The most popular winter sport in Colorado is, of course, downhill skiing. Since the state's first resort (Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs) opened in 1915, Colorado has been synonymous with skiing in the western United States: It attracts more skiers per day than any other Western state, and its resorts continue to win accolades.

The snowboarding craze hit Colorado just as hard as other winter-sports destinations and, after some initial resistance, has been welcomed with open arms. Many resorts have opened snowboarding parks and offer lessons and rentals.

For current ski conditions and general information, call Colorado Ski Country USA, 1507 Blake St., Denver, CO 80202 (tel. 303/837-0793 or 303/825-7669 for snow conditions; www.coloradoski.com), or check Ski magazine's website (www.skimag.com). Colorado's slopes are most crowded over Christmas and New Year's, and on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Presidents' Day weekends, when lodging rates are at their highest. Those who can ski midweek will find more room on the slopes, and the beginning and end of the season are the best times to avoid crowds -- assuming snow conditions are good.

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Colorado's ski areas range from predominately day-use areas, with little beyond a mountain with trails and a few lifts, to full-fledged resorts, with a variety of accommodations, restaurants, and nightlife all within a half-hour of the slopes. The overview that follows describes the key mountains at these ski areas and resorts.

Arapahoe Basin (Summit County) -- Arapahoe Basin, called "A-Basin" by its loyal fans, is the highest ski area in the state and one of the oldest. Because of its elevation, it gets a bit more snow than elsewhere, so some prefer to ski it during spring's warmer temperatures.

Aspen Highlands (Aspen) -- An intense mountain for only the most skilled and athletic of skiers. The views from the top are stupendous.

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Aspen Mountain (Aspen) -- With more than 100 restaurants and bars, Aspen is one of Colorado's most sophisticated resorts. Aspen Mountain was designed for advanced skiers and is the second most challenging of Aspen's four slopes.

Beaver Creek (Vail) -- Beaver Creek is probably the most refined ski community in Colorado. The mountain has a good mix of runs for everyone but the super expert, and lift lines are usually shorter than at Vail Mountain, especially on weekends.

Breckenridge (Summit County) -- Colorado's second most popular resort, Breckenridge is the crown jewel of Summit County's ski areas. There's something for all levels of skiers, and it makes a great base camp for those who want to ski a different Summit County mountain every day.

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Buttermilk (Aspen) -- The usually uncrowded Buttermilk is a great place for affluent novices to practice their moves. It's located just outside the main village and is known for its great ski school.

Copper Mountain (Summit County) -- With its four superb high-alpine bowls and variety of trails for all levels, Copper is a fun place to ski, and the village is less expensive than nearby Breckenridge.

Crested Butte (Crested Butte) -- Dependable snow, good beginner and intermediate trails, and lots of extreme skiing -- but very little expert terrain -- mark this area.

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Durango Mountain (Durango) -- This small, low-key ski area offers mostly intermediate, narrow, hilly trails meandering through the trees amid the breathtakingly beautiful San Juan Mountains.

Echo Mountain Park (Near Idaho Springs) -- Targeting snowboarders and beginning skiers, Echo Mountain Park is the closest slope to Denver but sports only one lift.

Eldora (Nederland) -- Just 21 miles from Boulder, Eldora is one of the state's smaller resorts, but has a good mix of terrain and is the closest ski area to the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area.

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Howelsen Hill (Steamboat Springs) -- The oldest ski area in continuous use in Colorado -- it opened in 1915 -- Howelsen Hill is a fun little downtown ski area as well as a training facility for ski jumpers.

Keystone (Summit County) -- Of Summit County's ski areas, Keystone is the closest to Denver, about 90 miles west of the airport. Its three separate mountains make it a good place for cruising, and night skiing draws locals from miles around.

Loveland (North of Denver) -- Less than an hour from Denver by car, Loveland is an old-fashioned local's ski area: There's no village, but enough beginner and advanced trails to satisfy the average skier. If you're staying in Denver in winter, give it a whirl.

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Monarch (Salida) -- This family-oriented resort in southern Colorado has low rates, with good terrain and fewer crowds.

Powderhorn (Grand Junction) -- This is a good mountain for groups of varying abilities, with half its slopes intermediate and another 30% advanced or expert.

