-Hit Wonder sessions for anybody who wants to try getting some air or hitting the rails for the first time." Eventually, you'll be able to hit the five terrain parks at Copper and the 22-foot Olympic-sized superpipe.

If you're content to leave the rail tricks and triple corks to the next generation while you hit the slopes, however, drop the kids off at camp: The eight-week Park Rats program ($899, includes an unrestricted Copper Mountain season pass) runs every Saturday from January 8 through February 26; Woodward also offers two-week holiday park and pipe camps (starting at $949) and single-day winter camp experiences (starting at $129).

"We're providing a critical piece of the puzzle as these tricks get harder and the terrain park features on the mountain get bigger and more dangerous," Mills says. "Our facility can help professional athletes at the highest level, but we can also be an avenue for anybody who wants to get into the park by providing a safer environment for learning basic aerial awareness and body control. We'll get you in the air and on the rails and give you a better sense of how your body is moving when it's spinning or getting upside down."

Mills moved to Frisco from Vermont in 2009 to help open Woodward and has fallen in love with the mountain. She says expanded free parking in the Corn lots, a recent rebranding effort, improved family offerings and increased snowmaking this season are hallmarks of the first full season under new ownership by Powdr Corp. "Copper's a great all-around mountain no matter what kind of rider you are," she says. "There are great beginner and intermediate runs and some of the best expert skiing and snowboarding anywhere."

A final tip for experts: "Take the Tucker Mountain snowcat," Mills adds. "It'll get you far out into the back bowls and untracked terrain. A lot of people don't seem to know about it, but it's free with your lift ticket, and it's incredible."

General Information: www.CopperColorado.com; 1-866-841-2481.

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

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

Snow Report: 800-789-7609.

Lift Rates: TBA.

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

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Crested Butte Mountain Resort

Wendy Fisher raced with the U.S. Ski Team for seven years and competed in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, then decided she was burned out on skiing.

A trip to Crested Butte made her fall in love again. "After a lifetime of racing, it took coming here to remember how fun skiing can be," Fisher says. "I got talked into doing the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, and the excitement and newness of it all made me feel alive again." She moved to town and began filming in the backcountry with Crested Butte-based Matchstick Productions and with Warren Miller Entertainment, and in short order — so much for retirement — began dominating the women's pro freeskiing circuit.

A well-kept secret is that Crested Butte is also great for families. In fact, Fisher is now teaching her own kids, ages three and five, and says they've also helped make skiing new for her all over again. No matter what kind of skier you are, she recommends taking the Red Lady Lift up to family-friendly intermediate terrain like Paradise, Painter Boy and Bubba's Trail.

"Find where the kids ski, because they always know where the fun stuff is," Fisher says. "Skiing with my five-year-old is bringing back those memories of finding all these new nooks and crannies, little tree runs, little jumps, stuff the kids love — and I find I'm skiing like a kid again myself. It's changed the way I ski the rest of the mountain, too."

Fisher knows the mountain as well as anybody, from beginner runs fit for a three-year-old to Crested Butte's famed chutes and couloirs, and she offers ski clinics the first and second Wednesday of the month (book online at www.FishSki.com). "Hire an instructor, hire me, hire somebody," Fisher says. "It's a good idea, partly because Crested Butte can be a technically challenging mountain and you'll want to learn some new skills, and partly because you'll never find all the best runs here on your own. Here's a free tip if the snow is good: Take the Silver Queen and then the High Life lift, and then either get off halfway and ski one of the big chutes for a nice, quick, steep run, or go all the way to the top and ski the headwall. That area was closed for ten years and just got reopened, and it's beautiful in there."

In the past six years, Crested Butte's new owners, Tim and Diane Mueller, have invested $316 million in capital improvements. Look for even more spectacular new terrain — and Crested Butte's biggest terrain park ever — as the resort heads toward its fiftieth-anniversary celebration in January.

General Information: www.SkiCB.com;

800-810-SNOW.

Location: 231 miles southwest of Denver via U.S. Hwy. 285, U.S. Hwy. 50 and Colo. Hwy. 135.

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

Snow Report: 888-442-8883.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: Nov. 24-Dec. 17, $59; after Dec. 18, $87.

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'.

 

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Echo Mountain

"What's cool about Echo is, it's a great place for city folks," says Lakota Sage, a team rider for Denver-based Never Summer Snowboards. Sage is sponsored by Echo Mountain and filmed some of his parts for Never Summer's snowboard film Made in America at Echo's terrain parks. "It's the closest to Denver, has the cheapest tickets and the cheapest season pass, and it's a great mountain for the working class. You get off work at 5 p.m. and you can still get up here in time for three or four hours of riding before they turn the lights out."

Echo's also a great place to learn, with Magic Carpet rides and bunny slopes for absolute beginners and smaller terrain parks for when they're ready to work their way up.

