It was 65 degrees and sunny when I arrived in Breckenridge, Colo., on a Sunday in late March, and I was fully prepared for a week of spring skiing through slushy snow.
But instead, by Monday morning I was up to my knees in fresh powder. It would snow 31 inches during the rest of the week, making even the most experienced skiers giddy over the conditions.
"You don't understand," several of them said to me. "It doesn't get any better than this."
I was lucky to catch some of the best conditions of the season, but my chances were pretty good.
Breck, as anyone who has ever been here seems to call it, is a former mining town two hours from Denver that sits 9,600 feet above sea level.
The local ski resort of the same name averages 300 inches of snowfall per year, so even when the region is suffering from poor snow, Breck is known to have a dependable cover throughout the winter.
That is one of the many reasons why Breckenridge jockeys with Vail, its sister resort 35 minutes away, to be the most visited ski area in North America.
During the 2008-2009 season, 1.53 million people skied or snowboarded at Breck, compared with the 1.62 million who went to Vail. Vail won last year, Breck the year before -- but Vail has more than twice the skiable terrain that Breck does.
Breck's popularity is a result of many attributes. Its proximity to Denver means that locals can come up for a day or weekend of skiing. And the resort's 2,358 acres of skiable terrain is very evenly divided so that skiers and snowboarders of all levels can spend a day here.
As one of the first resorts to open up its trails to snowboarders 20 years ago, Breck has also maintained a reputation not only for being snowboard-friendly but for staying ahead of the curve with innovation in its five terrain parks.
And as many skiers will say, the more terrain parks for snowboarders, the more open ski area for skiers -- and perhaps the snowboarders are saying just the opposite.
A victim of its own success, Breck does have a reputation for drawing crowds. And it did, on certain parts of the mountain and at certain times of the day.
But Breck is big enough that for the most part, people spread out over the mountain's four peaks.
During the midweek portion of my trip, many trails and bowls were uncrowded, and even by late morning, there were wide swaths of fresh powder yet to be carved.
The major base areas tended to have more lines, especially around lunch and closer to the weekend. And on that week, many locals came out because the ski conditions were so good.
But the locals will often say that once you know the mountain, you know which trails -- some on the resort map and some off -- are not very busy.
For me and my friends, that was the Ore Bucket, where on totally unmarked trails we found waist-deep powder that was still very accessible to people like me, just learning to ski comfortably in such conditions.
Breck is known for being an intermediate mountain, but in fact 35% of its trails are expert, and half of the expert trails are double black diamond, the highest difficulty level. And when the mountain opened the Imperial Express SuperChair four years ago, the highest lift in North America, it opened hundreds of acres of advanced terrain (double black diamond) that was formerly reachable only by taking a somewhat treacherous T-bar ride (at least for this solidly blue, intermediate skier), and then hiking with the skis on for a half-hour.
The new lift gives access to some of the best bowls on the mountain from its drop-off point just 2 feet shy of 13,000 feet.
From there, skiers can find expert areas like "the Chutes," which even my Australian ski instructor said gave him "the flutters."
The new lift is part of the resort's renaissance plan, a multiyear revitalization and expansion program that kicked off with the opening of the BreckConnect gondola in 2007, which brings snowboarders and skiers from a parking lot in town to the bases at Peak 8 and Peak 7 in just 10 minutes.
Peak 7, Breck's first new base area since 1971, opened last year along with the new Sevens restaurant, the first wait-service restaurant on the resort's slopes. We were partial to the noodle bowl soups and wood-fired pizzas.
For those who don't want to lose time on the slope, Sevens has a takeout window serving burgers and the like and an outdoor seating area that was a prime spot to bask in the sun while enjoying a locally brewed beer between runs.
But on a "bluebird powder day," meaning sunny skies and powder ski conditions (not uncommon, since Breck gets 300 days of sunshine per year -- bring plenty of sunblock), get there early if you want an outdoor seat.
Part of the resort's renaissance program also includes new lodging areas at both Peak 7 and Peak 8. For more information, visit www.breckenridge.com.
As good as the skiing here is, Breckenridge the town, which is celebrating its 150th birthday, boasts a rich mining history and is worth exploring on its own merits.
The town has a year-round population of 5,000. During peak season, the town swells to about 20,000, which supports a healthy apres-ski nightlife and fills the town's 80 bars and restaurants.
By day, visitors wander through the plethora of ski and snowboard gear stores, art galleries and souvenir shops, and warm up in one of several cozy cafes.
Where to eat
There are only three major chains in Breck, meaning the restaurants, cafes and bars here are run by locals.
Relish: Breck has many great restaurants serving local, organic fare. Relish features Colorado-inspired cooking, such as venison and local lamb, and a menu that changes depending on what's fresh. It is run by a husband-and-wife team.
Columbine Cafe: This casual diner offers a hearty breakfast and uber-friendly service.
Kava Cafe: This new place serves made-to-order, hot mini donuts. Enough said.
Where to drink
The Gold Pan Saloon: This establishment has the oldest continually used liquor license west of the Mississippi. A local favorite, it conjures the feeling of the Wild West with swinging saloon doors and no-frills interior.
The Dredge: A bar and restaurant built in a 1,000-ton floating replica of one of the largest and longest-operating dredges in Breckenridge.
Where to stay
As a group of four, we experienced two levels of accommodations in Breckenridge, both run by ResortQuest.
The midlevel Ski Hill Road condo we shared, built in 1981, was cozy and spacious, with a wood-burning fireplace and a dining area and kitchen, and felt like staying in someone's home. It was not a far walk from the BreckConnect, but not being very experienced at walking in ski boots, we often opted for the free shuttles to the mountain.
The newly built, luxury BlueSky Condos were recently built with upscale finishes and furnishings. It also has a full kitchen and dining area, as well as a cozy living area with a gas fireplace. BlueSky is a true ski in/ski out resort, with the Breckenridge resort's Snowflake Lift steps from the entrance. And the BlueSky's outdoor pool and hot tubs offer views of the town of Breck and the Rocky Mountains, not a bad way to end a long day on the mountain.
Both properties can be found at www.resortquestbreckenridge.com.