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ALTERNATIVE SLOPES
WHEN IT COMES TO POWDER, POSH MAY BE PLEASING, BUT MANY SKIERS WANT RESORTS THAT OFFER MORE BANG FOR THE BUCK

The West sports its share of upscale winter resorts - snowy destinations renowned for top-drawer lodging, topnotch dining and topflight skiing. Unfortunately, the price to stay at one of these posh powder playgrounds can be steeper than a double-black-diamond run. But, there are alternatives.

Sprinkled through the mountains are a number of resorts geared for those who favor value over opulence. Some feature self-contained villages with ski-in/ski-out convenience. Others allow visitors to stay in town and commute to the slopes.

Here are a few winter destinations where one can find rooms and lifts that won't shred the wallet.

Rocky Mountain buys

Home of Vail, Telluride and Aspen, Colorado boasts three of the swankiest snow meccas on the continent. The state also offers resorts where prices come cheaper and the snow sometimes deeper. Two ticket-sharing options, Breckenridge and Keystone, lie near the Continental Divide, 90 minutes west of Denver. Although both are now owned by Vail Resorts, their lifts cost about a cheeseburger-and-fries less than they do at the parent.

For skiers and boarders, the Breckenridge ski area features 2,208 acres along a row of four numbered peaks, and for jibbers it holds one of the top terrain parks in the country. Over half its 146 trails are ranked expert with challenges coming in glades and steeps. The remainder are mountain skirts pleated with cruisers.

"Breck has amazing intermediate terrain, especially with the addition of Peak 7," says spokeswoman Nicky DeFord. "I think it matches that of Vail and Beaver Creek."

The community of Breckenridge dates back to the 1800s, and downtown's National Historic District contains blocks of Victorian storefronts. Away from Main Street, however, it's as contemporary as any ski town in the country.

Similar is the architecture of nearby Keystone Resort, a community clad in condos. Long a family favorite, it offers not only skiing and boarding but also tubing, ice skating, snow-biking, snowshoeing and sleighing. By day, its slopes cover 2,722 acres spread over three mountains, and for those who like carving turns at night, they switch on the largest slope-lighting operation in Colorado. The resort also vends snowcat skiing so guests can experience backcountry slopes in a patrol-controlled environment.

"An intermediate skier will be perfectly at home back there," employee Mike Lee assures.

Next door to Colorado, Utah brags of having not only the "Greatest Snow on Earth," but also some of the better pricing bargains around. For those willing to commute to the hills, one the best deals can be found at the Alta Ski Area where a day's lift ticket goes for $47, or buy a Ski Salt Lake Super Pass with city lodging and it's only $42.

Located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, a half-hour east of Salt Lake City, Alta offers 2,200 acres of powdery splendor. The terrain is 25-percent easy, 40-percent moderate and 35-percent tough. Unlike resorts flanked with time-share subdivisions, Alta has shunned real-estate developers.

"This is how skiing was meant to be," employee Connie Marshall claims. "A bowl of chili, rosy cheeks and let's just go."

When she says "skiing," she means just that. Alta is one of the few areas still banning snowboards from its slopes.

Up in Wyoming, 40 miles northwest of luxurious Jackson Hole, lies affordable Grand Targhee Resort where lifts serving 2,000 acres back of the Tetons cost $14 a day less than at its ritzy neighbor.

Novices can enjoy gentle, base-hugging slopes while others head high for runs that vary from screaming groomers to snow-gilded glades. Mogul mashers and powder hounds will appreciate that the snow-packers leave plenty of lift-served terrain untouched. For those who want more powder, Targhee is famous for providing another 1,000 acres of backcountry snowcat skiing.

Targhee's self-contained base village could easily double as a Western movie set. Nearly every building is made of logs and wood, and the knotty appearance gives the place a rustic warmth.

"It's like coming home for the holidays," vaunts Marketing Director Susie Barnett-Bushong. "Our staff consider themselves family and love sharing this place."

Montanans love sharing their resorts, too, and they have some "big" ones. Near the southwest corner of the state, Big Sky Resort lies between Yellowstone and Bozeman. The area's 3,600 skiable acres stretch across three mountains plastered with 85 miles of named runs.

"Taking the cost of tickets compared to the amount of lift-served terrain," says spokeswoman Kate Wilson, "we're a lot cheaper per acre than even the smaller areas in Montana."

The resort's high point is Lone Peak, an 11,166-foot crag accessed by 15-passenger tramcars that look like tin cans on a string. From its summit, the views are stunning and the drops steep. Those who want easier terrain will find lower bowls, glades and groomed trails that are 17 percent novice and 25 percent intermediate. The resort sports a purpose-built base area, but those willing to make the 45-minute commute might find cheaper lodging in Bozeman.

