Rockies Spring Skiing Freshened by Discounts

Friedland is a Denver free-lance writer and the Western editor of SKI magazine.

In Southern California, water may be more precious than wine this winter, but there's plenty of H2O on the Rocky Mountain ski slopes in the form of a snow-white carpet.

Purgatory, Colo., for example, is wearing a whopping 69 inches at mid-mountain. And March and April bring some of the heaviest snowfalls of the season at many resorts while daytime temperatures sometimes soar into the 60s.

Further, many ski resorts are reducing prices this March--traditionally a high-rent month--due to lack of bookings because skiers mistakenly think drought has hit all of the West. And come April, the bargains are outrageous.

All of these elements combine to make this spring a particularly great time for a ski vacation in many parts of the West.

Spring skiing has a character all its own. Skiers sleep a little later, giving the sun time to warm the snow until it melts into "corn," the texture so many skiers love to push around.

If the temperatures hit 60 and the snow gets too slushy, many skiers retire to whirlpools or hot tubs available at most of the lodges.

Skiers may stay in more upscale lodgings than during peak season, partly because late spring (usually after April 1) is prime discount time at most resorts. And in many cases, rates are lowered because the slopes become vacant of skiers, not snow.

A $169 room at the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird, Utah, for example, goes for $95 after April 5. After April 1, a daily lift ticket and a night of luxury lodging starts at $58 in Keystone, Colo. (down from $75 during March). From April 1-7, skiers at Crested Butte, Colo., can get three-day lift/lodging end-of-season packages for $120 (down from $214 during March).

Here's a string of resorts across the West that have snow and are offering deals to lure sun-seeking skiers:

In a year when venerable spring institutions like Mammoth and Squaw Valley have far less snow than normal, Taos, N.M., is boasting the best slope coverage of the last 12 years. Arguably the best small resort in the United States, Taos melds exhilarating skiing and ski-school classes that even advanced skiers enjoy, with an opportunity to sample Southwestern food and art.

During March, traditional Taos ski weeks (which include lodging, lifts and meals) range from $899 to $1,187, depending upon lodgings. The rates for a condominium (without meals) vary from $694 to $873. The last week of the ski season, the rates for some packages go down 20%. And local ski experts are predicting that there will be lots of snow on the slopes when the resort closes April 7. For more information, call (800) 992-7669.

Winter Park's "Winter Adventure" packages (five nights' lodging, four days' lifts, an evening of tubing and a dinner sleigh ride) start at $407 per person, double occupancy. "Family Affair" packages (five nights' lodging, four days' lifts and three days of kids' programs, good through March 31) go from $439 for adults and $163 for children, based on two adults and four children maximum in a two-bedroom condominium. "Awesome April" packages (four nights, three days) start at $156 per person, double occupancy, in a motel and from $235 in a condo. For more information, call (800) 453-2525.

Intermediate and advanced skiers with a car should sample nearby Berthoud Pass. Perched at the top of the Continental Divide, this boutique ski area offers a controlled wilderness experience skiing on ungroomed slopes. Skiers take a lift up and ski down patrolled wilderness runs to the highway. A shuttle bus returns them to the lodge.

One of Colorado's zaniest rites of spring takes place during Banana Season in Snowmass and Aspen, April 6-14. Coupons good for such things as food, lodging and ski equipment are hidden on the slopes in plastic bananas that are sought by skiers clad in prom dresses, bikinis, tuxes and other outlandish attire.

If you want to ski the area, grab one of the $499 packages (three nights' lodging per person, double occupancy/air fare from Los Angeles), good from now through the end of the season. (Connecting flights are via Continental, but can only be booked through either Aspen or Snowmass central reservations.) For $605, and as long as they last, you can get four nights' lodging, three days' lifts and air fare from Los Angeles, also good through the end of the season. United Express offers daily nonstop service from Los Angeles. For more information, contact Snowmass Central Reservations at (800) 332-3245 or Aspen Central Reservations at (800) 262-7736.

Colorado's Summit Country, often called the "Top of the Rockies," boasts four ski areas carved on mountainsides that climb up to the Continental Divide. Because the ski areas--Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone Mountain and Arapahoe Basin--are so high, the slopes retain snow long after other resorts are sporting green and brown ground. Closing dates run from April 14 at Breckenridge to early June at Arapahoe Basin.

