Breckenridge is a town drenched in color. Purple ski shops, yellow pubs, pink restaurants and blue houses line Main Street, lending a cheerful air to a community that's already giddy with vacationing visitors. Appropriately, that burst of color reflects the town's splashy mix of personalities and lifestyles. Breckenridge's north side, for instance, is home to The Highlands, a new 1,500-acre subdivision emerging as a second-homeowners' haven. The log- and rock-accented houses are discreetly tucked into the lodgepole pines. Just over the hill is French Creek, a working-class neighborhood that overflows with children, bicycles, dogs and neighbors who share decks, barbecues and jokes.
Jeff Bergeron-local TV talk-show host, 25-year resident and one of the town's best-known faces-thrives on that diversity. "Other resorts have a strong identity: Aspen's the rich and famous, Vail's the nouveau riche, Crested Butte is the counter-culture trustifarians," observes Bergeron. "Breckenridge has never really been pigeon-holed other than as a fertile ground for self-expression. It's all-accepting, and that attitude is transferred to our visitors. It's what makes them feel comfortable here."
Bergeron and a buddy were aiming for Utah when his friend drove his car into Breckenridge's Blue River. It was 1974. Bergeron stood on the banks of the Blue in water-logged tennis shoes, taking in the fledgling ski area, his wrecked car and a little town curiously flavored with the new flair injected by skiing enthusiasts and the old drama of rough, tough Western individuality. He never made it to Utah.
Twenty-five years later, Bergeron hosts "Biff's Big Show" and is now better known as his talk-show host alter-ego Biff America. He thinks fate propelled that car into the Blue. "This show would have lasted about 20 minutes in Utah," he says. "I've yet to find anyplace in America or Canada that has the combination of incredible skiing, opportunity for livelihood and as strong a sense of community as Breckenridge."
Founded in the mid-1800s and named after former U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge, the village was then reputed more for its saloons and red-light district than for the mountains that surround it. Skiing was a form of transportation, not recreation, and the Blue River was a resource appreciated not for its aesthetic qualities, but for the minerals harvested from its depths by massive dredge boats. Shootouts on Main Street weren't uncommon, and any shopping was done strictly for provisions.
Breckenridge has retained a large chunk of that legacy in the more than 350 town buildings listed on the National Historic Register. Locals swear some of those buildings are still haunted by the miners who once called Breckenridge home. So convinced is local Ariane Oettinger that she has never entered the restroom in The Brown Hotel for fear of running into the establishment's infamous ghost. Mrs. Whitney was shot by her lover in an upstairs bedroom of the hotel after he discovered she had ulterior motives-namely money-for sleeping with him. Locals claim she haunts the 1860s structure to this day by slamming doors and emptying water glasses and relish trays. People also report feeling unexplained cold spots inside the building.
Such lore is increasingly cherished as the pace of development accelerates.Vail Resorts, which owns Breckenridge, last year announced plans for the redevelopment of the Peak 7 and 8 base areas, a proposal that calls for two mountain villages, a variety of residential units and a gondola linking the villages to downtown. If approved, the plan would add thousands more beds to the existing 23,000.
Local excitement over expansion is tinged with trepidation: While growth has meant added revenue, it has also crowded the hills, created downtown gridlock and initiated a certain loss of innocence. Last year's introduction of Buddy Passes-a deal that enabled skiers to buy one $200 pass good at Breck, Keystone and Arapahoe Basinn-meant that Breckenridge finally surged past Vail for the coveted title of most skier visits in the U.S. The accomplishment, however, was tainted by tragedy-namely five deaths. While a couple of factors linked the five deaths-all of the victims were men skiing or boarding on uncrowded, groomed runs-a U.S. Forest Service investigation revealed no common cause. Locals, who lost two of their own during that rash of fatalities, are trying to focus now on the ski area's future, which promises to bring dramatic change.
During the past two years, improvements at Breckenridge have tallied $32 million. Most significant to the skier is the addition of two more high-speed quads, a $6 million on-mountain restaurant and this season's debut of a six-passenger, double-loading lift that speeds 4,000 skiers an hour to midway on Peak 9.
While pouring cash into on-mountain improvements isn't a rare phenomenon these days, few resorts can duplicate the variety of Breck's four-peak experience atop the Continental Divide. The top of Peak 8 alone serves up more acreage than all of nearby A-Basin. Making the most of Breckenridge's four peaks requires some insider knowledge, which seasoned ski instructors Josh Frager and David Axelrod cheerfully share. Their advice? Start your day by taking the Rocky Mountain quad to Peak 8 quad. From the top of Peak 8, go north to the T-bar for access to nearly 800 acres of above-timberline bowl skiing. Freeskiers will want to stick with Peak 9's E-Chair and North Bowl for challenging, uncrowded terrain. Bump skiers should head to Peak 8 for laps on Little Johnny's, High Anxiety and Rounders. If it's blue cruising you desire, Breck serves it up in spades. Spruce is a favorite, as is Claimjumper. Up for a bit more of a challenge? Check out Doublejack and Centennial on Peak 10 off the Falcon Superchair.
Fact is, you can ski here for days and still not cover the whole mountain. But if you have the rambling bug, there are a dozen other ski areas within two hours and three within 30 minutes. Add to that a lift ticket that provides access to the steeps of A-Basin and night skiing at Keystone, and you could hypothetically ski 9,000 combined acres for 12 1/2 hours a day. But then you wouldn't have time to explore the town's many charms.