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Distinguished Denver

Oddly enough, Denver's rush hour is often worst on Saturday mornings, when skiers scurry to get organized for a day in the mountains.

In Lower Downtown (a.k.a. LoDo), Union Station bustles with families and groups of friends loading ski gear onto The Ski Train for the scenic 67-mile ride up to Winter Park, the biggest (2,886-acre) city-owned resort in America. Local coffee and bagel shops teem with a steady stream of customers in Patagonia fleece and Gore-Tex jackets who are picking up road food for the trip up I-70 into the mountains.

Skiing tops the roster of favorite winter activities for Denverites. Last season, the ski areas within an easy two-hour drive of the city did about 7 million skier visits; that includes Arapahoe Basin, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Loveland and Vail. The proximity to the mountains, a thriving job market and more than 300 days of sunshine a year combine to make Denver an idyllic place to live and raise a family. "It offers such a good quality of life and an easier lifestyle," says Tracey Schneider, a consumer marketing manager at Qwest, one of the city's largest employers, who moved here from Washington, D.C. "You work hard, but you're done by 5 p.m. We wanted to have a life outside of work and found we couldn't really do that on the East Coast. D.C. has everything-hiking, biking, trails-and is great, but you have to drive many hours before you can do it. Here, in 30 minutes I can be hiking in the foothills."

Like Schneider, the majority of Denverites are employed in the telecommunications industry, though high-tech is coming on strong with the recent addition of Sun Microsystems and Lucent Technologies. Denver's economy is booming, with average annual salaries at $37,670 and the unemployment rate at a low of 3.1 percent. Housing hasn't yet reached the astronomical heights of other major cities: The median price of a single-family home in June 2000 was $196,950-and that number is steadily increasing, so if you're thinking of moving here, you better do it fast.

You'll be glad you did when you don't find yourself working too many 15-hour days. People here are smart-this is after all the most highly educated city in America. The civic motto? Work hard to play hard. And contrary to once-popular opinion, Denver is no "Cowtown." During the past 10 years, the Mile High City has boomed into a cosmopolitan metropolis, thanks in large part to the addition of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Before Coors Field opened in 1995, Lower Downtown was an area that had long been forgotten. Now LoDo is transformed: Abandoned warehouses have been converted into upscale lofts and high-end art galleries; restaurants and sports bars line the busy streets.

Sports and recreation are the real driving forces in this greater metro area of 2.3 million people. And the places to play are infinite. Denver has 205 parks within city limits, and more than 450 miles of paved bikepaths stretch through downtown along Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Every evening, trails are jammed with runners, cyclists and inline skaters.

On weekends, the action shifts to the mountains, where more than 10 percent of Denver residents own vacation homes or timeshares. "I don't consider it winter until we've been up to the mountains," says Schneider, who estimates she, her husband and their young son, Isaac, make it up to the high country every three weeks or so. "I can't wait to take Isaac hiking and snowshoeing and skiing. Those are the things we can raise him to really appreciate."

During the past two years, those activities have become even more accessible to the masses, thanks to a major season-pass price war. For about $300, you can ski all season at a number of the nation's top resorts.

The one downside to the high percentage of snowsports lovers is that getting to and from the mountains can be a hassle. The drive along the I-70 corridor, which once took just an hour and 15 minutes, can nnow take upward of three hours if you don't plan ahead. Savvy skiers leave Denver early on Friday afternoons and return late Sunday night or first thing Monday morning. Then again, if you don't feel like dealing with traffic at all, you can just hop on the train. Top that for skier-friendly!

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