"People always like to talk about the level progression in skiing and snowboarding and how fast it keeps moving forward," Sage says. "Well, come here and you'll see where it all starts. Kids come up to Echo Mountain and, with the terrain park stuff all around, they see it and want to get on it. You'll see kids up here learning how to stop and turn in the morning, and by the afternoon they're hitting jumps and rails. It's so fun to ride with these little kids who just come out and kill it. They have all these new ideas about how to ride, and it's really inspiring. Everybody watches each other and just feeds off of each other."

To ride with Sage, check out the Never Summer Demo Day on December 29 or one of Echo's rider workshops (dates TBA), or just look for him on the mountain. You can also see Sage and other Echo team riders in action in the Echodemic videos featured at www.EchoMt.com for some new ideas about what's possible in the terrain parks. "Echo's a great little all-around mountain for freestyle skiing or snowboarding and the whole vibe up there is super cool," Sage says. "We've got small features for beginners, medium stuff for everybody to have fun on, and the big stuff for people who really want to throw down."

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

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

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday.

Snow Report: 303-325-7347.

Lift Rates: TBA; check www.EchoMt.com for the best discounts.

Terrain: 85 skiable acres with 15 trails and four terrain parks. Base is 10,500', with a 660' vertical rise; summit: 11,160'.

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Eldora Mountain Resort

"Eldora's the hidden secret on the Front Range," says Kim Walker, owner of the Outdoor Divas shops in Boulder and Cherry Creek. "There's no traffic, the parking is free — you just step out of your car and walk right up to the lift — and it's got a really great local feel. The mountain is a lot bigger than people think it is, too."

The Outdoor Divas shops sponsor Eldora's Women's Days, a series of programs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from January through March aimed at improving alpine, cross-country, telemark and snowboarding skills for women. The Women's Days include on-mountain instruction plus meals, with a choice of four- or six-week sessions. "It's a great way for women to commit to some skiing or snowboarding and get out and meet a lot of great people to ski with," Walker says. "Eldora has a great kids' program, too, called Eldorables, and a lot of moms like to drop their kids off and come join us."

Walker's favorite run is Corona, a black diamond on the back side of the mountain. "It's never crowded, so you can ski really fast and just get on the chair and run laps," she says. "Check out the glades in Corona Bowl while you're back there. Those trees hold powder for days."

And Eldora's Nordic Center offers forty kilometers of trails for cross-country, skate skiing and snowshoeing trails (rentals and lessons available).

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. to 4 p.m.

Snow Report: 303-440-8700.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $65.

Terrain: 680 skiable acres; 20 percent beginner; 50 percent intermediate; 30 percent advanced/expert. Base is 9,200', with a 1,600' vertical rise; summit: 10,800'.

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Keystone Resort

The Vail resorts are pushing their new high-tech EpicMix social-media app this season, using passive-chip technology to allow skiers and snowboarders to digitally capture their ski and ride experience, then shout it to the world via Facebook and Twitter. EpicMix tracks skier visits, tallies your runs, and awards virtual "pins" for various accomplishments on the mountain and over the course of the season. But if you're keeping score, one accomplishment will be hard to beat: For the past two seasons in a row, Charlie Alexander — aka Mr. Epic — has skied every single day of the season, most of them at Keystone.

"I'm not out to compete with anybody," Alexander says, though his record is likely to stand for a good long while. Keystone opened on November 5 this season and closes on Easter Sunday, April 24, which means you'll need 171 consecutive days to claim the Mr. Epic title. "I'm a guy in my sixties, I'm retired, and I'm just going out and having fun skiing every day, pretty much living the dream," explains Alexander. "I guess they got to checking their computer printouts and realized one guy had more days than anybody else, and they created the title 'Mr. Epic' just for me and gave me a free Epic Pass. I'll be at Keystone on opening day again this year and I'll probably be out skiing every other day, too, God willing."

To get the devil out on Mr. Epic's favorite run, take the Peru Express, hang a right, cruise past the entrance to the A-51 Terrain Park, then loop back down to the base on Go Devil, a black run at the edge of the ski-area boundary that has mostly been forgotten in the shadow of the freestyle park. "As you're going up the lift, you'll see people popping up off the huge jumps doing 360s and backflips and putting on quite a show right beside the chair," Alexander says. "It's one of the most popular places on the mountain, but if you go just a little bit farther to Go Devil, you'll have it to yourself. They hold downhill races on it from time to time, but otherwise, almost nobody goes to that run." 

Alexander says he's been skiing at Keystone ever since he got out of the Navy in 1971, back around the time the resort first opened. "With Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Arapahoe Basin to choose from on the Epic Pass, Keystone's still my favorite," he concludes.

Other ways to count the days at Keystone this season include increased Kidtopia family programming, an expanded tubing hill on Dercum Mountain, the $5 Outback Shuttle (ride the Outback bowls without hiking), and a full-day snowcat skiing tour of Keystone's bowls with Keystone Adventure Tours and catering by Alpenglow Stube.

General Information: www.Keystone Resort.com; 800-468-5004.