At northwestern Montana's Big Mountain Resort, tucked near the entrance to Glacier National Park, one can find lodging, lift and breakfast packages for about what the mink-and-Mercedes resorts charge for lifts alone. The resort offers 3,000 acres, half rated for intermediates and the remainder evenly split between bunny runs and bruisers. Beside any of them, fresh fluff clings to branches turning trees into gnarly ghosts.

"I don't know what it is about Montana, but the snow is definitely different here," says Web manager Cindy Moore.

Those staying at the base of the mountain can ride the ski bus down to nearby Whitefish for shopping. Others might prefer to stay in town, where motels offer cheap lodging, and pubs are plentiful.

Staying with loonies

Some of the best bargains can be found in the Great White North where four American "greenbacks" buy more than five Canadian "loonies."

In Alberta's Rockies, the more popular slopes lie near Banff. Those craving less humanity can head 165 miles north to Jasper National Park where snow-hushed forests border frozen rivers, ice-carved summits scrape the sky, and big horn sheep graze beside empty highways. The bustling summer townsite of Jasper snoozes like a hibernating bear in winter. Lodging comes at a discount and restaurant reservations are seldom required.

The park's Marmot Basin Ski Area sits a dozen miles south of town. Although only covering 1,675 acres, its slopes feature 84 trails, which are about 30 percent novice and 30 percent intermediate. From groomed to off piste, from moguls to powder, navigating the mountain is a breeze.

"It takes more effort to get here, but once you do, you find there's a bit more room to breathe," says spokesman Rob Ellen.

Farther west in British Columbia, Sun Peaks Resort vends lift tickets at prices about 20 percent less than the province's famed Whistler Blackcomb. This inland enclave offers 3,700 acres on three mountains sliced with 117 named runs. With 61 percent of the terrain graded intermediate, skiers can spend days zinging the blues from a base village that's as new as shaped skis.

"Our oldest hotel is going into only its ninth winter," explains spokesman Vince Accardi.

Budget boosters in Bigfoot country

Along the Pacific Coast, moist ocean air slaps against the Cascades to produce some of the biggest snow dumps in North America. The world's record for annual snowfall, 1,140 inches, is held by the Mount Baker Ski Area, 56 miles east of Bellingham, Wash.

"We burned up a quarter-million dollars in snow removable just to keep our lodge and lifts unburied," says spokeswoman Gwyn Howat.

At only 1,000 acres, Mount Baker is small, and like most Northwest ski areas, it lacks base lodging. Its 38 designated runs wind down two mountains where a quarter of the terrain is novice and nearly another half ranks as intermediate. Getting there requires driving a twisted mountain highway where four-wheel-drive is handy and the nearest lodging sits 17 miles away. For those wanting to slide through Bigfoot's bedroom, the effort is worth it, especially with midweek lifts going for $30.

Nestled in the rugged North Cascades, the volcanic cone of Mount Baker rises to the south and Mount Shuksen dominates the north. Lacking public utilities, they generate their own electricity, process their own water, and until recently held the most remote cell site in North America.

"It's as close to a wilderness experience as you can get and still be able to ski back to the lodge for a latte," Howat maintains.

The caffeine comes in the White Salmon Day Lodge, built in the Cascadian style using timber and rock. The building is reminiscent of Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mount Hood, the 11,239-foot-tall peak east of Portland.

Familiar as the movie backdrop for "The Shining," Timberline Lodge was constructed in 1937. Out its back door lies the Timberline Ski Area with its 1,000 acres, 32 trails and the Northwest's largest vertical drop at 3,580 feet. Half the terrain is ranked intermediate and 30 percent falls into the easy category. Receiving 500-600 inches of snow annually, the skiing lasts well into summer, and lift tickets cost under $40.

While snow riders can say "honey, I'm home" at Timberline Lodge, more affordable rooms can be found in Hood River, a town located 47 miles away on the Columbia River. The community is a summer magnet for windsurfers, and come winter, hostelers are just happy to fill rooms. Thirty of them participate in a program where overnight guests can purchase $25 lift tickets to the volcano's largest ski area, Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort, which covers 2,150 acres on its eastern slopes. Ten lifts serve terrain that is half intermediate, and a third advanced or expert.

"Mount Hood was born as a volcano and our side is like a natural terrain park, explains marketing director Dave Tragethon. "It's anything but one boring, long straight run after another."