Silverton Mountain (Silverton) -- This new ski/snowboard area plans to be less expensive than most of Colorado's resorts and is geared to expert/advanced skiers and snowboarders only.

Ski Cooper (Leadville) -- A small, inexpensive resort at a high elevation, Ski Cooper is known for its all-natural snow and beautiful mountain scenery. There's a good balance of trails for beginners, intermediates, and experts.

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Snowmass (Aspen) -- The highlight of Aspen, with plenty of wide-open spaces and trails for absolutely every level of ability. This is, by far, the largest mountain at Aspen. The base village has plenty of beds, but not much nightlife -- most night owls hop the free shuttle bus to Aspen, 20 minutes down the road.

SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch (near Winter Park) -- Created by the merging of several smaller ski areas, Solvista is an all-season resort comprising two interconnected mountains, with mostly beginner and intermediate runs, and just 20% expert.

Steamboat (Steamboat Springs) -- One of Colorado's three largest mountains (the other two are Vail and Snowmass), Steamboat offers near-perfect skiing. It's well laid out and has gorgeous valley views, and the base village offers a wide choice of accommodations and restaurants. Another draw is the authentic old ranching town of Steamboat Springs, just a few miles away. Most of the mountain's trails are for intermediates, but there are beginner and expert trails as well.

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Sunlight Mountain (Glenwood Springs) -- Sunlight is family oriented, geared to intermediate skiers, and very affordable.

Telluride (Telluride) -- Set at the top of a lovely box canyon, Telluride caters mainly to intermediate skiers but also has novice trails some 2 1/2 miles long and a number of steep expert trails.

Vail (Vail Valley) -- Colorado's most popular resort, Vail mountain has a top-notch ski school and trails for everyone. The completely self-contained village at its base was created for skiers and is serviced by free shuttle buses.

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Winter Park (Winter Park) -- Young and athletic in spirit, Winter Park is unique -- the focus is on value, with a variety of trails for all levels, plus well-regarded programs for children and skiers with disabilities.

Wolf Creek (near Pagosa Springs) -- One of the state's oldest ski areas, Wolf Creek is famous for consistently having the most snow in the state -- an annual average of 465 inches (almost 39 ft.). There is terrain for skiers of all ability levels, but especially intermediates.

A Word about Rates

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You'll find the daily lift-ticket rates in reveiws. Although handy for comparison, few people actually pay these prices. Most skiers buy packages that include lift tickets for a given number of days, and may also include transportation, rental equipment, lessons, lodging, meals, and lift tickets for nearby ski areas. There are also season passes that can be worthwhile for skiers who plan lengthy stays or several trips to the same resort. And for high rollers, Colorado Ski Country USA sells a coveted Gold Pass good at almost all of the state's resorts any day they're open. The possibilities are almost endless.

Some resorts charge more for lift tickets at busy times, and offer discounts at slow times, so it's impossible to guarantee the accuracy of even the daily lift-ticket prices in this guide. Certainly, the most expensive time to ski is between December 20 and January 1, as well as on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Presidents' Day weekends. February through March is next; nonholiday times in January are generally cheaper; and the least expensive time is from Thanksgiving until mid-December and April until ski areas close. I generally prefer the last few weeks of the season -- the snow's still great, the weather's nice, and the slopes are less crowded because many skiers are turning their thoughts to golf and tennis.

Ski Packages & Tours

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While many skiers enjoy planning their trips, others prefer making one phone call or sending an e-mail, and then letting someone else handle the details. Packages not only save time, but also are sometimes cheaper than doing the planning yourself. The key is to make sure you get all the features you want, without paying for things you don't want. Packages often include air and ground transportation, lodging, and lift tickets, and some include trip-cancellation insurance and meals.

A good first step is to check with a ski club in your hometown. These nonprofit organizations often offer some of the best deals if they happen to be planning a trip to where you want to ski at a time you want to go. Many travel agents can arrange ski vacations, and the central reservations service for a particular resort and the reservations desks of nearby lodgings can give you the scoop on the latest packages. Good bets among the well-established companies that offer ski packages throughout Colorado are Ski.com (tel. 800/908-5000 or 970/429-3099; www.ski.com) and Ski the Rockies (tel. 800/291-2588; www.skitherockies.com).

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.