Location: 90 miles west of Denver via I-70 (exit 205 at Dillon), then 6 miles east on U.S. Hwy. 6.

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; open until 8 p.m. on night-skiing days.

Snow Report: 800-468-5004.

Lift Rates: TBA; order seven-day advance tickets at www.Breckenridge.com for the best discounts.

Terrain: 3,148 skiable acres with 135 trails; 19 percent beginner, 32 percent intermediate, 49 percent advanced/expert. Base is 9,280', with a 3,128' vertical rise; summit: 12,408'.

 

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Loveland Ski Area

Loveland — which won the race to open first this season, starting the lifts on October 24 — is pushing two slogans: "Core Colorado" and "So Close to Home."

Both resonate with Branden Peak, owner of Emage Skate & Snow in Denver. "Loveland's definitely our favorite place to go, and we make a weekly Wednesday pilgrimage up there with our team guys and a lot of our customers who have become friends or acquaintances over the years," Peak says. "The snow sets up really nice at Loveland and sticks around for a while, and you can get into just about anything you're after up there. It's awesome."

And the most awesome run, in Peak's opinion, is...Awesome. "It's just off of Chair 8, and it's a spot that doesn't open up until a bit later in the year, but once it has some snow on it, it's one of the best. We also ride Chair 9 a bit and do a fair bit of hiking, and there's another spot off of Chair 4 with a great natural halfpipe. As the months go by, it sets up differently, with all these different jumps, and then it drops into this epic tree run that always has a ton of powder." 

Loveland spokesman John Sellers says the top reasons people cite for coming to Loveland are snow, price, proximity to Denver and the atmosphere around the ski area. "I think people like that we're not huge and overwhelming," Sellers says. "This is a place you can come and be yourself on the mountain and not have to worry about anything."

Start at Loveland Valley's Chair 7 if you're a first-timer or teaching your kids, then spread out all over the mountain to find the goods. "The terrain park's always changing with new features, and it's a great place for anyone to get in there and play around," Peak says. "But you'll have just as much fun on the rest of the mountain. The thing about Loveland is that they always get hit with the big storms, and the snow stays so much longer than any other place. People bitch about it being windy, but from my perspective, it's a good thing. The wind starts to set areas up, and you find these untracked pockets even on days when there hasn't been snow."

Stop by Emage or check out the early-season demos at Loveland to get your gear sorted out for the season; to support the locals, check out the Never Summer Snowboards demo on November 6 and 7 and the Icelantic Skis demo on December 5. Finally, check the TVs in the bars and cafeterias at the base: They'll be tuned to the CDOT camera feed and can help you decide if it's worth kicking back and waiting out the traffic.

 

General Information: www.SkiLoveland.com; 800-736-3754.

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

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

Snow Report: 303-571-5554, ext. 221.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass through Dec. 17: $47; Dec. 18-April 10: $59.

Terrain: 1,670 skiable acres; 13 percent beginner, 41 percent intermediate, 46 percent advanced. Base is 10,600', with a 2,410' vertical rise; summit: 13,010'.

******

Monarch Mountain

Monarch, which celebrated its seventieth anniversary last season, spent about $1 million over the summer to celebrate and prepare for its 75th in style. Look for upgrades to the Garfield chair, a remodeled children's center, expanded parking, and better grooming coverage thanks to a new snowcat. But for the full Monarch experience, you'll want to skip all of that and get in the snowcat. "No Name Bowl in the backcountry on a bluebird powder day is pretty hard to beat," says Monarch local Chad Hixon. He owns Arlie Dale's Jug Liquors in town and has worked as a Monarch Snowcat Tours guide on the side for seven years. "It definitely depends on the snow conditions, but we get a lot of snow. We have about 12,000 acres of really good terrain in our permit area, and we'll do twelve to fifteen runs a day of the best skiing or snowboarding you've ever experienced." Tours run $210 to $275, depending on the month.

If you're staying in-bounds, try Panorama Ridge, anything under the Garfield lift, and the ten-minute hike to the "backcountry lite" Mirkwood Bowl and Elation Ridge. "We call it backcountry lite because it's avalanche-controlled and our patrollers are back there all the time — partly because it's their favorite spot on the mountain," says Greg Ralph, Monarch's marketing director. "Our long-term goal is to get a 200-acre expansion into the back side of the mountain, deeper into Gunnison National Forest — but for now, I think you'll find plenty to play in out here."

Monarch's also a magnificent reason to steer clear of the I-70 corridor. "We might be a little bit farther if you're looking at a map, but when you factor in drive time from Denver, you could be here quicker than just about anywhere in Colorado," Ralph says. "Once you try it, you'll want to get the season pass," which was great last year and even sweeter now.

