The Rockies--Snow Like It Ought To Be

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

The Rockies--Snow Like It Ought To Be

Never mind the glitterati and the wannabes--the perfectly fluffed white stuff will keep you coming back
By Peter Shelton

The high, curved spine of the Rockies cradles some of the biggest names in American skiing. Resorts with panache to rival Hollywood. Resorts haunted by the ghosts of ski legends. Resorts that sparkle with gemütlichkeit. But the thing that will keep you coming back time after time is the snow. The highest elevations on the continent ensure that the snow stays cold and soft. Long distances from the Pacific mean the snow is dry--melt a quart of it, and you'll get a sip. Together these qualities add up to a silky surface under your skis, a whisper-quiet ease that makes everyone a better skier. Here is a subjective list of the Rockies' best: ski resorts with amenities and verve that also happen, more often than not, to be blanketed with the stuff of heroes.

Taos, New Mexico

The Big Picture: Taos embraces its many dichotomies--frequent, deep snowstorms at the edge of a southwestern desert; a Eurostyle chalet village in a land of pueblo-dwellers; radically steep terrain combined with one of the very best learn-to-ski programs in the country. Taos is also a throwback: People return year after year to stay at the same slopeside lodge where their host at dinner may well be their ski instructor. Others lodge in the elegant adobes of old Taos and commute the 18 miles up-canyon to the Ski Valley. The place gives in grudgingly to modernity. Snowboards are not allowed. The lifts are upgraded when Mickey Blake, son of founder Ernie, has the cash. Real estate and lifestyle are not factors. Real, unvarnished, life-changing skiing is the only thing they're selling.

Unsung Runs: Good skiers come to walk the ridges. The farther out you go, the wilder and softer the snow. Where close-in runs like Juarez are almost permanently bumped up, a trip out West Basin Ridge to Wonder Bowl--or east on Highline Ridge all the way to Corner Chute--will often reward with deep, slow-motion powder.

R&R: Taos is one of the Rockies' mountain monasteries, a place where "après-ski" is French for "go to sleep." Even most of the best hotels don't have televisions. Eating well is a tradition here. For lunch, try Rhoda's deck, which combines traditional northern New Mexican fare with a good view of the human comedy bumping down Al's Run. For dinner, nothing beats the Hotel St. Bernard; ski school technical director Jean Mayer just might serve up his lamb Provençal. After dark, check out the jazz at the Thunderbird Lodge. If you're there on January 1, catch the Turtle Dance down at Taos Pueblo.

Where to Bunk: In the Ski Valley, the Hotel St. Bernard ($1,350 per person per week; 505-776-2251) still offers the classic, all-inclusive ski week. So does the Hotel Edelweiss next door (packages, $1,430 per person; doubles, $130-$165; 505-776-2301). For the financially challenged, there's the dormitory-style Abominable Snowmansion (beds, $22, including a hearty breakfast; 505-776-8298) in the town of Arroyo Seco, halfway between Taos and the ski area.

Local Wisdom: Take a lesson, even if you don't think you need one. The ski instructors here love teaching and will up the level of your game.

Taos Stats:
Elevation: 11,819 feet
Vertical: 2,612 feet
Average annual snowfall: 320 inches
Trails: 51 percent advanced, 25 percent intermediate, 24 percent beginner
Lifts: Ten fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $38
Information: 505-776-2291
Reservations: 800-776-1111

Mount Crested Butte, Colorado

The Big Picture: The Butte is fiercely proud of its dirtbag, free-heel, fat-tire, dog-and-pickup heritage. But the modern, soulless mountain village, three miles away at the base of the lifts, has invited a typical Rockies boomtown schizophrenia: Fierce no-growth sentiments clash head-on with the yuppie need to own a piece of all this beauty. The constant is the mountain, which rewards expert skiers with the best chute-strewn, rock-and-avalanche-prone terrain in the state. You could get in big trouble here--a rare thing in lift-served, litigious Colorado. Texans love the cruising in Paradise Bowl. A local bumper sticker once complained, "If God had wanted Texans to ski, he would have given them mountains." The next year, a Caddy with Lone Star plates sported a reply: "If God had wanted Coloradans to ski, he would have given them money."

