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(CNN)Fur-clad socialites and A-list celebrities alongside pickup truck and weekend warrior skiers all living large on slopes glorious enough to give Richard Dawkins religion.
Beats the bus stop.
Is there a cozier city park in the world than Aspen's outdoor fire pit?
That may be how the world sees Colorado's top ski destinations -- we'll go out on a snow-crusted limb and call them the best in North America -- but the rowdy frontier mountain spirit here still runs as deep as its top-end visitors' pockets.
With 54 peaks over 4,200 meters, Colorado has no shortage of vertiginous terrain for skiing and snowboarding.
But what makes Colorado such a beloved American ski destination is its arid climate, which produces an abundance of light, fluffy snow and 300-plus days of sunshine.
Though resorts are dotted throughout the sprawling 25,000-square-kilometer state -- Telluride, Silverton and Wolf Creek are up to 580 kilometers from Denver -- a concentration of world-class resorts cluster around Interstate 70 (I-70), within several hours' drive of the capital.
Beats the bus stop. Is there a cozier city park in the world than Aspen's outdoor fire pit?
Vail and Aspen Snowmass are the largest, but mountains such as Copper, Breckenridge and Beaver Creek are worth visits for their variety of terrain and extracurricular activities, from open-air hot tubs in swanky mountain lodges to some of the West's best small town nightlife.
Even a handful of days in the state make it easy to experience the best of Colorado skiing -- thousands of ski trails, occasional celeb sightings and wine-drenched nights included.
This guide kicks off in Denver -- as do most airborne visits to the state -- then winds through the Rocky Mountains along I-70 to spend some time in Vail. Then it's off to Aspen Snowmass before rounding things off with shorter looks at other ski resort/mountain options in the state.
Acclimatizing in the Mile High City
Loaded with different, less snow-involved, fun.
Loaded with different, less snow-involved, fun.
Apart from its inconveniently located airport, Denver is often ignored by ski vacationers and understandably so.
Why bother with a city when world-class powder runs await a few hours away?
That said, the city has its own charm and makes a great layover spot -- especially if you need to recharge after a long-haul flight before tackling the I-70 route to the mountains.
Downtime in the Colorado capital can also help you adjust to the higher altitudes that await.
Good restaurants, bars and outdoor gear shops will help make the most of your time.
Denver is also a lot cheaper than Colorado's resort towns.
Rental gear can be organized at many outlets in the Mile High City, although it's recommended to hire from shops closer to the slopes in case changes or refits are necessary.
The view will still be here after you come back from skiing.
Denver's hotel scene got a needed boost with the 2010 arrival of Four Seasons Hotel Denver.
With all the quality you'd expect from the chain, rooms are not overstuffed with those unnecessary and often gaudy flourishes stupidly associated with "luxury." Instead, the digs are comfortable and contemporary -- and rather difficult to escape, especially if an early departure is planned.
The building is among Denver's tallest, affording some rooms tantalizing views of the nearby Rocky Mountains.
Denver International Airport (DIA) is a hub for United and Frontier Airlines, but more than a dozen airlines fly here, including British Airways, Lufthansa and Delta.
All major car rental companies have counters at Denver airport.
When heading to the mountains, which are about 120 kilometers west of the city, a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle is preferable.
A number of shuttle companies also offer van service to the ski resorts.
You can find them listed on the airport's website.
Tip: avoid arriving on Friday, when mountain-bound locals clog I-70.
Similar issues occur on Sunday's when weekend ski warriors return home.
Alternatively, Aspen (Aspen/Pitkin County) and Vail (Vail/Eagle County) both have small regional airports, serviced by United, Frontier, American, Continental and Delta.
When driving, keep an eye on weather forecasts and news bulletins. Many mountain roads, including I-70, are forced to close during and after major snow storms.
Roads can get icy and driving conditions can quickly become hazardous.
I-70 is winding and steep in places, and vehicle accidents are not uncommon.
