Granby, Colo. — I had almost forgotten what skiing could be like. Three decades after I first set skis to snow, I had grown to accept the epic shuttle rides from parking lots to the slopes, the winding lift lines that seemed to stretch for miles, the $15 bowls of chili and other apres-ski excesses.
Then I pulled up to SolVista and was reminded of another era. A time when I could park, for free, just a few steps from the lift. When I could chat with the lifties before they loaded me up. When I could eat in a lodge and see more brown-bag lunches than lattes.
It was a time I'd nearly forgotten and, to be honest, the kind of place that wasn't really my style anymore. I have become what the old-timers call a "hot dogger." To me a blue (intermediate) run is just a means to an end, a path I blast down to reach the goods: trees, powder, backcountry, steeps and moguls. Green (easiest) runs are peppered with beginner skiers, an obstacle course to be avoided at all costs.
At SolVista, only 20% of the runs are marked black (advanced) -- and those are bluish-black at best. Half are intermediate trails, and 30% are for beginners. About 85% of the people buying lift tickets take lessons, the director of the ski school told me last season.
The resort, officially called SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch, is tucked between two mountains in the Rockies 80 miles northwest of Denver. The convenient location and low-key atmosphere are big draws for families.
What was a thrill junkie like me doing at a place that has the motto "Fueled by hot cocoa, not adrenaline"?
I was skiing for two when I visited SolVista last February. Now I have a 6-month-old daughter, and I can think of no place better for her to learn to ski than SolVista. It's not all that different from Eldora, the resort on the other side of the Continental Divide where I learned to ski.
Eldora and SolVista are a part of a group of Colorado resorts informally known as "the gems." Others include Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, Loveland, Arapahoe Basin and Sunlight Mountain. Their small size, traditional approach and beginner-focused ski schools make them the ideal first mountains for the little ones.
Smaller is better
I first hit a small hill at Eldora when I was 3 or 4. I was night skiing with my dad, and the intermediate run had iced over. I was so freaked out that I popped out of my pint-sized bindings and started walking down the slope, crying every step of the way. To add insult to injury, the run was -- and still is -- named Bunny Fair.
Dad brought me my skis. I put them back on and made my way slowly down the slope, one snowplow-turn at a time. To celebrate my accomplishment, I had a congratulatory cup of cocoa in the lodge, looking out the frosted windows at my personal Mt. Everest.
When you're small and learning to ski, even the littlest of mountains is more than big enough.
Resorts like Eldora and SolVista will never be as big as mega-resorts such as Aspen and Vail, so they focus on being good at being small.
SolVista is composed of two hills, each with about 1,000 vertical feet. All 33 trails end at the central base area, making it easy for families to stay together.
The East Mountain's terrain is gentler, excellent for beginners and intermediates; the West Mountain has intermediate and advanced terrain. The five lifts include two quads and one triple. Beginners have their own surface lift leading to a learn-to-ski park.
The ski school, known as the Accelerated Learning Center, is the heart of the resort. The day I visited, I felt as though I had walked into the busiest day-care center in town. It was lunchtime, and children had traded mittens and hats for sandwiches and bananas. The smell of sunscreen filled the room, as every child was required to stop at a big pump and slather some on before heading outside. Children talked excitedly about their adventures on the snow.
"Now I can turn," one said.
"I can slow down," chimed in another.
"I can turn and slow down," added a third.
SolVista's children's program takes potty-trained kids from 3 through 12. "Little Rustlers" (as the 3- and 4-year-olds are called) hit the snow for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon; they spend the rest of the day playing inside.
Little skiers and snowboarders spend most of the day in the protected learning area serviced by a magic carpet, a moving sidewalk that runs to the top of the beginner hill. From there they graduate to the Quick Draw Express on the East Mountain. One side of the hill is predominantly greens that weave through the trees; the other is a network of wide-open blue cruisers.
The Guaranteed Start to Ski or Snowboard program for adults covers two 2 1/2 -hour lessons and a promise to have novices on their feet and down the slopes by the end of the day. The $99 price includes not only your ticket for the day, the lessons and rentals, but also a pass valid for the rest of the season.