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Copper Mountain

The rail didn't look that big from the lift. In fact, the entire terrain park looked a lot less intimidating. But now, staring down the ramp to the first feature, a flat rail, I wonder if this is such a good idea. Searching my brain for the rail-sliding tutorial I got from my 14-year-old lift companion-keep shoulders squared, shift hips sidways, balance weight on the inside of the rail and fergodssake, keep your speed!- I push off, hitting the rail straight on. I land with a thwack and crumple like a dried-up leaf into the snow. OK-no major damage. I'm ready to go again.

No matter that my intro to jibbing took place in Copper Mountain's new kiddie park (officially, the Kidz Terrain Park). With mini-rails, jumps and a pint-sized halfpipe, it's the perfect spot to dip in-if you don't mind sharing the goods with grungy freeskiers sporting 110-cm twin-tips and fleece hoodies. Truth be told, I wasn't the only non-grommet in the kiddie park. Located off the American Flyer lift, it's so accessible that more and more, er, mature skiers are giving the park a try.

Copper has been growing its freeride subculture since building one of the first parks in the country almost 15 years ago. But the mountain has always suffered from a perception that it's a day-tripper draw. Right off I-70 just 75 miles from Denver, Copper's village used to hemorrhage skiers come 4 p.m. A new village-based directive to create more ways to play, add lodging and amp up family programs is spurring change.

But when it comes to the hill, resort planners are leaving a good thing alone. With 22 lifts and 125 trails, Copper is touted for its navigable layout. Four bowls-topping out at 12,313 feet-offer mostly double-black-diamond runs. The two lifts that serve Copper Bowl, on the backside, access 600 acres of some of the toughest inbounds terrain in the Rockies, yet intermediates can play for days in the blues off the Timberline, American Eagle and Super Bee chairs.

"It's my favorite mountain," says Amy Bitale, a former Frisco, Colo., resident. "The terrain is naturally divided. You don't have any crossover between beginner and expert skiers."

The new kids terrain park is a nod to Copper's transition from day to destination resort. You can spot another on wide cruisers like Coppertone, Carefree and Scooter that abut the terrain park, where families ski together, stopping to wait up for each other in the warm sun while Third Eye Blind and Pink pound out from the speakers in the park.

"We don't feel we have to choose to be either a family mountain or a jibber's mountain," says Copper's new General Manager, Steve Paccagnan. "We have great options for everyone, and we're going to take advantage of that."

Paccagnan, in his eighth month at Copper, is testing out this new sensibility. Take the spring fete, the Sunsation Festival. Over the last three Aprils, the event has morphed from a roots-rock jam into a hormone-heavy bacchanalia of teeny-bikini contests and jib shows. This year, Sunsation changes course, swelling from one weekend to three-April 3-4, 10-11, 17-18-and reserving the middle one for families. Expect concerts, games, visits with the Easter Bunny-even an egg hunt.

Even so, a bikini contest is still on the agenda. To see why, hit the Village at Copper on a spring day: Clutches of 20-somethings chow nachos at Endo's Adrenaline Café, while kids wheedle their parents into letting them airbrush a design onto their skis or boards at Brain Bucket Tattoos. (Shouldn't have let them get so hopped up at Giggle Works, the candy shop next door.) The vibe is pure energy, and the resort is channeling the electricity to carve out a unique culture, one that balances-not segregates-skiing's varied demographic.

Hook the kids and you get the parents? That's part of the strategy, Paccagnan admits. But to keep parents coming back, you have to offer them something, too. During the last two seasons, the final coats of paint were slapped on several condo-style lodges. The units range from studios to three-bedrooms and all have kitchens, fireplaces and jacuzzi access. Last summer, the resort broke ground on The Cirque, the first truly upscale digs in the village.

Opening this month, The Cirque will up Copper's lodging ante with 37 villas in the newest base area, Union Creek. Aside from a ski school and two lifts, there's not much to Union Creek, but Paccagnan envisions a family hub. It's all part of the 10-year plan, he explains, describing the School House at Union Creek, a children's center and day lodge anchoring the base. Eventually, Union Creek will grow into a lively village with condos, shops and cafes.

Until then, the Village at Copper is the heart of the resort. On a recent evening, golden lights strung up between the cream-and-brown facades of the faux-Bavarian village lend a serenely festive feel. It's hard to believe that bikini-clad celebrants will soon flood the cobblestone alleys. But here's the beauty of Copper: If baring all in this year's contest doesn't appeal, there's another backside waiting to be ogled in Spaulding, Resolution or Copper bowls.

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