It's your long-awaited winter vacation, and you're going big. You're on your way to Aspen, the Rockies' snooty grande dame of skiing. You've landed at Denver International Airport, loaded the family into the rental minivan and now you're puttering up Interstate 70 into the heart of the Colorado Rockies.
Stop right there.
Break free from the conga line of sport utility vehicles. Forgo Aspen's thronged sun decks. Instead, turn south on U.S. 24. Instead of ski shops and condos, you'll find wide, empty valleys, an abandoned mining camp clinging to the edge of an icy canyon, a jagged horizon.
As you crest Tennessee Pass, the journey away from Colorado's uber-resorts reaches its literal and figurative apex. Atop the pass is Ski Cooper, a ski area that exults in its modesty and homespun atmosphere.
Small ski mountains such as Howelsen Ski Area, Eldora Mountain Resort, Silver Creek Resort and Powderhorn Resort dot Colorado. But proximity to Aspen (as well as Vail, the most bloated ski megalopolis west of the Mississippi), accentuates the quirkiness and anachronistic charm of Ski Cooper, Sunlight Mountain Resort and Aspen Highlands.
And if you can't give up the vast terrain, gourmet restaurants and thunderous night life of the Goliaths of Colorado skiing, there are still good reasons to devote a day or two to one of Aspen's smaller neighbors: you'll encounter fewer crowds (locals often outnumber tourists), the atmosphere is not intimidating and poseurs lack an audience.
Pulling into Ski Cooper's parking lot, I'm immediately struck by its dissimilarity to Aspen. For one thing, parking is free. And the rambling ski lodge, with its wooden walls and yellow paint, resembles an old military barracks.
It's a fitting resemblance, since the first skiers to schuss down Cooper's slopes were members of the Army's 1Oth Mountain Division, the famed contingent of skiing soldiers who fought the Nazis in the Italian Alps during World War II. The division,which lived and trained at nearby Camp Hale, practiced downhill skiing on the slopes that now make up Ski Cooper.
Every March, the ski area hosts a yearly 10th Mountain Division reunion. One regular attendee is Dave Griswald, a former member of the 10th and a resident of nearby Buena Vista.
"When I arrived at Camp Hale in 1942," recalls Griswald, "I thought, 'Boy, this must be little Siberia.' I had to put my head back to look at the mountains, they were so high."
During maneuvers, the soldiers wore white uniforms and skis, carried 90-pound rucksacks and received rations-and-a-half to compensate for the cold and high elevations. They also installed the first lift on Cooper Hill.
Griswald stills skis regularly at Ski Cooper, having served the last 24 years as a volunteer with the National Ski Patrol. One of the best reasons to come to Ski Cooper, he maintains, is its snow. At Aspen and many other Colorado resorts, snow from the sky is augmented by snow from vast systems of hoses and nozzles. But not at Ski Cooper. "Ski Cooper is all natural snow," he says. "It's different from man-made snow; it's less ice-crystally."
Just as basic as the chemistry of its snow is Ski Cooper's terrain. Though Cooper claims that 40% of its 26 runs are intermediate and 30% are expert, many of its runs are as wide as football fields and about as steep, making Cooper a beginner's nirvana. Even so, the ski area's summit is at 11,700 feet, promising panoramic views of Mt. Elbert, highest mountain in the North American Rockies and its aptly named neighbor, Mt. Massive.
Though Ski Cooper is only 27 miles from Vail, the two resorts hardly seem devoted to the same sport. Why come to Ski Cooper? Let me count the ways:
1. While snowboarding at Cooper on a sunny day last spring, I encounter no lift lines. In fact, I hardly see anybody else getting on the lift before or after me. It's actually sort of spooky.
2. An adult, full-day lift ticket costs $25. For $50--which includes lift ticket, ski lesson, equipment rental and lunch--4- to 10-year-olds can join the Panda Patrol.