Allow more time to get from A to B than you think necessary, and seriously consider ticking that insurance box on your rental car form.
Road closures can also result missing your flight back at DIA
Nobody's actually listening. They're too busy looking around.
Among Colorado's more than two dozen ski resorts, Vail, 160 kilometers west of Denver, looms largest with some 21 square kilometers.
The resort has an astounding menu of terrain options for every stripe of skier or snowboarder.
Even more than at most ski areas, it's worth spending time studying the trail map.
On the front side, families schuss down 11 kilometers of beautifully groomed beginner and intermediate runs, while kids, beginners and boarders hit the three terrain parks.
On the backside, the seven famed bowls offer wide swaths of tree-free turns that harbor fresh powder for days after a storm.
Blue Sky Basin is top-notch, though a bit of a schlep to get to. Lifts that access backside runs start closing around 3 p.m. or slightly earlier.
Check notice boards.
In recent years, the resort has upgraded its on-mountain dining with new mid-mountain hot spots like The 10th, which serves rich comfort food such as chicken-and-pheasant pot pie and hand-cut tagliatelle with elk bolognese.
All ranges of dining and drinking options abound in town.
There's also a family-friendly ski rink.
As with most ski resorts, tickets are cheaper when bought in bulk ahead of time.
At Vail, domestic travelers are advised purchase tickets online more than seven days beforehand and international customers should purchase 14 days ahead.
The Four Seasons is perhaps the best reflection of the ongoing revitalization of this beloved ski town. Each room is quiet and large.
Nice touches include in-room fireplaces and metal bathtub trays for books, magazines or newspapers, excellent for those who like to linger in the tub.
The highlight of the resort is the Ski Concierge station located at the base of the Vista Bahn chairlift -- a short walk from the hotel along a heated pathway that never ices up.
Four Seasons guests can stow ski gear inside, while attendants help kids (or lazy grown-ups) put on or remove boots, as well as offer directions and generally take care of the heaving and hefting business of skiing.
After a day hitting the back bowls, handing skis and boards to an orange-clad Four Seasons staffer at the base of the run home is one of the sweetest ski experiences possible.
It's like flying business class -- once you've experienced it, you'll never want to go crawling back to economy.
Throughout Colorado, it's easy to rent homes, condos and apartments.
VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) is one of the best sites, with options ranging from studios to mansions.
On the ground, local information booths and centers can also assist.
When dinnertime rolls around, the Bully Ranch fills up fast with locals.
The place has built a reputation on American classics like burgers, chicken wings and New York strip steak, but it also serves unique Western dishes like wild game chili and Colorado lamb with root-vegetable hash.
Bully Ranch Restaurant
Ever since Vail became an up-and-coming mountain town three decades ago, Sweet Basil has been the standard of the fine dining.
Choose from some 500 selections off the wine list, sip an artisan cocktail and try dishes like salmon tartare and a truffle-braised pork cheek raviolo.
Sweet Basil, 193 Gore Creek Dr Ste 201, Vail, CO 81657-4549; +1 970 476 0125
Regarded as one of the top restaurants in the mountains, and certainly among the most sophisticated in Vail, Kelly Liken delivers modern American cuisine.
The owner and chef, after which the restaurant is named, runs the restaurant with her husband, who juggles director of wine and general manager duties.
The wine list is impressive with more than 200 selections.
The menu changes frequently.
Tables seem a little too close together, perhaps aimed at catering better to the restaurant's popularity.
As with Sweet Basil, it's advisable to book well ahead, especially on weekends.
Kelly Liken, 12 Vail Rd., Suite 100, Vail, CO 81657; + 1 970 479 0175
Hungry skiers often end up at Los Amigos, the local's go-to for good, fresh, filling and inexpensive sustenance.
The restaurant serves traditional Mexican fare such as steak burritos, seafood enchiladas and margaritas.
Los Amigos, 400 Bridge St, Vail, CO 81657; +1 970 476 5847
Bart & Yeti's
On a warm day, there are few better spots at which to knock back a post-ski beer than the lively deck at Bart & Yeti's, located in the Lionshead area of Vail.