Unsung Runs: Everybody runs to the Paradise quad lift early in the morning, leaving the Teocalli and East River chairs almost empty. The lifts may be slow, but the trails, including the sweet glades of Double Top and the sunny sweep of Bushwacker, will be nearly untracked.

R&R: Try the First Tracks Breakfast at the Paradise warming hut (the Keystone lift opens at 8 A.M. for folks with reservations; call 800-544-8448). Rafters, at the top of the Gothic Building in the base area, is the rockin' happy-hour place, but you'll want to motor the three miles to downtown for most dining and drinking. Look in the alley behind Elk Avenue for Soupçon, a tiny log building with the best continental cuisine in town.

Where to Bunk: Mount Crested Butte is full of mostly charm-free, albeit convenient, condos within walking distance of the lifts. The exception is the full-service Grande Butte Hotel (doubles, $99-$181; 800-544-8448), an equally charm-free high-rise with the advantage of on-site restaurants, a fitness center, an indoor pool--the works. In town, try the Claim Jumper bed-and-breakfast (doubles, $79-$129; 970-349-6471), or take a Sno-Cat ten miles to the Irwin Lodge wilderness retreat (800-247-9462), where three-day, two-night packages with Sno-Cat powder skiing start at $778 per person.

Local Wisdom: Between November 17 and December 16, and from April 8-21, everybody skis free. Gratis. Zippo. No charge. During the same period, first-time skiers can take free "never-ever" lessons.

Crested Butte Stats:
Elevation: 12,162 feet
Vertical: 2,775 feet
Average annual snowfall: 298 inches
Trails: 19 percent advanced (including 550 acres of expert-only terrain), 57 percent intermediate, 24 percent beginner
Lifts: Two high-speed quads, seven fixed chairs, four surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information/Reservations: 800-544-8448

Vail, Colorado

The Big Picture: Year after year Vail tops reader polls as the favorite American ski resort. Why? With few real steeps, a freeway running through the middle of town, and a fake Tirolean gestalt, it offends purists and the nouveau riche alike. The answer: Vail delivers. The freeway makes it more accessible in foul weather than just about any other major resort. The mostly white-bread terrain, buffed to within an inch of its life, is perfect for the cruising ego. And the immense Back Bowls make you feel like you just might be in Zermatt. There are more high-speed quads, more Disneyesque kiddie zones, more (and more efficient) parking garages than anyplace else in skidom.

Unsung Runs: When the Mid Vail circus goes three-ring, try the Pride Express chair on the far west edge of the mountain's frontside. There's super cruising on Simba and Bwana, and when the morning hordes lighten up around Lionshead, you can streak the black-diamond (steep but groomed) lower pitches of Simba for the full, rolling 2,100 vertical feet.

R&R: On-mountain, the Two Elk Restaurant is bigger than the White House, but the view from 11,240 feet into the Holy Cross Wilderness overwhelms human architecture. In town, Sweet Basil serves up consistently interesting "progressive American" cooking. For a breath of funky, railroad-town ambience, drive a couple of miles to the Minturn Saloon.

Where to Bunk: In the land of faux, the Sonnenalp Resort (doubles, $225-$283, including breakfast; 800-654-8312) is a legitimate masterpiece of Austro-alpine charm with a very good restaurant called Ludwig's. Just west of Vail Village, the Westin Resort (doubles, $309-$350; 800-420-2424) has one of the best spa/gym/indoor-tennis facilities in the valley and (even better) its own chairlift, Cascade Village, to whisk you up into the maze on the Lionshead side.

Local Wisdom: Kick off your skis, don a helmet (also sign a monster waiver), and bob your way down Vail's 2,900-foot, 60-second bobsled run. At 40 miles per hour, you'll swear you're banking to Olympic glory.

Vail Stats:
Elevation: 11,450 feet
Vertical: 3,250 feet
Average annual snowfall: 335 inches
Trails: Frontside: 32 percent advanced, 36 percent intermediate, 32 percent beginner. Back Bowls: 64 percent advanced, 36 percent intermediate
Lifts: One gondola, nine high-speed quads, ten fixed chairs, five surface lifts
Lift tickets: $48
Information/Reservations: 800-525-2257

Snowmass, Colorado

The Big Picture: Way huge (2,560 acres and 3,721 vertical feet) and more varied than the three other mountains in the Aspen area, Snowmass still does not get any respect. That's because it's 12 miles from the style magnet of downtown Aspen--and because its signature zone, the barely tilted Big Burn, always seems to steal star billing from the hairy stuff hiding off to the sides. So the place remains a haven for families seeking ski-in/ski-out convenience, terminal intermediates who ply the nonthreatening boulevards, and the few locals who sneak over on powder days knowing that, unlike Aspen Mountain, the snow here will last till the lifts close.

