Best Resorts in North America

The goal: To rank the continent's top ski destinations. The deciding factors: Snow quality and terrain. The judge: Marc Peruzzi, intrepid Colorado-based ski reporter, former Outside staffer, and editor of Skiing magazine, 2003-2008.

The 15 Best Ski Resorts in North America. Period

The goal: To rank the continent's top ski destinations. The deciding factors: Snow quality and terrain. The judge: Marc Peruzzi, intrepid Colorado-based ski reporter, former Outside staffer, and editor of Skiing magazine, 2003-2008. The method: Logged multiple 150-day seasons. Took entire winters off in the name of "research." Incorporated first-ever "powder-clause" into prenuptial agreement. Categories and disclaimers: None.

Tell Us What You Think
Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

 

1. Alta/Snowbird, Utah

2. Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia

3. Vail, Colorado

4. Jackson Hole, Wyoming

5. Snowbasin, Utah

6. Fernie Alpine Resort, British Columbia

7. Silverton Mountain, Colorado

8. Aspen Highlands and Snowmass, Colorado

9. Squaw Valley, California

10. Steamboat, Colorado

11. Mammoth, California

12. Telluride, Colorado

13. Solitude, Utah

14. Alyeska Resort, Alaska

15. Taos, New Mexico

PLUS: Our take on the season's best of everything, from digs to deals and ski porn to snow reports. And the results of our reader's survey on all things ski and snowboard.

Alta/Snowbird, Utah

Carving fresh tracks at Snowbird, Utah
Carving fresh tracks at Snowbird (courtesy, Snowbird Resort)

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Snowfall: 500 inches
Area: 4,700 acres
Vertical Drop: 3,240 feet
Web: alta.com; snowbird.com

So what makes these two connected resorts, perched at the top of a sleepy Utah canyon, the best skiing destination in North America? The snow. Sitting on the bull's-eye of the Wasatch Range's freakishly powerful storm track, Alta/Snowbird consistently offers up more of the deep, light, and dry than any resort on the continent. This is where Ski Utah gets its 500-inch snowfall number—in a weather-dependent sport, AltaBird is the closest you can get to a sure thing. But deep snow ain't fun if you don't have the terrain to go with it. You'll find steep and direct skiing off nearly every lift, with six high-speed quads and Snowbird's famous tram to get you there. Learn the ins and outs of the many traverses and hikes (try Alta's Devil's Castle and the 'Bird's Thunder Bowl) and you'll ski soft snow on new lines for weeks. The resorts' vibes differ—laid-back Alta is dotted with old-school wooden lodges, while Snowbird is shiny and loud, concrete and glass. But what both places share, other than a dearth of nightlife, is a lack of pretense. Everyone is here for powder. And they get it. Last winter was so stormy, the Wasatch Powderbird Guides' heli-ski operation barely got off the ground before February. A whopping 88 inches fell in April alone. At the time, I happened to be there doing some "reporting." Here's what I found out: If it's dumping all winter, book a spring trip. The locals had long since packed it in, and our crew skied untracked powder for two solid days.

Get Alta and Snowbird snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia

Snowboarding at Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Boarding in the clouds at Whistler Blackcomb (Paul Morrison/courtesy, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort)

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Snowfall: 402 inches
Area: 8,171 acres
Vertical Drop: 5,280 feet
Web: whistler-blackcomb.com

OK, the base village was designed by committee and the lower mountain can get milk-bottle foggy. But since you probably can't afford Europe this year, Whistler Blackcomb is the next best thing. Why? Big vertical. Like Yao Ming big. It's the largest resort in North America, and the terrain sustains some of the world's best skiers for a lifetime. Although a few U.S. resorts, such as Jackson Hole and Big Sky, claim more than 4,000 vertical feet, the truth is much of that drop gets broken up by topography. Whistler Blackcomb's 5,280-foot vertical descent, like those in the Alps, drops directly from top to bottom. Your legs will know the difference. (It also feels like a Eu­­ropean resort at night: Men, women, cougars, and manthers all dance goonishly in ski boots until 2 a.m.) For years, the only gripe was the difficulty of moving between the two peaks. No longer: This season, the resort links Blackcomb and Whistler via the much anticipated, $48.6 million Peak-2-Peak Gondola, a 1,430-foot-high thrill ride that covers 2.7 miles—a distance nearly twice as long as the Golden Gate Bridge—in just 11 minutes.

