The Outside Blog

Adventure : Nov 2012

The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 10. Breckenridge Ski Resort

Everyone knows Breck’s name, whether for its 374 yearly powder inches, for having North America’s highest lift, or for encompassing Colorado’s biggest historic district. Yes, this Vail Resorts-owned place is quite famous and unlikely to get less so in the foreseeable future.

Which is perhaps why things are on the expensive side here, and why six resort-owned hotels exist to cater to any whimsy. The ski-in/ski-out One Ski Hill Place, for one, proffers classy guestrooms, three restaurants, a massage center, even a bowling alley.

To entertain yourself at the resort in non-ski ways, ride the new Gold Runner alpine coaster, snowmobile, take a dog sled, or browse any of seven on-mountain gear shops. Within a mile’s radius is an ice-skating rink, a movie theater, sleigh rides, and free transportation to the other highlights of Breckenridge and Summit counties—although more than 25,000 cars took advantage of a $5 carpooling incentive last season.

Breck looks out for the earth in other ways too, enforcing major recycling and composting programs, buying wind-energy credits to offset 100 percent of the resort’s energy use, and upgrading snowmaking methods to save water. Greenies aren’t as pleased, however, about the planned 543-acre expansion into land that’s currently wild habitat.

That’ll be in addition to the existing 2,358 skiable acres, which cover 155 trails and 3,398 vertical feet connected by a diversity of 31 high-speed lifts whose capacity approaches 38,000 people per hour. There are also two terrain parks and an Olympic-sized halfpipe. More than half the terrain here is restricted to highly skilled athletes, and gets shredded by the likes of Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler, and Tanner Hall during the annual Dew Tour in mid-December.

The ski school stocks high-caliber instructors and runs programs specifically for women, seniors, and wannabe snowboarders. Three daycare centers take babies as little as eight weeks old and makes sure the tots get to play outside. Should you wipe out, the ski patrol’s pretty big: more than 250 members.

Breckenridge is a jewel box of a town with some 200 boutiques and a full-fledged après scene: One of the newer restaurants is cafeteria-style Ski Hill Grill, whose views are of the action on the slopes. The village also has dozens of bars (Breckenridge Brewery and the historic Gold Pan Saloon are among the best), nightclubs (head to Cecelia’s first), live-music venues, and in January, the annual Ullr Fest, a “wacky winter festival,” as well as the International Snow Sculpture Championships. Spring Fever, a roundup of music and sports contests, runs mid-March to April 14.

CONTACT: (888) 858-6572,
SEASON: Mid-November to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $99 (reduced-price half-day tickets offered; discounts offered to military personnel, travel agents, and flight attendants), children: $54, ages 65 and older: $89, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 11. Big Sky Resort

Big Sky’s got big powder: 400 inches of the stuff every year. It spreads over 3,832 uncrowded acres in the form of 155 wide-open runs, 60 percent of which are reserved for experts—the Lone Peak Tram shuttles them up to the 11,166-foot summit. Prices here are average and buy access to two terrain parks and 21 lifts that drop you off atop these 4,350 vertical feet.

The staff-to-guest ratio, at one to two, is impressive—employees are anything from ski valets to “mountain ambassadors” to high-caliber instructors: Among the coaches are a British Olympian and a member of the PSIA demo team. The ski school offers private lessons, women’s clinics, off-trail mountain guides, and a mommy-and-me program, though childcare is free for resort guests.

The ski patrol is big, possibly because the nearest hospital is far: Bozeman Deaconess requires a 50-mile drive. It’s slightly disconcerting that the resort doesn’t offer a 24-hour emergency service, but at least there’s a full-time safety manager on staff.

Big Sky’s five hotels include the village’s upscale Huntley Lodge, and, along the Gallatin River, Whitewater Inn. For food, try Peaks, which serves euro-western dishes, and Andiamo, whose Italian fare aims to impress. There’s a range of shops in the Mountain Mall, and Whiskey Jacks houses a bar, a casino, and, often, live music. Off-hill recreational options range from the unique—laser tag, paintball, and Yellowstone tours—to the more traditional: an ice-skating rink, a tube park, a zipline, sleigh rides, and snowshoe hikes through Moonlight Basin.

