Finding thrills on those smaller hills

Special to The Times

LIKE many veteran skiers, I have made it a goal to visit all the major ski areas of the West -- Aspen and Vail in Colorado, Park City, Utah, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

But it took me many years to investigate the smaller ski areas near the big ones -- Ski Cooper in Colorado, Solitude in Utah, Snow King in Wyoming, and Pajarito and Angel Fire in New Mexico.

These little guys, I've discovered, are fun, cheaper and less crowded than the giant resorts. And sometimes they're not so little after all.

On many of the smaller ski mountains, you usually can find at least a few tough runs, plenty of intermediate terrain and loads of friendly people.

What you won't find are high-speed lifts, lift operators with attitude or on-mountain restaurants serving $20 burgers.

If you consider skiing and riding to be adventures, you owe yourself a day or two at the places in between the name-brand resorts. Here are some of my favorite smaller resorts.

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Colorado

SKI COOPER, a short drive from Vail, was the site of Camp Hale, where the legendary 10th Mountain Division ski troops trained during World War II. They were sent to Europe, where they fought in the Italian campaign in 1945. After the war, several 10th mountaineers founded or managed major ski resorts, including Vail and Aspen.

A while ago, I stayed overnight in nearby Leadville, Colo., then headed out to Cooper the next morning to try its slopes. One of its two chairlifts covers the exact route of the T-bar that the 10th Mountain Division erected. That lift, as well as another long chairlift, took me to well-groomed, tree-studded intermediate trails and to advanced but not-so-difficult black runs. I spent the day imagining what it must have been like in 1942 when the soldiers arrived for training at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

With 1,200 feet of vertical, Cooper is small compared with Colorado's mega-mountains. It has a children's area with its own new building as well as a cross-country area and a day lodge with excellent, inexpensive lunch choices. There's also skiing on 2,400 acres called Chicago Ridge, reachable by Sno-Cat, for those who like a backcountry environment.

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Utah

SOLITUDE lives up to its name, even though it is as easily reached from Salt Lake City as Park City's three resorts. I have never encountered a lift line at Solitude, even on days when Park City Mountain is buzzing and crowds are waiting to board the Snowbird tram to the slopes.

At first, it was mainly a locals' area. A few years ago, Intrawest, a giant in the ski-resort industry, built a small village with condos, so now it gets the occasional out-of-towner.

Still, Solitude retains a serenity that envelops you like a fluffy down parka. On a visit a year ago, I almost felt as if I had the place to myself.

You can get there by public bus from Salt Lake City or drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon to the Moonbeam base lodge, which has a parking area, rental shop, lockers and cafeteria, plus a new high-speed quad lift.

Intermediates love Solitude's blue and black machine-groomed runs, accessible from the Eagle Express quad, on the front of the mountain. When there's fresh snow, local skiers head for Honeycomb Canyon, a V-shaped forested stash of double and single black-diamond runs that offer a taste of Utah's famed powder.

Solitude also has a cool lift ticket that its electronic turnstiles can read even when it is in your pocket. It stores data so that at the end of the day you can get a computer readout of which chairs you took and how many vertical feet you covered.

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New Mexico

VISITORS to Taos Ski Valley, which still does not permit snowboards, can get a different vibe by driving about an hour to Angel Fire Resort, 44 miles southeast. That resort welcomes boarders and freestyle skiers (who perform tricks) and has two major terrain parks.

At Angel Fire, you find yourself among non-threatening hills and wide-open spaces. With its high-speed quads and long, lower-intermediate trails, Angel Fire massages your ego and offers more contemporary snow play. And its innovative lesson packages allow you to learn skiing or riding on new gear and then keep it at no extra charge.

Another intriguing choice in northern New Mexico is Pajarito -- provided there has been ample natural snowfall. Because it doesn't churn out its own white stuff, Pajarito is at the mercy of the snow gods. Its 280 skiable acres offer plenty of challenging steeps. What's more, it has a fascinating history. Volunteers installed the first ski tow during World War II while scientists were developing the atom bomb at Los Alamos, a few miles away.

Pajarito is still owned and operated by the nonprofit Los Alamos Ski Club. As a fellow skier, a retired biochemist, remarked on one lift, "This isn't a resort, and the ski club won't let 'em treat it like one."

When nature provides a few storms, you can revel in pure powder on even blue intermediate runs. (Grooming is not a priority at Pajarito.) Relatively easy black-diamond bump runs test your knees and your heart. If you're really fit, you can find black-diamond slopes that will pound you into submission or make you feel like a ski racer.

Intermediate skiers or riders can have a ball at Pajarito too: It has more than a dozen gentle blue slopes, with names like Pussycat. And the simple cafeteria has good green chili.

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Wyoming

WHEN I was in Jackson Hole last year, I finally skied Snow King, the mountain that looms over the town of Jackson, 12 miles from the lifts of the much bigger Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Snow King is an old-fashioned town hill with enough of a pitch to get your heart rate up.

Opened in 1939, Snow King is among the oldest ski areas in the country, and there is nothing fancy about its prices or its two double and one triple chairlifts.

Finnish, Norwegian and French racing teams have trained at Snow King for the North American competition season because of its perfect fall line and dependable snow. With 400 skiable acres, Snow King has one slope lighted for night skiing, and 60% of the runs are rated as advanced.

At the bottom of the slopes at Snow King is its own hotel, a favorite of skiers who don't want to pay Four Seasons room rates and who want to be within walking distance of the great restaurants in the center of Jackson. The resort sells packages that include Snow King lodging as well as skiing at Snow King, Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, located over Teton Pass in Idaho.

This season, when you visit a mega-mountain, ask the locals for their recommendations. You are sure to hear of other little resorts between the big guys -- such as Sunlight in Glenwood Springs, Colo., near Aspen; Brundage, near Tamarack in Idaho; Brighton, just up the road from Solitude in Utah.

You might just become as captivated as I was by their down-home, unpretentious appeal.

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Mining little jewels

Colorado Ski Country, www.coloradoski.com/gems. The trade association offers information and a special discount card for most of the state's small areas, which it calls "the gems."

Ski Cooper, www.skicooper.com. Discounted daily tickets available at the Safeway in Leadville and other Colorado supermarkets.

Solitude, www.skisolitude.com.

Angel Fire, www.angelfireresort.com.

Pajarito, (505) 662-5725, www.skipajarito.com. Pajarito is open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, but call ahead to make sure.

Snow King, www.snowking.com.

-- Grace Lichtenstein

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