Going skiing is an effort. There’s the online hunt for tickets and reservations, the recruiting of partners in crime, the cramming of bulky gear into its casing, the drive up, the checking in, the suiting up, the snapping in. Not to mention the cost: Skiing and riding are among the most expensive of sports.
But if you’re the type who’s never been deterred by the energy it takes to get out there—and if you’re reading this, you very likely are—you know that all that fuss is, of course, worth it. Your reimbursement comes in the form of crisp air, the smell of a snow-blanketed pine forest, classical-crescendo-inspiring views, the crunch of fresh powder underfoot. And, more than anything else, the unmatched rush of carving your way downhill, leaving nothing but fresh tracks behind.
There’s that good après stuff too: Sharing a hot or liquored drink and hearty food with flush-cheeked friends and strangers, then lowering yourself onto a massage table or into a steaming hot tub can cap off a damn near perfect day.
Still, you don’t want to waste the effort of putting together a ski trip on just anyplace. So here’s our thorough ranking of spots where the haul of getting on the hill is likely to pay off with dividends. To create it, we developed a long scoring key to measure a mess of factors, from snow conditions, terrain quality, and ski-related amenities to affordability, safety, and level of service. We also looked at lodging options, off-hill recreational offerings, and the après-ski scene. Finally, we asked whether a resort takes responsibility for its environmental impact—because it’s pure hypocrisy for an industry so dependent on climate, so inspired by mountain grandeur, to degrade nature.
The result of all that research is this list. Use it as your hack to figuring out which mountains are right for you. You’ll notice that these span a spectrum from frou-frou fancy to no-frills basic: At some places, all there is to do is ski and ride; at others, there’s so much else that the thrill of shredding can feel almost beside the point. Whatever your wintertime pleasure, we hope that our work will make your next snow adventure an effort that’s well worth making.
It hosted the Olympic Games more than 50 years ago but Squaw Valley is still the reigning champion of American ski resorts. With 300 bluebird days and 450 inches of snowfall per year, it’s hard to catch a bad time here.
Before we get into the qualitative stuff, let’s look at a few more stats: the powder-day percentage is high—17 percent—and 170 trails represent 3,600 acres of variable terrain that drop 2,850 feet. Experts rip through steeps, chutes, and 16 bowls while noobs stick to the beginner-friendly mountaintop. Thirty lifts have an hourly capacity of 49,000 people and include a 110-passenger tram, a 28-person funitel, and the new Big Blue, a high-speed six-pack. Three terrain parks feature a kids’ pipe, though there are other ways to keep little ones entertained: a tube park, an ice-skating rink, sleigh rides, and mini-snowmobiling.
Squaw claims to have the “smoothest rental process in the states,” and the fact that you can pick gear up a day ahead supports that assertion. However, most things here are on the pricier side—maybe because this season’s $24 million in improvements need to be recouped. Ways to save here include buying in a group of 10 or more, opting for night skiing ($39 on Fridays and Saturdays), or enlisting—military personnel get free lift tickets on non-holiday weekdays. A ticket here also grants you access to the lifts at nearby Alpine Meadows, now that the two mountains are under shared management—a merger deal whose beginnings started when both resorts’ CEOs shared a chairlift ride.
Safety’s important here, so the ski patrol is very big. There’s also a medical clinic at Squaw’s base—its doctors are part of the 1,600-person winter staff, alongside gear valets and world-class instructors. You can learn from gold-medal Olympians Jonny Moseley and Tamara McKinney and pro skiers Ingrid Backstrom and Robb Gaffney. Many of the coaches are Level 4 equivalents and run programs like “Gates to Skills,” during which Thomas Gardtman, who’s taught Olympians, shows students how to tackle all-terrain conditions.
When it’s time to get off the hill, a plethora of après options await. The main lodge’s Olympic Plaza Bar is completely renovated and the pedestrian Village at Squaw Valley has fire pits that act as people magnets. You’ll also see lots of gear shops, pubs, and eateries. The area’s finest dining experience is a four-mile drive away, in Manzanita at the Lake Tahoe Ritz Carlton. Come nighttime at Squaw, DJs and bands grab the spotlight at drinking holes like Bar One, Cornice Cantina, and the Auld Dubliner. For a mellower party, head to the elevation-8,200 mountaintop pool and hot tub, where Umbrella Bar takes care of your cocktail needs.
Among the village’s six hotels are the AAA 4-Diamond Resort at Squaw Creek, whose spa menu relies on exotic ingredients; PlumpJack, whose refined surroundings reflect the preferences of Gavin Newsom, its politician founder; and popular Red Wolf Lodge—all three are ski-in/ski-out. The Silver Creek Campground is less than two miles away, and is a beautiful place in which to get to more intimately know Truckee National Forest and its river.
