It can be expensive for a family to go skiing, especially in resort-rich Colorado. Kim and Ben Amiot know that all too well.

Every winter the Columbia, Mo., couple journeys to the Colorado Rockies for a week of slopes and snow. Along with their two school-age daughters, they invite parents, step-parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins – everyone but the backyard dog. Their ski junkets look like Osmond family reunions.

Since the Amiots lack the crooning clan’s recording revenues, saving money in the mountains is a must. That’s why they choose Summit County.

“It’s close to Denver,” says Kim. “The lift tickets are cheaper, it’s easy to find inexpensive housing, and there are four different areas to ski.”

Bordering the Continental Divide, 69 freeway miles west of Denver, Summit County provides a sprawling recreational enclave perched high in the Rockies. Free shuttle buses connect its condo-clad communities to the ski area quartet, which together offer 7,000 snowy acres. With capacity to haul 100,000 skiers an hour, lift lines here are shorter than most airport security queues. Best of all, cash-strapped Americans can enjoy this white-powder playground at blue-collar prices.

Summit County offers fun ski destinations that won’t break the wallet.

Of course, Summit County has a few mink-and-Mercedes resorts, but it is not choked with snobbish hostelries. Instead, one finds familiar brands like Best Western, Super 8, Comfort Suites, Holiday Inn, Days Inn and Quality Inn, as well as dozens of independent hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and even a youth hostel. It’s also rife with rental homes and condominiums, ideal for mega-family expeditions such as those mounted by the Amiots.

“This year we’re in a three-bedroom, paying $1,500 for the week. That’s about $20 per person per night,” says Kim. “Wherever the best deal is, that’s where we go.”

Those deals frequently come in Silverthorne, one of three towns bordering Interstate 70. Teeming with motels, gas stations and chain eateries, this off-ramp township boasts all the charm of a truck-stop suburb. It may not look glamorous, but what it lacks in panache, it makes up with bargain shopping.

While Colorado’s richer resorts feature fine furriers and swanky jewelers, Silverthorne offers 70 factory-outlet stores. Manufacturers selling overstocks, from Maidenform dainties to Denby’s English pottery, stand grouped in four villages connected by trolleys and free limousines.

“We feature fashions, sports equipment, housewares and specialties such as Crabtree & Evelyn,” says marketing director Jana Rae. “You can pick up name-brand goods here at discounted prices, something unique for a ski resort.”

On the south side of the interstate, neighboring Dillon offers more factory outlets, family lodges and restaurants ranging from kid-luring burger emporiums to adult-luring brew pubs. Originating as an 1883 stagecoach stop, the community has moved three times over the years, the last to allow the filling of Dillon Reservoir. The highway-hugging town now on the lake’s northeastern shores is home of the Dillon Yacht Club, America’s highest sailing organization.

On the reservoir’s western flanks lies Frisco, a one-time mining village whose 19th-century founders shamelessly named it after California’s “City by the Bay.” Present day Frisco still flaunts a classic Main Street lined with a potpourri of Colorado architecture, from rustic wood-frame to convenience-store block. The town’s Historic Park displays 10 buildings, including a jail, several cabins and a schoolhouse originally built and operated as a saloon. Inside, a small museum displays artifacts from Frisco’s silver-to-snow heyday.

The shops at Summit County ski resorts are budget-friendly.

Breckenridge, the Summit community best preserving Colorado’s mineral past, lies nine miles to the south. Many of its Victorian-era buildings have been preserved in one of the state’s largest national historic districts. Newer structures mimic the old, giving downtown Breckenridge a Wild West meets Disneyland cuteness.

Peaks rise from the edge of town, providing slopes for the Breckenridge Ski Resort. Once owned by a dog food company, “Breck” is now a lower-priced holding of ritzy Vail Resorts. It stretches along four separate peaks, with terrain varying from extended cruisers to gladed bumps.

The ski area hugs the Ten Mile Range, where summits bear numbers, not names. Each offers its own flavor. Peak 7 features steep, expert-only bowls up high and intermediate cruisers down low. Peak 8 offers runs ranging from advanced chutes to beginner-level bunny boulevards all funneling down to its own base area. The hill also offers a high-caliber terrain park, perfect for thrilling youngsters and petrifying parents. Peak 9 offers wide beginner and intermediate trails, making it a handsome, manicured paradise. Peak 10 features intermediate and advanced trails descending over largely ungroomed terrain.

Far across the valley, a web of white swaths cut through the forest. They mark runs at Keystone, another subsidiary of Vail Resorts. Named by a gold hunter from Pennsylvania, the “Keystone State,” it covers more than 1,800 acres spread across a trio of mountains. It’s Summit County’s only resort to offer night skiing.

Keystone’s three summits lie stacked one behind the other. The first mountain offers easy and intermediate runs emptying into two base areas. Although it can become a bit crowded at times, the front of Keystone is a great place for adult beginners and parents escorting young offspring.

North Peak, the middle mountain, features steep intermediate and advanced runs, which descend from the Outpost, a log dining and warming hut complex. Beyond lies the far mountain, the Outback, whose slopes carry nary an easy-rated run. For seasoned skiers, it’s a great place to flee the masses.

Most Keystone days end at River Run, a base village with buildings depicting a Colorado mining theme. For après ski, families can head to a gas-log campfire, where often a mountain man entertains with tall tales. Although one can also find music and adult beverages here, many say the best slope-side, blues-and-brews parties occur across the county at Copper Mountain.

