Snowtubing, Camelback Mountain Resort

Snowtubing, Camelback Mountain Resort

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Can you keep a secret?

“We only tell our nearest and dearest friends,” laughs Denverite Amanda Arguello, mom of two, ages 6 and 4.

She’s talking about Ski Cooper, a small — and inexpensive — snow resort just outside Leadville, Colorado, and a half-hour from Vail and other major Colorado resorts. But a family of four can ski here for less than one person’s $180 ticket at Vail.

Just as important to parents of young kids, Cooper might have just 1,000 skiers on a busy weekend day on its 39 trails, a fraction of what there might be at far larger Vail, said Patrick Torsell, the mountain’s marketing director.

“It feels safe … no one can get lost,” said Brian Safigan, who drove two and a half hours with his 10-year-old son to get here. “The kids love it, and it’s a great value.”

“You get in more runs because there aren’t any lift lines,” added Serge Franucci, who had driven two hours from Bailey, Colorado, with his two kids.

The resort, which never has to make snow because it is so high (the base is 10,500 feet) boasts the longest “magic carpet” in the state — 800 feet — that tows beginners up a very gentle learning slope.

“Everyone is really nice and kids learn a lot more because the groups are smaller,” said Heather Ford, whose 14-year-old participates in one of the mountain’s popular kids’ racing programs. “You get a much better experience.”

Then there is the history. This is where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II. After the war, the ski area was taken over by Lake County, which still oversees it as a nonprofit. (Read my travel diary to learn more and about Leadville, the highest town in the country.)

Family snowboarding time, Homewood Mountain Resort

Family snowboarding time, Homewood Mountain Resort

Certainly there are ways to save money on trips to the snow — most notably an hour from Ski Cooper at Keystone Resort, celebrating its fifth year of the most expansive kids-free program and complimentary off-the-slopes activities in the industry. (More in an upcoming column!)

But many families, it seems, want not only to save money but a kinder, gentler experience, “like when we were kids,” Arguello said, looking around the base lodge with families eating their brown bag lunches.

She explained that though she and her husband, Cazes Martin, actually have a place in Vail, a 30-minute drive away, they’ve opted for enrolling 6-year-old Finley in ski school here for the season. “We love how relaxing it is,” she explained.

There is no charge for parking, there’s no jockeying for seats in the lodge and, she explained, “We are in the mindset of families that are doing this for fun as compared to being really aggressive, thinking they are raising future Olympians.”

Check out our Fun in the Snow section for more ideas. There are other hidden gems elsewhere in Colorado and around the country for snow-loving families, suited especially for those with young kids and families just learning. Here are five good bets:

BOLTON VALLEY, Vermont, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is where northern Vermonters learn to ski and is locally owned with all-access lift tickets that give you access to the lifts, Nordic and backcountry terrain, as well as the sports center with pool, hot tub, sauna and kids’ games. Ski for under $20 starting at 4 p.m. until 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; ski for $19.66 on non-peak Mondays.

BRIGHTON RESORT in Utah averages 500 inches of snow and boasts 1,050 acres of terrain, accessible by high-speed chairlifts and the most night-skiing terrain in Utah. This is where many Utah kids learn to ski, since two kids, 10 and under, are free per paying adult, while an additional child is $20 and adults ski for under $70. (The cost at other major Utah resorts is nearly double for adults and more than $80 for kids.) There are free s’mores many Friday nights!

HOMEWOOD MOUNTAIN RESORT, one of California’s first winter recreation resorts with 126 skiable acres, is an award winner for environmental leadership and offers fantastic views of Lake Tahoe from the slopes. Tahoe is celebrating record snowfall so far this winter and Homewood Mountain touts lift ticket three-packs as low as $66, as long as they’re purchased in advance, and a $59 fee for first-time adults learning to ski or snowboard that includes a half-day lesson, rental equipment and lift ticket on beginner terrain. Kids lift tickets (and for those 70 and over) start at just $21; for teens $36, less than the cost of lunch at most major resorts.

SUNLIGHT MOUNTAIN in Colorado is close to Glenwood Hot Springs, the world’s largest hot springs, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary. If you are looking for an old-school snow resort, this is the place with hundreds of acres of mild greens, intermediate slopes and black-diamond extremes. Kids five and under ski free, kids up to 12 are $45 and adults $63. There are less-expensive packages also, including the ski, swim and stay packages, which lets kids 12 and under ski free.

CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains has the largest tubing park in the country (42 lanes), night-skiing and riding and the most terrain in the area. There is an alpine coaster and zip line. Most important, lift tickets are $53 for adults, $45 for kids and free for seniors, 70 and over.

Don’t forget your helmets!