Highway to powder paradise

A new charter flight starting next month puts the big snows of Colorado within easy reach. Huw J. Williams reports

Colorado snow is among the world’s best: deep, luxuriant and effervescent stuff that has been dried as it travelled across North America in the jet stream before falling on this mountainous arena.

Last week resorts across Colorado opened and reported the best first weekend snow conditions for a decade – and getting to it is becoming easier than ever. A twice-weekly charter flight launches on 21 December from Gatwick to Denver, starting at £315 return including taxes. Weekly packages for Christmas, including flights and transfers, are from £449.

From Denver, Interstate 70 heads west and starts to rise; prairie becomes hills that build into the Rockies. An hour-and-a-half from the airport, you reach Winter Park, Keystone and Copper, then Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge are another 20 minutes. Vail, Beaver Creek, Steamboat Springs and Aspen are all along or off Interstate 70 as it snakes across the mountains. Even though the drive to the furthest of these is five or six hours, depending on conditions, the scenery is often spectacular, as I-70 meets the Colorado river and winds through red rock canyons dusted with snow.

Some resorts are small, and most people on the slopes are locals, but others are large, attracting visitors from around the world. All possess a uniquely Colorado ambience.

Winter Park: momentous moguls

The first resort off I-70 covers five mountains suitable for everyone from beginners to hardcore experts. The main draw is Mary Jane, famed for moguls. Although the bumps may not appeal to many snowboarders, its tree runs will. Like most local resorts, Winter Park is placing increasing emphasis on building world-class terrain parks for skiers and boarders with a selection of rails and jumps designed not to frighten beginners and others big enough to please aspirant pros. The town is a couple of miles down valley from the base area. Its not particularly big but is friendly and a real community. There are several good restaurants and a handful of bars as well as a cafes and shops. www.winterparkresort.com

Arapahoe Basin: atmosphere at altitude

A-Basin, as it is known, is small and relaxed but also claims to have the highest skiable terrain of any resort in North America. The base is unpretentious, with only a small ski patrol hut and large A-frame building that houses a cafeteria, bar, restrooms and the mountain offices. Its chilled-out atmosphere and range of trail difficulty means it is strong favourite for many Colorado mountain people. www.arapahoebasin.com

Breckenridge: high-level heritage

‘Breck’ is a picturesque old gold mining town with pastel-painted clapboard buildings dating back to the 18th century. Streets are lit all winter by white fairy lights, giving it a mystical, welcoming atmosphere. Breckenridge might look quaint, but, like most Colorado resorts, sits at surprisingly high altitude. Care needs to be taken to stay hydrated and not push too hard early until you are acclimatised. There are four mountains, rather unimaginatively called 10, 9, 8 and 7. Boarders particularly rate the terrain park and pipe, considered to be one of the best in the state. Hardcore skiers and borders brave the thin air and hike above the lifts to the open bowls and chutes at the top of peaks 7, 8 and 9. www.breckenridge.com

Copper: best for mixed groups

Purpose-built resort villages tend to have a somewhat contrived community feel, with everything you need apart from character. Copper is no different, though an investment programme has given the village many new amenities. If staying in a real town appeals more, Frisco, a small, easygoing place, is only 15-minutes’ drive away. Copper’s slopes are the real draw. There are 125 groomed trails, yet the mountain is incredibly easy to navigate, with runs becoming progressively more difficult as you move from right to left on the piste map. Beginners have plenty to keep them happy on the western slopes and won’t have to mix it with more advanced traffic, which tends to stay to the east. www.coppercolorado.com

Vail: brash but beautiful

Vail tends to attract two groups of people: those who like to display their wealth; and those who come for the ‘Back Bowls’. It is expensive and can be ostentatious and brash, but it also has a wealth of high-class trails. The front side of the mountain is essentially limited to intermediate riding and is sometimes crowded by North American standards, but once you get to the top of Vail any bad points disappear. The back of the hill really is some of the best terrain in the world, with peerless off-piste powder riding. It’s not just for experts – there are plenty of runs in the Back Bowls for first timers in deep powder to learn the technique. Once mastered, this is a perfect playground for even the very best. Vail Resorts also owns Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone and there are lift tickets that can give you access to all four. www.vail.com

Aspen: A-list in every way

One of the world’s most famous resorts, this quaint former mining town has a reputation as a playground for the fabulously rich. It is chi-chi and can be expensive, but that is only one side to a town with a split personality. Aspen can also be affordable and has a liberal, welcoming, culturally diverse community. There are more than 200 places to eat, nightclubs, numerous bars, boutiques shops and galleries. There are four mountains on the Aspen lift ticket – Ajax, Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass – and a free bus service runs between all the base areas. Each mountain has its own special draw, and between them they encompass nearly 5,000 acres of hugely varied terrain, from wide, easy groomers to high alpine bowls, tree runs, moguls and double blacks. www.aspensnowmass.com


Crystal (   0870 160 6040 ; www.crystalski.co.uk charter flights from Gatwick to Denver run every Wednesday and Saturday from 21 December to 15 April. Packages start from £449 for a week in Winter Park, and £469 in Vail, departing 24 December, room only but including flights and transfers.

The Observer, Sunday 27 November 2005 [read it here]

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