The 2016 Ski Report

Your guide to North America's best skiing. Inbounds and out.

Dec 8, 2015
Outside Magazine
Danny Walton

Steep and deep in Sun Valley, Idaho.    Photo: Tal Roberts

Fresh terrain is opening up, a new megaresort beckons, and a Godzilla El Niño promises major storms. Why should you be amped for winter? Let us count the ways.

1. El Niño Is Back (And They’re Calling It Godzilla!)

Crafting the corduroy.   Photo: Mike Stolp-Smith/Active Junky

Since 1950, about one-third of winters have been granted El Niño status. “If it feels like we’re constantly talking about it, you’re right,” says Joel Gratz, the CEO of OpenSnow, a weather-forecasting website for skiers. But the strong El Niños—the winters that bring more than 500 inches of snow to places like Telluride in Colorado and Mammoth in California—happen only about once a decade. The good news: this winter, forecasters at the National Weather Service are predicting a particularly strong El Niño, expected to last into March. But let’s back up: What is El Niño, exactly? It’s when water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean become warmer than usual, which affects the prevailing winds and ultimately brings heavy precipitation to the southern half of the United States. So when you’re planning a ski trip this winter, keep your eyes on California, Utah, New Mexico, and southern Colorado for deep powder.
Megan Michelson

2. You Don’t Know Vail

From left: Skating in Vail; tele turns on the Minturn Mile.   Photo: Chris McLennan/Vail Resorts; Jeff Cricco

It has a reputation for catering more to oligarchs than young rippers, and yes, there are luxe hotels and gondolas with heated seats. But with all the Epic Pass options available, Vail has never been more affordable, and the mountain is full of challenging terrain.

Lap Chair 10 

Even on the busiest days there’s never a line, since this lift mostly serves 1,500-vertical-foot pitches of thigh-destroying moguls. Warm up on Blue Ox, then charge straight down the lift line: it’s steep, narrow, and pockmarked with rock drops, and skiers on the way up will let you know how you’re doing. 

BYO Rib Eye

Round up some friends and head out to the summit of Blue Sky Basin, where the resort runs two huge, free gas grills. Pack a Bluetooth speaker, some steaks, and a case of beer, and take in the views across the valley of the 14,009-foot Mount of the Holy Cross.

Ski the Minturn Mile 

Duck out the backcountry gate at the top of chair 7 and ski down to the 111-year-old mining town of Minturn. It’s by no means a scary run, but get the lowdown from a local, and take standard backcountry precautions. Then grab a beer at the Minturn Saloon while you wait for your hotel or a buddy to come pick you up. 

3. The Southwest Could Have an All-Time Winter 

Airing it out in Taos.   Photo: Grant Gunderson

Because of its location in the Southern Rockies, New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley could get hit hard by El Niño–fueled storms. “I’ve been geeking out on the models,” says ski patroller Justin Bobb. “Taos is such a steep, rocky mountain that a big snowfall makes a huge difference.” If the snow does come down, the Kachina lift—which last year opened up more than 50 acres of experts-only runs previously accessible only to those willing to hike—will run more consistently. After blasting through chest-deep powder, drop into the slopeside Bavarian Lodge and Restaurant, as authentic a German eatery as you’ll find outside of Munich.

4. Sun Valley Goes Both Ways

From left: The wall of cans at Grumpy's; Sun Valley.   Photo: Tal Roberts; Fuse/Getty

Plan to bring two pairs of skis to this Idaho gem, which was added to the Mountain Collective Pass this year. First, turn to your frontside carvers, because the resort is known for its outstanding groomers and wide-open, 3,000-foot runs like Warm Springs and Limelight. Local Chopper Randolph, a former pro mountain biker, says, “Sharpen your edges and let ’er rip.” Sun Valley is also known for having the best snowmaking in the business, so it’s a good choice for December, when snowpack elsewhere can be unreliable. When it gets deep, bust out your fat boards and book a trip with Sun Valley Heli Ski, which takes off from the resort and serves up the largest area in the lower 48 ($1,375). With access to 750,000 acres spread across three mountain ranges, you’re guaranteed fresh tracks. Book a room at the newly renovated Sun Valley Lodge, where Hemingway wrote much of For Whom the Bell Tolls ($369). For après, local dive bar Grumpy’s has good burgers and frosty 32-ounce chalices of beer. Or score a table at tiny Rickshaw, which serves authentically spicy Vietnamese and Thai street food.

5. Season Passes Keep Getting Better

Coveted by all.

