Here’s the thing about gems. They don’t have to be sparkling monstrosities to be valuable.

Take, for example, Colorado’s eight smallest ski resorts. In a state with the Hope Diamond of resorts, Vail, sprawling over more than 5,000 glittering acres, it’s hard to compete. Still, these ski areas that calls themselves the Gems — Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Ski Cooper, Monarch, Eldora, Powderhorn, Sunlight and Ski Granby Ranch — manage to survive without high-speed six-person chairlifts, valet parking or art galleries and boutiques in the base lodge.

What else is conspicuously missing at a Gem?

  • Lift lines so long you can work up a sweat waiting your turn.
  • A parking space that costs you a cool $20.
  • A maze of trails so complicated you can’t leave your kids for fear you’ll never see them again.
  • A fashion standard that can make even the most confident discount-ski-shop fan feel small.

We’re not saying that Vail and Beaver Creek and Aspen-Snowmass aren’t worth the effort. But sometimes it’s worth sacrificing a few thousand acres and a few dozen fewer trails for these things:

  • A ski area that seems like your personal playground on a weekday under a bluebird sky.
  • A mountain where you can make your legs burn if you want, because the only rest you get is on the ride back up.
  • A lift ticket that doesn’t cost much more than dinner and a movie.

That’s what drew Alvin R. Williams IV to Monarch. Williams of Colorado Springs has been skiing at Monarch for more than 14 years, since he moved to Colorado.

Monarch isn’t crowded,” he says simply.

His favorite trail, Skywalker, “is perfect,” he says. “You can burn your thighs up, and catch steeps off the main trail on the way down.”

At Eldora, Steve Poulsen took a break in the lodge. It was 12:30 — lunchtime — and Poulsen was one of just seven people relaxing over bowls of chili and cups of coffee.

Poulsen lives in Nederland, just down the road from Eldora, and skis frequently at the resort.

“I like it because the different levels of terrain are on separate parts of the mountain. You can ski blues and not worry about finding yourself on a black. Or you can ski blacks and not have to ski any greens on your way down.

“It’s the perfect setup.”

THE GEMS

Adam Christopher Ski's Arapahoe Basin's Montezuma Bowl - OutThere Colorado
Adam Christopher of Denver skis Arapahoe Basin’s Montezuma Bowl. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

ARAPAHOE BASIN

Best feature: Pallavicini, one of Colorado’s longest and steepest trails; free child’s ticket with purchase of adult ticket
Mood: A locals’ favorite, where people come to ski and meet – or make – friends
Look for: The spring beach scene, where tailgating is the thing.
Details: $49 lift ticket; arapahoebasin.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Yes

Pat Ryan, Jonathon Blair and Oly Svensen at Eldora Mountain Resort - OutThere Colorado
Pat Ryan, Jonathon Blair and Oly Svensen cheer as they take the first chairlift on opening day at Eldora Mountain Resort. Courtesy of The Associated Press.

ELDORA

Best feature: Its proximity to Boulder (21 miles)
Mood: College student central
Look for: Great snow
Details: $69 lift ticket; eldora.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Yes

Skier Shoots Over Gap At Loveland Ski Area - OutThere Colorado
A skier shoots the gap at Loveland Ski Area. Courtesy of Loveland Ski Area

LOVELAND

Best feature: Abundant snow without the mountain drive
Mood: Casual and fun-loving (evidence: the annual Valentine’s Day mass marriage ceremony at the top of the mountain)
Look for: Breathtaking views atop the Continental Divide
Details: $53 lift ticket; skiloveland.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Yes

MONARCH

Best feature: Its location means lots of snow and it’s all natural
Mood: Mix of Texans in baseball hats and no-nonsense locals
Look for: Its boulder-studded, ungroomed runs that offer thrills without the long lift rides
Details: $64 lift ticket, skimonarch.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Yes

SKI COOPER

Best Feature: Great natural snow
Mood: Casual, lots of families
Look for: All your friends
Details: $50 lift ticket; skicooper.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Yes

Santa visits Ski Granby Ranch - OutThere Colorado
Santa visits Ski Granby Ranch

SKI GRANBY RANCH

Best feature: Guaranteed learn-to-ski or -snowboard program for $99 (includes a season pass)
Mood: Casual; lots of large groups
Look for: Surprising variety of terrain on two mountains
Details: $55 lift ticket; http://granby ranch.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: On a good traffic day

SUNLIGHT MOUNTAIN RESORT

Best feature: In Glenwood Springs, a great hot-springs destination that offers ski-swim-stay deals
Mood: A destination resort with a small-town feel
Look for: 24 Hours of Sunlight, an endurance race where skiers and boarders hike up Sunlight Mountain and ride down, non-stop, for 24 hours
Details: $60 lift ticket; sunlightmtn.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: Not really; best for at least an overnight

Sunlight Mountain Resort - OutThere Colorado

POWDERHORN

Best feature: Its location on the Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain
Mood: Western Slope locals feel at home here
Look for: Surprisingly abundant powder
Details: $69 lift ticket; powderhorn.com
Suitable for a Front Ranger’s day trip: No; plan on a long weekend.

Other details

Look in fundraising entertainment books often sold by school kids or youth sports groups for discounts at Arapahoe Basin, Eldora, Sunlight, Monarch, Loveland and Ski Granby Ranch.

  • Get a Gems card from Colorado Ski Country USA — it offers a discount at most of the Gems.
  • Check online, on the resort sites and Colorado Ski Country USA for ski-and-stay packages and for discounts offered with online purchases.
  • Values: Monarch Lodge near Monarch and the Delaware Hotel in Leadville; both offer ski-and-stay packages.

Gem facts

  • They’re small individually, but mighty together. The eight resorts cover more than 5,300 acres.
  • They have the cheapest lift tickets in the state.
  • Parking is free and so close you don’t need to wait for a shuttle, and you can walk back to your car for lunch if you want to tailgate.
  • They’re favorites of parents whose kids want to venture out on their own and still reunite at the base area.
  • Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re wimpy. A-Basin tops out at 13,050 feet, and features legendary steeps. Loveland also tops the 13,000-foot mark. Monarch stretches to the Continental Divide, where the view alone is worth the price of a lift ticket.

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