Photography: Donna Carroll
The 90-minute drive on Interstate 70 winds upwards from mile-high Denver and Denver International Airport, like a long strip of silk ribbon, through thick pine forests and droopy snow-laden trees crowned with frozen white crystals.
Pushed by blustery snow flurries, we slip into Main Street, Breckenridge and a glorious collection of 254 registered Victorian-style buildings, proudly noted as Colorado's largest historic district.
Tucked away in the Rockies at a whopping 9,600 feet altitude, Breckenridge is one of the West's premier winter destinations -- folks come here for the winter and stay for the summer. It's always love at first sight.
The great Ten Mile Range of the Arapaho National Forest that towers over the town features three separate mountains called Peak 8, Peak 9 and Peak 10, with 1,600 acres of challenging skiing, 112 trails, 16 lifts and 14 on-mountain restaurants.
A skier's dream, the peaks are interconnected by lifts and ski trails with long runs of more than three miles, showcasing the famed Colorado powder and a mind-boggling 3,398-foot vertical rise, one of the world's largest.
Open bowls are high in the clouds at 13,000 feet, and the vast resort landscape is evenly divided between gentle, groomed slopes for beginners and intermediates, with challenging runs for advanced and expert skiers.
A bonus is the efficient transportation system. Leave your car at home and enjoy the free trolley buses that run throughout the town, stopping at Beaver Run Resort, Peak 8 and The Village, a slope-side hotel complex at the south end of town. Free ski\shuttle buses also serve Peaks 8 and 9 and the Nordic Center.
Save January 8-14, when 14 teams from all parts of the world gather at Breckenridge for the prestigious 6th annual snow sculpting contest. They work like beavers on 20-ton blocks of snow, carving dramatic designs and works of art.
The mood is festive. Flags are flying, the music is joyful and party time is on-going in six or more languages.
For information and all-inclusive lodging packages call the Breckenridge Resort Chamber at (800) 221-1091; (303) 453-2918; (970) 453-6018; snow conditions (970) 453-6118.
If skiing at Breckenridge, you can hop on a free shuttle bus and ride 20 or so miles to the Keystone Resort and the Arapahoe Basin in the heart of the Snake River Valley where lift tickets are interchangeable and a large ice-skating rink awaits.
At the summit of Keystone's North Peak you can see the Continental Divide and experience the remote backcountry on powdery, north facing trails. The steep runs are leg-burning, Black Diamond beauties that will challenge the most skilled.
SKI TIP: Ski the freshly groomed trails at 5:30 p.m. The front-side trails are freshly prepared to a nice finish for night skiing.
Keystone Resort is also a noted cross-country ski center led by Jana Hlavaty who has been the Cross-Country Director at the resort since 1978.
Lean and sensuous at 54, the former member of the United States Olympic Cross-Country Team, offers acclaimed Women's Cross-Country seminars and has miles of groomed and packed trails. These include extensive backcountry skiing paths to old mining ghost towns set in a wilderness you won't forget. (800) 451-5930 ext. 4275; Keystone reservations, (800) 222-0188.
Keystone Resort is also a Hop on an old stage coach pulled by Belgian draft horses and enjoy a progressive dinner, as you move through the village from restaurant to restaurant ending at Ski Tip Lodge, a former stage coach inn where you'll sit before a roaring fire with a cup of steamy chocolate.
Two other top award-winning restaurants are the Alpenglow Stube and Keystone Ranch, a 1930s homestead. With classical background music, the Ranch serves rocky mountain ruby trout, piney ridge venison, salmon, Arctic caribou and local wild mushrooms on yellow Limoges china. (303) 468-4161.
Alpenglow, near the 11,444 foot summit of North peak, at the Outpost Lodge, might have the best dining view of any restaurant in North America and is the essence of an alpine winter setting. Accessed by a spectacular 15 minute gondola ride, it feels as if you are dining on top of the world. Two seatings; 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. (303) 468-4386.
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT
Copper Mountain, small and skier-friendly, is located 75 miles west of Denver and 20 miles northwest of Breckenridge on I-70 at exit 195. It's at the west end of Summit County in the Ten Mile and Gore Wilderness Ranges.
Small and quiet, Copper is a skier-dedicated area with 19 lifts and four bowls, all neatly interconnected, encompassing 1,360 acres of skiable terrain. Ideal for families, Copper offers family ski zones, a complete family ski center and Kid's Headquarters.
By a quirk of nature, the terrain is naturally divided, east to west.
Expert trails are to the east, intermediate skiing is in the middle and beginner runs are located on the western side. Each area is self-sufficient and beautifully groomed.
RACQUET AND ATHLETIC CLUB
Smack in the middle of Copper Mountain Resort's village, is the 5-star Copper Mountain Racquet and Athletic Club, free to guests who book their vacations through Copper Mountain Lodging Services.
Enjoy indoor tennis courts and swimming pool, saunas and steam rooms, a free-weight room and all the Nautilus equipment you will ever need. You can drop the kids off in the nursery and book a massage or a game of racquetball.
Check the Single Occupancy Lodging Packages and Early/Late Season Packages. For information call (800) 458-8386; Snowline (800) 789-7609. Another good sking destination in Colorado is Durango Mountain, previously known as Puragatory Ski Resort in Durango.