Says Ski Patroller Al Slavin, "Beginner skiers who come from Vail tell me that after skiing here, they can't justify paying the higher prices at Vail."
3. According to Slavin, who admits that Ski Cooper's runs are a little too gentle for his liking, memorable skiing for intermediates and better is only a Sno-Cat ride away. For $125, powder-junkies can spend a full day on Chicago Ridge, which looms over Ski Cooper. "Even after four or five days without new snow," says Slavin, "they'll have you skiing powder all day since the area is so huge."
4. Snaking away from the Ski Cooper parking lot are cross-country ski tracks leading to the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse. For $45, customers are provided nordic ski gear and a headlamp, then follow a guide through a moonlit forest to a huge yurt (a Mongolian-style tent, complete with wood-burning stove and room for 40 diners), where they partake in a candle-lighted feast of elk, lamb, chicken, trout or pasta, and homemade pie. Nonskiers can make the mile-long trip to the yurt aboard a horse-drawn sleigh.
5. Ten miles from Ski Cooper, offering accommodations and food, is Leadville, population 2,600. Like the skiing on Tennessee Pass, Leadville drops you squarely into Colorado's past, but with less of the commercialism and explosive development you find in other former mining towns. There are no gaudy malls in downtown Leadville, and the only condominiums are on the outskirts, hidden in the pines. Leadville still looks like the real thing; in fact, the town's last major lead and zinc mine closed only a few weeks ago.
Even Leadville's 117-year-old Silver Dollar Saloon, which hasn't stopped serving shots of whiskey since it opened, only grudgingly gave up as a miner's watering hole 14 years ago.
Says Tony McMahon, whose mother owns the Silver Dollar, "We went 'tourist' in '82. The Climax mine shut down, my father passed away, people wouldn't pay their tabs. My mother said, 'That's enough.' We started bringing pictures up from the basement and putting them on the wall so tourists could goo-goo at 'em."
While Leadville haltingly submits to a tourist-dependent economy, Glenwood Springs, which is 10 miles and a free shuttle ride from Sunlight Mountain Resort, has long been a vacation destination. For a century, Glenwood Springs has beckoned vacationers to its famous Hot Springs Pool, reputed to be the largest hot springs-fed pool in the world. (When President Taft visited Glenwood's grand Hotel Colorado, however, he declined an invitation to test the waters. "Bathing in public," he said, "is not, if I may say so, my strong suit.")
Skiing came to Glenwood Springs in 1947, the same year that Aspen Ski Co., amid much hoopla, opened its first lifts on Aspen Mountain, 42 miles farther down the Roaring Fork Valley. But in Glenwood Springs, skiing began more as an afterthought.
When World War II ended, the Vanderhoof family, who owned a Glenwood Springs sporting goods store, bought Camp Hale's surplus parkas and skis. To sell their new merchandise, the Vanderhoofs opened a ski area named Holiday Hill, Sunlight Mountain Resort's predecessor.
Holiday Hill's lone lift was a rope tow, powered by the engine of a 1931 Buick, which was parked at the top of the hill. Don Vanderhoof, who was in high school at the time, was the lift operator. He sat in the Buick's front seat, his hand on a throttle, looking over his shoulder at his passengers below.
"If the load really got heavy," says Vanderhoof, who is now president of Glenwood Independent Bank, "you'd have to shift into second; if you did it really smoothly you wouldn't knock anybody off the rope."
After three seasons, Holiday Hill closed. The slopes went unused until 1966, when a group of local businessmen opened Sunlight. Though the ski area's first owners had ambitious plans for their fledgling resort, Sunlight developed fitfully, remaining in Aspen's shadow.
But slow growth has also made Sunlight Colorado's ultimate family resort, thanks to low prices (for the past six years, a one-day lift ticket has remained $28), an unpretentious, laid-back atmosphere and a wide range of skiing terrain, from mogul-studded screamers to gentle rollers. Of its 55 trails, 20% suit beginners, 55% are for intermediates, and 25% are for advanced skiers and snowboarders. And for the cockiest customers, there's Sunlight Extreme, home to steep chutes and bone-jarring bump runs. Though Sunlight's uppermost elevation is a modest 9,895 feet, its vertical drop is a respectable 2,010 feet.
