There’s Snow Place Like Colorado

BY Matt Cunningham

There’s just something about Colorado snow.
It comes in abundance for a start — 300 inches a year in some spots in the mountains — and it comes with some frequency as Christmas and January travelers through the Rockies found out to their extreme dismay.

For skiers however at least those whose exposure to outdoor winter sports is limited to the east quality is a more outstanding characteristic than quantity. Fresh-fallen Colorado snow has a density of only seven percent meaning that one inch of water equals 14 inches of snow. There is more than ample justification for its being hailed as “Champagne powder.”

There are 26 major ski resorts in Colorado and they offer a wide variety of conditions for all ages and skill levels in both skiing and snowboarding. And from December through late March visitors will find plenty of snow and all the room they need in which to enjoy it.

“That’s what I love about Colorado ” says skier Marlon Evans 20. “It’s so much more open than the east. You can get out there go on long runs and do your own thing.”

The magnificent scenery is another draw. Visitors of all ages enjoy the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains especially on the 300 sunny days a year that Colorado enjoys. Skiers will find the best views as they climb farther up the mountain.

When deciding which of these ski resorts to visit families should consider various aspects of the resort such as the level of ski experience required and the size and features of the surrounding town. The most popular resorts shine in both respects then add a special touch that makes them unique. Vail Aspen Snowmass Beaver Creek Breckenridge Steamboat Springs and Telluride are my favorites.

Vail overshadows all the other resorts as the top ski destination in America. Encompassing more than 5 200 acres the mountain offers more trails and levels of difficulty than any other resort. And to further its enjoyment Vail has the largest high-speed quad chairlift system whisking riders away to all areas of the mountain in a timely fashion.

The famous Back Bowls however are perhaps Vail’s greatest asset. They are massive sweeping expanses of mountain that provide skiers with plenty of room to break out and cut their own tracks down the slope. In fact the official Web site claims that even on a busy day there are just four skiers per acre.

The town is on the expensive side though a few moderately priced accommodations are available. And for those less interested in hitting the mountain there are hundreds of shops vending everything from tacky tourist shirts to stylish cowboy boots.

On the downside Vail’s amenities draw crowds. During the ski season finding good lodging or a table at a nice restaurant can be a challenge.

If you’re looking for a different atmosphere and don’t have young children Aspen is well worth considering. Originally founded as a mining town Aspen is famous for the Hollywood celebrities it attracts. It’s pretty upscale a fact reflected unfortunately in the price of accommodations shopping and restaurants. The mountain rises more than 11 200 feet and is known for steeper slopes and moguls or bumpy hills. As a result intermediate and expert skiing skills are required; beginners will not find the mountain very user friendly.

Snowmass is nearby. Second only to Vail in size the mountain offers a vast array of terrains and caters to skiers of all types. While considered geographically Aspen’s fourth mountain the town is less expensive and has a different feel than Aspen.

Snowmass is a popular choice among skiers because more than 95 percent of its lodging is ski-in ski-out right on the mountain. This allows skiers to avoid the long walks or bus rides required at most other resorts. Snowmass also features one of the better ski schools in the area Snowmass Ski School and thus is a good destination for families with younger children.

Steamboat Springs a half-hour drive from the Hayden airport in northwest Colorado is also family-friendly. There is plenty of space to roam with nearly 3 000 acres of slopes and plenty of fresh powder — 334 inches a year on average.

The town began as a cattle ranch and maintains a laid-back feel. Similar to Snowmass it offers an excellent ski school for all ages; in fact the resort started the first children-ski-free program (Kids Ski Free) back in 1982 which continues today. The school owes a lot to town legend and Olympic medalist Billy Kidd who was instrumental in developing teaching techniques that allow novices to apply advanced skiing principles.

Telluride which had a more rambunctious beginning as a gold- and silver-mining town in the 1870s lies on the southwestern side of this cluster of fantastic ski resorts. Much smaller than the others it is also less crowded and maintains a quiet friendly western atmosphere. Accommodations and restaurants are on the expensive side but many visitors say that the higher prices are well worth the exclusive and private feel.

The mountain rises to 14 000 feet one of the highest peaks of all these mountains and commands some of the most captivating views in the west. Skiers will find the slopes fairly steep and while beginners can navigate a quarter of the mountain the remainder caters to intermediate and expert skiers.

ll these resorts provide enjoyable vacations but travelers should prepare before visiting any ski resort in the Rocky Mountains. Winter temperatures can often hover around zero and it is critical to dress appropriately. Having skied the Rockies on many occasions Debbie Marshall has helpful advice to offer:

“The key is layers ” the Richmond Virginia resident says. “You can always take layers off but once you’re out there you can’t add any. And stick to materials that dry fast like silk fleece and wool. No cotton.”

Altitude is another factor for which many people from the east aren’t prepared. These mountains average about 11 000 feet — or about 10 995 feet higher above sea level than Wrightsville Beach. Altitude sickness is quite common. Headache and exhaustion are typical symptoms and affected travelers need a few days to adjust. It is important to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. For those who can’t adjust the best thing is to get to a lower elevation or seek a physician’s care if necessary.

The combination of altitude and daily exposure to the white reflective snow seriously intensifies the sun’s rays. Even on cloudy days sunburn is common among unprotected skiers. The fairer skinned need to apply sunscreen with a high SPF before hitting the slopes.

And most importantly the key to a fun trip to any of these excellent mountain resorts is safety. “Stay inside the ski boundaries ” Marshall advises “and always ski with a buddy so you have someone watching out for you.”

Helmets are a skiing accessory that are rapidly gaining favor. They are a good idea whether you’re an expert or a neophyte and they have the added benefit of providing additional warmth.

Colorado’s many resorts offer unsurpassed opportunities to experience a new atmosphere and try an exciting activity whether skiing snowboarding or taking a dogsled trip. “I am more of a beach person ” Marshall says. “But my ski trips out west have given me a love for the mountains.”