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Vail

America's top ski resort by practically any standard, Vail is something that all serious skiers must experience at least once. It has fantastic snow, great runs, and everything is so convenient that skiers can concentrate solely on skiing. You can arrive at the base village, unload and park your car, and not have to drive again until it's time to go. Your lodging choices offer as much pampering as you want, or can afford. And you'll find all the shops, restaurants, and nightlife you could want within a short walk of your hotel or condominium.

In fact, the only real complaint about Vail (aside from the expense) is that it didn't exist before it became a ski resort, and so it lacks the historic ambience and Old West downtown area that you'll find in Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Telluride, Crested Butte, and a number of other Western ski centers. In fact, the village at times borders on Disney-esque.

Ski area boundaries stretch 7 miles from east to west along the ridge top, from Outer Mongolia to Game Creek Bowl, and the skiable terrain is measured at 5,289 acres. Virtually every lift on the front side of the mountain has runs for every level of skier, with 18% beginner terrain, 29% intermediate, and the remaining 53% expert and advanced. The seven legendary Back Bowls are strictly for advanced and expert skiers; snow and weather conditions determine just how expert you ought to be. One trip down the Slot or Rasputin's Revenge will give you a fair idea of just how good you are. Blue Sky Basin, on the next mountain south of Vail, is accessed by three high-speed quad chairlifts, and intermediate to advanced terrain offering backcountry-like conditions. There is a warming hut at the top of the basin with a basic snack bar, water, restroom facilities, and a pair of gas grills.

Vail has a vertical drop of 3,450 feet; average annual snowfall is 346 inches (nearly 29 ft.). All told, there are 193 conventional trails served by 31 lifts -- a gondola, 16 high-speed quad chairs, 1 fixed-grip quad, 3 triple chairs, 1 double chair, 3 surface lifts, and 6 conveyors. There are also three terrain parks for snowboarders of all skill levels, and a unique log-rail park at Golden Peak.

There are about 20 on-mountain restaurants at Vail. Game Creek Restaurant (tel. 970/479-4275), in a handsome European-style chalet, offers creative regional cuisine and splendid views from its perch overlooking Game Creek Bowl at the top of Vail Mountain. Two Elk Restaurant on the top of China Bowl offers Southwestern cuisine, pizza, and pasta, plus baked potato and salad bars. At Buffalo's, you'll find deli sandwiches, pizza, chile, soup, and a good variety of specialty coffees. Wildwood touts an eclectic selection of American dishes; at the Eagle's Nest atop the Eagle Bahn Gondola, The Marketplace serves various ethnic dishes in a cafeteria setting; and Blue Moon Restaurant and Bar offers a variety of dishes and a wide range of après-ski refreshments. Mid-Vail has two levels of food courts that serve breakfast, lunch, and après-ski drinks, including Sarge's Shelter, which offers great barbecue and burgers and a wonderful outdoor deck.

Vail also has a highly respected children's program, and there are daily NASTAR races where skiers can test their abilities on a standardized course that's available at resorts across the country.

Peak season daily lift tickets (2007-08) are $92 for adults, $82 seniors, $52 for children 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and younger. Any lift ticket purchased at Vail is also valid at Beaver Creek, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Breckenridge ski areas. Vail is usually open from mid-November to late April daily from 9am to 3:30pm. For further information, contact Vail Mountain, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658 (tel. 877/204-7881, 970/476-5601, or 970/476-4888 for snow report; www.vail.com or www.snow.com).

Beaver Creek

Also owned by Vail Resorts, Beaver Creek is an outstanding resort in its own right, one with a more secluded atmosphere and maybe even more luxury than its better-known neighbor. Located in a valley 1 1/2 miles off the I-70 corridor, Beaver Creek combines European château-style elegance in its base village with expansive slopes for novice and intermediate skiers. The Grouse Mountain, Birds of Prey, and Cinch lifts reach expert terrain.

The big news here is the opening in 2006 of the new Stone Creek Chutes, an expert terrain area with chutes up to 550 vertical feet long, with pitches up to 44 degrees. There's also a new gondola from Avon, which opened for the 2007-08 season. The gondola will connect a new Westin in Avon with the Lower Beaver Creek lift.