Five o'clock brings dinner specialties like baby back ribs and Southwest green chile.
Bart & Yeti's, 551 E Lionshead Cir, Vail, CO 81657; +1 970 476 2754
Vendetta's makes legendary pizza and pasta, but it's best known for its wine and beer, which attract locals well into the wee hours.
Sidle up to this old standby with goggle-tanned locals, well-heeled visitors and the occasional celebrity.
If you think about skiing all day long, this is the place to be.
The United States' premiere destination for celeb and top-notch skiers and snowboarders, Aspen's combination of world-class skiing, world-class hobnobbing and world-watch-out American party spirit makes it an unbeatable winter destination.
Despite the glam, Aspen is remarkably down to earth.
On weekdays, it's common to see shoes and bags under park benches at mountain bases, waiting patiently for their owners to return from the slopes.
Safe as houses.
Between Aspen's four choice mountain resorts -- Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Buttermilk -- there's enough skiing here to last a full season.
Not that this has stopped many from trying to cram the best of Aspen into a very long and satisfying weekend.
Here's how to make the most of your time in Colorado's toniest ski town.
St. Regis Aspen Resort
On a quiet edge of downtown, the St. Regis resort epitomizes Aspen's high-minded side.
Rooms have the requisite marble bathrooms, leather chairs and million-thread-count sheets.
Ski valets whisk away equipment at the end of the day, chauffeurs drive guests around town in Mercedes SUVs and butlers cater to zany whims at all hours of the night.
You might not need 48 square meters of Premiere King Guest Room after a day on the slopes (that's the smallest of the rooms in this 94-room-and-suite landmark), but you'll definitely appreciate the deep soaking tub in each room, plush bathrobes and outdoor heated pool.
The hotel's Library bar takes pride in its historically accurate pre-Prohibition cocktails.
The full service Aspen Club & Spa features 34 treatment rooms.
Local ski bum Ralph Melville built this Swiss-style chalet in 1954, and his family has been running it ever since.
Rooms are simple but comfortable and come with the most important ski-town amenities: a hot breakfast, a location two blocks from the gondola, an outdoor hot tub and free cookies and hot chocolate every afternoon.
Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, accessing part of 1,342 meters of vertical drop, the longest in the United States.
Situated in Snowmass's pleasantly sleepy base village, the Viceroy, opened in 2009, is purposefully unstuffy, with a youthful vibe and a retro-cool aesthetic.
Its Eight K Restaurant has some of the village's most inspired cocktails (consider the Moscow mule with house-made ginger syrup), a 650-square-meter spa with Ute Indian-inspired therapies and one-step access to the slopes.
For worn-out skiers, there's little better than a heaping plate of Mexican food at the end of the day.
Cantina Aspen offers old standbys (tacos, quesadillas, tamales, enchiladas) plus novel dishes like baby-back ribs slow-roasted with beer.
The enviable collection of tequilas is served in pitchers of margaritas, snifters or the infamous shot ski.
Cantina, 411 E Main St, Aspen, CO 81611-2945; +1 970 925 3663
39 Degrees Lounge
One might expect Playboy bunnies or stiletto-heeled celebrities to sidle up to the swanky bar of the Sky Hotel's 39 Degrees Lounge -- and, in fact, they often do.
This is the place to quaff cocktails like the dangerously tasty champagne supernova (it involves elderflower liqueur and white peach puree) and thaw frost-nipped toes by the fire while channeling your inner heiress.
39 Degrees, 709 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO 81611; +1 970 925 6760
The Red Onion
If a place named onion dates to 1892, there has to be something special about it.
Built in 1892, The Red Onion is rife with the ghosts of Aspen's wild past.
Now helmet-haired locals gather to down pints of New Belgium and hearty bar food like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken.