"I'm calling it the Big-Ass Pass," says Ralph. "In addition to unlimited skiing here, you'll get up to three free days at ten partner resorts: Loveland, SolVista, Sunlight, Powderhorn, Silverton and Durango here in Colorado, plus Angel Fire, Pajarito, Sipapu, Alta, Grand Targhee and our new partners at Red River and Taos in New Mexico, China Peak in California, Snowbowl in Arizona, Indianhead in Michigan, and Revelstoke in British Columbia."

General Information: www.SkiMonarch.com; 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. to 4 p.m. daily.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $56.

Terrain: 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'.

******

Powderhorn Resort

Adrian Burke grew up in Denver and skied everything off I-70, but after moving to Grand Junction six years ago, where he's a mechanic at the Board & Buckle Ski & Cyclery, Powderhorn has become one of his favorite places. "I've had more powder days here than I've ever had anywhere else," Burke says, adding that Powderhorn's reputation as a family-friendly mountain is what makes it worth checking out. "There's definitely a lot of families here, but that's kind of why I like it. Those people tend to stay out of the trees, which is where you'll always find me."

For some of the best tree skiing in Colorado, Burke recommends Mad Dog Glade off of the West End lift. "It's all big, thick aspen trees back there, spread out perfectly, and it mostly stays untracked. I've been back there a week after a good snow and still been in up to my knees in fresh powder. Another good one is Bear Claw, at the far west end. That's a new run they opened last season, and it's a lot of fun."

The mountain is naturally divided: You'll finds greens and blues near the bottom around the Easy Rider lift, and intermediate and advanced terrain off of West End and Take Four. There are also backcountry access gates at the top of the two main lifts. Powderhorn's been catering to the freestyle crowd in recent years and now features three terrain parks: Top Cut Park, at the top of Take Four, is full of small rails and jumps; the Maverick Park, at mid-mountain, has bigger kickers, a quarterpipe and an ever-changing landscape of new obstacles; and Rustler's Park, near the base area, features boxes, rails and a wall ride.

For a more natural terrain park, check out the boulder fields littered around the mountain. "Powderhorn is on the side of Grand Mesa and over the centuries it's had these crazy boulder gardens pile up as rocks have come crumbling down off the mesa," Burke says. "It's obviously not where you want to be early in the season, but as those fields start to fill in and get some big ol' pillows of snow on them you'll find little jumps and jibs all over the place."

General Information: www.Powderhorn.com; 970-268-5700.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-268-5300.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $56.

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

 

******

Purgatory at Durango Mountain

Resort

Purgatory is opening forty acres of new expert terrain in the glades on the front side of Durango Mountain, adding to last year's 125 acres of steep new tree runs: The newest run, Ambassadors, is named for Durango Mountain Resort owners Chuck Cobb (former U.S. ambassador to Iceland) and Sue Cobb (former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica), and brings the percentage of expert terrain at Purgatory up to 35.

"I've been up there on a mountain bike recently, and it looks pretty sweet where they're cutting new terrain," says Grady James, a junior at Fort Lewis College who's been skiing at Purgatory all his life and speaks of it like his own back yard. "They cut some trees down in there for me, and I'm looking forward to playing around in it a bit. There are some cliffs and stuff back there, so it's not beginner terrain by any stretch."

Purgatory also dug in with an early investment in its freestyle parks this summer, shaping a halfpipe and some of its biggest jumps out of dirt so it can keep its Paradise, Pitchfork, Angel's Tread, and Divine Comedy terrain parks open longer. Brush up on your Dante and go big in case God is watching. "There's a special circle in hell reserved for people who don't take chances," says James. Still, when the snow is good, the terrain park is the last place you'll find him: "If there's powder, the trick is to get over to Chair 5. You can have a lot of fun back there."

Purgatory's perfectly family-friendly, too, and has always had a reputation as a great resort for kids and beginners. On the other end, the San Juan Ski Company, which is based at Durango Mountain Resort, prowls 35,000 acres in the west San Juan Mountains as Colorado's largest snowcat-skiing operation ($250/person, book online at SanJuanSki.com). Make fresh tracks down from the 12,500-foot summit of Greyrock Peak, and you'll never forget it.

"We get so much snow out here it's sick," James says. "Worst-case scenario, you're having a blast on the groomers or in the bumps. But we get twenty to thirty feet of snow a year — we really don't have too many bad days."

General Information: www.SkiPurg.com; 800-982-6103.

Location: 340 miles southwest of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 55 south.

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

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

Lift Rates: Adult regular season $67; holiday season $75.

Terrain: 1,360 skiable acres with 88 trails; 20 percent beginner, 45 percent intermediate, 35 percent expert. Base is 8,793', with a 2,029 vertical rise; summit: 10,822'.

 

******

Silverton Mountain

After ten years in business with a single lift, Silverton owners Jen and Aaron Brill have increased lift capacity at Colorado's most extreme ski resort by 50 percent this season — by adding more chairs to it. "People come to Silverton to ski lines, not wait in them," explains Aaron Brill. "So we spent most of the summer upgrading the chairlift and mounting a bunch of new chairs."

