Glenwood Springs, Colo.

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Ski Towns 1002 Pic A

Standing on top of the Sunlight Extreme section of Sunlight Mountain Resort, I consider The Heathen, a 50-degree pitch stitched down a rocky hillside through the trees. Before dropping in, I glance behind me and catch a view of the entire horseshoe-shaped ski area. Small, old-fashioned and beautiful, it cheerfully reflects the tastes of the people who ski and board here.

Sunlight regulars are friendly, outdoorsy and unpretentious. Most of them live in Glenwood Springs, a 10-mile drive to the north. Situated 160 miles west of Denver, Glenwood perches at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, alongside bustling Interstate 70 and an active Amtrak railroad line. Two of Glenwood's closest neighbors are the larger and more fashionable resorts of Aspen, 40 miles southwest, and Vail, 60 miles east. With two such super-powers only an hour away, it says something about the quality of Sunlight and the unshowy nature of Glenwoodians that most of them prefer to ski their hometown hill.

"I love that it's not fancy," says Marianne Ackerman, a 50-year-old Glenwood realtor and third generation native who has skied at Sunlight since it opened in 1966. "It's just a hometown area. It isn't a pain to get to, and fashion isn't a statement. I see people I saw here in 1967," she pauses and laughs, "some of them wearing the same clothes. And that's great!"

The roughly 7,800 residents of Glenwood form a diverse community that has grown up around a core of longtime locals such as Ackerman. There is also a growing mix of emigrants from Latin America and the Pacific Rim who work in the service industries of Aspen/Snowmass and Vail/Beaver Creek or in typical boom-town occupations such as real estate and construction. Most have chosen to live in Glenwood because it's affordable and has a banana-belt climate even at 5,746 feet.

The town is quiet and tree-lined, with pockets of enduring Victorian architecture, as if taken straight from the genteel Midwest of the 1950s. In fact, its name was pirated from Glenwood, Iowa, by the wife of Isaac Cooper, the settler who originally named the town Defiance because of its rough-and-tumble mining camp character. Cooper hoped to turn Glenwood's abundant hot springs into a world-renowned spa. His wife, Sarah, thought a more soothing name would help and in 1885 heisted the moniker of her former hometown.

In 1887, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway came to town, and a new tourist industry was born. Since then, Glenwood has been a lot less defiant. Maybe it's the tourism, maybe it's the name, or maybe it's just the water. Locals like to say that the area's numerous natural hot springs and the special qualities they lend to local drinking water makes Glenwoodians healthier and longer-lived than the rest of us. Among outsiders trapped in slow-moving Glenwood traffic, there lurks the suspicion that the water is also soporific.

But there is no doubt that the waters have been good to Glenwood. Ute Indians were the first to take note of the restorative powers of the springs and vapor caves, both of which still sit at the eastern entrance to town. A 400-foot-long outdoor hot springs pool, purportedly the world's largest, was completed in 1888 to attract a more Continental spa clientele. The landmark, chateau-style Hotel Colorado was finished in 1893, just across the street from the hot springs. At the Yampah Vapor Caves, about 50 yards from the pool, mud wraps and facials are offered, but it's still the misty Romanesque caverns, the only natural ones in North America, that are the real draw.

In addition to nearby Aspen, smaller ski areas started cropping up around Glenwood in 1937, and skiing helped solidify the town's viability as a year-round tourist destination. I first skied Sunlight as a kid coming over from Aspen in 1968. Today, the mountain's terrain has improved significantly, but the atmosphere remains amiably unaffected: 470 acres, four lifts, zero attitude.

I' spent the day bombing fast, smooth cruisers such as Sun King, throwing in an occasional bump workout on the likes of Showdown. By the time I reach The Heathen, I'm wondering why the place is empty. The snow is great, the lift attendants cheerful and the base cafeteria serves a solid bratwurst lunch for less than $6. So where is everyone? Sunlight racked up 82,742 skier visits last season, so there are people here, but you sure don't see many.

This makes Sunlight great for visitors as well as devoted locals. I ride up with a woman from Denver who has brought her husband here to learn to ski because it's uncrowded and inexpensive. They love the "Ski, Stay and Swim" packages that include lodging, lift tickets and hot-springs admission. Plus the proximity to Aspen and Vail make it a fun place to base while enjoying lots of surrounding skiing and activities-much the way the locals do.

Jon Zalinski is the chief operating officer at the Summit Canyon Sports shop and has been in Glenwood since 1994. "I moved to this valley from Chicago for the slower pace and the quality of life," he says. He landed at Summit Canyon while teaching rock and ice climbing at the local college, and enjoys all the good climbing in the area. "But I think it's the people who really make it a nice town. The camaraderie of the community is special."