Squaw’s pristine environs inspires resort managers to make sustainability a huge priority. Every summer, projects involve repopulating native plants, controlling erosion, and ridding the area of invasive species. Snowmaking processes have been redone so as to save energy and water even while creating more of the white stuff. The resort also generates some of its own energy onsite: For example, the aerial tram, as it goes downhill, can make enough energy to feed back to the grid.
Clearly, Squaw knows how to make things last: Though the 1960 Olympics are long over, this impressive resort has had the endurance and wherewithal to remain relevant, attractive, and utterly dominant.
CONTACT: (800) 403-0206, squaw.com SEASON: Late November to late April TICKETS: General: Adult $92 ($78 for a half day; discounts for groups of 10 or more; military personnel get in free on non-holiday weekdays), ages 13 to 22: $76, ages 5 to 12: $39, ages 65 and older: $76, ages 4 and younger: free
Vail is fairly synonymous with American skiing. It’s gotten that famous for a variety of reasons. First: it gets a lot of snow—around 350 inches per year. Second: It’s got a lot of runs—193, most of which are black (but enough green and blue slopes keep beginners out of experts’ way as they shred the groomers). Third: The off-mountain offerings are astounding.
Let’s start by looking at the snow options. Though Vail’s ski season is shorter and its powder days fewer than many of the other resorts on this list, its 31 diverse lifts take eager skiers up 3,450 vertical feet groomed over 5,289 skiable acres. Four terrain parks cater to snowboarders, and eight onsite gear shops let you rent prior to arrival, and offer a 20 percent discount for doing so. This is one of the most expensive single-day lift tickets out there, so any way to save helps—if you’re not intent on making first tracks, consider buying a half-day ticket, as they’re a fraction of the full-day cost.
The robust ski school offers Nordic, telemark, and showshoe workshops, plus “Adventure Sessions,” which pair skiers with a high-caliber teacher who gives as much instruction about the sport as about the mountain itself. “Dynamic Skiing” gives a whole-body workout for balance and control, and for kids, the “Micro Mice” program gets tots in gear and teaches basic techniques while keeping things fun. (Those who’d rather not make the effort to stay upright can tube or ski-bike at the mountaintop Adventure Ridge area.)
We at Outside featured Luke Cartin, one of Vail’s environmental managers, for having one of the top 10 cubicle-free jobs. Some of his work is apparent on the mountain in the form of 42 solar panels. In addition to using renewable energy, Vail protects local wildlife by installing bat housing and closing the back bowls for calving elks. Vail also recycles and has achieved a water-use reduction rate of around 25 percent over the past four years.
Of the 60 hotels within a five-mile radius—many of which have excellent spas—two are resort-owned: The Lodge at Vail, where ski valets de-burden gear-laden guests, and Arrabelle at Vail Square, whose RockResort standards earned it a AAA 4-Diamond rating. Among the other notable lodgings are the European-style Four Seasons, the Sebastian, Sonennalp, and the Ritz-Carlton Residences. For those who’d prefer to camp, sites line Red Sandstone Road.
There’s no shortage of places to eat or drink, either. More than 100 restaurants and bars satisfy hungry guests but the finest among them are Sweet Basil, Elway’s, Matsuhisa, and Restaurant Kelly Liken. For après-ski debauchery, head to Shakedown, Semana, or Los Amigos. At Bol, you can roll a strike and at CineBistro, you can watch new releases while having a full dinner experience. A slew of festivals happen here each year (Vail Film Festival, Snow Daze, and Taste of Vail among them), so check the calendar of events before nailing down your trip’s dates.
CONTACT: (800) 805-2457, vail.com SEASON: Mid-November to mid-April TICKETS: General: $105 (discounts available for military personnel, flight attendants, and travel agents; half-day tickets are less expensive), ages 65 or older: $95, children $73, ages 4 and younger: free
Whistler is a powerhouse—its numbers stay almost unbelievably high in nearly every category, and it scores better than most in terms of snow conditions, terrain quality, and ski-related amenities. A typical year here dumps 469 inches, and the powder-day percentage is an impressive 22 percent. The huge stats go on to encompass 8,171 skiable acres, 5,445 vertical feet, 200 runs of all kinds, and 37 diverse lifts with an hourly capacity of 65,500 people. Three high-speed gondolas include a newish 22-car (28 total, with 6 standing) peak-to-peak mover.
Ten rental spots keep you geared up through Whistler’s long season, and the school stocks more than 1,100 ski and snowboard instructors from around the world, more than 50 of whom are Level 4s. If it’s a notable freeskier you want to learn from, ask for Wendy Brookbank, Derek Foose, or Peter Smart.