The bigger story: Silverton's heli-skiing operation now covers 22,000 acres. You need to bring or rent an avalanche beacon, probe pole and snow shovel to ski anything at Silverton (the mountain offers Level 2 avalanche training courses, too), so you might as well splurge and get up in the whirlybird — and deep into the San Juan Mountains backcountry — while you're at it ($159 per run, or $999 for a full-day experience; book online at SilvertonMountain.com).

At $399, Silverton's season pass is one of the best deals in Colorado. In addition to unlimited unguided skiing and half-price heli-runs, it includes four days at A-Basin, five at Loveland and five at Monarch. "We're taking the crack-dealer approach to get more people out here and get them addicted to the powder experience," Brill says. "We're averaging well over 400 inches of snow a year, and last year we got 520 inches. Up on my favorite run, the Grande, which is a 2,200-foot-long north-facing couloir, we're getting well over 600 inches a year."

Silverton is understandably popular with freeskiers and the telemark crowd, but for the true local experience, try a demo board from Venture Snowboards, made in Silverton by Klemens and Lisa Branner. "It's a little-known fact that Silverton Mountain is the only ski area in the U.S. owned and operated by snowboarders," says Lisa Branner. "Jen and Aaron joked in the early days about making it a snowboarders-only mountain. Like us, they're a mom-and-pop business and a husband-and-wife team: Silverton Mountain and Venture Snowboards are both no-frills operations where it's more about the backcountry experience than anything else. Our boards are purpose-built for the terrain you'll find when you get out here."

Branner recommends the Cabin run for Silverton first-timers ("It's one of the better runs you can get to without a massive hike") and also likes the hike-in Pope Face run. "If you're willing to put a little more effort in, you'll be rewarded for it, which is why you should come all the way out to Silverton in the first place," Branner says.

 

General Information: www.SilvertonMountain.com; 970-387-5706.

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

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends only, or Thursday through Sunday depending on conditions.

Snow Report: 970-387-5706.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass for unguided skiing $49, guided skiing packages from $99-$139. Heli-skiing starts at $159 per run (includes full-day lift ticket) or $999 for full-day experience.

Terrain: 1,819 skiable acres serviced by lift; 22,000 skiable acres serviced by helicopter. Base is 10,400', with a 3,087' vertical rise (hike-to); summit: 13,487'.

******

Ski Cooper

Ski Cooper will host this year's United States Ski and Snowboard Association Masters National Downhill Championship (March 19-20, 2011), a reminder that Leadville's local lode is still worth mining. "The race run, Black Powder, is really one of the nicest runs in Colorado," says Jeff Maddex, Ski Cooper's race director for more than twenty years. "Get up here when we're not racing on it and let loose sometime." Easier said than done: Between NASTAR racing, youth ski races and the Cooper Cup series, there's alpine racing almost every weekend at Ski Cooper.

Maddex also hosts Ski Cooper's 5th annual TeleFest on February 20, 2011, and it's not for the faint of heart or lungs: Ski Cooper's summit is 11,700 feet. "The highlight is the uphill/downhill Randonée Rally, where you start at the bottom, then head up, down, and back up to the finish," Maddex says. "But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to the first-timer."

With deep snow, steep runs and lots of alpine and Nordic touring opportunities, Ski Cooper's a popular destination for telemark and cross-country skiers all season; the ski school offers private and semi-private telemark lessons with PSIA-certified instructors, and the Piney Creek Nordic Center has telemark equipment rentals. Or skip the lifts altogether and check in at the Cross-Country Center at the base to get the lowdown on the network of local trails first established in 1942 as a training ground for the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.

The historic mountain also holds a special place in the hearts of snowboarders: In March, it will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary as the first ski area in Colorado to allow snowboards on its slopes. Ski Cooper hosted the first-ever snowboard contest, King of the Hill, in 1981 (Jake Burton and Tom Sims were among the competitors), and still caters to snowboarders with a small terrain park, great powder and a full complement of snowboard lessons.

General Information: www.SkiCooper.com; 800-707-6114.

Location: 120 miles west of Denver via I-70 and U.S. Hwy. 24 west.

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

Snow Report: 719-486-2277.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $42.

Terrain: 400 skiable acres (lift-served), 2,400 skiable acres (snowcat-served) 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.

 

******

Snowmass

"No matter what the conditions, you can go up and find something to ride at Snowmass," says Reggie Charles, co-owner of High Society Freeride, a ski and snowboard company based in Snowmass that manufactures its skis and boards at the Never Summer factory in Denver. In addition to the 18-foot superpipe and four terrain parks at Snowmass (Lowdown, Little Makaha, Snowmass Park and the 55-foot step-up jump on Fanny Hill), look for new features this season including a 12-foot minipipe and new rails, boxes and jumps all over the mountain.

