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LET IT SNOW: Knee-deep in Steamboat's finest champagne powder     Photo: courtesy, Colorado Ski Country

Q:

Where's the best place for early-season skiing?

What is the best mountain to ski in the early December? What place usually has the most and best snow? Ryan San Luis Obispo, CA

A: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 Canada—and 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 dry—with only 30% of the moisture of average snow—and 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 @#95;gui_include name="aa_question"@#95;gui_includeskill levels, the longest run measuring in at over three miles. Steamboat also has the second highest vertical rise in Colorado at 3,668 feet and a summit elevation of 10,568 feet. Plow through the famed champagne powder in the backcountry, ride the bumps, or schuss down double-black diamond chutes. Boarders will be equally as thrilled with Mavericks, a 500-foot-long, 56-foot-wide superpipe. Adjacent to Mavericks, a terrain park awaits, with plenty of rails and an outdoor sound system for music-fueled hucking. And skiing doesn't shut down at sunset. Howelson Hill hosts night skiing on the same training ground for future and former Olympians, such as 1998 snowboarding half pipe bronze medalist Shannon Dunn. Just one block from downtown, the Howelsen ski area is set up for everything from freestyle to alpine skiing to cross country.

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 2007—so 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 acres—the most of any U.S. ski resort—and receives an average of a whopping 500 inches of snow per year. And this is the real stuff—no 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 parks—Sundown and Hidden Lake—offer 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 Lift—approximately 3,000 vertical feet—and 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 experts—and 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.

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