Get Whistler Blackcomb snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Vail, Colorado

Skiing Vail, Colorado
Sailing down Vail’s slopes (Jeff Cirro/courtesy, Colorado Tourism)

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Snowfall: 348 inches
Area: 5,289 acres
Vertical Drop: 3,450 feet
Web: vail.com

The state of Vermont offers about 6,200 acres of skiing at 20 resorts. Vail, all by its lonesome, serves up 5,289 skiable acres—most of them in the wide-open, seemingly endless Back Bowls. All that ungroomed snow used to beat up even the best skiers, but today's fat skis let you ride screaming sweeper turns as if you were on a buffed-out groomer (1,600 acres of which Vail offers). The hill's ski school is unmatched, which will keep the kids happy. Meanwhile, the pub-crawl scene through Vail village—recently renovated to the tune of more than $1 billion—should keep you busy at night. Bonus: You can catch a frequent and free bus ride home, so there's no need to rent a car.

Get Vail snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Skiing Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming
Two good choices at Jackson Hole (Tristan Greszko/courtesy, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort)

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Snowfall: 459 inches
Area: 2,500 acres
Vertical Drop: 4,139 feet
Web: jacksonhole.com

Sitting in the hotbed of American ski mountaineering, Jackson's sidecountry offers more adventure than you'll find at any other resort in the nation. (Sign on with the resort's guide service, or, if you've got the chops, explore the Tetons on your own.) But the inbounds skiing is plenty worthy too, especially now that a new version of the iconic Tram, which the resort tore down in 2006, is in action. And it's faster than ever, capable of hauling 650 skiers up 4,139 vertical feet each hour. With a nine-minute ride to 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain, this December you'll once again be able to access Jackson's famous steeps—and maybe even drop carcass into the 55-degree drain that is Corbet's Couloir—without riding four lifts first. Which is nice, because this is one cold-ass resort, and riding four lifts in a storm gets chilly.

Get Jackson Hole snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Snowbasin, Utah

Snowbasin’s John Paul Lodge, Utah
Grab a warm lunch at Snowbasin’s John Paul Lodge (courtesy, Snowbasin Resort)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 400 inches
Area: 2,820 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,959 feet
Web: snowbasin.com

It's hard not to get jealous of powder-skiing pioneers like Ed and Dolores LaChapelle, Dick Durrance, and the Engen brothers, all of whom discovered fluff turns at Alta in the fifties. Imagine being one of five people looking for face shots at a Utah resort. Luckily, Snowbasin is like that now. On a sunny Sunday afternoon a few years ago, two friends and I made approximately 1,000 laps in boot-deep fluff with nary another skier in sight. Yeah, Snowbasin, just 35 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, doesn't get quite as much snow as Alta. But the snow quality (less skier compaction) and the terrain (everything from 2,500-foot treed runs to mellow bowls to hairball chutes) make up for it. The place lacks a village, but the day lodges—built for the 2002 Olympics—are as posh as Deer Valley's. Hit it on the weekend, when the Park City resorts are overrun.

Get Snowbasin snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Fernie Alpine Resort, British Columbia

Fernie Alpine Resort at night, British Columbia
Fernie Alpine Resort at night (Henry Georgi/courtesy, Fernie Alpine Resort)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 348 inches
Area: 2,504 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,816 feet
Web: skifernie.com

The first newspaper article I ever published was about a secret Canadian powder stash called Fernie. I think I used the phrase "pillow drop" at least ten times. Back then, in 1996, Fernie was an undiscovered gem in southeastern B.C. And while it's far from hidden these days, it's still remote enough—3.5 hours from Calgary on dry roads—that midweek crowds are nonexistent, and a night out on the town involves many a Kokanee and rounds of billiards at the Royal Bar (God save the Queen!). Capped with unskiable granite cliffs that limit alpine access, Fernie is not as terrifyingly steep as Blackcomb or Jackson, but the rolling expert terrain and springy powder in the trees is matched only by Island Lake Lodge, the nearby cat-skiing operation. Since rain can be an issue down low, go in January or February, when temps are the coldest and the rain/snow line dips below the mountain's base.