Long a favorite for Denverites, Copper features three bases stuffed with bars, restaurants, shops and lodging. Largest of the county quartet, Copper’s 2,400-acre terrain is about evenly divided between easy, moderate, advanced and Kevorkian. There’s something for everyone.

The ski area’s terrain comes naturally divided by topology, a feature that keeps schussing hot-doggers from scaring beginners out of their bindings. The steep terrain above the East Village contains black- and double-black-diamond runs. The middle section above the main village offers easy and intermediate cruisers. Being gentler, the land above the western Union Creek base provides slopes ideal for beginners.

Unlike the commonly-owned Breckenridge and Keystone twins that share lift tickets, Copper Mountain belongs to the same folks who own Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, and it requires a separate payment. Fortunately, the two groups often compete on price, especially when tickets are purchased in lodging packages.

For those forced to buy on-site, the best deals come at Arapahoe Basin, the county’s smallest and oldest ski area. Known as A-Basin to the locals, this 900-acre anachronism hearkens back to the days when boots were leather, skis were wooden and ski filmmaker Warren Miller still had hair. Its runs begin near timberline and end at 13,050 feet, offering the highest skiable terrain in North America. It is not a place for first-day arrivals from sea level.

Beginning with a single rope tow in the 1940s, it now sports five lifts, all slow-speed. Leisurely rides let one rest and recover between runs. The base contains a metal-roofed, A-frame lodge skirted with a large wooden deck. Naked mountains loom beyond, filling the near horizon with peak-to-peak intimacy.

Frisco is one of the ski areas that offers Nordic centers and groomed trails for a different kind of skiing.

“Everybody ought to ski A-Basin at least once to see how skiing used to be,” says Kim Amiot’s father, Bob Kinkead.

Vail also wanted to buy A-Basin when it acquired Breckenridge and Keystone, but regulators said such action would constitute a monopoly. Instead, the area was purchased by a company with ties to Vail Resorts. Because of the close relations, A-Basin offers a joint marketing program where lift tickets from Keystone or Breckenridge are also honored. The reverse, however, does not hold.

Not everyone who ventures to a ski area wants to go downhilling every day, and for them, Summit County offers the usual plethora of options. Hot-air balloons serve champagne and views from Breckenridge. Ice-skating rinks grace Keystone and Breckenridge, sleigh rides leave from Breck and Frisco, and snowmobile tours hit the mountains from everywhere. There’s even a mine tour for anyone desiring the real hard-rock view of Colorado.

For those who want to try skinny skis, Frisco, Keystone and Breckenridge each feature Nordic centers with groomed tracks. For the more adventurous, unguided trails lead cross-country skiers and snowshoers into backcountry winter wilderness.

When it’s time to eat, Summit County offers cuisine choices varying from quick to quality. Chains featuring familiar fare compete with independently owned establishments that dish-up dishes as unique as their surroundings. While it’s certainly possible for a family to blow out a credit card with three-figure dinner tabs, one can also eat well on a fraction of that amount.

With a multitude of mouths to feed, the Amiots economize by dining in their condo. They even stop to buy lower-priced groceries in Denver on their way to the mountains. For lunch, they make sandwiches to take skiing so they can avoid paying the lofty prices found on the hills.

“I bought the kids three sodas and two hot chocolates yesterday and it cost nearly $20,” says Mike. “I won’t do that again.”

The ski areas all provide tables for brown-baggers, but Kim complains that it’s sometimes tough to find places to sit. It seems that sack lunches are becoming common fare at Colorado’s affordable ski destination.

If You Go

Getting there:
Summit County is 69 miles west of Denver on Interstate 70. With dry roads, plan on about a two-hour ride. Allow extra time for weekend returns to Denver.

Accommodations:
Best Western (800-780-7234, bestwestern.com), Super 8 (800-800-8000, super8.com), Comfort Suites (877-424-6423, comfortsuites.com), Holiday Inn (888-465-4329, holiday-inn.com), Days Inn (800-329-7466, daysinn.com) and Quality Inn (877-424-6423, qualityinn.com) offer rooms at reasonable prices. Condominium rentals and other lodging can be found through Summit County Central Reservations (800-525-3682, skierlodging.com).

Skiing:
Breckenridge Ski Resort (800-789-7669, breckenridge.com) is located on the west side of the town of Breckenridge. From Frisco, drive nine miles south on Colorado Highway 9 and look for the skier parking signs.

Keystone Ski Resort (877-625-1556, keystoneresort.com) can be found along U.S. Highway 6, four miles southeast of Dillon. Follow signs to free parking at the River Run base area.

Copper Mountain Ski Resort (866-841-2481, coppercolorado.com/winter) lies at the junction of Interstate 70 and Colorado Highway 91, six miles west of Frisco. Parking is free, with shuttles providing transportation to the mountain’s three base areas.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area (888-272-7246, arapahoebasin.com) lies on U.S. Highway 6 a few miles east of Keystone. The free parking fills quickly, especially on blue-sky powder days.

For the cheapest deals, visitors to Summit County should check into lift and lodging packages. Otherwise the best ticket prices can usually be found at Denver area supermarkets. For those driving I-70 through Denver, a convenient King Soopers market can be found at Exit 264 (West 32nd Avenue and Youngfield Street). Lift tickets can also be purchased at the City Market in Silverthorne.

For more information:
The Summit County Chamber of Commerce (970-668-2051, summitchamber.org) can provide information about the county, or check the websites for Silverthorne (silverthorne.org), Dillon (townofdillon.com), Frisco (townoffrisco.com) and Breckenridge (townofbreckenridge.com).

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.

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