The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Nov 2012

The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 35. Aspen Highlands

With a perfect view of the Maroon Bells, this smallish resort (five lifts move a maximum of 6,500 people per hour up 3,635 vertical feet) is one of Skico’s four Aspen resorts (Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, and Snowmass round out the portfolio). Its 118 ski runs get 300 inches of snow per year, though only five percent of its winter can be labeled powder days.

The ski-and-board school here is shared with Skico’s other hills, and offers risk-free lessons (really, you get your money back if you’re not happy) taught by a staff of 1,200 that hails from 22 countries, including Olympians from the U.S.A., Austria, Argentina, and Brazil.

When you’re not skiing or riding, try snowshoeing, go for a snowcat dinner ride (a snowcat trucks you to a cabin, where an expertly prepared four-course meal is served while musicians play), or take a mountain-photography class. You can also throw back a drink during the casual Red Onion bar’s excellent happy hour or have an organic meal at the mid-mountain Merry-Go-Round restaurant and coffee bar, which had a $6-million facelift to arrive at a design concept its publicists call “duct-tape chic.”

When it’s time to turn in for the night, the ski-in/ski-out Ritz-Carlton Club is right there but if that’s too rich for your blood, there are plenty of other options nearby, including condo and house rentals—note, though, that winter camping isn’t allowed.

Which isn’t to say that Highlands management doesn’t care about nature. Employees are encouraged to volunteer with the Roaring Fork Conservancy to help monitor local waters, and the resort’s parent company, Skico, holds the distinction of having made the U.S. ski industry’s first wind-power purchase. The conglomerate still spends $25,000 per year on wind credits and is working on other renewable-energy initiatives, like solar arrays.

In late January, Highlands hosts the Colorado Freeride Championships, and late March brings the annual Fallen Friends Memorial Event, a lighthearted way to honor mountain athletes who’ve died doing their sport.

CONTACT: (800) 525-6200,
SEASON: Early December to mid-April

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 36. Grand Targhee Ski Resort

Grand Targhee is a petite resort (five lifts get 7,200 people per hour up 72 trails) in the gorgeous—and remote—west slopes of the Tetons, a three-hour drive south of Yellowstone. It gets a fairly high number of powder days per season (18 percent) and 500 inches of annual snowfall.

Kids’ amenities here are comprehensive: there’s a great tube park ($10 per day, good for fun-loving adults too); the “Mini Moose” program for ages two to five has a chunk of the hill devoted to it; and for $120, you can get your kid childcare plus a group lesson and lunch.

For grownups, the beginner-level “Start Me Up” package includes a group lesson, a lift ticket, and a full-day rental for $89 (intermediates get the same deal for $99). And the adaptive ski program welcomes people with developmental disabilities.

If you’re into alternative snow activities, GT’s your jam: It’s one of America’s only resorts to encourage snow biking on its groomed Nordic trails: The activity costs $10 per day, and you can rent a snow bike at $35 for four hours. Also unique here is the sleigh-ride dinner tour, during which a cowboy-guided, horse-drawn cart pulls you to a yurt for a thoroughly Western-themed meal. On weekends, watch the free avalanche-dog demos if you’re curious to see how canines will find you and pull you out should you ever get buried.

The resort’s small, quaint pedestrian village offers a decent restaurant and nightlife scene, plus three slopeside hotels—Teewinot Lodge, Sioux Lodge, and Targhee Lodge—that, together, add up to 98 rooms and suites. If you prefer more private accommodations, book one of the more than 50 vacation rentals within 10 miles of here. Camping’s available too, if you’ve got the gear to withstand a winter overnight in Wyoming.

In early January, the USMMA Ski Mountaineering Classic brings top mountaineers to race an intense randonee course up and across the ’Ghee.

CONTACT: (800) 827-5544,
SEASON: Late November to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $69 ($45 for military personnel), ages 6 to 12: $29, ages 65 and older: $44, ages 5 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 37. Alpine Meadows Ski Resort

The biggest thing to know about Alpine Meadows, other than that it’s a casual Northern California favorite, is that last year it merged with the number-one resort on this list, Squaw Valley.

It’s been treated to $24 million in improvements since then, $15 million of which went to the base area and on-mountain improvements. The rest went to expanding Alpine’s two terrain parks, a new high-speed lift, and to snowmaking efficiency. (This being California, other eco-measures have been in place for a while, including a recycling program, biodiesel buses, and energy-saving lighting.)

A hundred runs keep all skill levels entertained, and a laid-back vibe permeates 2,400 skiable acres. A thousand winter staffers, including a full-time safety manager, work to make sure guests are having a blast, whether that be grooming a slope from summit to base or tapping microbrews at the on-snow Ice Bar.

The instructors here are Level 4-equivalent, and many are PSIA-AASI trainers, which means they teach ski and snowboard teachers how to teach skiing and snowboarding. Alpine offers a few female-specific learning programs, such as for-women-by-women camps, as well as ladies-only morning skiing on certain days.