The Red Onion, 420 E Cooper Ave, Aspen, CO 81611; +1 970 925 9955
J-Bar at Hotel Jerome
If not for the Gore-Tex-wearing, iPod-toting clientele, J-Bar at Hotel Jerome would feel like a time warp.
At this vintage Victorian-era bar, clever bartenders opened an ice cream parlor during Prohibition and nonchalantly dosed local miners' milkshakes with bourbon.
Patrons can still taste the concoction -- ask for an Aspen Crud -- but bartenders now serve their whiskey on the rocks, too.
Colorado is stuffed with world-class ski resorts. If you've got time to get around the state, here are five prime mountains to hit.
Already thinking of how to get back up.
Breckenridge is one of Colorado's heavyweight ski resorts with 31 lifts, a 1,035-vertical-meter drop and some remarkably diverse terrain.
It's also easy to get to and from as a day trip from Denver.
Expert skiers head to Peak 8 for double-black-diamond chutes and bowls, intermediates schuss down Peak 7's groomers and jibbers congregate at the resort's three famed terrain parks.
The historic mining village itself is worth a detour, with a long line of shops, restaurants and cafes and unusual events like an annual snow-carving competition that attracts international artists.
The slopes are mere steps from ski-in One Ski Hill Place, a tony wood-and-stone lodge with an imaginative array of amenities, like a bowling alley, two private movie theaters, an outdoor fire pit and complimentary transportation anywhere in town.
Accommodations include studios, four-bedroom condos and everything in between.
Two blocks from Breckenridge's historic Main Street, the Fireside Inn offers cozy, inexpensive doubles, family rooms and dorm-style accommodations.
Come evening, skiers gather to swap slope stories in the hot tub or over tea by the fireplace.
In historic nearby Frisco, the same family has run the Victorian Frisco Lodge for more than 50 years.
They have the details of hospitality down. Stay in a cozy room furnished with antiques, sip complimentary aprés-ski wine and pick out constellations around the outdoor fire.
Hotel Frisco is a slightly more contemporary option, with simple, clean rooms featuring log furniture, a library with games and books, a tea and coffee bar and a hot tub that overlooks Mount Royal.
Frisco Lodge, 321 Main Street PO Box 1325, Frisco, CO 80443; +1 970 668 0195
Hotel Frisco, 308 Main St, Frisco, CO 80443; +1 970 668 5009
Can you hear the "swoosh?"
With skier escalators, ski valets and plates of free cookies come evening, Beaver Creek certainly lives up to its motto: "Not exactly roughing it."
But a little known fact: in addition to its groomers, the resort also harbors some rough-and-tumble skiing -- nearly 40 percent of its seven square kilometers are marked "expert."
Don't miss the expert Black Bear and Royal Elk glades and the ultra-fast Birds of Prey downhill course.
Beaver Creek lift tickets, +1 970 754 4636; $92-$105 for one-day lift ticket; www.beavercreek.com
The 24-suite Poste Montane Lodge at Beaver Creek looks just like a traditional European ski lodge -- and its hospitality is just as refined. After a day on the mountain, guests enjoy a soak in the hot tub, partake in a complimentary wine-and-cheese reception or kick back in the classy wood-paneled reading room.
A tidy collection of candy-colored Victorians in a steep box canyon, Telluride is easily the state's most gorgeous ski town.
Luckily, its isolation in Colorado's southwestern corner translates to zero lift lines and seven largely empty square kilometers.
Though it has a nice menu of wide groomers like aptly named See Forever, Telluride is best known for its challenging expert terrain, like the Gold Hill Chutes and Black Iron Bowl.
Where the Champagne is shredded, not poured.
Despite its claims to birthing the most Olympians of any ski resort (79 and counting) and harboring Colorado's best snow (they coined the term champagne powder), Steamboat's vibe is notably laid-back.
After exploring the resort's prized terrain features, like the glades of Pioneer Ridge, Sunshine and Storm Peak, tuckered skiers hit arguably Colorado's best après-ski spot: Strawberry Park Hot Springs.