Even the layout of Sunlight's 445 acres is a boon to families. Every run funnels to the base lodge and its large, sunny restaurant, which fills with the shouts of children and parents. When I stop for a sandwich after giving myself a good thrashing on Sunlight's moguls, I almost feel a pang of loneliness amid the restaurant's clamor--I have nobody whose zipper I can unstick or whose nose I can wipe.
"If some members of your family are snowboarding and some are skiing, and everybody's at a different ability level, you're still going to see each other," says general manager Tom Jankovsky. "You let your kid go at Snowmass (Aspen's sprawling sister resort), that's the last you're going to see of him; you might not even see him at the end of the day."
Julian Vogt, a Glenwood Springs local, is one of Sunlight's most zealous snowboarders, but you couldn't call him a ski bum. For one thing, he's a retired foreign affairs officer for the U.S. State Department. For another thing, he's 85 years old.
Vogt started snowboarding in 1989, while working as a Sunlight ski instructor. He snowboards twice a week, though without his wife, Anne, who prefers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Sunlight's cross-country area is adjacent to the ski mountain.
This year, Vogt plans to buy a new Burton snowboard.
"If it's hard snow," he says, "I'll take my helmet. I have one now, since I've started in-line skating."
Some might sniff that Aspen Highlands, which is 10 minutes from Aspen Mountain, is not a genuine alternative to Aspen, because Aspen Skiing Co. owns both mountains (along with Snowmass Ski Area and Buttermilk Mountain) and because a lift ticket at either area costs the same, a throat-tightening $56.
But when it comes to crowds, Highlands is worlds apart from Aspen Mountain. Last year, 150,000 skiers took to the slopes at Highlands while Aspen welcomed more than 300,000 skiers (the number of on-slope air kisses isn't recorded).
Until 1958, Highlands was simply the magnificent backdrop to property owned by Whip Jones, a former stockbroker from Wisconsin. "The Forest Service suggested that Aspen was getting a little crowded," explains Jones, "and thought the valley's next ski area should be at Highlands."
Jones briefly looked for partners with whom to operate a ski area, then decided he'd do it himself. Under his ownership, Highlands steadily gained renown for its enormous, 3,635-foot vertical drop and challenging terrain, 47% of which is marked "most difficult" and "expert," and includes the double-black diamond Steeplechase Area.
At the same time, Highlands gained notoriety for its lifts. Reaching the top of the ski area took 50 minutes. Because of its glacial-speed lifts and lower profile, Highlands always lurked outside the Aspen spotlight.
Then, in 1992, Whip Jones donated the ski area to Harvard University, which turned it over to Aspen Skiing Co. The new owner replaced the creaky lifts with high-speed quads, shortening the base-to-summit trip to less than 20 minutes. Having never skied at Highlands before the lift improvements, I don't know what it was like to endure the slow ride to the top. All I know is that I can strap on my board at the 11,675-foot summit, then cruise--no, scream--to the bottom, following a succession of fast, twisty runs.
Mac Smith, on the other hand, knows well the Highlands before and after Aspen Skiing Co.'s takeover. He grew up in nearby Basalt and spent his childhood tormenting neophyte skiers on Highlands' slopes.
Smith is now Ski Patrol director and special projects manager for Aspen Highlands.
To Smith, the Highlands is like an unfinished school project and he's the one holding the HPlay-Doh. Never mind that Highlands already has more steep, mogul-filled bowls and powder-choked glades than a skier could master in a lifetime. Every winter, Smith finds more slots in the trees that he can refine, with some pruning and landscaping, into plunging runs that snake through the forest. What's more, he keeps them unmarked and off trail maps, so skiers have as much fun finding these runs as skiing them.