Unsung Runs: The sublimely pitched Campground area on the mountain's far west flank would be, in and of itself, a very good 2,400-vertical-foot ski area, and it's eerily empty. Experts willing to walk five minutes from the High Alpine and Big Burn lift terminals will find satisfyingly steep chutes like AMF and Hanging Valley Wall.

R&R: On the mountain, Gwyn's High Alpine, one of the area's first white-linen spots, has fine food and Gwyn's and George's wind toys--gliders, hang gliders, and windsurfers--hanging from the ceiling. Down at the base, all society revolves around the Snowmass Village Mall, a pleasant pedestrian street ringed by international eateries. The lure of Aspen always tugs, and the big town's 100 restaurants and bars are just 20 minutes away on the RFTA shuttle (free until 4:45 P.M.; $2 thereafter).

Where to Bunk: The Snowmass Lodge & Club (doubles, $125-$315; 970-923-5600) is close to the new Two Creeks base area and quad, includes athletic-club privileges, and has a nordic ski course. The less opulent Pokolodi Lodge offers early season bargains (doubles, $60-$70; 970-923-4310).

Local Wisdom: To beat the crowds, try Gwyn's for a late breakfast (served till 10:30 A.M.)--say, Eggs Neptune, mimosas, and hot muffins--then ski through lunch.

Snowmass Stats:
Elevation: 11,835 feet
Vertical: 3,721 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 38 percent advanced, 52 percent intermediate, 10 percent beginner
Lifts: Seven high-speed quads, eight fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $52
Information: 800-525-6200
Reservations: 800-598-2005

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

The Big Picture: Up north in the cold, white Yampa River Valley, Steamboat doesn't feel like the rest of Colorado. About 157 miles from Denver, it's just far enough to escape day-trippers; skiers on the mountain are likely to be families from afar, lured by the rounded shapes and western shtick, or local hard-cores addicted to flickering shadows in the famous trees. The ski area faces west, another anomaly in Colorado, lighting up the snow with a golden afternoon glow. The western thing is mostly myth--Steamboat cowboys wear greasy John Deere caps--but a working ranch town three miles away takes the edge off this modern resort.

Unsung Runs: If the trees in the Priest Creek area are already skied out (Shadows is so well known that there are bumps between the aspens), try the hike north of the Storm Peak summit. Between Chute One and The Toutes lies a cornucopia of steep, expert-only drops into pillowed snow.

R&R: The best food on the mountain is at Ragnar's, where deciphering the Scandinavian menu is part of the fun: Try the Stekt Rødspaette Trondheim (sautéed sole with asparagus and leeks). The Slopeside Grill is the new, cool place at the base for a microbrew and a pizza. In town, Antares Restaurant serves a chic international menu in front of the fireplace.

Where to Bunk: Hovering over Gondola Square, the Sheraton Steamboat Resort (doubles, $99-$319; 800-848-8878) looks like a high-rise transplant from Miami Beach, but with a health club, a pool, a restaurant, and ski rentals, it's the most convenient lodging in the mountain village. In town, on Main Street, look for the pink neon bunny ears that herald the Rabbit Ears Motel (doubles, $60-$115; 800-828-7702).

Local Wisdom: At one o'clock on most days, meet 1964 Olympic silver medalist Billy Kidd at the top of the gondola for a free mini-lesson. Billy's still a great skier--with a fine eye for the one observation that could turn your skiing around.

