After 40 years on the slopes, Barbara and Stan Olson could handle most any mountain. But each ski season, they still head back to the same small place where they started and where their children and grandchildren learned, frequently bringing the grandchildren and a dozen young friends with them.
"We've met some of our best friends skiing at Yosemite," says Mrs. Olson. Given the chance, the Olsons, who live in Brea, Calif., will talk for hours about the joys of skiing Badger Pass at Yosemite Park, California's oldest operating ski area.
It's admittedly not like skiing Aspen or Deer Valley in Utah. Badger Pass has just nine runs and is 45 minutes from the nearest lodging (there's a free shuttle bus). But as do other smaller areas around the country, like SilverCreek in Colorado, Red River or Angel Fire in New Mexico, or Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, it's got a lot to offer budget-minded families looking to introduce the kids to skiing.
Certainly it will be cheaper. And because the smaller ski resorts are anxious to court the family market, they frequently have packages that offer families good value and service.
Smuggler's Notch, for example, has just 233 skiable acres, less than half of its more well-known Vermont neighbor, Stowe Mountain Resort. Yet it has consistently won awards from the likes of Snow Country Magazine and Family Circle for the quality of its children's programs. Even better, it offers packages that are bona fide bargains. For example, a child can ski for five days in ski camp, get lunch, lessons, rental equipment, dinners at the Village Restaurant when dining with his or her parents, all for $179. The resort even throws in one evening's activity so parents get a night out. (Call  451-8752 to get a free "Guide to Planning the Perfect Winter Vacation.")
Colorado's SilverCreek, which bills itself as "the smallest true destination ski resort in America" with just four lifts and 25 trails, enables mom, dad and two kids aged 6-12 to buy a daily lift ticket at the Granby resort for $74 (kids 5 and under ski free). That's less than half what a day's skiing would cost the same family at Vail. (For more information, call  448-9458.)
Yosemite touts its midweek packages. For $100 a day, a family of four will get lifts and two lessons. The kids' ski rentals are free, as is baby-sitting for the preschool set. Even the regular lift prices are a bargain: $11.75 for kids and $26 for adults. It costs close to $50 a day for a child's lifts, equipment and lessons at many of the major ski resorts. Child care can be even more.
At New Mexico's Red River Resort, with 57 trails and 235 skiable acres, one child may stay and ski free for each paying parent who stays a minimum three nights and buys at least a three-day lift ticket. Only the two weeks of Christmas are blacked out. (For more information, call  331-SNOW.)
"At a larger area, the kids get on the wrong lift and you won't see them all day," says Red River General Manager Drew Judycki. Classes may be bigger, lift lines longer and the crush of people greater.
"It was easier to keep track of the kids at a smaller place," acknowledges Carole Sandner, who lives in suburban Chicago and recently spent a week skiing with her husband and six kids at Angel Fire in New Mexico. "Everything was easier because it was smaller."
That's not to say you can't have a wonderful time at one of the major resorts -- they're all working hard to cater to families, too -- or find one you can afford. Consider that half of Utah's ski areas charge less than $30 for an adult's full-day lift ticket and even less for kids. (Call  SKI UTAH for a vacation planner.)
But you may not need to be at a big place, especially if your kids are small or just learning to ski. Remember that 60 percent of first-time skiers learn at small resorts, according to the National Skier Opinion Survey.
Consider someplace close to home to try skiing. In the Midwest, Michigan's Nubs Nob offers a free 10-acre beginner slope and various kids-ski-free deals all season (call  SKI-NUBS).
The kids aren't going to miss the night life of a major ski resort; and neither will you after a day of skiing with them. If you're anything like me, you'll probably conk out as soon as they do.
Nor will they miss having the choice of umpteen runs. Observes Chuck Carter, assistant director of Yosemite's Badger Pass Ski School: "It doesn't take too much of a mountain to look big to kids."
Robb Yarger would agree. The 23-year-old accountant grew up in Vermont, mostly skiing smaller areas like Bolton Valley.
"You don't worry about getting lost at a smaller place," he says. And once they found a run they liked, he and his friends frequently would ski it over and over. "Every run is different for kids."
The same kind of excitement can hold for parents, too, when they're skiing with kids just learning. Each time we ski, I try to encourage my husband to head off to the expert areas. But usually he's having too much fun skiing intermediate trails with the kids.
Even if you're a terrific skier, you can have a wonderful time making turns down a gentle hill with your 5-year-old or hitting every mogul you can find with your 10-year-old daredevil.
Says Barbara Olson, still skiing hard at age 65: "You make your own challenges."