Seeking out smaller-fry Colorado ski areas

Anyone who has ever aimed a pair of skis down a slope knows that Aspen and Vail are the ne plus ultra, the Saks and Bloomingdale's, of Colorado skiing. Steamboat Springs and Snowmass are no slouches, either, nor for that matter are the accessible Summit County foursome of Keystone, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge , and Arapahoe Basin.

Fame, however, often means costlier lift tickets, longer lift lines, busier restaurants, and a higher ratio of mink stoles. Thus the smaller-fry ski areas - Crested Butte, Purgatory, Telluride, Winter Park, Eldora, Loveland Basin, to name a half-dozen of Colorado's 30-odd - may make better sense in the season just ahead. This piece of wisdom dawned on me at anything but rarefied heights as I took a subway to New York's South Street Seaport the other evening to meet a gaggle of Colorado ski promoters.

Although the man from Crested Butte was brimming over with news about a 263 -room luxury hotel he said will be open in two years and a second mountain now under development, I pressed him to discuss 1983-84 realities. He allowed that the remote little mining town in southwest Colorado is about to become less remote now that Delta has started flying into Montrose (Frontier already serves Gunnison, closer by).

''People are tired of the Front Range resorts,'' he said, referring to the Vails and Aspens on the other side of the mountain. ''They don't want to wait 45 minutes in a lift line. Our mountain has a 5,000 capacity, which we seldom reach , but we even when we do, like last Christmas, our longest line wait is 8 minutes.''

Purgatory ski area was never a paradise for the beginner, but thanks to the recent construction of a separate seven-acre slope called Columbine Station, fully one-quarter of the mountain is set aside for greenhorns. One doesn't venture all the way to the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, however, for skiing alone. Not if you know of the lost Indian ruins of Mesa Verde or the handsome old mining town of Durango.

Those who remember Aspen in its early days as a ski town, before it became a wintering spot for New Yorkers, Texans, and Parisians, will be taken by the still-raw little mining town of Telluride, in the San Juans. Telluride lies in a gorgeous box canyon at the foot of an estimable ski mountain.

Nearer to Denver, only a 90-minute drive from Stapleton International Airport , is Winter Park, which despite its 14 lifts and 215 snowmaking acres keeps a friendly, family-style profile. ''We're a low-key, down-home small mountain town ,'' said the upbeat woman from Winter Park. ''Now if you want to dance in a different disco every night, we aren't the place, but we do have excellent restaurants - continental, Italian, German.''

She said Winter Park is pushing what it calls off-lift skiing (that is, skiing without the use of lifts) so that, for example, one can roar off in a Snowcat grooming machine and spend the day skiing the sunlit and untracked snows of Parsenn Bowl. ''It's great for beginners and intermediates, with all that easy cruising,'' I was told. ''You ski to the bottom of the bowl and the Snowcat picks you up and drops you at a new spot. And if 10 are aboard, it's just $25 apiece.''

Winter Park's family-style lodging recalls the simpler, pre-condominium era when skiers slept in what my informant called ''comfortable but funky little cut-up rooms'' and ate together at long wood tables. One such place at Winter Park is Millers Inn, run by the mayor of the village and serving ''the best food in the valley.''

Pouring on the steam, the Winter Park woman reminded me that Amtrak is a wise new way to get to the slopes. Since taking over for the Rio Grande company, Amtrak has run its Chicago-Oakland train through and not around the Rockies, with a stop at Granby, Colo., 15 miles from Winter Park (and another stop at Glenwood Springs, accessible to Aspen and Snowmass). On weekends, the Rio Grande still runs a ski special from Denver, stopping only yards from Winter Park's ski lifts.

Not every ski area was represented in New York. One that wasn't, Loveland Basin, was fondly remembered by a skiing friend of mine who got to know it when she went to school in Denver a few years back. ''The place was perfect and low-key, just like the old days of Colorado skiing.'' Evidently it hasn't changed, beckoning 56 miles west of Denver. There are six double chairs, and the daily lift ticket costs $16.

Some of the other small fry that may appeal in the months ahead are Eldora, only 45 miles from Denver and 21 from Boulder; Berthoud Pass, with one of the longest seasons of any resort and a reputation among insiders as one of Colorado's best-kept secrets; Sharktooth, Monarch, and the newest of all, Silver Creek which, like Winter Park, can be reached easily by Amtrak.

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