Steamboat Stats:
Elevation: 10,568 feet
Vertical: 3,668 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 31 percent advanced, 54 percent intermediate, 15 percent beginner
Lifts: One gondola, two high-speed quads, 14 fixed chairs, three surface lifts
Lift tickets: $44
Information: 970-879-6111
Reservations: 800-922-2722

Park City, Utah

The Big Picture: Park City is an anomaly in Mormon Utah: a rowdy, sprawling boomtown. Once it was silver; now it's skiing. Home to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival as well as to the U.S. Ski Team, it is by far the biggest and only true all-season resort in the Wasatch Range. A backside snow shadow means 100 fewer inches of fluff than is found on the frontside areas (Alta, Snowbird, et al.), but snowmaking guarantees the season. Powder may in fact last longer here, because few skiers make the trek up to Jupiter Bowl, three long lift rides from the base; most are content to ride the quads and cruise groomed, aspen-lined avenues.

Unsung Runs: Blueslip Bowl off the Pioneer and Thaynes chairs offers 180 degrees of exposure, from cold, north-facing spruce trees on the right to sun-loving aspens on the left.

R&R: Downtown Park City hums like a beehive after hours. Come in January during the Sundance Film Festival and share the clubs with bicoastal PIBs (people in black). The rest of the winter, the clientele at the fine French restaurant, Alex's, wears ski tans. For an all-American flapjack breakfast, try the classic Mt. Air Cafe or the Morning Ray Bakery on Main Street. Liquor is served at most restaurants, but because this is Utah, many drinking establishments are called clubs, which means you must pay a onetime $5 membership fee. The exception is O'Shucks, which serves beer only and charges no fee.

Where to Bunk: The Old Miner's Lodge, an 1889 boardinghouse on the hill near the Town Lift, has ten antique-filled rooms (doubles, $95-$180, including full breakfast; 800-648-8068). Among the hundreds of high-rise rooms at the ski base, the nicest are at The Resort Center Lodge & Inn (doubles, $100-$170; 800-443-1045). For old-world elegance, nothing can touch the Stein Eriksen Lodge up the road in Deer Valley (doubles, $400-$600, including breakfast; 800-453-1302).

Local Wisdom: Wannabe birdmen can learn to ski-jump at the Utah Winter Sports Park (site of some of the 2002 Winter Olympics events) three days a week. A two-hour session culminating in a jump off the 18-meter ramp costs $20. Call 801-649-5447.

Park City Stats:
Elevation: 10,000 feet
Vertical: 3,100 feet
Average annual snowfall: 350 inches
Trails: 39 percent advanced, 45 percent intermediate, 16 percent beginner
Lifts: Three high-speed quads, ten fixed chairs, one four-passenger gondola
Lift tickets: $47
Information: 801-649-8111
Reservations: 800-222-7275

Alta, Utah

The Big Picture: Alta has the history (Alf Engen and Dick Durrance practically invented modern powder technique here), the attitude ("quality skiing" means lines for archaic lifts rather than crowds on the slopes), the mystique (only five small lodges in the avalanche-bedeviled valley), and the monster snowfalls (500-inch average) to back it up year after year. Alta is a shrine. And so Alta is occasionally trampled with love. Local Salt Lake City skiers enter a lottery for scarce season passes. Return guests book a year in advance. On some blue-sky, new-snow days they have to turn cars around and send them elsewhere. But if you make it up to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon (a hairy drive--chains and snow tires often required), it's some kind of skier's heaven.

Unsung Runs: So quiet is Point Supreme that patrollers working the far east cirque consider themselves an autonomous fiefdom. Here you'll find the long cruisers, Big Dipper and Rock N Roll, and the fascinating Sidewinder and Spiney Ridge areas--tricky, steep slots dotted with gnarled, limber pines.

R&R: In addition to Alta's five lodges, all of which serve full breakfast and dinner, there's only one other restaurant, The Shallow Shaft, which has good pizza and Wasatch Ale. Nightlife? Maybe a blues band at the Alta Peruvian Lodge Bar. Otherwise, have a brandy in front of the fireplace and fall into bed. Alta is a simple place: Sleep hard, eat well, and ski till you drop.

Where to Bunk: Return guests claim 75 percent of the 56 homey rooms at Rustler Lodge (dorm beds, $75; doubles, $99-$215, breakfast and dinner included; 800-451-5223), so book early. UTA buses connect Alta to more than 50 downtown Salt Lake lodgings, an hour's ride from the slopes (call the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau at 801-521-2822).

Local Wisdom: Alta sells morning (9:15 A.M.-1:00 P.M.) and afternoon (1:00 P.M.-4:30 P.M.) half-day tickets for $19. Plenty of time, on an uncrowded weekday, to pay homage.