Whistler is one of the rider-friendliest places on this list. It’s got an array of terrain parks for skiers and snowboarders, halfpipes, and extra-wide lift lanes to let pals stand side by side. For those who prefer belly-sliding, the tube park is extensive: Its eight lanes are 1,000 feet long (a conveyor lift gets you to the top) and vary in speed from green to blue to black.
Whistler’s only strike against it is that it’s fairly expensive—it’s even worth wondering whether this Canadian resort could have nabbed our number-one spot if it were more affordable. With lift tickets pushing $100, an average gear package priced at $72 (half-day rates are only slightly less than full-day ones). While there are early booking offers (5 nights at $96 per person for full accomodations) and a Gold Card ($67 per day, no blackout dates) coming here can still become a major investment.
You do get what you pay for, though: safety is taken seriously at Whistler—its ski patrol packs a whopping 326 members, 113 of whom are full-time. Overall, 3,500 employees work here during peak season, some at exquisite hotels like the Four Seasons, the Fairmont Chateau, the Hilton, and the Westin. Three shopping villages present more than 200 stores and 150 restaurants—if you appreciate fine dining, don’t miss Araxi or Bearfoot Bistro. After dark, the nightlife scene takes over, with bars and clubs that rage even harder during annual events like the Whistler Film Festival (November 28 to December 2), the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (April 12 to 21), and WinterPRIDE (February 3 to 10). For the best drinks and dancing, go to Buffalo Bills, Garfinkels, Maxx Fish, and Tommy Africa's.
The Sea-to-Sky corridor connects Vancouver to Whistler via a 3.5-hour train ride, and it’s worth even a one-day trip to take in the majestic scenery. Though there's no passenger train service in the winter, a new highway lets your make the drive in about two hours from Vancouver International Airport. It’s hard to describe Whistler without mentioning its gorgeous wildlife, and therefore its vast list of sustainability efforts, which is too long to itemize here. But some notable eco-accomplishments include committing $1.5 million to “Operation Green Up,” replacing more than 11,000 lights with LEDs, and enforcing recycling and composting programs that have reduced waste by more than 40 percent. The energy-reduction goal here is five percent per year, and an employee carpooling program saves almost 23,000 fuel gallons and prevents more than 200 tons of emissions per year—the better by which to keep Whistler’s crazy amounts of fresh powder coming.
CONTACT: (800) 766-0449, whistlerblackcomb.com SEASON: Late November to mid-May TICKETS: General: $96, ages 65 and older: $81, children: $48, ages 5 and younger: free
Utah’s known for dry powder, and Canyons gets 355 inches of the stuff per year. The resort’s recent $50-million upgrade added a 20-million gallon reservoir that serves as a lake, a heated lift called the Orange Bubble Express, and, most notably, 300 more skiable acres for a grand total of 4,000 acres that divide out into 182 trails whose 3,190 vertical feet are served by 19 lifts.
Only 10 percent of the runs here are green, so lovers of black and blue tend to have more to do. The ski school stocks high-level instructors who can instill confidence, whether it’s skiing the fall line you want to learn, or how to light up the diamond slopes. Boarders ply the single terrain park, while others snowshoe and XC ski.
Being in Park City helped Canyons do well in the off-hill recreation category: Locally, there’s an ice arena, an alpine coaster, sleigh rides, a tube park, geocaching, a bowling alley, and much more—you can even test out the bobsled or luge at the Utah Olympic Park. Free buses run throughout town and make multiple stops at Canyons.
The resort itself features a pedestrian village with shops, bars, and a dozen new eateries: The Farm, for one, is a zero-waste restaurant whose ingredients come from within 200 miles—a reflection of Canyons’ serious environmental ethic. The resort has also converted to lower-emissions snowmobiles and implemented an all-mountain recycling program.
Hospitality here operates at a high pedigree because all of Hollywood comes to stay each January during the Sundance Film Festival—a fact that drives prices up all season long. There are plenty of ski valets at the resort’s eight hotels, including the excellent Hyatt Escala Lodge and the comfortable Grand Summit Hotel, both of which are ski-in/ski-out, as is the more residential Vintage on the Strand. The Waldorf Astoria brings with it all the refinement associated with its name, and its Asian-inspired Golden Door Spa rubs out any of the status-related anxiety that can arise here.
If you’d rather miss the frenzy that Sundance stirs up, come instead between March 22 and 31, when Spring Grüv invites pond-skimmers, musicians, and big-name snow performers.
CONTACT: (888) 226-9667, canyonsresort.com SEASON: Late November to mid-April TICKETS: General: $105 (save up to 51% by purchasing lift tickets in advance online), children and seniors (age 65 and older): $60, ages 6 and younger: free