The Last Great Colorado Ski Town

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -- Penny Ervin had barely heard of this speck of a town when she was raising three kids, working as a Los Angeles hairdresser.

Now 10 years and three grandchildren later, she has two words for vacationing grandparents determined to keep up with their grandkids: Think snow.

``The grand kids won't think you're old if you ski with them,'' she promises. ``There's not the generation gap here as in the city.''

``I feel so young when I ski with them,'' agrees 57-year-old Linda Wilson, who is from Tulsa, Okla., and was checking on one napping grandchild in Crested Butte Mountain Resort's cheery nursery.

Ervin is convinced the secret to staying young is on the snowy slopes here, three miles up the hill from this historic Colorado mining town (check out the miners' two-story outhouse!). So along with two of her grown children, she permanently traded balmy California for Rocky Mountain blizzards, opening a hair salon in the middle of the ``The Last Great Colorado Ski Town,'' as the community bills itself. Now Ervin is such an adept skier -- and local booster -- that Crested Butte Mountain Resort calls on her to give mountain tours.

When we skied together one morning recently, Ervin looked around at the spectacular mountain vistas and grinned widely with that rare look of someone completely satisfied with her life. ``This place is the best-kept secret in Colorado,'' she declared.

I have to agree. Crested Butte may be less well known and harder to get to than other Western ski resorts: It's some 200 miles southwest of Denver, so a trip here often requires a change of planes to fly into Gunnison, the nearest large town. (There are direct flights from Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix.) But this is one place that in my book is worth the extra effort for families.

Besides the sheer beauty of the mountain and the charm of the century-old Victorian town that boasts the state's largest National Historic District, there's a wonderful relaxed feel to this place that made my gang immediately feel welcome. They hated to leave.

Maybe it's because Crested Butte Mountain Resort is still (for the time being, anyway) run by a family, not a corporation -- the last family-run ski area left in Colorado, co-owner Ralph Walton says proudly. ``Families,'' he says, ``are what make this industry tick.'' Clearly, at Crested Butte they understand what vacationing families -- no matter what their ages -- want: value for their vacation buck. Kids 12 and under pay their age to ski when they're with a skiing adult. Come the first weeks of the season (before Dec. 19) or at the end (after April 4) and everyone gets free lift tickets. Learn to ski then on the cheap, too, just $15 a lesson. (Call 800-544-8448 or www.crestedbutteresort.com

Come in the summer for hiking (you can go over the mountains to Aspen), biking and fishing and stay at bargain rates in the condos that dot the mountain village.

Winter or summer, Crested Butte works for parents and kids because it's more about kicking back than putting on the glitz, even in the new Marriott and Sheraton resorts at the base of the mountain.

You won't see a lot of fancy ski duds here or snooty restaurants that make it clear they'd prefer feeding your dog rather than your child. That's not to say there aren't plenty of eating choices. Locals joke there are probably more restaurants per capita -- the town has just 1,700 people -- than many cities. Kids are heartily welcomed.

The waitress just smiled and asked if we wanted to take home her dinner when Melanie fell asleep at Slogar's one night, missing the wonderful heaping portions of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and biscuits, served family style. (Call 970-349-5765.) My family also gave a thumbs-up to the Idle Spur, where the waiter encouraged my daughter Reggie to try elk stew, bringing her a sample before she ordered. (Call 970-349-5026.)

As we strolled down Elk Avenue after dinner, I realized what I liked best was the size of the place. Crested Butte is small and friendly enough to let a couple of young teenagers wander on their own in town and on the mountain. Crested Butte is less than a fourth the size of Vail, with 1,160 skiable acres. It won't take a week to learn your way around.

But unlike other mid-size areas, Crested Butte is known for its expert and extreme skiing. More than half the runs are for advanced skiers, a perfect mix for a family like mine with expert teen skiers and a younger one still learning.

At the children's ski school, 7-year-old Melanie was greeted by name by her snowboarding instructor the second day: A magician was on hand to entertain the kids while their parents registered. Nearly 30,000 kids -- from babies to teens -- go through Crested Butte's programs each season, but the ski school manages to retain that small-town personal feel that wins over even the most anxious parents.

And kids, too. ``It was more than a class. It was like an all-day party,'' explained 10-year-old Helen Smith, who was from Fort Smith, Ark. ``I fell down a lot, but I want to ski again tomorrow,'' said 8-year-old Cody Smith, who was spending his first day ever on skis.

Even when snow conditions weren't optimum, there were plenty of options. One day, for example, 14-year-old Matt and 12-year-old Reggie headed 12 miles outside of town with their dad to Irwin Lodge where they rode a snowcat up to the top of the peak to spend the afternoon in deep powder bliss. (Families can also opt for all-inclusive stays at the 25-room lodge in summer as well as winter. (Call 1-800-GO-IRWIN or www.goirwin.com for prices.)

No wonder my kids are angling for a return trip. I'm game. And I won't wait until I'm a grandma.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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