The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Nov 2012

The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 30. Big White Ski Resort

Riders of all abilities converge in Big White’s Telus terrain park, which is night-lit (go ‘til 8 p.m. if you’d like) and has its own lift, half pipe, and cross course. Meanwhile, traditional downhillers traverse 118 trails that descend 2,550 vertical feet. With 10 percent powder days per season and 294 annual inches of ‘fall, 16 lifts (including a gondola) stay busy.

The scenery is beautiful up here, 280 miles east of Vancouver. It’s fairy-tale white, the landscape spiked with trees that have turned to ghosts for the winter. The resort is compact and easily walkable and its three hotels—the Inn at Big White, White Crystal Inn, and Chateau Big White—are all ski-in/ski-out. There’s an array of condos at your avail, too. About 20 restaurants are within a snowball’s throw, including the new 6 Degrees, cozy and slopeside. Two spas await your aches and sprains, while eight casual pubs massage out mental knots—SnowShoe Sam’s, in particular, is locally revered and Carver’s, a piano bar, is just fun. If it’s wine you crave, come during the Big Reds at Big White festival in early December, when 30 regional winemakers and chefs showcase their fare.

The easy-access rental shop carries a wide range of skis, boards, shoes, helmets and XC gear for all ages. But if you’d rather wear blades, check out Canada’s highest-elevation ice-skating rink, an outdoor, Olympic-hockey-sized playground. Big White’s also got a 60-foot-high ice-climbing wall, sleigh rides, snowmobile and dog-sled tours, snowshoeing, and a tube park beloved by children. Other kid-related amenities include Tot Town Daycare, which Ski Canada magazine called “the best place to be abandoned by your parents.” They’ll try to teach your toddlers to ski, plop them on the Mega Snow Coaster, and more.

If you bite it, a nice-sized ski patrol will see to you: It’s got 13 doctors, 13 nurses, and 120 volunteers—good thing, too, since the nearest hospital is more than 30 miles away. For non-injury needs, a winter army of 1,800–including six Level 4 coaches among the staff at Big White’s ski-and-snowboard school—attends to 560,000 guests every season.

Big White goes big on green too: The mountain’s backside is an ecological reserve, and trail developers work around wildlife corridors to protect animals. Lots of recycling goes on here, geothermal power runs some of the facilities, and all buildings have energy-efficient light bulbs and low-volume fixtures. Water for snowmaking doesn’t come from wells or creeks but from a dug-out catchment that collects snow.

For a riotous spectacle, come on closing day for Dummy Downhill, an event during which homemade contraptions, all intended to be as silly as possible, tear up the tube park.

CONTACT: (800) 663-2772, bigwhite.com
SEASON: Early Dec to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $73, children: $38, ages 65 and older: $62, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 31. Panorama Mountain Village Resort

A smallish, reasonably priced Canadian resort in the Kootenay Rockies, Panorama’s 99 trails span 4,000 vertical feet over 2,847 skiable acres. The majority of its trails are geared toward mid-level athletes. If you’re into more than just downhill, though, there are two terrain parks, a brand-new tube park, snowmobile adventures into the basin, heli, Nordic, and snowshoeing.

The staff here is 500 strong during peak season, and a 24-hour front desk provides bell services. The snow school employs multiple Level 4 instructors and offers a CSIA-licensing program for those who want to learn to teach skiing. Absolute beginners can take the “Discover” class ($199 for a full day).

A free village gondola gives views that are, well, panoramic. All the lodging in town is ski-in/ski-out, a huge advantage of such a dense layout. A hundred hotel and hostel rooms are available for rent, plus some 300 condo and townhome units, one deluxe mountain home, and exactly no winter campsites. The Pine Inn recently got a $1 million update, perhaps to assuage all the people online complaining about its inadequacy.

Also in the village: a staffed kids’ program, a spa, a few shops, a couple of pubs, and eight restaurants, all of them ski-bum-casual except for woodsy Greys, which gets fine dining right. In late February, everything comes to life during Mountain Mardi Gras, part of a roster of local parties that also includes an early-spring carnival and a cowboy-themed stampede fest.

The environmental policies here send mixed messages: Panorama has expansions planned into untouched habitat and doesn’t make explicit efforts to protect wildlife. And the mountain’s snowmaking water is sourced from a local stream, not the municipal supply. But it does have energy-conservation and recycling programs, and uses solar power. If the green efforts continue, Panorama might end up higher on these types of lists in the future.

CONTACT: (800) 663-2929, panoramaresort.com
SEASON: Early December to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $73 (discounted for groups of 10 or more), children: $30, ages 65 and older: $60, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 32. Keystone Ski Resort

Keystone’s got Colorado’s longest ski day: The resort opens at 8:30 a.m. and the lifts don’t stop ‘til 8 p.m. or later. Though its powder-day percentage is low at five percent, Keystone gets 230 annual snow inches, to which it adds its own so as to provide 3,148 skiable acres, almost half of which are set aside for expert skiers.

In addition to 135 runs laced over 3,128 vertical feet, Keystone also has a great terrain park, plus the world’s highest tube park—at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet, it’s got five lanes and its own lift. Other worthwhile pursuits available here: snow-biking, snowshoeing, ice hockey, and sleigh rides.

