I had almost forgotten what skiing could be like. Three decades after I first set skis to snow, I had grown to accept the epic shuttle rides from parking lots to the slopes, the winding lift lines that seemed to stretch for miles, the $15 bowls of chili and other après-ski excesses.
Then I pulled up to SolVista and was reminded of another era. A time when I could park, for free, just a few steps from the lift. When I could chat with the lifties before they loaded me up. When I could eat in a lodge and see more brown-bag lunches than lattes.
It was a time I'd nearly forgotten and, to be honest, the kind of place that wasn't really my style anymore. I have become what the old-timers call a "hot dogger." To me a blue (intermediate) run is just a means to an end, a path I blast down to reach the goods: trees, powder, backcountry, steeps and moguls. Green (easiest) runs are peppered with beginner skiers, an obstacle course to be avoided at all costs.
At SolVista, only 20% of the runs are marked black (advanced) — and those are bluish-black at best. Half are intermediate trails, and 30% are for beginners. About 85% of the people buying lift tickets take lessons, the director of the ski school told me last season.
The resort, officially called SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch, is tucked between two mountains in the Rockies 80 miles northwest of Denver. The convenient location and low-key atmosphere are big draws for families.
What was a thrill junkie like me doing at a place that has the motto "Fueled by hot cocoa, not adrenaline"?
I was skiing for two when I visited SolVista last February. Now I have a 6-month-old daughter, and I can think of no place better for her to learn to ski than SolVista. It's not all that different from Eldora, the resort on the other side of the Continental Divide where I learned to ski.
Eldora and SolVista are a part of a group of Colorado resorts informally known as "the gems." Others include Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, Loveland, Arapahoe Basin and Sunlight Mountain. Their small size, traditional approach and beginner-focused ski schools make them the ideal first mountains for the little ones.
Smaller is better I first hit a small hill at Eldora when I was 3 or 4. I was night skiing with my dad, and the intermediate run had iced over. I was so freaked out that I popped out of my pint-sized bindings and started walking down the slope, crying every step of the way. To add insult to injury, the run was — and still is — named Bunny Fair.
Dad brought me my skis. I put them back on and made my way slowly down the slope, one snowplow-turn at a time. To celebrate my accomplishment, I had a congratulatory cup of cocoa in the lodge, looking out the frosted windows at my personal Mt. Everest.
When you're small and learning to ski, even the littlest of mountains is more than big enough.
Resorts like Eldora and SolVista will never be as big as mega-resorts such as Aspen and Vail, so they focus on being good at being small.
SolVista is composed of two hills, each with about 1,000 vertical feet. All 33 trails end at the central base area, making it easy for families to stay together.
The East Mountain's terrain is gentler, excellent for beginners and intermediates; the West Mountain has intermediate and advanced terrain. The five lifts include two quads and one triple. Beginners have their own surface lift leading to a learn-to-ski park.
The ski school, known as the Accelerated Learning Center, is the heart of the resort. The day I visited, I felt as though I had walked into the busiest day-care center in town. It was lunchtime, and children had traded mittens and hats for sandwiches and bananas. The smell of sunscreen filled the room, as every child was required to stop at a big pump and slather some on before heading outside. Children talked excitedly about their adventures on the snow.
"Now I can turn," one said.
"I can slow down," chimed in another.
"I can turn and slow down," added a third.
SolVista's children's program takes potty-trained kids from 3 through 12. "Little Rustlers" (as the 3- and 4-year-olds are called) hit the snow for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon; they spend the rest of the day playing inside.
Little skiers and snowboarders spend most of the day in the protected learning area serviced by a magic carpet, a moving sidewalk that runs to the top of the beginner hill. From there they graduate to the Quick Draw Express on the East Mountain. One side of the hill is predominantly greens that weave through the trees; the other is a network of wide-open blue cruisers.
The Guaranteed Start to Ski or Snowboard program for adults covers two 2 1/2 -hour lessons and a promise to have novices on their feet and down the slopes by the end of the day. The $99 price includes not only your ticket for the day, the lessons and rentals, but also a pass valid for the rest of the season.
"Most people are able to link together turns down a beginning hill by the end of that first day," said John Raney, manager of the Accelerated Learning Center. "The great thing about the package is that it not only gets people started, the season pass keeps them going."
Other "gems" have similar learn-to-ski promotions. Arapahoe Basin has a $200 program that guarantees students will be able to ski or snowboard down beginner-groomed runs or they get their money back. It includes a season pass, up to four two-hour lessons and equipment rental — all valid for ages 12 and older.