Some of that is reflected in the fact that the town doesn't spend nearly as much time squabbling about internal politics as its up-valley neighbors Carbondale and Aspen. That doesn't mean Glenwood is without problems. The town's own charms and attractions, coupled with its status as traffic corridor and bedroom community for Vail and Aspen, compounds inevitable growth issues. Commuting workers stream through town by the thousands, creating four lanes of Grand Avenue gridlock during twice-daily rush hours. A new bridge is planned to replace the one that literally quivers and groans under the weight of stalled traffic now, but (shades of Aspen!) no one can agree on where to build it.

And then there's the new Glenwood Meadows subdivision, just south of the Colorado River in West Glenwood, one of the community's most controversial ever due to concerns about sprawl and an over-burdened infrastructure. It will add 475 new residences and much needed rental apartments, plus 490,000 square feet of commercial space during the next several years. "Having that beautiful 400 acres developed at all was hard for people to accept," says Glenwood City Councilor Jean Martensen. "But the latest plan leaves 200-plus acres of open space, and the overall design is much more compatible with our small town."

In the end, all this growth has produced a robust economy. Sales tax revenues have more than doubled in the past 10 years, which in turn has kept those busy streets repaired and footed the bill for a new city hall and a big new community center with fitness facilities, climbing wall and full-size ice rink, among other features. What's more, the skiing is good, the sun shines a lot, people are nice and the waters are always warm. No one I know who lives in Glenwood wants to live anywhere else.

Local Lore
The outlaw Doc Holliday came to town in 1886 hoping that the hot springs would cure his tuberculosis. It did not, and he died here in November 1887.

Glenwood Springs, Colo. Almanac

Population 7,736

Median Price of a Single-Family Home In Town $267,550; in Garfield County, $265,000

Tax on Above Homes In town and county, the range is from 0.6 percent to 1 percent of the real value, depending on location. The average tax for a median-priced home in Glenwood and the county is $1,950.

Main Businesses Construction, tourism and retail.

School Population Elementary school, 500; middle school, 490; high school, 687.

Local Ski Area Sunlight Mountain Resort: 2,010 vertical feet; 470 skiable acres; 250 average annual inches; season pass, $295-$450; lift ticket, $32/adult, $20/children under 12 and seniors; 800-445-7931, www.sunlightmtn.com.

Best Local Event Ski Spree Winter Carnival, the last weekend of January or the first week of February.

Locals' Favorite Restaurants Great Cajun food and service at The Bayou; Los Desperados is regularly voted best Mexican food in the valley; delectable Swiss pastries and sandwiches at The Delice.

Locals' Favorite Hangouts Live music and action at the Oasis Sports Bar; uptown suds at the Glenwood Canyon Brew Pub; late night shakes at Club Cyrano.

Best Places to Stay The Hot Springs Lodge has Glenwood's nicest rooms ($129-$162 per night; 800-537-7946). The Hotel Colorado is one of the West's grand old hotels ($139 per person for four people or $206 for a double; 800-544-3998). Ask about the "Ski, Stay and Swim" packages at both of these properties. The rustic Four Mile River B&B is located between town and the slopes ($85 for a room, $120 for a cabin; 970-945-4004).

Information Chamber Resort Association: 888-445-3696, www.glenwoodsprings.net.$295-$450; lift ticket, $32/adult, $20/children under 12 and seniors; 800-445-7931, www.sunlightmtn.com.

Best Local Event Ski Spree Winter Carnival, the last weekend of January or the first week of February.

Locals' Favorite Restaurants Great Cajun food and service at The Bayou; Los Desperados is regularly voted best Mexican food in the valley; delectable Swiss pastries and sandwiches at The Delice.

Locals' Favorite Hangouts Live music and action at the Oasis Sports Bar; uptown suds at the Glenwood Canyon Brew Pub; late night shakes at Club Cyrano.

Best Places to Stay The Hot Springs Lodge has Glenwood's nicest rooms ($129-$162 per night; 800-537-7946). The Hotel Colorado is one of the West's grand old hotels ($139 per person for four people or $206 for a double; 800-544-3998). Ask about the "Ski, Stay and Swim" packages at both of these properties. The rustic Four Mile River B&B is located between town and the slopes ($85 for a room, $120 for a cabin; 970-945-4004).

Information Chamber Resort Association: 888-445-3696, www.glenwoodsprings.net.