High Society team rider Nate Berkel won the Big Air Fridays series last year, and Charles says the contest is a great opportunity to check out rising talent and local riders. "Snowmass is a freeriders' paradise," he says. "If it's dumping, you can go up to the Cirque Headwall or the Hanging Valley Wall and be in deep, deep powder, and if it's not, we've got some of the best parks in the industry here and just a giant mountain that you could spend a whole season exploring." Charles recommends checking out the Colorado Freeride Championships at Snowmass February 25 through 27, a big-mountain ski and snowboard competition up on the cliffs that you can watch from the base of the Hanging Valley Headwall (qualifiers) and from the deck of Gwyn's High Alpine Lodge. The finals are on the Burnside Cliffs, some of Snowmass's gnarliest terrain. You can ride those areas yourself in peak snow conditions, and Charles recommends the ten- to fifteen-minute hike to the Hanging Valley Headwall in particular.

"All I can think about is getting up on the mountain and going big this season," Charles says. "We're really stoked, because our new FR Rocker skis just got one of the highest scores in the Freeskier guide. All of our products are tested, engineered and dreamt up right here at Snowmass, and the soul of every board was born here. We figure if a board can handle all the conditions here, it can hold up and make someone happy just about anywhere else."

 

General Information: www.Aspen Snowmass.com; 800-525-6200.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-925-1221.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 3,132 skiable acres with 91 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'.

 

******

SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch

Finally, some good news about all the beetle-kill trees around Granby: SolVista's chopping them down as fast as it can and turning them into terrain-park obstacles for Ted's Secret Stash, a new all-natural log park off of the Jackalope run that will open this season. "We've been downing trees left and right up here," says Teresa Hill, resort marketing director for Granby Ranch. "We're inviting people to come up here and show those beetles what they think of them."

Other new features at SolVista include two dedicated bump runs on Ghost Rider and Speculator, and two designated powder runs, High Roller and South Forty. A new beginner terrain park under the Milestone lift will keep your little beetles busy, and the SolVista Basin Terrain Park will feature "The Tank," a thirty-foot-long underground storage container with an eight-foot diameter that's being repurposed for whatever Front Range freestylers want to make of it.

"Try to get up here on a weekday," Hill says. "Take a sick day, take a powder day, and get up here and have the place to yourself. This is a place where you can come and not worry about the lines or the parking. I love it because it's really laid-back and has that old-school Colorado ski mountain feel."

SolVista has nearly doubled its skiable terrain in recent years, but it's still an intimate setting in which to make some turns. Stick to the East Mountain and the Quick Draw Express lift for beginner and intermediate terrain, or take the Conquest lift up West Mountain for blues and blacks.

SolVista also offers night skiing and tubing until 8 p.m. on Saturdays from January 1 through April 2, with additional nights around the holidays, and its Nordic trail system has become a favorite for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. For après-ski entertainment, check out the Fireside Acoustics Saturday singer-songwriter series at the slopeside Seven Trails Grille.

 

General Information: www.SolVista.com; 888-850-4615.

Location: 78 miles west of Denver via I-70 (exit 232), then U.S. Hwy. 40 west over Berthoud Pass, through Winter Park, two miles south of Granby.

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

Snow Report: 800-754-7458.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $56.

Terrain: 406 skiable acres with 36 trails; 30 percent beginner; 50 percent intermediate; 20 percent advanced. Base is 8,202', with a 1,000' vertical rise; summit: 9,202'.

 

******

Steamboat

Steamboat's always been known for its trademarked "Champagne Powder," and locals raise a glass to runs like Shadows, 1 O'Clock, and 2 O'Clock. "The trees are definitely where it's at," says Steamboat spokeswoman Loryn Kasten. "It piles up in there during a storm, it gets blown in there for a few days after, and it keeps falling from the branches for weeks. When it does start to get tracked out a little bit, start looking for the little in-between spaces. You won't see them on the map, but, for example, locals know that 1:30 and 2:30 are the sweet spots. There are a lot of magic little in-between spots like that up here if you poke around."

But Steamboat also beefed up its terrain parks for the coming year. "We've really worked to make the parks more progressive to help people build up to the bigger features," says Kasten. "Start in the Little Rodeo terrain park and our new minipipe, and work your way to the 18-foot superpipe and new features like our massive 20-x-24-foot wall ride."

For the real rodeo, don't miss Steamboat's 36th annual Cowboy Downhill on January 19, which coincides with the National Western Stock Show in Denver. "You haven't lived until you've seen a bunch of cowboys and cowgirls busting their chops in the terrain parks and stampeding their way down the mountain," Kasten says. Another must-see event is the 98th annual Winter Carnival on Main Street, February 2-6, featuring the only skiing marching band in the United States. "Snow like this is worth celebrating," says Kasten.

And at the end of the day, she adds, "don't miss a dip in the Strawberry Park Hot Springs, which will help you get ready for the next day."

 

General Information: www.Steamboat.com; 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. to 3:30 p.m.

Snow Report: 970-879-7300.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 2,965 skiable 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'.