"What a change," he says, grinning, "for a ski area to hide some of its product."
With its singular character and fervent following, Highlands seems to confer on Smith a sense of wonder, just as Ski Cooper and Sunlight Mountain Resort do on their employees and skiers. They're probably wondering when all those people at Aspen are going to realize what they're missing.
Gonzales is a freelance writer based in Breckenridge, Colo.
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SKI COOPER: About 120 miles west of Denver; 27 miles off I-70 on U.S. 24; P.O. Box 896, Leadville, CO 80461; telephone (719) 486-2277. Open till March 30; 365 lift-served acres. Three-day lift ticket, $63; one day, $25; half day, $20. Children (6-12), $15.
Where to stay: The Delaware Hotel, 700 Harrison Ave., Leadville; tel. (800) 748-2004, (719) 486-1418; $68 to $110 per double room, includes full breakfast. This is a Grand Victorian building on the main street. Alps Motel (1 1/2 blocks south of downtown, on Hwy. 24), Leadville; tel. (800) 818-2577, (719) 486-1223; $40 to $45 per double room. The Alps is a well-regarded place with only eight rooms.
Where to eat: (Note: All restaurant prices are for two people, food only.) The Homestead Bakery and Cafe, 714 Harrison St.; local tel. 486-0284. The Homestead serves bagels, muffins, sandwiches. Callaway's Restaurant (in the Hotel Delaware), 700 Harrison St.; tel. 486-1418; about $40. It has elegant, Victorian atmosphere. For more information: The Greater Leadville Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 861, Leadville, CO 80461; tel. (800) 933-3901, (719) 486-3900.
SUNLIGHT MOUNTAIN RESORT: Just off I-80 on state highway 82, about 166 miles west of Denver; 10901 County Road 117, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601; tel. (800) 445-7931, (970) 45-7491. Open till April 13; 460 skiable acres. Tickets: three-day lift ticket, $77; one day, $28; half day, $24. Children (6-12), $18.
Where to stay: Hotel Colorado, 526 Pine St., Glenwood Springs; tel. (800) 544-3998, (970) 945-6511; $80-$279 per double room. This is adjacent to the famous Hot Springs Pool. Sunlight Bavarian Inn, 10252 County Road 117, Glenwood Springs; tel. (800) 733-4757, (970) 945-5225; $45-$115 per double room, depending on day/season. At the base of Sunlight Mountain Resort.
Where to eat: The Wild Rose Bakery, 310 7th St.; local tel. 928-8973. The bakery prides itself on fat-free muffins. The Bayou, 52103 Hwy. 6; tel. 945-1047. Cajun restaurant; about $30. The Italian Underground, 715 Grand Ave.; tel. 945-6422; usually less than $20. This is where locals go for pasta.
For more information: Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Assn., 1102 Grand Ave., Glenwood Springs, CO 81601-3886; tel. (970) 945-6589.
ASPEN HIGHLANDS: Around 45 miles south of I-70 on state highway 82; P.O. Box 1248, Aspen, CO 81612; tel. (970) 920-1220, fax (970) 920-0771. Open Dec. 14-April 7; 619 skiable acres. Ages 28-64, one-day ticket $56, half day, $42; ages 7-17, one day $33; ages 18-27, $39; ages 65-69, $45.
Where to stay: Maroon Creek Lodge, 1498 Maroon Creek Road, Aspen; tel. (970) 925-3491; 11 apartments with kitchens, $114-$290. It is adjacent to Highlands base area. Heatherbed Mountain Lodge, 1679 Maroon Creek Road, Aspen; tel. (800) 356-6782, (970) 925-7077; $79-$225 per double room. Perched over tumbling Maroon Creek, lodge has 19 rooms.
For more information: Aspen Ski Co., P.O. Box 1248, Aspen, CO 81612; tel. (800) 525-6200. Aspen Chamber Resort Assn., 425 Rio Grande Place, Aspen, CO 81612; tel. (970) 925-1940.