Alta Stats:
Elevation: 10,650 feet
Vertical: 2,100 feet
Average annual snowfall: 500 inches
Trails: 35 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: Eight fixed chairs, four surface lifts
Lift tickets: $25
Information: 801-742-3333
Reservations: 801-942-0404

Snowbird, Utah

The Big Picture: Sometimes skiers come to dance with Alta and fall in love with her younger sister, Snowbird--actually bigger, with 3,240 feet of vertical. Accommodations are newer, concrete-and-glass, Euro-refined, environmentally correct. And Snowbird's tram is a 125-passenger bit of Swiss engineering that swoops you to the 11,000-foot summit of Hidden Peak in seven minutes. From there it's all downhill over the same talcum powder Alta gets, through that steep Wasatch terrain, from rock slots like Great Scott to the long and winding road of Chip's Run, one of the best top-to-bottom intermediate routes this side of the Alps.

Unsung Runs: If the tram is jammed, head up the Little Cloud lift in the shadowed, above-timberline bowls below Twin Peaks. For bumpmeisters, the Peruvian chair is double blessed, with the most mogul runs and the puniest lift lines.

R&R: Grab a sandwich from General Grits Deli (in the Snowbird Center Plaza) and eat it in the patrol shack (benches and big views provided) at the top of the mountain. In good weather the Plaza functions as piazza, tanning beach, and singles bar. After skiing, the Southwest Keyhole restaurant in the Cliff Lodge serves up margaritas and south-of-the-border beers.

Where to Bunk: In Snowbird proper there are three condo hotels plus the Cliff Lodge (doubles, $110-$209; 800-453-3000), a mini-city with 532 rooms, four restaurants, a spa, and a pool ten stories up on the roof. For a change of scene (and the best sunset view in the canyon), try the Blackjack Condominium Lodge on the road to Alta (doubles, $128-$255; 800-343-0347).

Local Wisdom: For a real Euro-style adventure, take the Interconnect Tour, a guided five-area blitz that takes in Snowbird, Alta, Brighton, Park City, and Solitude--then traverses back to Snowbird via the "Highway to Heaven" ($95 per person, lunch included; reservations required, 801-534-1907).

Snowbird Stats:
Elevation: 11,000 feet
Vertical: 3,240 feet
Average annual snowfall: 500 inches
Trails: 45 percent advanced, 30 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: One 125-passenger tram, eight fixed chairs
Lift tickets: $44
Information: 801-742-2222
Reservations: 800-453-3000

Teton Village, Wyoming

The Big Picture: No question about it--the best single-mountain ski area in the U.S., Jackson Hole has 4,139 feet of vertical; a ten-minute bottom-to-top, 63-passenger Swiss tram; and the most varied and challenging terrain this side of the Alps. Management has worked hard to shed the experts-only label--with some success. There really is a lot of easy skiing here, but occasional bitter cold and the visual vertigo of the face keep the Vail crowd cowed. You'll find them gawking at the 8,000 elk wintering just outside the rubber-tomahawk town of Jackson (12 miles from the ski village) or riding a snow coach to view Yellowstone's geysers an hour to the north. Jackson is a mess, caught between its cowboy past and its Winnebago present, and Teton Village, at the base of the lifts, is barely more than utilitarian. But the stunning parkland and transcendent skiing keep 'em coming.

Unsung Runs: There never seems to be a line on the Upper Sublette Ridge quad. It doesn't serve the big-name runs like Corbet's Couloir and Rendezvous Bowl, but it does provide access to many days' worth of exploring in Cheyenne and Laramie Bowls--the shady Bivouac trees, the sun-warmed Bird-in-the-Hand, and one of the most intense elevator shafts anywhere: Alta Chutes.

R&R: Dining on-mountain is decidedly minimalist. Try a stew-filled bread bowl in the snack shack at the base of the Thunder chair. The Mangy Moose restaurant/bar, a big barn just south of the tram, starts rocking when the lifts close. For veal or wild game, there's the Mobil four-star Alpenhof Lodge. Or in town, suck some succulent ribs at Bubba's.

