Winter Ski Issue: Colorado 4X4

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 1, 2002

Nine of us jumped on a flight to Denver, connected through family ties, friendship and a love of downhill skiing. But the shared vision stopped there.

Our ages ranged from elementary school to slightly grizzled, our skiing ability from just-show-me-the-easiest-way-down to point-me-to-steepest-and-deepest. Some of us, nursing bad backs and bum knees, would gladly exchange a half-day of skiing for a good soak in the hot tub. Others in our crowd live to ski, from first tracks to lifts powering down. Some wanted nothing but to crawl into bed after a day on the slopes, while a few were looking for some apr├Ęs-ski fun. And others preferred mixing it up with a day or two of snowboarding, shopping or cross-country skiing.

Could this ski trip be saved?

What we needed was a destination that would be all things to all people. Some of us would be skiing for only four days, so we also needed to maximize our time by choosing a resort within easy driving distance of a major airport. We turned our sights to an area just west of Denver that offers more than a half-dozen major ski resorts and several smaller ones, all within 100 miles of Denver International Airport.

Vail. Beaver Creek. Breckenridge. Copper Mountain. Keystone. Arapahoe Basin. Loveland. Winter Park. So many worthy choices, so little time. We couldn't afford to squander a day at a sub-superior area. Our choices needed to be spot-on -- so good that they'd be deemed reminiscence-worthy over cold beers in August. We were looking for nothing less than pure skiing synchronicity.

Along with such behemoths as Aspen, Colo., and Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia, Vail is a member of North America's exclusive top tier of ski resorts. It's huge, stretching seven miles from end to end. It's renowned, having been ranked No. 1 in Ski Magazine for 11 of the past 15 years (including this year). And it's nicely situated, just 90 minutes from the Denver airport and a half-hour from the Vail/Eagle County Airport.

We could have easily parked ourselves at Vail and spent our entire vacation exploring its runs without getting bored. In retrospect, that may not have been a bad idea. But its slopeside accommodations cost more than we cared to spend. And we wanted to bring home bragging rights to several name-brand resorts.

We turned our attention to other nearby ski areas that are also part of Vail Resorts Corp. -- posh Beaver Creek, a European-style resort just down the road from Vail; Breckenridge, adjacent to a real town full of restaurants and shops; and Keystone, known for its family-friendly activities. We also took a look at Copper Mountain, which is owned by another corporate ski monster, Intrawest, and is well located between Vail/Beaver Creek and Breckenridge/Keystone. We nixed Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, which have no on-site accommodations, and passed on Winter Park as being too far from the other resorts.

We decided to stay at Keystone, about 80 minutes from the Denver airport, because it offered the cheapest close-to-the-slopes accommodations. The resort is divided into a couple of base villages that offer access to the ski lifts. We chose a condo in River Run, a recently developed area nestled hard against a backdrop of trail-carved mountains where you can walk to a gondola or express lift. Our two-bedroom unit was in one of the older complexes, called Expedition Station, situated several blocks from the gondola and the neighborhood restaurants and shops. The complexes' amenities, like the unit, were a cut above basic, consisting of a pool table, TV, tiny outdoor pool and an even smaller gym.

Day 1: Keystone

Like most corporate-owned ski resorts, Keystone's common areas are sparkling clean and well laid-out, with a friendly staff and a wholesome atmosphere. The setup of restaurants, shops, bars and even a carefully controlled outdoor bonfire is supposed to create a real ski-town feeling. But outdoor entertainment events were sparsely attended during our stay, and as the sun went down, the pedestrian-only streets emptied. While the adults in our group were content to go out for a bite and then hit the hay, our teens were frustrated by confusing shuttle buses and a lack of nighttime activities.

The success of this trip, however, would not be contingent on rooms or nightlife: We'd come for the skiing. So, awakening to blue skies and comfortable temperatures, we decided to judge Keystone by its slopes.

In this critical field, it has a lot going for it. The area offers nearly 2,000 skiable acres with both a front and back side, and a vertical rise of almost 3,000 feet. There are plenty of easy blues and greens on the mountain's front side, but enough tree skiing on the North Peak and blacks in the Outback region to keep the experts busy.

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