(I hope someone finds this useful... Before we went, I wasn't able to find any info on the place other than that it was a nice "locals" type of ski area... I'm glad we took the gamble!)
I'll spare you all the gory details of our days at Beaver Creek and Vail... Well, that's not entirely true... Here's my advice - if you're at Vail, bust your buns to get to Blue Sky Basin as early as possible, and you won't be sorry. We got to run laps in the China Bowl while we were waiting for Blue Sky to open and literally had the place to ourselves for a while (on a Wednesday morning), and got to ride behind the groomers on the freshest of fresh corderoy. Then, when we were bored with that, Blue Sky was ready for us. It's a ton of fun. We skied in Blue Sky Basin all three days at Vail, and probably spent a total of less than 30 minutes in lift lines the whole time we were back there (Chair 11 is an entirely different story). Get there, get there early, and get out when it gets busy.
With that out of the way, I figured I'd get on to the actual "important" trip report: Loveland Ski Area. I've got a real soft spot for the smaller ski hills (although at a base elevation of 10,600 ft, and a vertical of over 2400 ft, I don't know if Loveland really counts as "little"!), and since it seems that nobody writes TR's on the smaller areas, I figured I'd step up.
We left our rented townhouse in Vail (rented through vrbo.com, and I can't recommend that method highly enough) on Saturday morning to ski Loveland on the way back to Denver, figuring that it would help us avoid the weekend throng at Vail, and let us have a shorter drive back after we were done. It was snowing when we left Vail, which made it hard to leave, but we had a plan, and were going to stick to it.
When we got to Loveland, we got one member of our party set up with rental skis (the shop was MOBBED by 10 o'clock... Luckily, we were there at 9:20), and went to wait for him in the lodge. While we were there, we grabbed a quick breakfast, and got our first taste of what was in front of us. The breakfast sandwich I had was of the standard ham/egg/cheese variety, and set me back about $5. Not bad, by skiing prices. It was tasty enough, but more importantly, was getting me set for a hard day of skiing.
Appropriately fed, we set out on the first chair ride of the day. There was NO line at all (around 9:45 at this point - chairs had been running for over an hour, but we couldn't get out of Vail in time to catch first chair). It had been spitting snow a bit, but it was really starting to pick up. Having heard the horror stories of the wind at Loveland, I was glad to have my mask with me, but the wind wasn't as bad as I'd expected. It was definitely cold, though, so the mask stayed on...
The view from the top was, initially, uninspiring. It was snowing so hard we could barely see!
We decided to persevere, though, and quickly realized that the snow was in fantastic shape. They claimed to have groomed a few of the trails, but it wasn't the type of grooming we'd seen the previous few days at Vail. Instead, it was more like "making sure that there were no logs on the runs" grooming. Coupled with the snow that was falling all day, it meant a little more work was needed to ski it, but it was also a bit more fun.
The most striking thing about Loveland is the rather lunar-like atmosphere once you're above treeline. The snow was scoured off in some places, and you could see grass poking through the snow. The runs above treeline aren't so much "trails" as "general guesses at direction through the bowl" which gave it a rather barren, desolate feel. We actually only skied off of chair 4 once, and found that we were enjoying the stuff below treeline a lot more.
There are no high-speed lifts of any kind at Loveland. We rode mostly the double chair (chair 6), but 1 and 2 are triples.
The runs below treeline tended to be nice and wide, but not of the "interstate freeway" feel that I get at some of the local areas. The trees are skiable on either side of the trail, and I actually became much more confident with following tracks into the trees while we were skiing Blue Sky at Vail. That came in handy again at Loveland!
Speaking of interstate, Loveland actually straddles I-70 right at the Eisenhower Tunnel. We never bothered to go over to the other side of the interstate, but it was still weird to see that as you're headed up and down the hill.
I should mention that Loveland technically has two ski areas - Loveland Basin and Loveland Valley. The Valley is a beginner/intermediate area that is a little bit down the road from the Basin. We were at the Basin, and didn't make the trip to the valley, which only has blue and green runs (we only skied blue and green, but didn't feel like we needed to make the trip). There's a shuttle bus that runs between the two sub-areas, and it looks like there is a chairlift that used to make the connection, but doesn't run anymore.
We really only skied about 12-15 of the runs, but did them over and over and over again, because we were having so much fun. It was a little weird after having skied at Vail for several days, and having had a good sense of the layout of the mountain, to try to learn Loveland so quickly. Thanks to the weird visibility (snow) and the layout there, we were sort of lost at first, but eventually got it straightened out.
The snow was off and on all day, and bright blue skies filled the spaces in between showers. It seemed like we could literally go from total sunshine to near-whiteout conditions within minutes.
One thing that I saw there that I'd never encountered before, is that they have 2 lifts that "intersect". Chair 6 runs under Chair 2, which is a little freaky.
(and look down past our skis to see the cable for the chair below us)
It was funny - we stopped quickly for a snack at around 1:30, and instead of using the ski racks that were in front of the lodge area, people just left their skis and poles on the snow, apparently secure that nobody would try to take them. It was like a mini-ski parking lot. So, we figured, when in Rome...
Chair 1 serves some really nice blue runs, and some of the blacks on the south side of I-70. I thought we'd get up the nerve to try one of them, but we didn't... Too many bumps! Even the blue runs off of that chair were bumped up by the end of the day, but they were fun, and not scary. The way we watched people crush the bumps under the chair was a little intimidating - there were some REALLY good skiers there that day!
We skied until they shut down the lifts at 4, and never waited in line at all. Then, we headed to the Rathskellar for a few tasty beverages (For those of you interested in such things, I had Tommyknocker's Cocoa Porter, and Boulder's Hazed and Infused, while my comrades drank Dale's Pale Ale).
Loveland was a great place to ski for a day, and I think it's a place I could ski for at least a few days in a row without getting bored. The skiers seemed to be very good, and they've really got a little of everything in terms of terrain. They've got nice easy greens, fun blue runs that get bumped up, steep, bumpy blacks, and some really scary double-blacks from the top that made me cry a little inside to watch people ski them. While we were there, some people were hiking up even further than the lift would take them, and we saw a few scary tumbles when they dropped in. I don't know that I'll need to seek that level of risk for a long, long time.
Overall, I'd recommend Loveland to anyone looking for a great day of skiing, without all (or any!) of the extra stuff (hotels, shops, etc) that you'd find at a resort. It's a ski area, and nothing else. For $54 for a lift ticket ($46 if you buy it at King Sooper's, but their ticketing machine was broken the day we were there), you get way more bang for your buck than at the bigger, glitzier places.
I'd go back in a heartbeat, and since it's less than an hour outside of Denver, it's a great on-the-way type of stop. I only wish I'd gotten to try their BBQ stand while we were there...