Get Fernie Alpine snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Silverton Mountain, Colorado

A skier on Pequeno #2 at Silverton Mountain, Colorado
A skier on Pequeno #2 at Silverton (courtesy, Silverton Mountain)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 400 inches
Area: 1,819 acres
Vertical Drop: 1,900 feet (lift-served)
Web: silvertonmountain.com

The base lodge is a tent. The plumbing consists of a few kegs on tap and a pair of outhouses cut into the snow. Nighttime temps frequently hit 40 below. The sole lift is a secondhand double chair the California Forest Service insisted Mammoth remove from its property. Much of the terrain can kill you. The nearest groomed run is a couple of mountain passes away, in Durango. You need avalanche gear to get on the lift. Half of the season you can't ski without a guide, which bumps the cost of a lift ticket to $120. Although the staff is very nice, this may be the least family-friendly ski experience on earth, with the possible exception of La Grave, France, the extreme ski area Silverton is often compared with. Calling it a resort would be a stretch for apolitical strategist of the Rove school. But it's the most challenging skiing you'll find outside of the Chugach, and it represents all that is good in this sport. Well, flush toilets would be nice.

Get Silverton Mountain snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com

Aspen Highlands and Snowmass, Colorado

Skiing the trees at Aspen, Colorado
Skiing the trees at Aspen (courtesy, Aspen Skiing Company)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 300 inches
Area: 4,160 acres (combined)
Vertical Drop: 4,406 feet (Snowmass)
Web: aspensnowmass.com

Aspen takes a lot of hits for its garish displays of wealth. Most are well deserved. But don't write the place off. The people watching can be fun—where else can you see Russian oil barons mingling with ripened celebs like John Oates? Besides, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass have the best lift-served and hike-to terrain in the state, with the exception of Silverton. Skeptical? Throw your skis on your shoulder and bootpack up Highland Bowl. The snow stays dry all season, and the lack of a lift, in conjunction with the 40-to-45-degree pitch, makes for fast, big-turn powder skiing with no bumps. The same is true of Snowmass, which is still empty of skiers up high, even though the base area has been upgraded with a new village and a $7 million high-speed quad. And Auden Schendler's green initiatives with the Aspen Skiing Company (see page 62) may be paying off karmically, because the last few winters have seen Utah-worthy snowfall.

Get Aspen Highlands and Snowmass snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com

Squaw Valley, California

Skiing Squaw Valley’s Siberia Ridge, California
Squaw Valley’s Siberia Ridge (Nathan Kendall/courtesy, Squaw Valley Ski Corp.)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 450 inches
Area: 4,000 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,850 feet
Web: squaw.com

Heavenly has the nightlife. Alpine Meadows is California's telemarking-hippie heaven. Kirkwood is old-school and raw. But my favorite Tahoe resort is Squaw, where they call cliff faces ski runs. No need to take my word for it, though. Here are the five best things about Squaw Valley, according to freeskiing-film star Shane McConkey: (1) High-moisture-content powder. It sticks to steep terrain, you need far less of it to cover rocks, and it lets you go fast with barely any effort. [Editor's note: Bring fat skis.] (2) Tons of fun terrain. [We would call it scary.] (3) For some dumb reason, a lot of resorts don't run their lifts all the way to the top of a peak. At Squaw they do. (4) California sun! Blue skies! (5) The steeps of KT-22! [That's a lift. And Squaw Valley's PR department will be pissed that Shane didn't mention their well-groomed beginner terrain, the new guided backcountry tours, and the spruced-up village.]

Get Squaw Valley snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Steamboat, Colorado

Skiing at Steamboat, Colorado
Sunny skies at Steamboat (courtesy, Colorado Ski Country)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 343 inches
Area: 2,965 acres
Vertical Drop: 3,668 feet
Web: steamboat.com

Family friendly? Check. The best tree skiing in the U.S.? Check. One of the last real ski towns in the West—a place that's more pint-and-burger than Chivas-and-filet? Yeah, got that, too. Here, the cowboy hats are worn by cowboys. But what makes Steamboat stand out is its snow quality. Since most of the skiing is lower and therefore more sheltered than Colorado's Summit County resorts, six inches of fluff skis like six inches of fluff instead of an inch of wallboard. I've skied Steamboat five winters running, and it has snowed at least three out of five days each time. Like Alta/Snowbird, it's a can't-fail destination resort, thanks to the bountiful northern-Colorado storm track. And although it's only an hour's drive farther than the I-70 resorts, Steamboat just doesn't get the Denver day-skiers that Keystone and Winter Park do.

