Planning a Rocky Mountain ski trip can be as daunting as that first time down a black diamond slope.
Maybe your physical skills are lacking or dormant. Maybe you're afraid you'll spend huge sackfuls of cash, or you're wary of complicated travel arrangements in these uncertain times.
But what if I told you that you could catch a quick nonstop flight to Colorado ski country and plunder long, uncrowded, ego-boosting trails amid gorgeous scenery, all without breaking the bank?
There'd be steep terrain and moguls if you wanted them. You'd be able to bring your kids along if you wished, and keep track of them easily. At day's end, you'd stay in pleasant small-town surroundings with plenty of options for sightseeing, dining, pampering or carousing.
Your end of the bargain? Merely that you settle for mountains roughly half as tall as those at the Vails and Aspens of the world -- and that you agree to coexist with folks more likely to be named Johnson than Du Pont.
Seven smallish-but-cool resorts are cooperatively marketed as the Gems of Colorado, and each has unique appeal. But four of them are especially appealing to Upper Midwesterners for logistical reasons. Assuming a Minnesota state of mind, let's appraise these four.
Sunlight Mountain, Glenwood Springs
Doesn't get much simpler than this: Board a jet in the Twin Cities late in the morning, land 2 1/2 hours later at Eagle Airport, 25 miles east of Glenwood Springs, Colo. As you arrive, it's only 1 p.m. local time.
Hop on a shuttle bus for the scenic half-hour ride to Glenwood (ignore the bustling traffic on Interstate Hwy. 70; let your jaw drop instead at the glories of Glenwood Canyon towering above you and the Colorado River boiling alongside you.)
Glenwood Springs is a charming town of about 7,000 that's probably best known for its two-block-long outdoor mineral pool, largest in the world. This thing stretches on forever, like a liquid landing strip.
Check into your hotel -- choose from new, not-that-old or old-and-lovingly-restored. Virtually all lodging is within walking distance of the pool, restaurants, shops and bars.
If you concoct a clipboard-type schedule and execute it with laser-like precision, you might be able to catch a shuttle and wedge in some skiing before the lifts close at 4, but aren't you on vacation? Better idea: Acclimate yourself on your first day in the mountains by strolling around town and figuring out what's for dinner.
Post-repast, how about a dip in that 90-degree mineral pool?
Sunlight Mountain wrings a lot out of its 470 acres. More than 65 marked trails meander 2,000 feet down from the summit, culminating at one everything-you-need base lodge. That makes it easy to hook up with the rest of your gang should you part ways (a perfect place for walkie-talkies). The longest run is a 2 1/2-mile cruiser, the steepest a cardiac-arresting 50-degree plunge. Mostly, it's cruise country -- 75 percent is tabbed for beginners or intermediates. There's also an ample supply of specialized terrain for snowboarders and trick skiers.
The Twin Cities' own Buck Hill has more chairlifts than you'll find at Sunlight, but the geography cooperates and lift lines are rare. From the 9,900-foot summit, views of the Elk Mountain Range and its signature Mount Sopris apply a balm to any sagging spirit.
Sunlight Mountain is ideal for mountain novitiates, for kids, for lesson-takers or for anyone who doesn't buy the idea that skiing is all about big bucks and mastery of chest-clenching terrain.