The scenery here, between Bozeman and Yellowstone, is a national treasure, so Big Sky does all it can toward preservation—it protects the local black bears, works with the Blue Water Task Force to keep the rivers healthy, recycles, saves lots of energy, and teaches employees how to work greener.

Snowmaking is so limited that it rarely goes on for longer than eight weeks, and just 10 percent of the mountain gets covered in the manmade stuff—the best tribute, perhaps, to how often and well the freshness falls.

CONTACT: (800) 548-4486,
SEASON: Late November to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $89 ($79 for a half day), students: $69, ages 6 to 10: $49 (free if booked with Big Sky Resort Central Reservations), ages 70 and older: $79, ages 5 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 12. Snowbird

Snowbird flies highest in the realms of hospitality and environmentalism. This is a place where you’ll get ski valets, high-caliber instructors who give private lessons, Flaik GPS devices (to track location and vertical feet skied), staffed kids’ programs (they take babies as young as six weeks old)—and a staff-to-guest ratio of one to one, which is almost unheard of at a ski resort. To boot, most things are decently priced or at least not outrageous, especially considering the quality of the staff.

In service to nature, Snowbird helped fund a mining-area cleanup, established a significant recycling program, and has done much to conserve energy. In return, the snow gods send down 500 inches per year—the ski season here is longer than at most places—and arrange for a powder-day rate of 11 percent.

With 85 trails that keep skiers of every level entertained, the ‘bird’s 2,500 sporting acres span 3,240 vertical feet by way of 11 modest-capacity lifts, including a new high-speed quad. Five rental locations stock riding gear too, and a terrain park is outfitted with kickers and rails. You can also go snowshoeing, snowmobiling, take a backcountry-skills class, or ride a brand-new alpine coaster. Should you get hurt, the resort offers a 24-hour emergency service but the ski patrol is pretty tiny and the nearest hospital is 11 miles away.

Of the four onsite hotels, Cliff Lodge is the only ski-in/ski-out property and just got completely remodeled, but the Lodge at Snowbird, the Inn, and the Iron Blosam (a condo lodge) are walking distance from lifts. Before tucking in for the night, dine at one of 15 resort eateries—the newly redone Aerie sits atop the lodge—and head to the Tram Club for dancing, karaoke, and generously priced beverages. And yes, you can drink in Utah, though base altitude is 8,100 feet, so it’s wise to take it easy on the bottoms up.

On New Year’s Eve, the Torchlight Parade is a sight to behold, as hundreds of skiers and riders zigzag down the hill creating a moving mosaic of fiery light.

CONTACT: (800) 232-9542,
SEASON: Mid-November to late May
TICKETS: General: $78 (reduced-price half-day tickets offered), children: $42, ages 65 and older: $65, ages 6 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 13. Heavenly Ski Resort

Heavenly got its first dusting on October 12, a flurry the managers at this veritable convention center of skiing hope is a sign of a higher-than-average snowfall year—though the average is a quite respectable 360 inches.

Its school claims to have the faculty with the highest number of PSIA-AASI national team members, who teach learners of all levels on the resort’s 4,800 skiable acres. Thirty lifts—tickets to which are reasonably priced—drop off at 91 named trails covering 3,500 vertical feet. And since this is snowboard-crazy Tahoe, four progressive terrain parks make for sick sliding and grinding—new this year is an 18-foot halfpipe.

The big numbers spill into the après scene too: The more than 100 area restaurants include 19 Kitchen Bar (it’s atop Harvey’s Casino so it’s got good views), Steins, Edgewood, Friday’s Station, and the Sage Room. South Lake’s also got great shops, party joints, and places to gamble. As for hotels, we recommend the modern Tamarack Lodge (it’s LEED-certified and ski-in/ski-out) and the Marriott Grand Residence Club, which is less than 100 yards from the lift. Definitely bring the kids: There’s an entire lodge dedicated to them, and nannies take care of children as young as six weeks old.