For many, though, SolVista is a favorite. David and Linda Lake of Denver thought the resort was the best place for their four grandchildren to learn.
"The vertical drop [1,000 feet] isn't something that newer skiers couldn't handle," Linda said. "It gives kids the chance to become more proficient before they move on to more difficult terrain. And at the same time, there is plenty that will give them a challenge at a future date."
For the last seven years, SolVista's ski school has eschewed the traditional "snowplow" or "wedge" learning technique for a method created by internationally known ski instructor Harald Harb.
"We teach people to parallel ski right from the beginning," Raney said. "That way they don't have to unlearn the wedge and learn parallel. It allows people to progress much faster."
If a skier progresses to an "advanced" level, black trails await on the West Mountain. The mountain's longest advanced trail is called Widowmaker, a bit of an overstatement. But SolVista does hold some challenges — and advantages — for advanced skiers. Six inches of powder fell the first night of my visit, and while skiing laps on the West Mountain's black trails, I encountered no tracks other than my own all day.
Focus on families Off the slopes I found other things to like. SolVista's lodge is a tribute to days past. Rocking chairs sit in front of the fire, and families stake out tables during the day.
One thing you won't find: a raging après-ski scene. Families walk or ski back to their condos for a hot beverage or a soak in a tub. Overnight guests will discover a camp-like ambience. At the resort's Inn at SilverCreek, the scent of chlorine from hot tubs fills the air outside, and children run about everywhere in their pajamas.
Other lodging options include condominiums and rental homes. I stayed in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo that was part of the Kicking Horse Lodges. It had a full kitchen and a living room, with plenty of space for a family to gather. I checked in at night and was pleased the next morning when I found a ski run steps from the front door.
Most nights I cooked in the condo, as many families staying here do. (Groceries are available in Granby.) I did enjoy an above-average seafood dinner at the Creekside Grill in the Inn at SilverCreek.
But recreation remains the focus. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on 25 miles of backcountry trails are options, as are ice skating, snowmobiling and sleigh rides — all less than an hour's drive away. The resort is close to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Skiers who learn quickly and conquer the bluish-black runs here can head over to nearby Winter Park. There they will find a mega-resort that is only 20 minutes down the highway — but about 30 years away from SolVista.
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Skiing, the way it used to be
From LAX, most visitors to SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch fly to Denver International Airport. Nonstop service is on American, United and Frontier. Direct service (one stop, no change of planes) is on Alaska, America West, Continental and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares start at $198.
SolVista is in Granby, about 80 miles west of Denver. Take Interstate 70 to Exit 232, then U.S. 40 west. The resort is 15 miles north of Winter Park and 2 miles south of central Granby. Home James Transportation Services runs shuttles from the Denver airport. The ride takes about two hours and costs $50 (discounts for parties of three or more). Call (800) 359-7503 or (970) 726-5060, or go to http://www.homejamestransportation.com .
Lesson reservations: (800) 757-7669
Single-day lift tickets are $21 to $46, depending on the skier's age and day of visit. Seniors 70 and older and children 5 and younger are free.
WHERE TO STAY:
SolVista's accommodations include one inn plus three condominium complexes and vacation home rentals. You can book through central reservations, (800) 926-4386 or (970) 887-2131.
Inn at SilverCreek, off U.S. Highway 40, has 342 rooms and a restaurant, athletic club, heated pool and hot tubs. A double room runs from $59 to $129. Call SolVista central reservations.
Mountain Home at Sol Vista is a 2,300-square-foot house with three bedrooms and three baths; it sleeps as many as 10. Nightly rates are $200 to $500. Vacation Rentals by Owner, http://www.vrbo.com/25198 (includes link to e-mail the owner).
WHERE TO EAT:
The Creekside Grill at the Inn at SilverCreek, (970) 887-2484. Northern Italian cuisine. Entrees $9 to $25.
Dashing Thru the Snow, off County Road 5101 (P.O. Box 1800), Fraser, CO 80442; (888) 384-6773 or (970) 726-0900. Dinner sleigh rides. Horses pull an old-fashioned sleigh to a rustic "cowboy" cabin for dinner and entertainment. Meal includes appetizer, soup, choice of entrees and dessert. Children $60 to $65, adults $80 to $90.
TO LEARN MORE:
Colorado Tourism Office, 1625 Broadway, Suite 1700, Denver, CO 80202; (800) 265-6723 or (303) 892-3885, http://www.colorado.com .
— Chryss Cada