The resorts are within easy driving distance of each other (there's also a public shuttle bus system), so many skiers staying in the region sample all four. And there are several spring events, such as Copper's Eenie Weenie Bikini contest (open to men and women), Breckenridge's Bump Buffet and Beachin at the Basin--a Memorial Day celebration at Arapahoe Basin--that lure party lovers.

At Keystone, $150 a night buys lodging within walking distance of the lifts and two lift tickets. From March 31, spring lift/lodging packages start at $58 per night per person, double occupancy. For more information, call (800) 222-0188. For more information about all Ski the Summit resorts, contact Ski the Summit, P.O. Box 267, Dillon, Colo. 80435, (303) 468-6607.

Colorado's southern resorts have been the grateful recipients of the biggest snow dumps this winter. Three--Crested Butte, Purgatory and Telluride--all have five to six feet of skiable snow at mid-mountain.

Crested Butte's "March Madness" packages of five nights' lodging and four days' lifts go from $282 to $615 per person, double occupancy. Three-day lodging/lift "April Adventure" packages, good April 1-7, run $120 to $360 per person, double occupancy. For more information, contact Crested Butte central reservations at (800) 544-8448.

The intermediate slopes at Purgatory get top honors for great, relaxing skiing. The mountain, which has 2,029 vertical feet served by lifts, will be open until April 14. And there's night life with a distinctly Western ambience in the saloons and restaurants in historic Durango, 30 minutes away.

To sample Purgatory-Durango, book the $558 "Fly Free from Denver" weeklong package, which includes air from Denver, seven nights' slope-side lodging (or $504 for nearby condos, $365 for Durango lodging), six days' lifts and ground transfers. The packages are also available from Albuquerque. For information, contact (800) 525-0892.

Telluride's carefully maintained mining-town raggedness is overshadowed by a world-class mountain. There are long runs for beginners, lots of intermediate terrain and some of the nation's quirkiest expert turf. The town is rapidly becoming a hideaway for New York tycoons and Hollywood stars, and the quality of the restaurants and lodging is climbing to match the clientele.

Telluride's Surf-the-Rockies packages (seven nights' lodging, six days' lifts) go from $331 in a bed and breakfast, from $431 in lodge rooms and from $489 in a condominium, March 31 to April 7. For information, call (800) 525-3455.

To the north, Vail has rightfully established a reputation as one of America's premiere resorts, both for its skiing and resort ambience. This winter, it has been blessed with regular snow falls--a few inches one day and a few more the next, plus an occasional heavy dump--ensuring enough base to last through late spring. China Bowl and the Back Bowls are wonderful places for spring skiing, although the runs along the vast front face are also entertaining.

Nearby Beaver Creek (skiable on the same lift ticket) has lots of ego-building intermediate trails, a beginner's area at the top of the mountain and some gnarly expert terrain.

Vail's "Go for the Snow" package (five nights' lodging, four days' lifts) starts at $497 per person, double occupancy, in a lodge room or quad occupancy in a two-bedroom condo, good through March 29. "Spring in the Rockies" packages (five nights' lodging, four days' lifts) start at $337 per person, double occupancy, good April 1-14. The April "Learn to Ski" package offers two days of free lessons, lift tickets and ski rentals in Beaver Creek to skiers purchasing a minimum two-night stay at Beaver Creek between April 1-14. A $30 daily lift ticket will be offered to skiers accompanying the "never-ever" skier, on a one-to-one basis. Packages may only be booked through Vail/Beaver Creek central reservations at (800) 525-2257.

The Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek has a Single Share program that matches solo travelers with roommates of the same sex. Skiers pay $429 for three nights' lodging and two days' lifts. For more information, call (800) 233-1234.

Both Vail and Beaver Creek close April 14.

Several of the ski areas in the canyons above Salt Lake City retain snow until late spring. Just 25 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City, Snowbird's tram rises over skiers cavorting in T-shirts and shorts--some skiing but many sunbathing--until mid-May. Just up the canyon, there's a similar scene on Alta's slopes until early April.