Where to Bunk: The Alpenhof Lodge (doubles, $103-$220; 800-732-3244) feels like a little bit o' Austria. Many of the remaining beds in Teton Village are in condo bondage (one-bedrooms, $127-$132; 800-443-6931).

Local Wisdom: Sign up for Jackson's "Ski the Big One" vertical-foot program. Keep track of how much you ski and earn a certificate for 100,000 feet; a bronze belt buckle for 300,000; silver for 500,000; and gold for joining the million-foot club. One hundred thousand in a week is no problem: Program creator Harry Baxter once skied 66,000 feet in one day on 16 tram rides.

Jackson Hole Stats:
Elevation: 10,450 feet
Vertical: 4,139 feet
Average annual snowfall: 384 inches
Trails: 50 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 10 percent beginner
Lifts: One aerial tram, seven fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $45
Information/Reservations: 800-443-6931

Alta, Wyoming

The Big Picture: Targhee (named for a renegade Bannock chief) is on the west side of the Teton Range, an hour from Jackson. It's a whole other world of Mormon spud farmers, Idaho families, and college kids, a spacious, nonthreatening mountain with a tiny self-contained resort village. And with 500 inches per year, Targhee has become a kind of low-key powder mecca. Half of the 3,000 acres on the mountain are devoted exclusively to powder Sno-Cat skiing. The other half is mostly untracked too; only a few key routes are groomed. A palpable sense of isolation (you can go to the movies in Driggs, Idaho, about 12 miles down the road) keeps this an unpolished gem.

Unsung Runs: There are only three lifts here, and only two go to the summit ridge. Take the slightly out-of-the-way Blackfoot chair to the North Boundary area: You may not see another soul. The glades--evergreen above, aspen below--hide powder bowers for weeks.

R&R: Nighttime Targhee makes Taos look like Vegas. You might get trapped in the Trap Bar upstairs in the base building. Or relax, eat some fresh pasta at Cicero's Bistro, shuttle the kids off to bed, and nod out yourself. If you insist on driving down to Driggs, O'Rourke's has pizza, and Knight's British Rail Pub and Dining Room serves (huh?) pretty good Thai food.

Where to Bunk: All lodging on the mountain--comfortable, basic condo and hotel rooms within walking distance of the lifts--is handled by Grand Targhee Resort (five-night family packages, $253 per adult; 800-827-4433). Driggs has a number of motel options. And just down the road in Alta, Wyoming, Teton Teepee lodge offers intimate, family-style accommodations and meals (six-night packages, $660; 307-353-8176).

Local Wisdom: Rent some fat skis and reserve a seat on the Sno-Cat ($160, including lunch) for a day of powder on Peaked Mountain. Runs are two to three miles long on gently pitched bowls. A religious experience.

Grand Targhee Stats:
Elevation: 10,200 feet
Vertical: 2,200 feet
Average annual snowfall: 500 inches
Trails: 20 percent advanced, 70 percent intermediate, 10 percent beginner
Lifts: Three double chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $32
Information/Reservations: 800-827-4433

Big Sky, Montana

The Big Picture: With the addition this year of a 15-person tram to the top of Lone Mountain's 11,166-foot volcanic cone, Big Sky claims 4,180 feet of vertical--41 feet more than Jackson Hole. This is creative number-crunching. Actual continuous skiing vertical will be about 3,600 feet--plenty big for bragging, especially in light of the other attributes here: super-long intermediate cruising, Alpslike timberline bowls, no crowds (a big chunk of out-of-staters comes from North Dakota), a tony base village, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the "Last Best Place" state. (Jane and Ted's ranch is just to the north, and A River Runs Through It was filmed nearby). Won't stay undiscovered for long.

Unsung Runs: Little Tree and Big Rock, off the slow Challenger double chair, get too much wind and too few bodies to develop many moguls. The result is that rarest of treats: steep, smooth expert skiing where every turn shoots an arcing rooster tail and a fall can mean some serious sliding.

R&R: The Mountain Mall is just that: restaurants (six of 'em), shops, bars, all under one roof at the gondola base. Get past the suburban déjà vu and have lunch at Levinsky's Pizza, the local favorite. After the bullwheel stops, Whiskey Jack cranks with live music and brews. More sophisticated drinking takes place around Chet's Bar, a 100-year-old piece of carved oak in the Huntley Lodge, next door to the mall. Down-valley, save at least one night for bison medallions at Lone Mountain Ranch.

