I grew up skiing at a small mountain. When we went skiing at Powderhorn Resort, we knew everyone in the lodge and most everyone on the mountain, most of the time. Once we had some basic skills, my brother and I had tons of freedom.
We could ski wherever we wanted and we would never get lost, because there was only one base and one lodge. Even if we were scared or hurt, it would take only a few minutes for someone we knew to come along and help us. It was a safe, secure and fun environment for a kid. For a teenager, it was even better because all your friends would be skiing and you could be part of a big pack. You didn’t even have to make plans in advance. You would just show up and see who was there.
Of course, once I left for college I thought I’d left the small resorts behind. I was ready to move to Colorado’s Front Range and ski some big mountains. Which I did and still do and I love some of these big resorts. However, from the vantage point of a Brave Ski Mom, I have to confess that in some instances, bigger isn’t always better and that Colorado’s small resorts serve a wonderful role for families.
Why? Because these small mountains offer the same advantages to families that they did several decades ago when I was learning to ski. To wit: cheaper lift tickets, smaller crowds, less terrain on which to get lost or separated, a single base area where it’s easy to find friends and family, and a community, where sooner or later, most everyone recognizes everyone else.
The biggest advantage, however, I believe is the ski school. Most resorts, regardless of size, have good ski schools. Ski school instructors throughout the United States are primarily certified through the Professional Ski Instructors of America, or PSIA. There are several levels of certification with Level 3 being the highest. This means that a Level 3 instructor at World Famous Resort X has the same certification as a Level 3 instructor at Small Modest Mountain Y. For a beginner, the only real difference is cash. A small resort instructor will almost always cost less than a big resort instructor. Most moms (and dads) can do this math.
We have relatives who live overseas. Their first experience on skis was at a big Colorado resort. They had a great time, but suffered a bit of sticker shock when it came time to pay for lessons. They came back to visit several years later and spent the first 3 days at Powderhorn Resort. The ski school director set them up with one of her best instructors in full day semi-private lessons.
After three days, we decamped for Snowmass and three days of freeskiing. They were warmed up, acclimated, newly instructed and ready to rock. It was a very positive experience and very cost-effective. Rather than burn through cash buying the more expensive lift tickets and lessons at a marquee resort, they got the teaching and learning out of the way more economically and really got the value of their lift tickets once we got to Pitkin County.
Colorado Ski Country USA, the industry trade group for most Colorado ski areas, calls the smaller resorts “The Gems.” They market The Gems together, offering $10 annual pass which provides a day of free skiing at Monarch Mountain and Ski Cooper and daily discounts at each of the 9 Gems. Most of the resorts designate blackout dates during the peak holidays, but the conditions vary. The Colorado Gems include some storied, big names. Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Area, famous in Colorado for their early season openings and late-season closings, are both Gems. Monarch Mountain, which has been in operation since 1939 and offers some incredible hike-to terrain along with it’s more mellow offerings is a famous Gem.
The other Gems, which are no less enjoyable for being less well-known, include Eldora Mountain Resort, SolVista Basin, Powderhorn Resort, Ski Cooper, Sunlight Mountain Resort and Echo Mountain. Ski Cooper, outside of Leadville, plays a part in the lore of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, due to it’s proximity to historic Camp Hale. Eldora, Powderhorn and Sunlight were all established during the great 1960s ski boom and offer the entire spectrum of terrain, if not extremes. SolVista Basin, near Granby offers night-skiing and tubing and has a brand-new lodge at the base of its two mountains, while the newby of the bunch, Echo Mountain is only 35 miles from Downtown Denver and sees a lot of park action.
The Gems are historic (and that doesn’t necessarily mean run-down), well-equipped mountains with all the necessary amenities. They don’t have (very) expensive lift tickets, crowds and attitude. They do have good, solid ski schools and friendly smiles. For beginning skiers, that really is all you need.
The Brave Ski Mom Adds………
The Gems just aren’t for beginners either. When my boys were racing, we visited quite a few of these mountains and always had a great time. When we were at Ski Cooper three seasons ago for a race, I decided to take up telemark skiing. I walked into the ski school, got an instructor and had a wonderful lesson. Later, climbing the stairs to the lodge cafeteria, I saw a newspaper clipping about the instructor I had just spend the morning with. She’s one of the instructors who has been inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame! What a deal for me!
You can get more information on the Colorado Ski Country USA Gem Card here.
The websites for the resorts mentioned are here. These sites have information on ticket pricing, ski school, lodging and more!
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