Everyone here is smiling these days. After last year's snow drought - the worst in its 15-year history - Vail finds itself blessed with an abundance of white gold. It's done wonders for local skiing as well as local psyches.

Mother Nature deserves the credit, but the state of Colado River was drastically down due to last year's light snows, the federal and state governments have put up nearly a million dollars for cloud seeding. When atmosphere conditions are right, generators on the ground spew silver iodide crystals into the clouds. Moisture forms around the crystals; when they become heavy enough, they fall to earth as snow.

Beginning in late November it snowed practically every day for three weeks, leaving the central ski belt with its best early snowfall in recent years. "People were grumbling because it was snowing so much," said Pam Conklin, the publicity director of Colorado Ski Country USA. She, too, was smiling.

Snowfall eslewhere in the state was somewhat less abundant. Harris Sherman, the director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, reported in early December that "the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains is well below normal." As a result, the ski season in the southwest part of the state was off to a slow start.

Weather can change quickly in the Rookies: Strong sunlight can melt a good base and heavy snowstorms can turn bare mountains into perfect ski slopes. So, before you decide to head for the Rookies, your best bet would be to invest a few dimes to get a current snow report. Colorado Ski Country USA, maintains a tape-recorded report of skiing conditions statewide, which is updated every morning. Call (303) 637-9907, any time day or night. Vail has a toll-free "Snow Watch": (800) 525-5510.

Vail has been changing in recent years. In the past it was very much in the shadow of Aspen. No more. What was once "Instant Tyrolia" has malured into a resort that is more American than ersatz Austrian. The skiing, always good, has improved in recent years with the addition of new lifts and slopes.

The tragic gondola accident of March 1976, which resulted in four deaths, has led to greater safety-consciousness. The gondola to Mid-Vail was taken down and replaced by two chairlifts. The Lions Head gondola, on which the accident occurred, has been outfitted with space-age circuitry so that the lift operators can follow each car electronically every inch of the way. If a passenger of lift operator sees something amiss, either can immediately stop the system until the problem is identified and corrected.

Although it was founded only in 1962, Vail is nearly at the limit of its development as a ski area. China Bowl, a huge open expanse at the easternmost rim of the famous back bowls, will eventually have one or two lifts. No more lifts will be built when China Bowl is finally open.

Vail Associates, the parent company that runs the lifts, will continue to expand, however. They are developing a new area 10 miles west of here which is unofficially called Beaver Creek. (Not surprisingly, they are looking for an official name with more pizzazz.) A scale model on display at Vail indicates that the new resort will have closely grouped lodges, condominiums and shops, with no buildings, guests at lodges and day-skiers will have to leave their cars at the foot of the valley, two miles away, and ride shuttle buses to the lifts.

One of the more pleasant aspects of Vail is the virtual absence of cars in the streets. The original village and Lions Head are linked by shuttle buses; once you are in town, you do not need a car. The new ski area's is obviously capitalizing on this excellent idea.

Vail Associates has not yet decided whether the two areas will have interchangeable lift tickets. That is now the case for the four areas at Aspen and the four "Ski the Summit" resort (A-basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone). Lift tickets are now $14 a day at Vail and will no doubt be higher when the new area opens for business in 1980. At those prices, skiers might have a hard time understanding why they cannot ski two areas run by one company.

The four Summit County areas just east of here do nearly the same amount of business as Aspen or Vail, yet they have not acquired much of a national reputation. Most of their skiers drive the 70-80 miles from Denver, ski for the day and then go home. Skiers from elsewhere in the country tend to pass them by.

In that regard my experience is probably typical. With the exception of a rather unexceptional weekend at Breckenridge some years ago, I have driven through Summit County on I-70 on my way to Vail or Aspen without stopping for more than a tank of gas. This season, I decided to visit two areas I has heard about but had never skied.

Copper Mountain is the new kid on the block, but it already has the best skiing mountain in Summit County. One Denver skier I met on the lift called it "the third best mountain in Colorado, after Aspen and Vail." While aficionados of Steamboat or Telluride might quarrel with that assessment, there is no question that Copper is a good place to ski.

Over the past year, Copper invested $1.5 million to improve its lifts and runs. No other area in Colorado spent more. Copper now has eight chairlifts and 44 miles of trails. R. Gary Andrus, Copper's vice president for marketing, told me that their "master plan" calls for 11 more lifts. "That would double the mountain capacity," he said.

Scott McCrea, is the low-key, laidback publicity director for Copper Mountain. He was quite candid about the area. "Right now we're a combination: destination resort and day-skier area," he said. "Copper's got a local reputation as one of the good mountains. The mountain is the strenght. We're still a little in the frontier stages. Fortunately, we can't sprawl because we're surrounded by Forest Service land."

The facilities at the base of Copper Mountain are, indeed, in the "frontier stages" - a condition more evident in the summer when various excavations are not covered by snow. I did not stay overnight so I cannot judge the accomodations. In another five years, Copper could have skiing comparable, perhaps, to Vail's. The emphasis and investment seem to be weighted heavily toward developing the mountain into a major ski resort. It's a good place to ski now, it will take time before one can assess whether or not Copper has become a great mountain.

Keystone is only 10 miles from Copper, but the difference in approach could not be greater. "We want to provide a year-round quality resort," said Jerry Jones, Keystone vice president of marketing. "We just happen to have skiing here."

Keystone Village is probably as posh as any resort in the Colorado Rockies. The AAA auto club, for instance, gave the Keystone Lodge a five-diamond rating - its highest. The world-renowned Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs received a similar rating. Not surprisingly, people at Keystone hope to draw a parallel.

Lois Barr, Keystone's publicity director said, "We don't compare ourselves to other ski resorts. We compare ourselves to the Broadmoor."

Jones added: "This is not a swinging singles' resort . . . the yound kids looking for a wild time with 20 places to boogie at night should not come here - they should go to Aspen. We don't take kids' groups or college groups."

Keystone, then, is designed to appeal to the affluent - ro, as Barr put it, "people who want to do it right." When you drive up to the lodge to check in a valet takes you car, luggage and skis for you. Each room has a special locker for skis adjacent to the bus stop in front of the lodge. Shuttle buses take you to the slopes a mile away - sometimes, unfortunately, by a rather circuitous route.

Keystone has the most extensive snowmaking coverage of any area in Colorado: 155 acres. During last year's snow drought, skiers were bused from Vail and other resorts to ski the manmade snow at Keystone. The mountain this season is loaded with natural snow. The slopes are long, carefully groomed and at a modest pitch - a good "cruising mountain." Experts who enjoy steeper challenges would probably find Keystone boring after a day or two.

The emphasis at Keystone is on the lodge and adjacent village rather than the mountain. The food at the lodge is good. (I sampled one of its three restaurants.) The Navigator restaurant, just across the lodge's skating pond, does well with seafood brought in from the Pacific Northwest. The shops have good selections and prices that are not unreasonable by ski resort standards. Best of all, the people I encountered in the restaurants and businesses were unfailingly courteous.

Ognbene is a free-lance writer from Washington and an avid skier who frequently visits Colorado.