Even though Vail Resorts-owned Heavenly is notorious for being where Sonny Bono died after colliding with a tree—it took at least two hours to find his body—the ski patrol here remains insignificant. However, a hospital is within five miles and the 24-hour emergency service enlists an onsite physician and a full-time risk manager.

Off the hill, recreational options abound: an ice skating rink, a tube park, a bowling alley, a movie theater, spas, and sleigh rides through the beautiful Northern California forest.

Heavenly loves its open spaces so much that it partnered with the Tahoe Fund to raise money to help protect them. However, the resort does plan to encroach onto land that’s currently wild habitat: Four new trails will turn more than 20 previously untouched acres into groomed runs. Managers atone by LEED-certifying all new buildings, retrofitting water-flow systems, reducing energy consumption, and recycling two-thirds of what would have ended up in landfills.

It’s not all angelic in Heavenly, though: Partiers converge on Friday and Saturday afternoons for Unbuckle, a sinful event at 9,150 feet (gotta take the gondola) that features sexy dancers (female ones—sorry, half the population that appreciates the male body), international-circuit DJs, and free-flowing liquor to heat things up.

CONTACT: (800) 220-1593,
SEASON: Mid-November to mid-April
TICKETS: General: $63 (discounted for military personnel; reduced-price half-day tickets available), children ages 5 to 12: $37, ages 13 to 18, and 65 and older: $48, ages 4 and younger: free

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The Best Ski Resorts in North America: 14. Sun Valley Resort

Sun Valley’s ski school dates back to 1936. Today, its top instructors are Olympian Terry Palmer and Carol Levine, who helped pioneer women-only groups. “Little Spud” sessions are for ages three and older, and the Burton Learn-to-Ride program equips snowboarder wannabes with skills.

While Sun Valley, which is on the pricier side, does excellently in many of the categories we measured, like environmentalism and off-hill recreation, it must be said that its snow quality and conditions aren’t the greatest—though many ski-related amenities are offered.

Its inches of annual snowfall clock in at just 220, so only nine percent of days per season see six or more inches of powder. There’s a diverse variety of lifts (19) and trails (75, descending 3,400 vertical feet), three terrain parks, three on-hill equipment shops, and a 69-person ski patrol whose members include paramedics.

The resort has 1,600 winter employees, some who make their living as ski valets, while others help run the 148-room Sun Valley Lodge and the 109-room Sun Valley Inn, neither of which are ski-in/ski-out. The resort also offers good-sized cottages to rent, and campsites aren’t hard to find.

You’ll find most of what you’ll want at the resort itself: an ice-skating rink, a 1950s-themed bowling alley with billiards, a spa, sleigh rides, kids’ mountain-adventure trails, heated swimming pools, and indoor golf. A newish 56-car gondola takes passengers on a scenic journey to Roundhouse Restaurant, which overlooks the resort from atop Bald Mountain.

A free shuttle does go into nearby Ketchum, where there’s a ropes course, a climbing wall, the Galleria Shops, and a 1937 opera house that serves as a cinema—if you eat at Bald Mountain Pizza, Trail Creek Cabin, the Ram, or Gretchen's, they’ll give you free movie tickets. Also free here, with the purchase of each lift ticket, is a van ride to the airport.

To say that the wonderland scenery here is worth protecting is quite the understatement, so Sun Valley partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to help conserve its surrounding lands and has done much to save energy, recycle, and compost.

If XC’s your speed, plan to be here between January 26 and February 3, when the Nordic Festival comes to town, bringing with it the Norwegian Olympic team, races, demos, and a snowshoe challenge.

CONTACT: (800) 786-8259,
SEASON: Mid-December to early April
TICKETS: General: $95 ($69 for a half day; discounts offered to military personnel), ages 12 and younger: $54, ages 65 and older: $62

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