During peak season, rooms at Snowbird's Cliff Lodge start at $169 per night; April 5-27, the same room is $95. During March, a one-bedroom condo with loft is $489; it's $179 April 5-27. For more information, call (800) 453-3000.

In the next canyon, locals cruise the slopes at one of Utah's best-kept secrets--ParkWest ski area--until the end of March. The deck chairs at McHenry's Beach, a flat spot outside the mid-mountain lodge at Deer Valley, are the hottest items on the mountain until the area closes at the end of March.

But Park City's annual "Snow-Shine Festival" runs March 30 to April 6, so the town will be filled with party lovers. Skiers will be dancing in their boots to live bands playing at the mountain restaurants, charging through an obstacle course and a giant slalom race, bargain hunting for ski gear at sidewalk sales, searching for Easter eggs and attending a nondenominational service on the mountain on Easter morning.

If you want to lodge near Park City, the Homestead's $795 "You Won't Believe This" ski package, good through the end of ski season, is a terrific deal. It includes seven nights' lodging at this lovely country resort, a AAA four-diamond property 20 minutes from Park City; daily breakfast and dinner off the regular menu; a rental car, and five days of lift tickets. (Lift tickets are good at ParkWest, Park City, Deer Valley and Sundance, all approximately 20 minutes from the Homestead, and at Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude in neighboring canyons.)

The package also includes the choice of sleigh ride and chateaubriand dinner, sunrise hot-air ballon flight or scenic helicopter ride. Rate is per person, double occupancy. Children are $395. For more information, call (800) 327-7220.

For more information about the ski areas in the canyons near Salt Lake City, as well as vacation-package lodging in the canyons or in Salt Lake City, obtain a copy of the Utah Winter Vacation Planner from Ski Utah, 307 West 200 South, Suite 1003, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84101, (801) 521-3722.

Sun seekers will find good snow and good times at Jackson Hole, Wyo., through April 7. Long touted as a place for advanced skiers, it actually has enough intermediate terrain to keep a skier busy for a week.

Even those who lack the stamina to enter the Pole, Pedal and Paddle triathlon April 6 can pack a picnic lunch and watch from the sidelines. The race kicks off when contestants on skis race down Jackson Hole. Nordic gear replaces alpine gear as the race continues along a 10K cross-country circuit. Racers then bike 19.8 miles to the Snake River, then paddle something floating (a boat, skis, whatever) nine miles to the finish line.

Widely discounted "March Madness" packages (five nights' lodging at the base of the mountain/four days' lift tickets and a ski lesson) go from $739, March 15 to April 7. Similar packages in the nearby town of Jackson start at $582. For more information, contact Jackson Hole Central Reservations at (800) 443-6931.

Up in Banff, Canada, the slopes have a longer season. Skiing lasts until mid-May at the vast Lake Louise ski area or at Mt. Norquay, which overlooks Banff. About 20 minutes from Banff, Ski Sunshine--where tree-lined runs and open bowls kiss the Continental Divide--stays open until June.

Thanks to the current rate of exchange, skiing in Canada is a real bargain. The CP Hotels in Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Whistler are luxurious places to stay. You can book lodging at any of the hotels from the same toll-free number: (800) 828-7447.

The five nights' lodging/lifts spring skiing package (Feb. 8 to April 31) at the Jasper Park Lodge is $365 per person, double occupancy. The three day lodging/tri-area lift ticket spring package (March 27 to June 2) at Chateau Whistler is $93 per night per person, double occupancy.

High spring lodging/tri-area lift packages (until April 5) at the Banff Springs Hotel are $87 Sunday to Thursday and $93 weekends. Late spring packages (until May 9) are $61/$63. Lodging/tri-area lift spring packages (April 6 to ski area closing) at Chateau Lake Louise are $74 Sunday-Thursday and $80 weekends. Prior to April 6, packages are $87/$93.

For information about staying in Sunshine Village, write to Box 1510, Banff, Alberta, TOL OCO, Canada, or call (403) 762-6500.

So join in the rites of spring this year. Leave your golf clubs in the closet, bag your skis one more time--along with suntan lotion, a backpack stuffed with sandwiches and a bottle of wine, and head for the sunny ski slopes.

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