Colorado: The white gold rush

Away from the overpriced slopes, Tam Leach locates Colorado's snowboarding gems
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The Independent Travel

Most Brits are familiar with the large resorts in Colorado: Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Telluride. Too often the smaller places get overlooked, discounted for their limited lifts, zoomed past on the freeway. Which is sad, because eschewing the pitiful discounts of the larger resorts' multi-day tickets in favour of a day trip to one of these little gems means more than just savings.

Jump in the rental car and head for uncrowded slopes, perfect parks, pristine powder lines and Colorado as the locals live it. Don't forget to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch...

BEST FOR ROLLING NATURAL TERRAIN: LOVELAND

Zooming up the broad interstate from Denver into the Rocky Mountains, a ski area suddenly looms into view - right off the side of the road, before the first major pass, and at least half an hour ahead of Breckenridge or Keystone.

Straddling the Continental Divide, low-key Loveland (00 1 303 571 5580; www.skiloveland.com) boasts a near incredible snowfall record for Colorado. Facilities are basic, but the rolling, high mountain terrain makes a natural, uncrowded playground for intermediate riders or better, with dips and gullies galore.

Prices are rock bottom for this area of Colorado, and making Loveland your last day stopover will ensure a head start en route to Denver airport. Alternatively, spend a couple of days here at the beginning of your trip to acclimatise: inexpensive accommodation is available in the quiet hamlet of Georgetown, 10 minutes east on I-70.

Lift tickets: between 2 April and 16 December, the walk-up price is $38 (£21). High season prices are one third more. A 4-Pak (four tickets valid any day of the season, which can also be used on the same day for multiple riders) is available in advance online for just $99 (£55).

THE BEST FOR HARDCORE FREERIDERS - AND BEGINNERS: ARAPAHOE BASIN

Small in acreage but not in stature, A-Basin (as it's fondly known) is a long-standing favourite with local freeriders. Steep and rocky faces plummet down from the west side of the Continental Divide, with the true spoils going to those prepared to hike.

Yet for all its gnarliness, A-Basin is also an economical spot to take your first turns on a board. Why pay $60 (£35) to get you up the hill to the flat learning pen at bigger resorts, when at A-Basin (00 1 970 468 0718; www.arapahoebasin.com) the Molly Hogan $10 (£5.50) ticket gives you all you need for that first day: one slow chairlift and a wide, very gently tilted meadow.

The Molly Hogan lift is right by the car park and cafeteria, too, so stopping for a warming break is as easy as walking 100 yards.

BEST FOR TREES: MONARCH

Forget Breck or Vail, Monarch is Colorado's underrated powder stash. Located further south in the state, hit by dry, desert-borne storms, the snow that on this five-lift "resort" is comparable to the so-called champagne powder typical of Utah.

As the pistes here are limited, the place is patronised primarily by less able skiers up from Texas. Meanwhile, Monarch's acres of perfectly pitched trees remain untouched, particularly midweek. The newly opened, all off-piste Mirkwood Basin promises steep chutes, cliffs and even more untouched white gold.

Monarch (00 1 719 530 5000; www.skimonarch.com) lies en route to the popular historic town and resort of Crested Butte, south of Colorado Springs, which aside from its skiing, is well worth a visit on its own merits. Between 16 December and 27 March, lift tickets are $27 (£15). In high season, they cost $49 (£28).

BEST FOR PARK LIFE: COPPER MOUNTAIN

With 22 lifts, 125 trails and a Disney-like new village at its base, courtesy of the giant Intrawest group, Copper Mountain (00 1 866 841 2481; www.coppercolorado.com) is hardly a minor player. Denverites flock here. Yet this something-for-everyone mountain remains off the radar for most visiting Brits - despite its location slapbang between the Breckenridge turn-off and Vail.

Copper has only recently started to attract the foreign crowds and much of this increased popularity can be attributed to the mountain's park programme, highly ranked in the international snowboard media. Well maintained from early in the season, the resort caters to both beginners and pro skiers. And there is also a children's park - open to nervous grown-ups, too. Copper's plentiful natural terrain ensures that there's no need to get stuck in the parks - unless you choose to.

Freestyle camps, team weeks, women-only programmes and advanced classes are a cut above the norm, and kids as young as three can enrol at the Burton Learn-to-Ride centre, where trampoline and wobble-board training is standard alongside the sliding on snow bit. Lift tickets: walk-up rates $45-$69 (£25-£40), buy in advance online or at local supermarkets for significant discounts.

BEST FOR BACKCOUNTRY: SILVERTON

No lift lines, no overpriced cafeterias - and no pistes. Less than two hours from ritzy Telluride, America's only all-backcountry (off-piste slope) mountain has just one creaky chairlift and a shuttle bus, promising riders run after run of the type of riding usually only accessible by helicopter.

Located in the precipitous San Juan peaks, Silverton (00 1 970 387 5706; www.silvertonmountain.com) is the retort to all those Europeans who snobbishly assert that Colorado is flat. Daily ticket sales are limited, but this is no exclusive playground for the weathy.

Now entering its fourth season, Silverton was opened by a passionate young skiing and snowboarding couple wanting to provide an alternative to the encroaching tide of mega-resorts. Previous off-piste experience - and lots of it - is recommended; Silverton is strictly experts-only.

The resort is only open Thursday to Sunday. Lift tickets: $99-129 (£58-£75), including guide service. Tickets must be booked in advance (online or by phone).

Register online at Colorado Ski Country USA ( www.coloradoski.com) for a free Gems card. The card gives daily discounts for the holder and allows you to take up to two guests to eight of the smaller resorts in Colorado. Apply early, numbers are limited.

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