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Hidden resorts hold the ticket to more affordable skiing

Almost every winter when I was girl, my dad would pack the family into the station wagon and drive up to New Hampshire for a half-week of skiing. I remember yelling out the window to passing cars with ski racks, telling them not to go to Loon or Cranmore or wherever our destination was. It never worked.

We always got stuck in traffic jams on the way to our condo rental, and again in neverending lift lines on the slopes. By the early afternoon, we were cold, tired, and cranky, ready to leave the crowds on the hill and seek solace in hot chocolate. I shudder to think how much my dad spent on lift tickets, ski rentals, and lodge food for his two vaguely appreciative children.

Your ski vacation doesn’t need to be defined by long lines and high prices. The trick is to skip the big-name mountains and look for lesser-known resorts. Many of these hills offer affordable rates, shorter lines, and a hospitable atmosphere, while still providing first-class skiing opportunities. You just need someone in the know to clue you in to these hidden gems.

To help you out, I’ve started with four major U.S. ski destinations: California, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. For each state, I’ve picked two lesser-known resorts that offer great skiing and low rates. These areas are well known by locals, but often passed over by out-of-staters. Many welcome families with open arms, top-notch ski schools, and discounts. If you’d rather spend your day skiing or riding than waiting in line, you can’t go wrong with these eight resorts.

NEXT >> Homewood Mountain and Snow Valley, California

Homewood Mountain, California

Homewood Mountain can get lost amid the 14 other resorts in the Tahoe area, but this once-family-owned ski area is worth finding. Now under new management, Homewood is trying to upgrade its facilities without becoming a cookie-cutter mega-resort. “Our goal is to keep the old Tahoe look, feel, charm, and hospitality,” says Collier Cook, business director at Homewood.

Homewood is the only Tahoe ski area right on the water, so Cook says that the views are fabulous. Plus, its location on the western shore means it gets more snow than other area mountains. The resort was also one of the first to welcome snowboarders and now has three areas with terrain parks. A new kids’ center will have two surface lifts and separate areas for learn-to-ski classes.

Lift tickets are eminently affordable. Last year’s rates were $27 Mondays through Thursdays, $45 Fridays through Sundays, and $48 on holidays. Kids 10 and under ski free. Ski and Stay and Ski All Day Play All Night packages offer discounted lodging and lift tickets at area accommodations and casino hotels.

Although most visitors drive in from the Bay Area, out-of-towners can fly into Reno/Tahoe airport (an hour away), Sacramento (two hours away), or San Francisco or Oakland (three hours away). The resort has some slopeside lodging, but most people stay in Tahoe City, Tahoma, or the town of Homewood. For more nightlife, guests can also stay slightly farther away in South Lake Tahoe.

Snow Valley, California

“One hundred forty turns closer to fun” is Snow Valley’s motto because it’s that much closer for Southern California drivers than the more popular Big Bear Mountain. The drive to Snow Valley is a half hour shorter and, even in a snowstorm, the checkpoint for putting on tire chains is after the turn-off to the resort.

But the real charm of Snow Valley is that it truly has something for everyone. A great kids’ learning program, terrain parks, back country, a sledding area, and a track for mini-snowmobiles can entertain people with all sorts of interests and skiing abilities.

Midweek lift tickets cost $39, while weekends are $49 and holidays $58. Families can save with discount packages that offer two adult and two kids’ midweek tickets for $99. If you buy your tickets in advance at Sport Chalet or Costco, you can save a couple of bucks. Or look out for coupons at local restaurants such as Circle K, Del Taco, and Carl’s Junior.

The closest airport to Snow Valley is over an hour away in Ontario, California. Los Angeles is about two hours, depending on traffic. Most visitors stay a half hour away in Lake Arrowhead, but San Bernardino is also close by.