 

******

Sunlight Mountain Resort

At least once this season, do yourself a favor and book the Ski/Swim/Stay package at Sunlight in Glenwood Springs, starting at $90: For less than the cost of a lift ticket at some other nearby mountains, you can leave the kids on the bunny slope (kids ski free as part of this package) while you take on Heathen — at 52 degrees, it's one of the steepest runs in the state. Afterward, the whole family can soak their moaning muscles in the Glenwood Hot Springs pool and crash in town at one of the resort's partner hotels.

"A lot of people think because we're so small and off the beaten path, we must be just for beginners," says guest services manager Ken Murphy. "But our East Ridge has some of the best expert runs anywhere, and we have a good portion of gladed terrain with some great lines down Compass Mountain. It doesn't get tracked out like it does at the bigger resorts, either: You can still be making powder turns here three days after a storm."

Get into the double-black glades for the good stuff: You can do top-to-bottom tree runs at Sunlight, hitting Tom's Glades, Zephyr Glades, Gibson Glades and Sundown Glades to the east, or Joslyn Glades, Cassandra Glades and Charlie's Glades to the west. 

And, yes, Sunlight's also a great beginner mountain. "I've been bringing my girls up here since they were wee," says Murphy, who moved to Colorado from Ireland after getting hooked on a skiing trip. "Here I am now with a six-year-old who's loving the groomers and a nine-year-old who's ripping it all over the mountain."

For a taste of Sunlight's small-town flavor, check out the annual Ski Spree event on February 5, 2011, featuring a broomball tournament, fireworks, chili cook-off, torchlight parade and live music. "It's a friendly mountain with that Cheers mentality, one of those places where everybody knows your name," Murphy says. "The lifties will be calling you and your kids by name by the second time they see you."

 

General Information: www.SunlightMtn.com; 800-445-7931.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-945-7491; www.SunlightMtn.com/the-mountain/snowreport.

Lift rates: Adult day pass: $50.

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'.

 

******

Telluride Ski Resort

Chason Russell coaches the All-Mountain Freeride Team at Telluride and got to show off some of the resort's newest terrain in Wintervention, this year's installment in the Warren Miller Entertainment legacy, along with Telluride locals Brian and Hillaree O'Neill and Galena Gleason. Telluride's been doing some winterventions of its own, and the twenty-minute hike from the Revelation lift to the Palmyra Staircase — a pair of steel staircases flown in by helicopter last season to connect Gold Hill Chutes #8 and #9 — makes for some impressive footage.

"It's pretty sweet," says Russell. "You just ride the Revelation lift up, take a little stroll, and suddenly you're on top of some seriously big terrain. It's almost too easy: If you've never been here before, I'd definitely recommend working your way up to it." Telluride also doubled its snowmaking capacity for this season and spent the summer aggressively cleaning up its tree-skiing areas around Silver Tip, Henry's Run, Stella, Upper Magnolia, Log Pile and Joint Point to clear out some dead wood and open up some glades. 

"Telluride is pretty expansive, and when it's good, it's really good," Russell says. "For the full Palmyra Peak experience, you'll want to commit to the one-hour hike to the summit at 13,251 feet. If you can get Palmyra in good conditions, it'll be your all-time best run."

Russell's a professional photographer in his rare moments of downtime, and tells visitors to get as much elevation as possible and soak up the views. "I like to haul my camera up on the mountain whenever I have the opportunity, and I'd recommend bringing a camera when you come to visit. Otherwise nobody's going to believe you when you tell them how magnificent it is out here." He'll be snapping shots of his freeride team at events across the country and says Telluride's the ultimate training ground. "Our objective is to get out there and ski a lot and have as much fun as we possibly can. It's good work if you can get it."

 

General Information: www.TellurideSkiResort.com; 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. to 4 p.m.

Snow Report: 970-728-7425.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $98. Discount tickets available online.

Terrain: More than 2,000 skiable acres with 120 trails; 23 percent beginner; 36 percent intermediate; 41 percent advanced/expert. Base is 8,725', with a 3,845' vertical rise; summit: 12,570'.

 

******

Vail

"This is a beautiful mountain — it really is," says Tom Higgins, owner of the American Ski Exchange at the base of Vail's Vista Bahn Express. "What sets Vail apart is the open terrain and the back bowls, all of them. You can make your days as easy or as tough as you want here."

Higgins's owner-operated shop has been in business for 22 years in what's increasingly becoming a company town now that Vail owns Specialty Sports Venture (SSV) and its Vail Sports and RentSkis.com businesses. And he's established a niche for himself with top-quality product, an experienced staff and a vast knowledge of the mountain.

"The single best piece of advice I can give is to get on the chair before 9 a.m.," Higgins says. "Get your gear sorted out the night before and get on the hill early, and you'll beat the ski-school rush and most of the commuters from Denver."