From Beaver Creek Village, the Centennial Express lift to Spruce Saddle and the Birds of Prey Express lift reach northwest-facing midmountain slopes and the Flattops beginners' area atop the mountain, offering a unique beginner's experience. Opposite, the Strawberry Park Express lift accesses Larkspur Bowl and the McCoy Park cross-country ski and snowshoe area at 9,840 feet. Three other lifts -- Larkspur, Grouse Mountain, and Birds of Prey (serving the expert area of the same name, one of the steepest downhill slopes in the world) leave from Red-Tail Camp at midmountain. Arrowhead Mountain is also part of Beaver Creek. The two are connected through Bachelor Gulch, offering village-to-village skiing.

Beaver Creek's vertical drop is 4,040 feet from the 11,440-foot summit. There are 1,805 developed acres, though Vail Resorts is licensed to develop up to 5,600. Beginner terrain accounts for 19% of the acreage, with intermediate terrain at 43% and advanced and expert terrain at 38%. There are 17 lifts (2 gondolas, 10 high-speed quad chairs, 2 triple chairs, and 3 doubles) that serve 148 trails, and the average annual snowfall is 310 inches. There are three terrain parks and a half-pipe. The resort offers a unique Talons Challenge every day, awarding a lanyard, pin, and recognition on a "Wall of Fame" to skiers and snowboarders who complete 13 designated runs in one day, a total of 23,722 vertical feet.

There are seven mountain restaurants, including the highly praised Beano's Cabin. Among other on-mountain eateries are the Spruce Saddle Lodge, a dining court offering burgers, wraps, pizza, and salads; the upscale Zach's Cabin, which is reached for dinner via sleigh; the Red Tail Camp, a barbecue fast-food stop; and the Broken Arrow Café, serving burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, and soups.

Peak-season daily lift tickets (2007-08 prices) are $92 for adults, $82 seniors, $52 for children 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and younger. Any lift ticket purchased at Beaver Creek is also valid at Vail, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Breckenridge ski areas.

Beaver Creek is open from mid-November to late April daily from 9am to 4pm, conditions permitting. For more information, contact Beaver Creek Resort, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658 (tel. 970/845-9090 or 800/427-8308 for snow reports; www.beavercreek.com).

Backcountry Ski Tours

Paragon Guides (tel. 877/926-5299 or 970/926-5299; www.paragonguides.com) is one of the country's premier winter guide services, offering backcountry ski trips on the 10th Mountain Trail and Hut System between Vail and Aspen. A variety of trips are available, lasting from 1 to 6 days and designed for all ability levels. Costs start around $400 for two people for the day trip and $1,000 per person for a 3-day expedition.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiers won't feel left out here, with trails at both resorts as well as a system of trails through the surrounding mountains. Vail Nordic Center (tel. 970/476-8366; www.vailnordiccenter.com) has 21 miles of trails, part of them on the Vail Golf Course, and offers guided tours, lessons, and snowshoeing. A day pass is $6. The Beaver Creek Nordic Center (tel. 970/845-5313), at Beaver Creek Resort, has a 20-mile mountaintop track system with a skating lane in 9,840-foot McCoy Park. Most of the high-altitude terrain here is intermediate, though there's some space for both beginner and advanced cross-country skiers; telemarking lessons are available. A day pass is $23 for adults, $13 for seniors, and kids under 13 ski free.

For general information on the network of backcountry trails in the Vail area, contact the Holy Cross Ranger District Office, White River National Forest, at 24747 U.S. 24, 2 miles north of Minturn, off I-70 exit 171, Minturn, CO 81645 (tel. 970/827-5715; www.fs.fed.us/r2).

Of particular note is the system of trails known as the 10th Mountain Division Hut System, 1280 Ute Ave., Ste. 21, Aspen, CO 81611 (tel. 970/925-5775; www.huts.org). Generally following the World War II training network of the Camp Hale militia, the trails cover 350 miles and link Vail with Leadville and Aspen, with 29 huts along the way where cross-country skiers and hikers can find shelter for the night. Huts are basic, with bunk beds, but do have wood stoves, propane burners, photovoltaic lighting, kitchen equipment, mattresses, and pillows. A one-person bed in one of the huts owned by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association costs $28 per night for adults; huts owned by others but booked through the association cost approximately $20 to $40 per adult, but some require the entire unit to be rented for upward of $300. Children under 13 are charged half-price.

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.