VAIL, Colo. -- This is America's gentle giant of ski resorts, a colossus whose mountain and reputation are dwarfed only by its ambience and amenities.
For the second straight year, polls of skiers and skiing professionals conducted by Snow Country and SKI magazines placed Vail at the pinnacle.
It is the biggest single mountain skiing complex in the country. It doesn't have the greatest vertical drop (Jackson Hole does), but its 3,250 feet provide plenty of thrills. And if it isn't the most expensive, it ranks right up there.
What is behind the mystique of Vail? And can the average skier survive when he is confronted by all the glitz, daunting ski runs and mega-prices?
The answers can be found in those magazine surveys. Skiers put Vail in the top 10 in nearly every category, from the quality and amount of terrain and snow to food and apres ski, from ski school to accessibility.
Vail recognized shortly after its founding in 1962 that it couldn't become the top U.S. ski resort with just a big mountain with a lot of snow. So Vail Associates has gone out of its way to provide diversity for the skiers along with plenty of options for non-skiers.
The founders created the resort in the image of a Tyrolean village, complete with gingerbread trim on most of the lodges and restaurants. And they outlawed private cars within the resort. Through the years they have added such touches as ski classes for young children and a bobsled run for skiers who want to try something really different.
The small village has grown into a major resort with 25,000 beds (plus 4,300 more in the Beaver Creek area), ranging from bed-and-breakfasts to luxury hotels and condominiums.
But Vail's appeal begins with the mountain, 3,787 acres of skiable terrain. When combined with the 800 acres of its sister mountain Beaver Creek, the Vail complex offers 1,000 more acres of skiing than the four mountains in Aspen combined.
Vail Mountain holds plenty of appeal for all levels of skiers. The mountain's 120 trails are rated 32 percent beginner, 36 percent intermediate and 32 percent advanced.
Beginners will find plenty to keep them busy on trails like Flapjack, Ramshorn and the Meadows. All are gentle, wide slopes that anyone but a first-timer can enjoy. And they are at the top of the mountain, so beginners can feel they really are skiing.
Runs such as Cappuccino, Avanti, Ledges and Showboat offer the average skier a day filled with pleasant cruising on mostly well-groomed slopes. But these runs have some steeper pitches, and the moguls sometimes build up before the snow tractors can groom them.
For the serious skier, runs such as Blue Ox, Prima, Highline and Riva Glade beckon, steep and ungroomed, challenging technique and stamina.
No other resort has anything to compare with Vail's back bowls. Ah, the bowls. More than 2,500 acres of snow where a skier can cut his own trail and, if he is lucky with the snow, turn dreams into reality.
After a major storm Vail's bowls echo with the laughter and shouts of skiers plunging into 2 or 3 feet of powder lighter than goose down.
Vail has 21 lifts, including six high-speed chairs and a gondola, with an uphill capacity of more than 35,000 skiers an hour. That means a skier spends more time schussing and less time standing in lift lines.
It also means the average skier will make more runs in less time. So don't push too hard, especially in the first days of the trip. The altitude and the fast lifts make it easy to exhaust yourself.
The abundance of terrain and the lift capacity also bring out more than Vail's share of "hot dog" skiers. These skiers, lured by the bowls and other expert terrain, sometimes find the front of the mountain a bit tame and can create a hazard at the intersections of some runs.
A skier sometimes needs a rear-view mirror to feel completely safe around MidVail. The bases of the No. 3 and 4 lifts are nearby, as is MidVail Restaurant. Try to avoid the area from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., when the hordes descend on the restaurant.
A more cautious skier can find less congested skiing on the Lion's Head portion of the mountain. Because it has fewer steep or moguled runs, the experts tend to stay away.
If a skier really wants to get away from the crowds and the hot dogs, he can spend the day at Beaver Creek -- the lift tickets are interchangeable -- just 10 miles down the Eagle River Valley.
Beaver Creek is much more than Vail's little brother. It is a recreational skier's delight, a mountain with more than 3,300 vertical feet of skiing and only a few runs that would truly challenge an expert. And most of that expert terrain is off the Westfall lift. So if you want to avoid it, just don't take that lift.