Where to Bunk: The Huntley Lodge (Big Sky was the brainchild of former NBC anchorman Chet) is the posh address slopeside (doubles, $135-$239, including breakfast; 800-548-4486). The elegantly rustic cabins at Lone Mountain Ranch ($1,000 per person per week, all-inclusive; 406-995-4644) come with healthful gourmet meals, track skiing on 50 miles of groomed trails, and shuttle service to Big Sky.

Local Wisdom: The new tram will access hundreds of acres of treeless, oceanic expert terrain on the south slope of the peak, as well as the heart-stopping couloirs on the east face.

Big Sky Stats:
Elevation: 11,166 feet
Vertical: 4,180 feet
Average annual snowfall: 400 inches
Trails: 43 percent advanced, 47 percent intermediate, 10 percent beginner
Lifts: One 15-person tram, two four-person gondolas, two high-speed quads, seven fixed chairs, four surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information/Reservations: 800-548-4486

Whitefish, Montana

The Big Picture: Funny name, The Big Mountain. But, as they say, big is their middle name. As in 3,000 lift-served acres plus 1,000 more for Sno-Cat skiing; big views into Glacier National Park next door; big, open glades filled with rime-encrusted "snow ghosts"; a big, fast quad chair that pulls a full 2,088 feet of vertical; and the big-hearted railroad-and-timber town of Whitefish, eight miles away. Twenty-five percent of the skiers arrive on the Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle or Minneapolis. Most of the rest are local aficionados, the outside world having just discovered the Flathead Valley in summer. Winter is another story: Cold, fog, and predominantly gray skies keep the snow soft and the beautiful people at bay.

Unsung Runs: The Glacier Chaser quad changed the traffic patterns, so now fewer skiers ride Chair 4, the Great Northern. Ride it to ski Langley (part of the national championship downhill cut by Toni Matt in 1948) or the steep glades of Powder Trap.

R&R: Have a Hat Beer at the Hellroaring Saloon (buy a baseball cap for $20 and get a free beer every day for the rest of your life) while checking out the classic skis and sepia photos from the resort's early years. The Bierstube features tasty ales, big-screen ski videos, and--on Wednesday nights--the raucous presentation of the Frabert Award to the resort's "clod of the week." On Wednesdays and Saturdays you can ride gondola cars to a barbecue at the Summit House and just maybe witness an alpenglow sunset.

Where to Bunk: The Kandahar Lodge (doubles, $132-$240; 406-862-6098) is a classic mountain inn right on the slopes with big fireplaces, hot tubs, and an excellent restaurant. Hibernation House (doubles, $60-$82; 800-858-5439) is The Big Mountain's economy lodge; prices include breakfast and shuttle to the lifts.

Local Wisdom: Your all-day ski pass is good until 9 P.M. Wednesday through Saturday under the lights on Chairs 2 and 3 and the T-bar.

The Big Mountain Stats:
Elevation: 7,000 feet
Vertical: 2,300 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 20 percent advanced, 55 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: One high-speed quad, six fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift Tickets: $38
Information: 406-862-2900
Reservations: 800-858-5439

Sun Valley, Idaho

The Big Picture: Queen of the Rockies resorts ten years before Aspen blinked. Stroll the halls of the Sun Valley Lodge (built, along with the world's first chairlift, in 1936), and picture yourself with the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Sonja Henie, and Marilyn Monroe. The skiing is better now, thanks to both a zillion-dollar, top-to-bottom snowmaking system and grooming immaculate enough to suit the egos of modern celebrities: Arnold, Clint, Demi. No other Rockies resort sports so many Bogner suits, so much coiffed silver hair, or such an abundance of long-arcing, vibration-absorbing, price-is-no-object giant slalom skis. And few mountains anywhere (the Alps included) have such great on-mountain cuisine, those purple edge-of-the-desert sunsets, or Baldy's uninterrupted 3,400 foot vertical. The classic terrain ensures that there will always be ski bums in the nooks and crannies of exclusivity: They're just harder to find now.

