Travel

Colorado: high mountains, deep snow and big fun

It's time to check on snow conditions and dust off skis in preparation for hitting the slopes. If a ski trip is in your plans this winter, you can do no better than Colorado.

Colorado has 54 mountains taller than 14,000 feet, making it the highest of all states and a hot spot for skiers (with nearly 12 million ski visits a year). Aside from an abundance of deep powder for five months of the year and perfectly groomed trails marked green, blue and black (respectively, gentle, less gentle and "make out your will"), Colorado's ski resorts have little in common. Each has its own personality.

Whether you're looking for après-ski glitz and glamour or a place to take the whole family, the state has a resort for you.

Here are four of the best:

Keystone

There are four mountains at the family friendly Keystone Resort (www.keystoneresort.com), and there are trails for every skill level. The Outback offers uncrowded, ski-it-like-you-find-it glade and forest skiing for intermediate and advanced skiers, but the Schoolmarm and Jackstraw trails on Keystone Mountain are gentle enough for beginners. Keystone has 2,227 acres and 117 trails, and is the only resort in Colorado to offer night skiing.

Off the slopes, there's plenty to do: ice skating (the nation's largest ice rink is in the village center), cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, and of course, dining.

Take the gondola to the top of the Outback for dinner at Alpenglow Stube. At 11,400 feet, it's the country's highest gourmet restaurant. Or choose a progressive stagecoach dinner: Every course is at a different restaurant (the kids will love this, especially if they get an accommodating driver who lets them sit topside and hold the reins).

The best bargain is a combination lift package that entitles you to ski at Keystone and Summit County's three other resorts: Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.

Vail

The 3,017 acres of Vail's (www.vail.com) seven legendary back bowls offer challenges galore to intermediate and expert skiers who have easy access to the slopes via seven high-speed chair lifts. The trails frequently intersect, so be careful not to make a wrong turn and find yourself, as I did, not on a blue — or intermediate — trail, but on a black-diamond slope.

There are an additional 1,617 acres of skiable terrain on the front side of the mountain; 645 acres in the Blue Sky Basin; and 1,815 acres at Vail's sister resort, Beaver Creek, which has slopes for every skill level.

With all these possibilities, it is easy to see why the area repeatedly is ranked among the top five ski resorts in North America. You can buy packages to ski Vail and Beaver Creek, and shuttle service every 30 minutes makes traveling between the two villages easy.

But Vail doesn't live by downhill skiing alone. There's river rafting, dog sledding, sleigh rides and spa treatments at The Lodge at Cordillera. There's also the Alpine-like village itself, with its myriad selection of shops and restaurants.

While in the Vail/Beaver Creek area, take a starlight trip along a creek and through the woods by snowcat sleigh for a four-course dinner at Beano's Cabin, a private mountain lodge. The food is excellent, but it's the ride up and back — so impossibly romantic that you'll feel as if you're in a Hallmark Channel movie — that makes it a must.

Steamboat Springs

If Vail is European in flavor, Steamboat (www.steamboat.com) is pure American West.

This is quintessential cowboy country. You can don your best jeans and boots and meet the locals at the Steamboat Saloon. You can ride the Rockies on horseback (even in winter) through forests of aspen and pine, stopping for a Western-style chuckwagon barbecue, and you can select from the numerous guest ranches for accommodations.

As for skiing, Steamboat's location — in the cleft of a deep valley surrounded by mountains — ensures plenty of snow (about 331 inches annually), even when other resorts are running their snow-making machines.

Its 2,965 acres of ski slopes and 165 trails claim to offer something for every category of skier, although I found this to be more of a spot for intermediate and expert skiers. If you are at an advanced level, the Silver Bullet Gondola will take you to the top of Thunderhead for an exhilarating run down the mountain.

Steamboat Springs might cater to cowboys, but it's also fond of families. Adults who buy lift tickets for at least five days ($475 a person) can take advantage of the Kids Ski Free program, which lets children younger than 12 ski at no cost.

Don't miss the chance to soak in 104-degree mineral pools while watching snow fall softly around you at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, several miles from town.

Aspen

There's enough star power in Aspen (www.aspensnowmass.com) to light up the western skies. Barbra Streisand, Cher, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are just a few of the celeb skiers or après skiers who hang out in this chic resort.

But the real stars of this former silver-mining town are its mountains — dominated by the majestic Maroon Bells, which keep their lacy coat of snow even during the summer.

Four mountains are groomed for skiing, making Aspen the third-largest ski resort in North America. Aspen Mountain is geared more to the expert skier, but those who are more tentative on the slopes have plenty to choose from at Aspen's sister resort, Snowmass, and at Buttermilk/Tieback, midway between the two. There is continuous free ski shuttle service between Aspen and Snowmass from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Aspen also is a center for cross-country skiing, with 55 miles of free, easily accessible trails.

Aspen rivals Vail for après ski choices and nightlife. With more than 100 options for dining and entertainment, it offers cosmopolitans at the Caribou Club and foreign film festivals at Wheeler Opera House. The lively Terrace Bar at the Little Nell and J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome are popular places to congregate and swap ski stories.

For a true Aspen adventure, try a hot-air balloon flight. Soaring high over the snow-capped Rockies is an experience of a lifetime, and after the one-hour flight, the crew will be waiting for you with champagne in a silver goblet, a ballooning tradition.

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