America's family-size ski resorts. Out West: ski areas with character

EVERYBODY looks for that perfect ``undiscovered'' mountain resort, one where the locals are still ``real people'' and the prices have not yet pierced the ozone layer. Of course, if it's that perfect, the secret is probably long gone. But there are still some fine skiing getaways in the West that remain relatively off the beaten track - at least, compared with the mega-resorts everyone knows about.

Some have recently become easily accessible, thanks to contracts with major airlines and newly expanded mountain airports. Others are a bit harder to reach, but still offer character and their own brand of skiing within a day's travel - or less - from any major United States city.

Here are a few possibilities for something different in a Western ski vacation.

Crested Butte. Any resort that regularly plays host to the US Alpine ski championships and has more than 400,000 skier visits a season can hardly be ``off the beaten track.'' But despite a recent influx of skiers, Crested Butte is still relatively undiscovered.

Popularity has stemmed in part from a concerted effort to make the snowy mountain in Colorado's south central Rockies more accessible. Vacationers have been imported on major airlines into Gunnison (30 miles away), which has Colorado's third longest runway. Big jets full of flatlanders arrive every day, not only from Denver but from Chicago, the West Coast, and Dallas-Fort Worth. In fact, Crested Butte may harbor more Texas jokes than any other ski area.

The 755 acres of skiing over some 2,300 vertical feet run the gamut from beginner to super expert. But low intermediates and deep-powder experts will probably be most satisfied. The former have a proliferation of cruising runs to ski. And true experts have perhaps the finest deep-powder steep skiing at any Colorado resort.

The North Face and Phoenix Bowl - 260 acres of black-diamond steeps, often with powder up to your neck - used to be the domain solely of locals. But last year's addition of surface lifts into the bowls increased the import of expert skiers by 100 percent. This season, more and improved runs for advanced intermediates should help remedy that shortage.

Free shuttle buses link the mountain with the old coal-mining town of Crested Butte, three miles away. It reflects the 1,500-strong permanent population - working people and mountain lovers who have suited up for the tourists. Everybody goes down for shopping and to enjoy lots of restaurants - from the Wooden Nickel saloon to Donita's Cantina for Mexican food, the Slogar for fried chicken and Soup,con and Le Bousquet for elegant cuisine.

There's also a Nordic center in town and, on the mountain, plenty of amenities and lodging - from condominiums to the first-class Crested Butte Lodge. And 12 miles away, reachable only by snow vehicles, is the Irwin Lodge, which offers its guests cross-country skiing and back-country powder skiing via snowcats.

Crested Butte has a variety of packages and prices, often down a peg from the big glamour resorts. Toll-free number: 800-525-4220.

Telluride. For an off-the-beaten-track resort, Telluride gets a lot of press. The skiing is terrific, with virtually no lift lines, and the scenery is gorgeous. The spectacular 4,000-foot peaks of the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado attract visitors to the town's many festivals throughout the year. Parts of the old mining town, a National Historic District itself, are architecturally fascinating.

Telluride also never seems to be far from environmental controversy. It abuts a toxic tailings pond from an old mine. And high above town on the ski mountain, developers are trying to sell condominiums and build a golf course.

The old town is a refuge for mountain types of all stripes, including great young skiers and Aspen transplants. There are a variety of restaurants, an abundance of T-shirt and ski shops, and accommodations for some 3,000 visitors, mostly in condos and modest lodges like the Tom Boy.

Directly above the town in that picturesque box canyon is Telluride's steep front face, with famous runs like Plunge and Spiral Stairs. The latter, ungroomed, is a guaranteed challenge to any mogul skier. But Plunge and other steeps are now groomed nightly by new ``winch cats,'' which can make smooth runs out of trails previously too steep for grooming. Advanced skiers love them.

On the other side of the mountain are fine cruising runs for all abilities, the new on-mountain base development, and, of course, views of those spectacular San Juan Mountains.

You can reach Telluride via Mesa Air Lines (in modern twin-jet Beech aircraft) and Continental Express. Toll-free number from outside: 800-525-3455; from Colorado, call (303) 728-4431.

Grand Targhee. When Boston architect-developer Moritz Bergmeyer visited this Wyoming powder-snow basin a couple of years ago, he was impressed with the potential but annoyed with the shortcomings, so he bought the place.

Grand Targhee still has its 1,500 acres of lift-serviced snow bowls (70 percent novice to intermediate, 30 percent expert) and 500 inches of snowfall a year. But now it also has 1,500 more acres of powder bowls serviced by snowcats with guides ($100 a day), sleigh rides to a yurt for steak dinners, cross-country trails, upgraded child care and ``kids club'' programs, a renovated hotel, heated outdoor pool, two restaurants, and a cafeteria.

The 96-room Sioux Lodge now has thicker walls and decent beds, Mr. Bergmeyer says, for vacationers who want first-class accommodations. The two other lodges were also upgraded, but not so much as to abandon modest rates for the budget-minded ($213 for a five-day, four-night stay, compared with $443 for a six-night, seven-day stay at the first-class Sioux Lodge). Prices include lifts and a half-day ski lesson.

Major air gateway is Jackson Hole, Wyo., which is served by Delta (via Salt Lake City) and American (via Chicago), among other carriers. Ground transportation in resort vans is $20 a person for the 1-hour drive to Grand Targhee. Toll-free number: 800-443-8146.

Monarch. Advocates claim this Colorado resort feels bigger than it is. Maybe that's because Monarch's 1,000 vertical feet top out on the Continental Divide, 11,800 feet above sea level. Or maybe it's because of the glade skiing, in addition to 50 trails.

Monarch Lodge, three miles from the base, offers 100 rooms (one-third of them with kitchenettes), restaurant and lounges, entertainment, meeting facilities, and a health club including indoor pool, tennis, racquetball, and Nautilus. During this golden anniversary season, lodge guests receive two free lift tickets (except during Christmas and spring vacation weeks).

The resort is a 2-hour drive west of Colorado Springs and an hour east of Gunnison. Toll-free number from outside Colorado: 800-525-9390; from Colorado, call 800-332-3668.

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