There’s no lodging to speak of at the resort, but you can camp at Granite Flat or Goose Meadows (four and six miles away, respectively), and the Tahoe area is rife with lovely hotels—the newly redone Hyatt Regency is right on the lake, elegant PlumpJack was founded by Gavin Newsom (California’s lieutenant governor), and at the AAA 4-Diamond Resort at Squaw Creek, Six Peaks Grille serves satisfying regional cuisine complemented by its namesake view of a half-dozen Sierra summits.

CONTACT: (800) 403-0206,
SEASON: Mid-November to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $96, children: $41, ages 65 and older: $78, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 38. Buttermilk

Buttermilk is the perennial host of the Winter X Games—it beat out a bid from Whistler to host the big-name snow show from January 24 to 27 and again in 2014. Even though its name has become synonymous with high-flying daredevils like Shaun White, Torstein Horgmo, and Kelly Clark, Buttermilk’s actually a good place for newbies.

A member of Aspen’s Big Four (along with Highlands, Snowmass, and Aspen Mountain, all overseen by Aspen Skiing Company), Buttermilk is relatively small—it’s only got 2,030 vertical feet to conquer, spread over just 470 skiable acres.

“Beginner Magic” lessons ($203 for a full day) stay on green runs, but get more expert and you also get more pricey: full-day private lessons for non-beginners set you back $680. (It’s less than two miles to the nearest hospital, so if you fall on your face, help’s not far.)

Buttermilk maintains two terrain parks which get filled with kids on weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. for the mountain’s “After School Freestyle” program ($19 for two hours). If you’re a fan of closing-day rail jams, plan to be at Buttermilk on March 24 or April 7.

As with Skico’s other hills, this one proffers “private-lesson pros” who serve to customize an on-the-slope experience based on the day’s powder conditions, as well as handle all the not-so-fun aspects of managing a ski trip, like securing tickets, rentals, and reservations.

If you haven’t been to Buttermilk recently, you wouldn’t have seen the new, $7-million Leitner Poma high-speed quad at Tiehack, built in 2011 to replace two other lifts and to slash ride time from 18 minutes to seven. Also new is a dirt superpipe that reduces water waste by four million gallons and saves the resort $15,000 in electricity.

Stay at the ski-in/ski-out Inn at Aspen, which has reasonable prices and commendable service—and is where the Obamas stayed in February, as well as in a Fasching Haus condo.

CONTACT: (877) 282-7736,
SEASON: Late December to early April

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 39. Alyeska Resort

Alaska’s best ski resort is Alyeska, a smallish outpost—only nine lifts—in the greater Anchorage area with more powder days (33 percent per season) than any other place on this list. One of its two terrain parks is the 400-foot Alyeska Superpipeline (not to be confused with the state’s similarly named oil pipe), a 55-foot-wide freestyler’s in-ground heaven with 18-foot walls.

Beginners need not be intimidated by the tricksters, though: Alyeska’s tree-lined groomed runs go easy on first-timers. The ski’s school director, Garth McPhie, is Level 4 certified, while a separate academy, called Discover, offers a strong kids’ program. However, bring little ones only if you’re willing to leave them in a lesson or have them by your side, since this is one of North America’s only ski resorts to offer no daycare whatsoever.

Winter in Alaska can feel like a total-evening experience, but Alyeska turns that potential disadvantage into a unique experience, offering discounted under-the-stars skiing on most days from 4 to 9 p.m.

After you’ve slid down as much of Alyeska’s 3,200 vertical feet as possible, settle in at the well-reviewed, recently renovated Hotel Alyeska, a ski-in/ski-out affair with a full-service spa, a rental shop that offers belt-waxing, a courtyard pond that’s also an ice-skating rink, and Seven Glaciers, an AAA 4-Diamond restaurant that makes you take a tram to reach its mountaintop spot. Even if you’re not sampling chef Jason Porter’s locally inspired cuisine, don’t neglect to take a ride on the 60-passenger aerial tram, which’ll whisk you high above bears and moose to for magnificent views of glaciers and the Chugach Mountains from Mt. Alyeska’s summit.

Off and around the mountain, you can take tours via dog sled or snowmobile, ice-climbing clinics, “flightseeing” expeditions, and if you’re here from April 19 to 21, partake in the zaniness that is the annual Spring Carnival: it involves a costume ball, an “idiot” swim, a “downhill dummy” race, and tug-of-war across the pond.

Alas, Alyeska has no real conservation program in place, except for having installed two micro-turbines to produce electricity and hot water. A good start, but a few more green efforts and the pride of Alaskan skiers would have placed higher on this list.

CONTACT: (907) 754-2111;
SEASON: Mid-November to late April
TICKETS: General: $60, students, military personnel and ages 60 to 69: $45, children: $25, ages 70 and older: $10, ages 5 and younger: free

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