NEXT >> Eldora Mountain and Sunlight Mountain, Colorado

Eldora Mountain Resort, Colorado

What makes Eldora Mountain Resort special? Location, location, location. Situated just west of Boulder, the resort is easily accessible from Denver, and guests can avoid the heavily trafficked I-70 that leads to Colorado’s better known mountains. And unlike those other resorts, visitors don’t need to plan their ski vacations months in advance. “You can still get a hotel room on Christmas,” says Kristin Andrews, assistant marketing manager for Eldora. “You can just show up.”

Eldora is a fairly small mountain with mostly intermediate trails. It has four terrain parks, one of which is designated for beginners, and a lot of tree skiing on the back side of the hill. A Nordic center offers 40 kilometers of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. “It’s good for families with different abilities,” says Andrews. “There’s one central base with the lodge, so everyone can meet up for lunch.”

Eldora has not yet announced this year’s lift-ticket prices, but last year’s adult tickets cost $53. The resort has partnered with the Boulder Chamber of Commerce to offer Ski Escape lodging-and-lift-ticket packages. Prices start at $65 per person per night for accommodations and skiing.

Visitors can find plenty of places to stay in Boulder, from cheap motels to fancy hotels. Denver airport is a half-hour drive from the mountain.

Sunlight Mountain Resort, Colorado

Sandwiched between Vail and Aspen, Sunlight Mountain Resort takes you back to simpler times with its retro feel. The small mountain may have a rustic lodge and no high-speed quad, but it does offer one of the longest beginner runs and one of the steepest expert runs in the state. Families love the local feel and excellent ski school, and the resort has gotten high marks from Parents magazine.

The resort is also attractive for its non-skiing options. The largest hot springs pool in North America is nearby, and visitors can save money with ski-swim-stay packages. Plus, Sunlight Mountain possesses one of the best snowmobiling trails in the country on another side of the hill. The multiplicity of activities is great for families with one or more members who don’t like to downhill ski or snowboard.

Lift tickets cost $45 all week, and you can find deals if you’re skiing multiple days. Plus, with Ski-Swim-Stay packages starting at $65 per person, you can spend less on a full day of fun and a night of lodging than you’d pay on one lift ticket at Vail or Aspen.

Sunlight is a three-hour drive from Denver. If you can fly into a smaller airport, Eagle County Regional is a half hour away, Aspen County is 45 minutes, and Grand Junction is one-and-a-half hours. Glenwood Springs is the closest town. Home of the hot springs and some caverns as well, the walkable city also offers affordable lodging.

NEXT >> Powder Mountain and Brighton Resort, Utah

Powder Mountain, Utah

Powder Mountain may not have the glitz and glamour of other ski resorts in Utah, but its snow speaks for itself. “We’re the only resort in Utah with 100 percent natural snow,” says Carolyn Daniels of Powder Mountain’s public relations office. “In our opinion, this creates better-quality powder.” The mountain has 5,500 skiable acres, as opposed to the 2,600 acres offered by the average Utah resort. Powder Mountain has the most side country of any of its neighbors, allowing advanced skiers to experience the thrills of ungroomed powder while knowing that the slopes are monitored and protected from avalanches.

With so many areas to ski, guests never have to wait in lines. And the mountain’s notoriously slow lifts just got upgraded to high-speed quads. Expert skiers who are new to powder can book a guided tour and have a local take them through the powder.

Weekends, weekdays, and holidays, adults pay only $50 for lift tickets. Skiers under 12 and over 62 get discounts, so don’t be shy about your age. Nearby accommodations and grocery stores often sell $46 discount vouchers. A multi-day pass for two or more days saves you $10 a day on day/night tickets.

Powder Mountain is 55 miles north of Salt Lake City, which boasts a major airport. It’s a Delta hub, with 247 daily departures operated by Delta and its commuter partners alone. Four facilities offer slopeside lodging, but most people stay in Eden, which offers B&Bs, vacation rentals, and a 30-room inn. A shuttle between Eden’s accommodations and the mountain costs $6 round-trip.

