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Colorado Gems: They May Not Be Aspen or Vail - but They're Huge Fun!

This is how so many Colorado ski areas started. They are reminders of how skiing used to be in the old west: compact, friendly and intimate, with the patina of a past era still permeating their atmosphere to this day.

"In the 21st century, ski resorts are not built with tinker toy towers, army surplus generators, and a wing and a prayer. In the mid-1940s, when skiing had all the appeal of a deep freeze...a hearty group of pioneers sold stock, cut down trees, put up 'lifts' and voila - a legend was born." From Arapahoe Basin's website

This is how so many Colorado ski areas started. They are reminders of how skiing used to be in the old west: compact, friendly and intimate, with the patina of a past era still permeating their atmosphere to this day. There are eight altogether, all available on the "Gems Card", and substantially cheaper than the state's "mega" resorts.

Powderhorn Mountain Resort, dubbed "The soul of skiing", is the most westerly of Colorado's resorts and is set in a landscape dramatically different from the state's other ski areas: it's 45-minutes east of Grand Junction on the Grand Mesa, an elevated flat-topped area of "table land" skirted by steep cliffs. It proved a refreshing change from the more corporate resorts of Colorado - and no slouch in the statistics department either, with skiing up to 9,850 ft, a vertical drop of 1650 feet, and 63 runs, including good tree skiing in Mad Dog Glade and Hooligan. Powderhorn is also in the heart of Colorado Wine Country:

At Sunlight Mountain Resort, 12 miles south of Glenwood Springs, we were greeted by a gorilla-like creature which turned out to be Jon Petrosino dressed as a Yeti. "Did you guys fly here from the UK?" someone asked us. Well, we explained gently, the only alternative would have been a very long boat trip followed by a very long journey by road or rail. Like Powderhorn, Sunlight has a surprising amount of terrain, with 67 trails and a vertical drop of more than 2,000 feet from the 9,895 ft summit. Our visit coincided with a "three-night fun-filled extravaganza" visit by 70 children and parents from the First United Methodist Church of Richardson, Texas. Traditionally the children spend the last afternoon doing what they call "boxer" runs - originally referring to the boys skiing in boxer shorts. Not to be outdone, the girls cheerfully ski in skimpy clothing too. It's all very innocent and of course there's safety in numbers!

Cooper (not to be confused with Copper Mountain) is nine miles from the historic town of Leadville, at 10,152 ft the highest incorporated city in the USA - AKA "The two-mile high city". Cooper has a unique link with the celebrated 10th Mountain Division troops who trained here before their Italian campaign in WW2. They were based just three miles away at Camp Hale, which accommodated as many as 14,000 men, many of whom hated skiing! These days Cooper is well known for its cat skiing at Chicago Ridge, with slopes as high as 12,600 feet on the Continental Divide.

Arapahoe Basin - also pioneered by ex-10th Mountain Division troops - gave us the most extraordinary welcome of our "Gems" tour. No fewer than nine resort staff greeted us for breakfast. They were nearly all still with us for lunch on the mountain - and even dinner! Said Adrienne Saia Isaac, Marketing and Communications Manager: "Because of the panda marks on my face, everyone thinks I have an easy time and just go skiing!" A-Basin, just up the Loveland Pass road from Keystone at 10,780ft, is celebrated for its steep Pallavacini Chutes. I wimped out, enjoying plenty of lesser challenges among the 109 trails and slopes as high as 13,050ft.

With good snow conditions it's possible to ski from the top of Loveland Pass all the way down to Loveland (base elevation 10,800 feet, with lift-served slopes reaching 12,700ft.) You can get even higher with the resort's free (to season- pass holders) snowcat service. Loveland opened back in 1936 when a Mr J.C. Blickensderfer installed a portable tow rope. The following year, it was powered a modified Model T Ford.

Our final port of call was Eldora Mountain Resort, with skiing up to 10,800 ft. We chose a good day: Eldora, 21 miles from Boulder and 47 miles from Denver, celebrates the end of America's traditional Spring Break and the arrival of St Patrick's Day with a "Retro Day". Most people on the slopes were sporting clothing and even skis and boards from the 80s. Some of the men who'd lost their silky locks since then were even sporting bizarre wigs.

There are two other ski areas in the "Gems" set-up: Monarch, west of Salida and Colorado Springs, in south-central Colorado, and Ski Granby Ranch (formerly SolVista) just 15 minutes from Winter Park. We didn't have time to get round to those two - maybe next winter!