DENVER — COLORADO winter is user-friendly. It is seldom too cold to ski. In Denver, no matter how the snow may blow for a few days, soon the sun comes out and clears the streets, cheering the populace with bright skies. So sure are Denverites that the sun will emerge soon that the city has too few snowplows. It's a minor glitch.
There is more to a Colorado winter than skiing, though last year was another record-breaking ski season. Arts institutions, restaurants, and professional sports vie for tourist attention. Quirky, charming Victorian towns like Georgetown and Manitou Springs are within easy striking distance. Shopping areas, from the quaint Larimer Square to the upper-crust Cherry Creek, entice vacationers with their atmosphere as much as with their fine, unusual, or regional goods. And a quarter of Colorado's dude ranches now include a winter season.
Because Colorado is so involved in tourism, downtown Denver does its best to keep the arts active and people coming into town. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is billed as the second-largest theater complex in the United States, housing eight stages on which a wide range of plays, concerts, Broadway roadshows, ballets, and cabaret performances make their mark.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra was rescued from oblivion by its musicians five years ago. The new conductor, Marin Alsop, a rising young star, is bringing stability and style to the CSO. It now operates in the black because its charter allows it to spend only as much as it makes. A campaign to canvass audiences and respond to their interests - to counter an image of elitism - has brought in bigger audiences.
The Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) produces increasingly interesting and inventive theatrical productions. The world premiere this month of ``Black Elk Speaks,'' for example, featuring a Native American cast, excellent staging, and a riveting, deeply affecting text, opened the doors of theatrical imagination as it aided cross-cultural understanding. New plays are nurtured at the DCTC, and though few productions are cutting-edge, many are substantial and intelligent. For those who want Broadway-style entertainments, the Buell Theatre accommodates with many of the biggies - from ``Phantom of the Opera'' to ``Miss Saigon.''
As the ``queen city of the west,'' Denver is an important hub of travel. An enormous international airport set to open in mid-December may stimulate tourism. Besides ski resorts, shopping centers, and arts institutions (don't forget the Denver Art Museum, with its outstanding Native American collection, or the Denver Children's Museum), there's also the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Right across the street from the upscale Cherry Creek Shopping Center, Tattered Cover's four floors offer 220,000 titles, plus book-signings, an inviting interior, and a knowledgeable staff.
Skiing in Colorado, one of the principal industries here, offers a wide diversity of terrain and resorts, from giant Vail and Aspen to small family-run places. Graced by dry, clean air, the skies over Colorado produce ``champagne powder,'' the most admired of snows for skiing. It is made up of large, very dry, light flakes that don't pack down the way snow does in wetter climes.
Says photographer Byron Hetzler, ``It's so light and soft, you don't hear your own skis. You float through snow like floating through air.''
The powder is easy to get to. There are several resorts within an hour's drive from Denver, and many more within two hours. Visitors and Denverites alike can also take the Rio Grande Ski Train to Winter Park, an excellent day-long expedition. You board the train at Denver's Union Station at about 6:30 a.m. and arrive at 9. The lifts close at 4, and the ski train boards for Denver at 4:15. Cost: $30 round trip.
``It cuts right through scenery you would never get to see from the road,'' says skier Alan Dumas, ``it's some of the most spectacular winter scenery in the world.'' He takes the train 10 or 12 times a season, he says. ``Before you know it, you pass through the Moffet Tunnel and are on the other side of the Continental Divide, standing at 12,000 feet on top of a mountain, and you just put on your skis and start.... You're so high up, and the air is so clean and cold and clear, and you can see for miles and miles and miles through the mountains. It's just about the best one-day vacation in the world.''
Cross-country skiing and back-country skiing grow in popularity every year. Cross-country is good exercise and good fun, but back-country (off-trail cross-country), while very rigorous, can be a great adventure for those who love wildlife. At the C Lazy U Ranch just outside of Granby, Colo., back-country skiing is one of the important attractions.
The C Lazy U is one of 10 dude ranches in Colorado that stay open in the winter. Shuttle service to the slopes is available for those who wish it, but most guests hang around for the 15-1/2 miles of groomed, packed cross-country trails designed for different ability levels. Hardier guests enjoy the telemark or back-country skiing on powder - where there is still a little ``wild'' left in the west.
Dude ranches cater to family vacations, so sleigh rides, skating on a frozen pond, sledding, inner-tubing, and horseback riding offer diversion. There is even a dog-sled available for those who want a more Arctic experience. Activities for children include learning to ski indoors first, and various crafts and games. At night, a variety of western entertainments alternate - country, swing, and square dancing, cowboy songs and performances by the staff.