Higgins likes North Star and North Woods on an average day, and Straight Shot, Headwall or Genghis when the snow is piling up. The big news at Vail this season is the new high-speed quad replacing the High Noon Express lift (Chair 5), which will increase capacity on the mountain and cut the ride down to six minutes. "Wherever you go and whatever kind of skier or rider you may be, you're likely to end up having a good day at Vail," Higgins says. "It's probably the most user-friendly mountain in the world. I think if you want to show off Colorado skiing on a powder day and you could ski any mountain, Vail's pretty tough to beat."

As for Vail's new EpicMix social-media app — which allows skiers to track their physical performance and how many vertical feet they've skied, plus message other people on the mountain and share all of it on Facebook and Twitter, among other things — Higgins says he doesn't much go in for bells and whistles. "You always get some people who want to use the latest technology so they can boast about how much vertical they got or whatever, and I guess, like any amenity, you're welcome to use it if you want to use it. I wouldn't get too caught up in all that, though. Come here to ski, and ski your little heart out. Your friends will be plenty jealous without you going and shouting all about it all over the Internet."

 

General Information: www.Vail.Snow.com; 970-476-5601.

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

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

Snow Report: 970-476-4888.

Lift Rates: TBA.

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

 

******

Winter Park Resort

Pro snowboarder Pat Milbery says Winter Park is his favorite place to ride: "I love Winter Park because of the diversity that Winter Park and Mary Jane offer as a complete mountain. I love the fact that within fifteen to twenty minutes, I can be riding the park and then cross over to Mary Jane, get a couple of powder runs, and then head up to the Panoramic Express and get into the bowls and the trees." Winter Park is expanding its terrain-park offerings with twenty new features this season, and Milbery says it's indicative of the resort's commitment to freestyle skiing and snowboarding and helping push the sports forward. "We're seeing a great diversity in the parks and a really progressive approach to making parks that are fun for riders at all levels."

And although he wants to be an ambassador for the ski area, he's hesitant to give out his secrets. "I like to take laps through the parks, and I also love to get on the Eskimo Express, which services a lot of fun steeper tree runs. The other lift I'm fond of is the Super Gauge Express, which is the connector to all of the bowls. And Panoramic Express is amazing for tree riding. If you're hungry enough, you can find good snow back there just about any day of the season, because it blows around quite a bit. A lot of people are intimidated by it because its gets really cold up there at the top, so button up and tough it out and you'll be rewarded.

"I ride Winter Park like four days a week," he adds. "I have nothing against Breck, nothing against Keystone, nothing against any of the other Colorado ski areas, but there's definitely a scene at those places, you know? It's like a fashion show mixed with a proving ground, which can make for a really strange energy I'm not usually feeling. I don't ever feel that at Winter Park. Here it's more like, 'Just do your thing.'"

 

General Information: www.SkiWinterPark.com; 970-726-5514.

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

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends and holidays.

Snow Report: 303-572-SNOW.

Lift Rates: TBA.

Terrain: 3,060 skiable 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'.

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Wolf Creek Ski Area

"I'm a follow-the-snow kind of guy, so I end up at Wolf Creek all the time," says Adam Schmidt, founder of the 1,500-member Boulder Snowboarding Group and editor of the new Colorado Snowboarding magazine. "I'll plan on going for a day or two and end up staying for a week or more, because the storms down there are just amazing. That place gets the most snow in Colorado, and it's almost always epic."

He's not exaggerating: Wolf Creek averages 465 inches of natural snow annually. To make the most of it, Schmidt suggests signing up for e-mail snow reports at WolfCreekSki.com and investing in good snow tires and chains so you can follow through when you get the good news: When the powder is piling up, the drive over Wolf Creek Pass can be a barrier.

"Wolf Creek is one of those places that proves it's worth putting in work to have some fun," Schmidt says. It's also a relatively well-kept secret. "Everyone knows it's always got the most snow, and yet you get there and there are no lines," Schmidt says. "The lift tickets are cheap, the lodging is cheap, and, honestly, it's not even all that far."

Wolf Creek caters to kids and families with a Magic Carpet for its Wolf Pup program and three chairlifts servicing beginner and intermediate terrain, which make up more than half the mountain. But to really find out what all the howling is about, make your way to the extreme terrain scattered all over the mountain: Those boots were made for walking.

"Hike the Knife Ridge Staircase over to any of the Knife Ridge chutes off of the Alberta lift for the steep stuff, or get over to the Water Fall area for some cool little cliffs," Schmidt says. "For the truly adventurous, take the 45-minute hike to Horseshoe Bowl and you might literally be in over your head. You'll also find great glades and tree runs all over the mountain, and the more you're willing to hike for it, the more fun you'll have."

First-timers can take a complimentary one-hour Ridge and Beyond Tour for an introduction to Wolf Creek's more challenging hike-to and cross-country terrain.

 

General Information: www.WolfCreekSki.com; 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. to 4 p.m.

Snow Report: 800-SKI-WOLF.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $52.

Terrain: 1,600 skiable 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'.

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