Ask any Coloradan what makes the state unique, and the response most likely will be its mountains. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the spectacular beauty here, or the influence it has had on the development and present-day character of the state. Colorado has been a prime tourist destination practically since the day the first pioneers arrived. Particularly in the 19th century, those attracted to this rugged land tended to be independent types -- sometimes downright ornery and antisocial -- who sought wide-open spaces, untamed wilderness, and plenty of elbow room. Of course, the dream of riches from gold and silver mines helped, too.

These early transplants established the state's image as the domain of rugged individualists -- solitary cowboys, prospectors, and others -- who just wanted to be left alone. Much of that feeling still survives, and today's Coloradans have a deserved reputation as a feisty, independent lot. Colorado has the distinction of being home to some of the most politically active liberals and conservatives in the country. They don't follow trends; they make them. It's where some of the country's first municipal gay-rights ordinances were passed, yet it's also home to the vanguard of the family-values movement: Focus on the Family, one of the most powerful lobbying organizations for the Christian right's political agenda, is based in Colorado Springs.

Somewhat understandably, such a diversity of political perspectives doesn't exactly engender accord. In the early 1990s, the rest of the country got a quick lesson in Colorado-style politics during the controversy surrounding Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment aimed at prohibiting certain antidiscrimination laws.

Although the successful 1992 ballot measure was vaguely worded, its intent was clear: to eliminate local gay-rights ordinances that Aspen, Boulder, and Denver had passed, and to prevent other communities, or the state legislature, from creating laws that would specifically protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment and housing.

A high-profile nationwide boycott of the state was launched in 1993, and although it scared off some convention business and kept a few tourists away, the end result was a bit of a wash, and the 1992-93 ski season was among the best in the state's history. The boycott was called off when the amendment was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court later that year. The state appealed, but the ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 1996.

After the controversy died down, further proof of Colorado's maverick streak came just a few months later, when former three-term governor Richard Lamm -- known as "Governor Gloom" for his philosophy of fiscal conservatism and individual sacrifice -- announced he would seek the presidential nomination from Ross Perot's Reform Party, virtually ensuring a showdown with the megalomaniacal Perot, but also broadening the appeal of Perot's creation. Not surprisingly, he lost to Perot, but in true Colorado spirit, he went down fighting. Lamm described the toe-to-toe experience with Perot as akin to drinking water out of a fire hydrant, but also admitted he wouldn't have missed it for the world.

An issue on which almost all Coloradans agree, pretty much regardless of other differences, is the need to control tourism. While the industry's financial benefits to the state are well understood, it's generally acknowledged that if tourism is allowed to grow unchecked, the cost to the state's natural resources will be tremendous.

To that end, town officials in Vail reached an agreement with resort management in 1995 to limit the number of skiers on the mountain and alleviate other aspects of overcrowding in the village. The word from Vail and other high-profile Colorado tourist destinations is that visitors will be given incentives, such as discounts, to visit at off-peak times. Ski-area officials also have not ruled out turning away skiers after a set number of passes are sold.

Conflicts between environmentalists and the ski industry came to a head in October 1998, when militant environmental activists set fires at a Vail resort that caused more than $12 million in damage. A group called Earth Liberation Front claimed credit for the arson, although investigators said they could not prove the group was responsible. The organization wanted to halt an expansion project at Vail that it said would harm a potential habitat for the lynx, a threatened member of the cat family that is similar to a bobcat.

Another issue that has wide support across the state is controlling growth. The rugged mountains and scenic beauty that lure tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts have also fueled an influx of transplants -- a modern version of the gold seekers and pioneers who settled the state. Since 1990, Colorado has gained new residents at the staggering rate of three times the national average.

Many of these new residents are active, outdoorsy types who relish the idea of riding their bikes to work and escaping the pollution, crime, and overcrowding of the coasts. But perhaps inevitably, many native and long-term Coloradans have begun to complain that these newcomers are changing the character of the state and bringing with them the very problems from which they sought escape.

The challenge for Coloradans in the 21st century is to solve the twin riddles of tourism and growth that are plaguing much of the American West: How do we achieve a balance between preserving a state's unique character and spectacular natural resources for future generations, while still enjoying all it has to offer today?

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.