Price break by the lake

One of the largest concentrations of downhill ski areas in the country surrounds Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California border, 35 miles west of Reno. Here, after a day of sliding slopes, one can spend evenings enjoying the entertainment for which Nevada is famous.

The best lift bargain can be found at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, where except for holiday periods, tickets go for $39. Its 2,400 skiable acres hold more than 100 runs served by 14 lifts. A quarter of the terrain is rated easiest and 40 percent intermediate.

Since the area offers bumps, not beds, visitors have to choose where to stay. The most convenient lodging is along the lakeshore, but better bargains can usually be found in Reno where motels come cheap and the casino hotels often cheaper.

"There's always a casino deal," says ski area spokeswoman Rosemary Woods. "They want you there to gamble."

Of course, it's possible that all ones savings will be invested in slots and chips, but who cares? Winners can head for Vail or Aspen next year. And for the losers, there are still plenty of alternative slopes to try.

Mapping it out
Breckenridge, Colorado (800-789-7669, www.breckenridge.com)

Breckenridge lies on Colorado Highway 9, nine miles south of Interstate 70 at Frisco. The nearest commercial airports are in Denver, about 104 miles to the east, and Eagle County, located in Gypsum, 70 miles to the west.

Keystone Resort, Colorado (877-625-1556, www.keystoneresort.com)

Keystone Resort is on US Highway 6, four miles south of Interstate 70 at Dillon. The nearest commercial airports are Denver International and the Eagle County Regional Airport. The ski areas of Keystone and Breckenridge are 13 miles apart and share lift tickets.

Alta Ski Area, Utah (801-359-1078, www.alta.com)

Alta lies in Little Cottonwood Canyon, 33 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. While there are accommodations near the base, better bargains can be found at motels and hotels in the city. Many lodging purveyors offer the discounted Ski Salt Lake Super Pass, which can be exchanged for lift tickets at Alta, Snowbird, Brighton or Solitude ski areas.

Grand Targhee Resort, Wyoming (800-827-4433, www.grandtarghee.com)

While located in Wyoming, Grand Targhee lies at the end of a dead-end road, 12 miles east of Driggs, Idaho. The nearest commercial airports are in Jackson, Wyoming (40 miles to the southeast) and Idaho Falls, Idaho (87 miles to the southwest).

Big Sky Resort, Montana (800-548-4486, www.bigskyresort.com)

The ski area is about 44 miles south of Bozeman off US 191. One can find lodging at the resort's extensive base area or make the 45-minute commute from Bozeman where many chain motels, hotels and eateries can be found.

Big Mountain Resort, Montana (800-858-3930, www.bigmtn.com)

The resort is about eight miles north of Whitefish. The nearest airport is Glacier Park International in Kalispell, about 19 miles south of the ski area. For off-slope lodging and information, contact the Flathead Valley Convention and Visitor Bureau (406-756-9091, www.montanasflatheadvalley.com).

Marmot Basin Ski Area, Alberta (780-852-3816, www.skimarmot.com)

The slopes are about 12 miles south of the Jasper townsite. The nearest international airport is located in Edmonton, 226 miles to the east. Contact Jasper Central Reservations (800-473-8135, www.skijaspercanada.com) for lodging.

Sun Peaks Resort, British Columbia (800-807-3257, www.sunpeaksresort.com)

Located in south-central British Columbia, the slopes lie 31 miles northeast of Kamloops, which is served by Air Canada and Alaska/Horizon. Vancouver is about a 4 1/2 -hour drive to the southwest.

Mount Baker Ski Area, Washington (360-734-6771, www.mtbaker.us)

This small enclave is tucked in the forest, 56 miles east of Bellingham on Washington Route 542. Lodging can be found in Glacier, 17 miles down the road. The nearest major commercial airports are in Seattle and Vancouver.

Timberline Ski Area, Oregon

(503-622-7979, www.timberlinelodge.com)

The ski slopes are on the southern flanks of Mount Hood, 62 miles from Portland. The classic Timberline Lodge is open year-round, but lower-cost lodging can be found in Hood River, 47 miles to the north.

Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort, Oregon (800-754-4663, www.skihood.com)

The ski area is on the eastern slopes of Mount Hood, about 35 miles south of Hood River where abundant lodging can be found. The nearest airport is Portland, about an hour to the west.

Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, California (800-441-4423, www.skialpine.com)

The area lies off California Highway 89 about 13 miles southeast of Truckee, California. The nearest major airport is Reno, Nevada, (888-448-7366, www.renolaketahoe.com) about 55 freeway miles to the east. With sales limited by available parking, it's best to buy their $39 lift tickets in advance.