Brighton Resort, Utah

If Powder Mountain caters to powder-seekers, Brighton Resort attracts families. “We have great learning programs,” says General Manager Randy Doyle. “We’re better known for our ski school.” Kids get discounts, and programs such as parent-child private lessons help children learn to ski and love the sport.

Brighton has the highest base elevation of all the Utah resorts and consistently gets high ratings on snow quality. Plus, the Great Western chairlift offers gorgeous views of the surrounding scenery. The mountain’s mostly intermediate runs appeal to both skiers and riders. And on December 22, Brighton goes all out for its Winter Solstice festival. Every night features night skiing, fireworks, and outdoor movies on inflatable screens.

Adults pay just $47 for lift tickets any day of the week at Brighton. Early and late in the season, visitors can find lodging-and-lift-ticket deals at the Brighton Lodge during the “Great Snow Weeks.” Salt Lake City’s rental shops and accommodations also sell discount passes.

Just 35 minutes from Salt Lake City, Brighton is easily accessible to both locals and out-of-towners. The city offers a variety of accommodations for all budgets. A UTA bus provides service from downtown hotels and the mouth of the canyon to Brighton, so you can skip the car rental and spend your money on the slopes.

NEXT >> Bolton Valley and Bromley Mountain, Vermont

Bolton Valley Resort, Vermont

“Bolton Valley is one of those little treasures in Vermont,” says Jeanne-Marie Gand, vice president of marketing for Bolton Valley Resort. “We don’t gouge visitors, and guests feel like guests.” But the friendly attitude is only one of many reasons to come to this lesser-known mountain, according to Gand. With the highest base elevation of any resort in Vermont, Bolton Valley has fresh snow when other resorts don’t.

During the day, Bolton Valley is a family-friendly mountain. Kids under six ski free, and season passes for single-parent families and families with specials-needs children welcome parent-child groupings of all shapes and sizes. In the evenings, a younger crowd comes to ski and ride under the lights. At the progression park, visitors can learn snowboarding and freestyle skiing tricks, and a terrain park caters to practiced daredevils.

Adult lift tickets are $45 on weekdays and $52 on weekends. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Vermont residents ski for $26 and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, women can ski for the same low rate (childcare is $19).

Bolton Valley is a quick 30-minute drive from Burlington. Out-of-towners can find ski-and-stay packages at the resort starting from $65 per person per night, as well as condo rentals. Once you arrive, you can forget about your car because Bolton has five restaurants, a sports center with an indoor pool, and slopeside lodging on-site.

Bromley Mountain, Vermont

Bromley Mountain is known as the “Sun Mountain” in Vermont. That’s because it’s the only southern-facing ski resort in the state. And when it’s five below on a January morning, the direct sunlight can make all the difference in the world. Though this locals’ haven keeps a low profile, it’s definitely a mountain that skiing families should know about.

“Our biggest focus is the ski school and learn-to-ski programs,” says Michael van Eyck, assistant marketing director for Bromley Mountain. In 2004, Ski Magazine named Bromley the number-one resort in North America for family programs. With all trails leading to one base lodge, families can feel confident that they can split up and have an easy meeting spot for lunch or at the end of the day.

Midweek skiers can find great deals at Bromley. The midweek rate is $25 for everyone, compared to $61 for adults, $53 for teens, and $39 for juniors on weekends. Plus, on Fridays, adults pay $25 and can bring up to three kids for $10 each. On “Mom’s Day Off,” scheduled for February 2, 2007, women who show a photo of their children can ski for a $15 donation to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Besides great skiing and a day off, moms can participate in women-specific ski clinics. Visit Bromley’s website for other lift-ticket specials.

The closest airport to Bromley is one-and-a-half hours away in Albany, which is serviced by low-cost carrier Southwest and other major airlines. Slopeside lodging is available through the Bromley Village Condos. Several inns in the area offer ski-and-stay packages, ranging from $49 to $105 per person per night.

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