As most gravity-obsessed winter-lovers already know, the white stuff has already started falling, forming solid bases throughout the West, particularly in Colorado and parts of Canadaand it's only November. By early December, most mountain resorts will be emanating a glorious white glow, pulling diehard powder hounds like a siren's song. And since the resorts will be undoubtedly packed with skiers and snowboarders by late December as the holidays come upon us, here are a few places to catch some of the best snow ahead of those yuletide crowds.
When a town trademarks its snow, there's probably a good reason. Take Steamboat, Colorado, whose famed "champagne powder" was coined by a rancher in the 1950s. This vintage bubbly is a special mix that's both drywith only 30% of the moisture of average snowand impossibly fluffy. And with an average snowfall of 331 inches per season, there's plenty to get find, even in the pre-season (and they're off to a good start, with a 20-inch base predicted by Thanksgiving). Located in northwest Colorado, Steamboat encompasses a complete mountain range with six peaks, 2,965 acres of skiable terrain, and glade and groomed trails for all
And sometimes the name says it all. Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, was picked by readers of Ski magazine as having the best snow in 2007so if it's dumping there come late November, you're good to go. Located just 55 miles north of Salt Lake International Airport, the resort has 5,500 skiable acresthe most of any U.S. ski resortand receives an average of a whopping 500 inches of snow per year. And this is the real stuffno snow machines here. Snowfall aside, Powder Mountain (or "PowMow" if you're in the know) is one of the West's best-kept secrets, without the megaresort glitz or crowds of other resorts. Hitch a ride on the back of a snowcat and get towed to the top of Lightning Ridge, where you'll have 700 acres of backcountry and 2,100 feet of vertical at your ski tips. Carve fresh tracks in the backcountry snow at James Peak (9,422 feet) and the adjacent powder bowls, accessible by a 20- to 30-minute hike from the ridge. For those looking to perfect a frontside 360, two terrain parksSundown and Hidden Lakeoffer a half pipe, rails, and table tops for 'boarders. Or, for the more advanced thrill-seeker, take advantage of Powder Mountain's heli-skiing options. Diamond Peak Heli-Ski Adventures bases their operations from PowMow and offers a one-ride heli-ski combo special for $150 that includes one heli-ski run to Paradise Liftapproximately 3,000 vertical feetand one full-day pass at the resort. If you know you're going to dig it, try their six-run package for $750, which brings you to 18,000 feet and includes lunch at the top of the mountain.
But for the best and earliest snowfall of the season, head north to Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia. Consistently ranked as the top spot in North America, this Canadian mega-resort lies just two hours north of Vancouver and five hours from Seattle. By now, Whistler-Blackcomb has received well over 20 inches of snow on its upper slopes, but by early December the snowpack should hopefully cover a total of 8,171 acres between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Last year's snowfall measured over 46 feet, the second highest snowfall on record at the resort. With this amount of snow (and terrain), skiers and snowboarders should stay at least a few days to explore the 200-plus trails, 12 bowls, five terrain parks, and vertical rise of one mile, all accessible by 38 lifts. Last December marked the opening of the Symphony Express, a high-speed quad that allows access to above tree line skiing from Flute Bowl to the peak of Piccolo on Whistler Mountain, an area otherwise known as Symphony Amphitheatre. Along with vast bowls and bottomless snow, the area has over 1,000 acres of skiable terrain for both intermediates and expertsand if the Peak-to-Peak lift opens as scheduled this season, you'll be able to travel between the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, a project that has generated some criticism for its "garish" intrusion to the scenic horizon, but a move that'll surely be embraced by most ski enthusiasts. Whistler also hosts the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic games, bringing another slew of developments, including the widening of the road from the resort to Vancouver from two lanes to four. Whistler definitely gets more than its fair share of hype, but ski the mountain once and you'll understand why.
Amy A. Clark
Want to read more about the resorts listed above, or widen your pool of options. Check out our Ski and Snowboard Resort Guide.