Get Steamboat snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Mammoth, California

Fresh Powder at Mammoth, California
Fresh Powder at Mammoth (courtesy, Mammoth Mountain)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 400 inches
Area: 3,500 acres
Vertical Drop: 3,100 feet
Web: mammothmountain.com

Thanks to its altitude advantage—the summit is more than 2,000 feet higher than Squaw Valley's—Mammoth offers Sierra skiing without the Sierra cement. Expect Rockies-quality snow that stays fresh for days after a storm. Long overlooked by most skiers outside of California, Mammoth has been rediscovered in recent years, thanks to a thriving park-and-pipe scene down low on the mountain, new direct flights from LAX, and a revitalized town. Five years ago the place was decrepit (think shag-carpeted chalets); now, it's full of new restaurants and bars. But it's still easy to find uncrowded terrain and deep snow up high. On a powder day, head directly to Chair 22 and float turns through the loosely treed Grizzly and Shaft zones while waiting for the Avalanche Chutes to open. Then it's on to Chair 5's Face for a couple of laps of untracked. If the light is good, ride the Panorama Gondola to the high alpine for steep shots off the summit.

Get Mammoth snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Telluride, Colorado

Telluride, Colorado, at night
Telluride’s all a glow at night (courtesy, Marketing Telluride, Inc.)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 309 inches
Area: 1,700 acres
Vertical Drop: 3,530 feet
Web: telluride.com

Tucked into a box canyon and surrounded by the type of dramatic relief rare outside of the Alps, Telluride is without question the most scenic mountain town in the West. The skiing's not bad, either. There's plenty of gentle terrain for the family around the Mountain Village area, and the rest of the place offers consistently high-quality direct skiing. It doesn't get massive snowfall, but if you're one of the three people who still like bumps, you're in business. On a powder day, head to the lower-mountain shots Cats Paw and Jaws, where it feels like you're dropping right into the old mining town below. The expansion into Prospect Bowl has spread the skiers out, but crowds were never really a problem here. Except in the bars, which resemble South Boston's finest on Saint Patty's Day. Hey, if you lived in a box canyon, you'd drink a lot, too.

Get Telluride snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Solitude, Utah

Skiing powder, Solitude Mountain, Utah
Skiing powder at aptly named Solitude (Scott Markewitz/courtesy, Mountain Resort)

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

Snowfall: 500 inches
Area: 1,200 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,047 feet
Web: skisolitude.com

Five hundred and seventy inches of snow fell here last winter. That's a lot of action for a place called Solitude. Just a ridgeline from Alta, Solitude is accessed by another canyon—which means it's still far less crowded than AltaBird, even though that secret was leaked 20 years ago. Two new high-speed quads on the lower mountain should relieve the morning bottleneck on the Sunrise chair, letting you hustle to the upper mountain and the well-spaced trees of the Headwall Forest. While Solitude isn't as big as some Utah resorts, the sidecountry feel of Honeycomb Canyon encourages you to hunt your powder over the course of a chill day. Which is followed by a chill night—the two bars shut down at 9:30.

Get Solitude snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Alyeska Resort, Alaska

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Snowfall: 742 inches (at the summit)
Area: 1,400 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,500 feet (with hike)
Web: alyeska-resort.com

During a seven-day blizzard that trapped me in Alyeska a few years back, I found myself checking my back for moss and commenting when I saw my shadow. There was that much moisture pouring off the Pacific. Nobody was flying a heli within 200 miles and there I was, storm- skiing waist-deep powder with no more than 50 other people. Alyeska—less than an hour south of Anchorage—gets you the treeless Alaskan skiing experience without the risk of sitting in a lodge all day watching it snow. Although foreign owners neglected the place for years, the Alta ski bum turned Alyeska savior John Byrne III bought the resort two years back. He can't do anything about the daylight (don't go until February), but expect more expert terrain and backcountry access. The beginner and intermediate lift service has already seen big upgrades, and the locals are waiting for lifts and gates to the big peaks out back.