Unsung Runs: When the man-made hard-pack gets old, head south to the Mayday lift, where natural snow graces the lee sides of Sigi's, Far Out, Lefty, and Lookout Bowls. For cruising--when all of Planet Hollywood seems to be bombing Limelight--try the quieter blues off Seattle Ridge.

R&R: You need to step inside the sumptuous Seattle Ridge day lodge, if only to check out the pink-granite bathrooms. Then you might as well stay for a mesquite-grilled lunch on the heated, glassed-in deck. After skiing, hoist a stein and carve your initials on the historic Ram Bar in the Sun Valley Inn. You'll still see formal evening dress in the Sun Valley Lodge dining room. Trail Creek Cabin is just as rough now as when Hemingway drank there; take the sleigh from the Sun Valley Inn.

Where to Bunk: The Lodge, with its circular swimming pool and glittering ice rink, is still the address (doubles, $129-$189). Next door is the more spartan Inn (doubles, $99-$164). Call 800-786-8259 for reservations. Ask for ski packages at both properties. In the old sheep town of Ketchum at the Baldy base, there's the Idaho Country Inn bed & breakfast, a log-and-rock hideout with a huge view of the mountain (doubles, $125-$155; 208-726-1019).

Local Wisdom: Dollar Mountain, Sun Valley's original ski hill across town from the bigger, more famous Baldy, remains a favorite of beginners and ski-schoolers. It's also a great powder-day secret for intermediates and better skiers, with its treeless, 600 vertical-foot sweeps down Sheepherder and Sepp's Bowls.

Sun Valley Stats:
Elevation: 9,150 feet
Vertical: 3,400 feet
Average annual snowfall: 220 inches
Trails:17 percent advanced, 45 percent intermediate, 38 percent beginner
Lifts: Seven high-speed quads, six fixed chairs
Lift tickets: $49
Information/Reservations: 800-786-8259

Sandpoint, Idaho

The Big Picture: Way up north in Idaho's panhandle, Schweitzer is a spooky twin to The Big Mountain, four hours away in Montana. Both feature open-bowl skiing on 100 percent private land, a tight little mountain village at the base of the lifts, and a trendy, reawakened timber town on a big lake in the valley (in Schweitzer's case, Sandpoint, 11 miles down the hill). The nearest major airport is 80 miles away in Spokane, Washington. The nearest population centers are Seattle and Calgary, each about seven hours distant. On a weekday, then, it's just you and a few locals mining powder in trees that include massive, 500-year-old cedars on the lower reaches. Family owned and operated, the area caters to families. Kids under 12 stay and ski free, there's a cool terrain garden in the Enchanted Forest, and kids seem to push the night-skiing 9:00 lights-out time right to the limit.

Unsung Runs: Everybody rides The Great Escape quad in the frontside South Bowl. Instead, head over to North Bowl, where Chair 6 serves the vast, lunar Lakeside chutes as well as the super blue cruisers, Snow Ghost and Kaniksu.

R&R: Since this is Idaho, you've got to fashion yourself a lunchtime spud (sour cream/chili/chutney--or any combination of dozens of other toppings) in the Outback warming hut at the base of Chair 5. Dinner up at the resort is best at Jean's Northwest Bar & Grill in the Green Gables Lodge, where local wines and seafood are featured. In Sandpoint, try the Cupboard for spicy chicken and salads. After dinner, head for the Club St. Bernard for darts and pool.

Where to Bunk: Step one in creating a resort to match the skiing was the 1990 opening of the 82-room Green Gables Lodge (doubles, $65-$145), which manages to be both homey and luxurious. All other lodging at the base involves condominiums; call Schweitzer Resort Reservations at 800-831-8810. In Sandpoint, try the Edgewater Resort Motor Inn (doubles, $49-$125; 800-635-2534)--but only if you like the sound of trains rolling past.

Local Wisdom: If you're in Seattle, ride Amtrak's Friday night train to Sandpoint, ski all weekend, and ride the Sunday night train back to the city. You save two nights' lodging (not to mention driving time) and you get to ski two full days.

Schweitzer Stats:
Elevation: 6,400 feet
Vertical: 2,400 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 40 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner
Lifts: One high-speed quad, five fixed chairs
Lift tickets: $34
Information: 208-263-9555
Reservations: 800-831-8810

See also:

Rockies Resorts You've Never Heard Of

Filed To: Snow Sports

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