Thanks to a surge of new deals covering more resorts at lower prices, it has never been easier to pull the trigger on a pass. The math speaks for itself; in most cases, you’ll need to ski less than five days to cover the cost. Now you just have to choose. —M.M.

  • Mountain Collective has added Stowe and Taos to its roster of over a dozen world-class resorts. $399 for two days at each resort
  • Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass is better than ever: good at some of the best spots in the country and, new this year, Australia’s Perisher. From $769 for unlimited access
  • If you don’t use your Tahoe Super Pass at least five days at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, you’ll get full credit for the next season. From $410

6. Magic Mountain Is the Powder Capital of the East Coast 

An old-school double in Vermont.   Photo: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

One of New England’s steepest resorts, Vermont’s Magic Mountain has 1,700 vertical feet packed into just 195 acres served by a mere two chairlifts. Even better, because it’s closed Monday through Wednesday, those willing to skin up can have the mountain to themselves early in the week. The resort is uphill-friendly on weekends, too—make it to the top lift shack on your own steam and they’ll give you a token for a free chair ride. Take that second trip up on the Red Chair and head for Timber Ridge, an abandoned resort on Magic’s back side. The benevolent landowner allows backcountry riders free access to the ten cut trails.

7. Tahoe Is Due for Deep Snow 

Take in a tram view.   Photo: Trevor Clark

After receiving less than half the normal 450 inches of snowfall last year, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows is counting on a comeback. And when the El Niño storms blow in, the combined resorts are a primo place to be, with 6,000 acres of Olympic-downhill steeps (Squaw hosted the Games in 1960), back bowls with Lake Tahoe views, and the ski-flick-starring crags and couloirs of the KT-22 peak. Fortuitously, this summer Squaw replaced the Siberia Express, often closed during windy storms, with a new six-person chair that should run even when it’s nuking. Squaw is also known for its après scene. Start at the classic Le Chamois, at the base. Locals string Le Chamois’s Buddy Pass—20 Budweisers for $20—next to their season pass. Nearby, the deck at the Rocker Bar, named for late freeskiing legend Shane McConkey’s plank-shape innovation, is the place to soak in the sun, watch skiers descend, and quaff a few pints of Sierra Nevada. For lodging, check out the Plumpjack Inn. Built for the 1960 Olympics, the inn has been remade into a dog-friendly base camp and is located just across the street from the gondola (from $265).

8. A Utah Classic Will Never Change 

From left: Laying trenches; fireside at Stein Eriksen Lodge.   Photo: Scott Markewitz Photography; Courtesy of Stein Eriksen Lodge

Two-thousand-acre Deer Valley is the perfect counterpoint to now enormous Park City. The posh mountain caps skier numbers at 7,500 per day. (Sorry, knuckle-draggers, snowboards still aren’t allowed.) Furthermore, a significant portion of Deer Valley’s patrons aren’t powder hounds, which means that it’s easy to find fresh lines through its terrain days after a storm hits. (Alta and Snowbird, just over the ridge, are usually tracked out by 11 a.m.) So even on a powder day, feel free to break for lunch. Deer Valley’s Empire Canyon Lodge is known for its chili; you can even get cheese fries doused in the stuff. (Work that off in the trees under Lady Morgan Express.) For lodging, book a room at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, which has been called the world’s best ski hotel for good reason—its slopeside location makes for seamless mornings, and the 145 fireplaces will get you warmed up on your return ($795).

9. Snowmass Is a Touring Paradise

Skinning above Aspen.   Photo: Nathaniel Wilder/Aspen Snowmass

  • The resort has the most liberal skinning policy of any major area—you can ski laps 24 hours a day and even bring your dog, provided you keep it leashed.
  • Locals say it takes about two hours to reach 11,835-foot Big Burn.
  • No touring gear? No problem. Ute Mountaineer in Aspen rents complete setups ($58).
  • Swing by Fuel for a bagel after your morning skin—you earned it.

10. There’s a New Megaresort in Town

From left: Glimpse of the mega-map; Downtown Park City.   Photo: Right: Bob M. Montgomery Images

The biggest change in the ski world last year was Vail’s acquisition of Utah’s Park City. The latter is now on the Epic Pass, which makes a visit to sample the Wasatch Range’s famously light powder practically mandatory if you put in for one of those. The most notable shift under the new ownership? The brand-new eight-person Quicksilver gondola rises up and over Pinecone Ridge and connects Park City to the Canyons ski area. Or, rather, the resort formerly known as Canyons: as of this year, it’s all called Park City, and at 7,300 acres, the combined terrain makes it the largest resort in the country. Unchanged is the excellent in-town scene. For lodging we love the Old Town Guest House, a tidy B&B within walking distance of the lifts run by ski guide Deb Lovci, who can be counted on to point you to the goods on powder days (from $189). Over the past decade, the High West Distillery has become a staple even in teetotaling Utah, serving small plates paired with whiskey and vodka at the base of Quittin Time run. This fall it opened a distillery at Blue Sky Ranch, a 3,500-acre property 20 minutes outside town. The new facility features tastings, a restaurant serving high-end comfort food, and, coming soon, a 60-room hotel.