Get Alyeska snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

Taos, New Mexico

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Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.
Extreme skiing in Taos, New Mexico
Extreme skiing in Taos

Snowfall: 309 inches
Area: 1,294 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,612 feet
Web: skitaos.org

Every year that Taos didn't allow snowboarding, they fell deeper into a Rip Van Winkle sleep. Sure, locals and aging Texans still made the trip, but despite Kachina Peak's 12,481-foot summit, Taos was off the national radar. No more. When Taos opened up to snowboarding last spring, it opened the resort to out-of-state families again. This is a good thing. You shouldn't let one of the last great mom-and-pop resorts fade away. The winters can be feast or famine, but the green-chile breakfast burritos are always a feast, and once the storm track sets up in December, you'll know whether the snow will follow suit. Hit it right and you'll be choking on the lightest and driest snow that falls in North America. Just don't expect to be pampered; the base village still has a mining-camp vibe, like Deadwood in winter. But we call that character.

Get Taos snow reports, mountain maps, and more from Away.com.

The Season's Best

Tell Us What You Think
Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

AIRLIFT Silverton, Colorado's year-old à la carte heli-drops, which deposit you on 13,000-foot peaks for $150 a pop. silvertonmountain.com

WEATHER REPORT El Niño's and La Niña's decision to take a break from scrambling winter weather in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning everyone will get some powder some of the time (we hope).

SCREEN TEST Skier Robb Gaffney's Squallywood clinic, at Squaw Valley, California, which teaches Warren Miller wannabes how to look good on film—though not how to become better skiers. $450; squaw.com

DRUMROLL Utah-based freeskier Julian Carr's planned attempt to break Jamie Pierre's 255-foot huck record. In September 2007, Carr announced that this winter he hopes to drop one of several behemoth cliffs around the world, prompting us to set up a Google News Alert.

DEAL Vail Resorts' new $580 Epic Pass, which gives you access to Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado and Heavenly in Lake Tahoe, California. epicpass.com

ARTISTIC EXPRESSION Burton's '09 Love boards, which feature cleverly cropped images of classic Playboy centerfolds. $430; burton.com

THUMB IN THE DYKE Aspen's and Vail's attempts to conserve energy by experimenting with 180-foot-long sheets of insulation to save snow during the summer.

DIGS Stowe, Vermont's new 139-room, $200 million Stowe Mountain Lodge, which heads into its first winter. Doubles, $400; stowemountainlodge.com

SKI FLICK Eighties comedy-ski-film auteur Greg Stump's Legend of Aahhh's, which had better live up to his classic The Blizzard of Aahhh's.

TERRIFYING VACATION Jackson, Wyoming–based Exum Mountain Guides' commercial ski descents of the Grand Teton. $2,500 for three days; exumguides.com

DÉTENTE Taos Ski Valley's first full season open to snowboarders.

PATRIOT ACT Lindsey Vonn's and Bode Miller's attempts to repeat their Yankee sweep at the World Cup.

Reader's Speak

Tell Us What You Think
Did we nail the best resorts in North America? Or did we miss your favorite ski area? Weigh in on our ski resort smackdown.

When choosing a resort, you care most about: snow quality (78%). You care least about: nightlife (1%). Your favorite resort is: Alta/Snowbird (17%). Your second-favorite resort is: Whistler Blackcomb—great minds think alike (13%). Your favorite place to party is: Whistler Blackcomb (32%). You'd most like to own a ski condo in: Jackson Hole (18%).

Most of you are skiing purists (70%). Some of you just snowboard (18%). A few of you show-offs do both (12%). More than half of you admit to wearing helmets all the time (52%). A hell of a lot of you are on the way to concussions (40%).

The majority of you think hot tubs are the perfect way to end a day of skiing (69%). Some of you think they're germy pools (21%). And a few of you elaborated: "Best with bikini-clad women and beers … a place for horny men to make fools of themselves … cesspool of cougars and manthers … private hot tubs end the day; public hot tubs—EWW! … A if it's yours, B if it's public."

Think you know a better resort? Join the debate at outsideonline.com/resortssmackdown.

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