After you’ve shed your snow gear for the day, there’s still lots to do, including gliding around North America’s biggest Zamboni-maintained outdoor ice rink (it’s five acres wide) or checking out the active foodie scene—dinner-worthy restaurants include Keystone Ranch, the Ski Tip, and Alpenglow Stube. The nightlife scene here is nothing to speak of but the hotels are: Keystone Lodge and the Inn at Keystone are both acclaimed; the AAA 4-Diamond Lodge hands you warm cookies when you check in, provides roundtrip shuttle service to the mountain, and is quite proud of its just-renovated spa—try a stone massage.

The resort relies on its pristine natural scenery as a major draw, so it’s conscious of its impact and works closely with the U.S. Forest Service to mitigate damage. The conference center alone has diverted 114 tons of compostable waste from the landfill, and Keystone has been responsible for the recycling of 200 tons. Though the resort doesn’t buy renewable energy, it has redone its snowmaking system so as to increase its electrical efficiency by 25 percent.

Keystone, owned by the Vail Resorts conglomerate, offers free day-of-arrival evening skiing, townhouses to rent, two sparklingly lit pedestrian villages (Lakeside and River Run), and 20 lifts, including two mountain-linking gondolas, that can move 35,175 people per hour. At Camp Keystone, themed learning days make getting better fun for kids. For women, improvement workshops called “Betty Fest Weekends” happen a couple of times over the course of the season.

CONTACT: (800) 328-1323, keystoneresort.com
SEASON: Early November to early April
TICKETS: General: $99 (discounts offered to military, travel agents, and flight attendants), children: $57, ages 65 and older: $89, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 33. Bear Mountain

You wouldn’t think Southern California gets snow, but San Bernardino National Forest (a 1.5-hour drive from Joshua Tree National Park) gets 100 inches every winter. Bear Mountain takes advantage of the stuff—and adds a bunch of its own—to maintain a small but worthwhile ski resort where advanced athletes feel at home, though 30 percent of its 748 skiable acres are reserved for first-timers and “low intermediates.”

Whatever your skill level, this is a great place to get better. Bear’s got three pipes and three jump-and-jib-filled skill-builder parks. There’s also night riding and, on powder days (more than 10 percent of the season), backcountry terrain opens. Oh, and if you’re gonna spill, do it here: The ski patrol is more than 250 members strong, and you’ll be less than a mile from Bear Valley Community Hospital.

Instructional pricing is more reasonable than at other mountains: Packages for beginners last year included the “Big Deal:” $89 for four hours of help (a $242 value) and touch-up lessons for expert skiers for $29 per hour with a top teacher.

Bear Mountain protects wild animals by providing safe habitat to bobcats, mountain lions, bears, and deer. The conservation program extends beyond that too: Every light source has been made more efficient, and 120 recycling bins collect waste. Though Bear Mountain does engage in snowmaking, it’s cut its water usage by 30 percent, mainly by installing a sensor system on the golf course.

Know, though, that some things don’t exist at Bear: There isn’t a staffed kids’ program. You won’t find ski valets or butlers. And the resort doesn’t offer any overnight accommodations—though you can easily find a rental house or a camping spot nearby. The village of Big Bear Lake, two miles away, is where to book if you want a hotel. The little town also has an excellent restaurant, Peppercorn Grille, plus an alpine coaster, a tube park, and companies that’ll take you zip-lining or for a helicopter tour.

CONTACT: (909) 866-5841, bearmountain.com
SEASON: Mid-November to early May
TICKETS: General: $69, children: $32, ages 62 and older: $59, ages 6 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 34. Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort

Sierra-at-Tahoe has much that’s unique about it. But its “Burton Star Wars Experience” probably needs to be mentioned first. It exists to teach kids (ages three to six) how to snowboard. “Younglings and Padawans will learn using the ways of the Force,” the website says, “with Jedi Master Yoda's teaching methods—movement, navigation, and control.” Yoda's Riglet Park features Burton gear and wood carvings of the films’ characters, including R2-D2 and Chewbacca.

Not little (or a nerd)? Sierra’s got something for you, too: With 46 trails covering 2,212 vertical feet, seven terrain parks, a two-lane tube park with rope tows, and snowshoeing, this resort has almost anything you’d want—except for a bed.

For that, drive (or take the free shuttle) 12 miles out to South Lake Tahoe, which pulses with casino-hotels like Harrah's, Harveys, and the modern MontBleu. Closer to Sierra-at-Tahoe, though, are rental homes and winter camping spots, if that’s your speed.

It snows a lot here—480 inches per year—so the resort never makes its own powder. Using that as a launching point, the sustainability commitment here is robust: All office materials get recycled, and heavy machinery runs on biodiesel. To get into the act, you can offset your trip by buying a green tag for your lift ticket. For free parking, drive a hybrid here or, better yet, use the website’s “carpool and rideshare” section.

Pricing is reasonable and deals abound: A $39 first-timer package, which must be booked online, includes a 2.5-hour lesson, gear rental, and a lift ticket. A gear-rental season pass costs $115 and lasts for all of winter. Active-duty military get in free on Sundays, and firefighters and police enjoy weekday discounts.

Any money you save, you may want to take into town: South Lake is like a tinier, much prettier Vegas, with gambling venues and nightclubs (Vex, Cabo Wabo, and Opal are best) that shake ‘til dawn.

CONTACT: (530) 659-7453, sierraattahoe.com
SEASON: Mid-December to late April
TICKETS: General: $77 ($54 each if you buy a 3-pack), ages 13 to 22: $67; ages 5 to 12: $19, ages 65 to 69: $53, ages 70 and older: $28, ages 4 and younger: free. Up to $145 per day for the “Burton Star Wars Experience.”

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