11. America’s Toughest Hill Just Added More Terrain 

From left: Jackson's Mangy Moose; earning turns in the Teton backcountry.   Photo: Bradly J. Boner; Wade McKoy/Focus Productions

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in Wyoming, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on November 27 with $6 skiing, the price of a lift ticket in 1965. The resort’s real gift, though, is the new Teton lift, a 1,650-foot high-speed quad that opens up three new advanced groomed runs in steep terrain that was previously hike-to only. Also, the lift off-loads riders just a few steps from the boundary gates that access Granite Canyon—a gallery of 2,000-foot, rock-lined couloirs like Endless and Mile Long. This is extreme stuff, so if you don’t have backcountry chops, hire a guide and head through the south gates to Rock Springs. Plus, you’ll get tramline priority for hot laps ($920 for a group of five).

12. Vermont’s Food and Drink Scene Is as Good as the Skiing

Greensboro Bend
Beer-geek Valhalla.   Photo: Jill Richards

  • Whistle Pig: Whiskey from the Green Mountain State sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s changing thanks to this distillery’s award-winning rye. Consider filling a flask for tomorrow’s chilly chairlift rides. 
  • Hill Farmstead Brewery: Possibly the most revered brewery in the country is in tiny Greensboro Bend, 45 minutes east of Stowe. Swing by for a growler of Bierre de Norma, its flagship sour farmhouse ale.
  • Fat Toad Farm: Make a reservation for a $12 tour of the 30-acre spread, half an hour south of Montpelier, then take home as many jars of goat’s-milk caramel as you can carry. 

13. Montana Is the Ultimate Family Trip

From left: Free-heeling Big Sky steeps; pizza party.   Photo: Ryan Turner (2)

With a whopping 5,800 acres served by 34 lifts, Big Sky is roomy. And with an average of just 3,000 visitors a day, the resort figures that there are two acres for every skier. That’s good news for everyone but especially for families, who don’t have to worry about reckless riders plowing through the brood as they’re practicing pizza and French fries. Indeed, the resort is working hard to be family-friendly. It renovated the terrain parks this summer and added a new stash park, bringing the park total to seven, four of them beginner or intermediate level. Best of all, if guests stay at a resort-owned property, kids under ten ski free. Under-fives ski free anyhow, and there’s no charge for nightly PG- and G-rated movies shown in the Yellowstone theater at the base. Our favorite place to stay is the pet-friendly, slopeside Huntley Lodge, which has outdoor hot tubs and a heated swimming pool (from $202). Meanwhile, there’s plenty of serious terrain to test yourself once the kids are in ski school. The 2,000-foot lines off Headwaters, on the Moonlight Basin side, host Freeride World Tour qualifiers. To ski the Big Couloir, a 1,000-foot, 56-degree pitch that rolls right off the top of the resort, sign in with ski patrol—and bring avy gear.

14. British Columbia’s Backcountry Beckons

Ryan Paterson
Untouched snow in Garibaldi Provincial Park.   Photo: Andrew Strain

B.C.’s Whistler Blackcomb spans 8,171 acres, but despite that quantity of terrain, it can get tracked out after a big drop, thanks to all the snowboards and powder-slaying fat skis. To find fresh lines, head outside the resort’s ropes into the serrated wonderland of Garibaldi Provincial Park. The guide service Extremely Canadian runs programs for backcountry newbies and experienced riders who just need someone to show them the lines (about $175). The guides use the resort’s lifts to boost them into the high country. From there you’ll skin up a nearby peak and harvest the goods on the long run down. Even experts will pick up a few pointers. As co-owner Peter Smart says: “Better technique opens up more interesting terrain.” 

15. There’s No Time Like the Present to Learn Snow Safety 

Sizing up the pack.   Photo: Henry Georgi/Aurora

The backcountry is more popular than ever. But before you charge out there, enroll in the three-day level-one class at Silverton Avalanche School ($340) in Colorado. You’ll learn the basics of reading the snowpack and not taking stupid risks.

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