By Ted Alan Stedman
Ski resorts are like the people they welcome: They come in all shapes and sizes, each with its own distinct personality. Here in the U.S., the West is blessed with an enormous ensemble of winter playgrounds, from rustic, inexpensive family-owned mountains to monolithic mega resorts possessing every perk imaginable. Of course there’s no one mountain perfect for everybody, but certain mountains are perfect for some. Where do you fit in?
Northstar at Tahoe, California
What makes this North Lake Tahoe resort great for family travel? Begin with its generous mix of pricing, programs and diversions. Northstar’s big draw is its Six Pack six-day lift ticket block. Purchase by Dec. 15 and shave about 30 percent off adult/young adult day prices. Meanwhile, pre-teens can slide for as little as $19 per day with the purchase of regular multi-day tickets. Value aside, Northstar goes big with assorted family offerings such as lift-served tubing; geocaching, a treatsure hunt using GPS units; three kids-only Adventure Parks and a 9,000-sq.-ft. skating rink. The new Village at Northstar invigorates amenities with a hip mix of retailers, restaurants, bars and equipment shops, along with tasteful slopeside lodging. But don’t think “family-friendly” lessens the experience for seasoned skiers and shredders. Northstar serves up a bountiful 2,904 skiable acres, a 2,280-foot vertical, 18 lifts and 89 trails – including 27% advanced runs with white-knuckled steeps and trees. And of course, Northstar delivers on the main ingredient with an annual 350-inch snowfall.
Beaver Creek Resort, Colorado
“Not Exactly Roughing It” is Beaver Creek’s new tagline. Indeed. This central Colorado location seems driven to the nines to provide the ultimate ritzy winter resort experience. In fact, chic Beaver Creek holds the National Ski Areas Association title of Best Customer Service of any ski resort in the nation. Luxe lodging, dining, nightlife — it’s all covered in the resort’s three distinct mountain villages of Bachelor Gulch, Arrowhead and Beaver Creek Village. And to make the point further, the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa debuted this season, becoming the Vail Valley’s newest luxury resort with a sprawling 23,000-sq.-ft. spa and its very own gondola. The on-slope experience is what you’d expect of such lavish surroundings, a world-class mountain sporting a humongous 4,040 vertical feet and 149 trails serviced by no less than 10 high-speed quads and seven additional lifts. With 1,814 skiable acres, terrain is any- and everything you’d want, from the breakneck Birds of Prey runs that annually host the Men’s World Cup, to the manicured slopes of Bachelor Gulch and the remarkable 2 ¾-mile Centennial Trail.
Alta Ski Area, Utah
Pure skiing is what Alta’s about — literally, figuratively. It makes no apologies for its no-snowboard stance, stating its commitment to preserving and protecting the skiing experience (although snowboarders can ride at adjoining Snowbird Mountain or through Alta’s backcountry Snowcat Tours). Hardcore skiers have had a long love affair with Alta’s heady mix of vertical terrain, chutes, jumps, cornices, bumps and groomers, all of which are annually blessed with an average 500 inches of Utah’s famous dry powder. Runs spilling from Baldy Chutes, Devil’s Castle and East Castle are of E ticket caliber, but you can keep things sane with the ample supply of blue and green runs stashed within Alta’s 2,200-acre boundary. The lodging and dining scene fit Alta’s dedicated ski persona; the nostalgic 1938 Snowpine Lodge has a gorgeous mountain panorama reminiscent of Switzerland. Something else to consider: at just 25 miles from Salt Lake City, Alta is made for daytrippers, meaning cash-strapped skiers can easily opt for more affordable city lodging.
Mount Baker, Washington
The claim to fame here is snow — so much that you almost need a snorkel after a storm rolls through. Not only does it post an average 647 inches per year, but Baker holds the record as the biggest snow collector in the world, with 1,140 inches tallied in the ‘98-’99 season. It’s also sweet that Baker won’t break the bank. At about $43 for adults and $33 for ages 7-15, it has the lowest weekend and holiday ticket prices in the Cascades, and mid-week prices knock-off a few more bucks. Baker also prides itself as a learner-friendly mountain, designating “Kids and Beginner” runs to help encourage skills and confidence. Besides tons of snow, what else do skiers and ‘boarders get? That would be a 1,500-foot vertical drop and 1,000 lift-served acres via 8 lifts. Being a tad further than other regional ski areas (about 2.5 hours from Seattle), you also get wide open runs on 38 perpetually uncrowded trails.
Vail Mountain Resort, Colorado
Looking for that enviro feel-good factor when choosing your winter resort location? You might not know it, but at Vail Mountain and its nearly $3 billion renovated Lionshead Village, you’ll be the beneficiary of the resort’s conversion to 100-percent wind-generated energy. Vail Resorts is now the second-largest corporate purchaser of wind power in the country, wining the second annual Gold Leader award from the State of Colorado. By buying renewable energy credits to offset the company’s entire electricity use — which includes 5 mountain resorts and 125 retail locations — the move will avoid spewing roughly 211 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Vail’s also got the world’s largest ski area recycling program, recycling/reusing more than 70% of materials. With your conscience appeased, enjoy the guiltless pleasures of America’s largest ski area. At seven miles wide, with legendary back bowls, chutes, bumps, groomers and 31 lifts to access 5,289 acres of terrain, Vail has enough elbow room to feel like your own private resort.
CHEAP ‘N DEEP
Hoodoo Ski Area, Oregon
Drive 30 miles south from Portland on I-5 to State 22, turn east and continue for 80 miles and you’ll stumble upon Hoodoo Ski Area, a hidden gem tucked deep in the Cascades. Locals like to say it’s “cheaper, deeper and steeper” at this feisty non-resort. With a 1,035-foot vertical, 806 lift-served acres and 6 lifts to 29 trails, little Hoodoo’s got some chops, and it prides itself on offering something for everybody. Elite skiers frequent Hoodoo’s backside, known for deep powder stashes and ledge hops. The mile-long Over Easy run is perfect for beginners and intermediates to hone their skills. Hoodoo also offers great value for family travel. For normal day tickets, adults shell out just $42; juniors 6-11 $29; while kids 5 and under are free. And you gotta love creative discount programs like its $16 Tightwad Tuesdays ticket for all ages. Another reason to fall for this indie ski mountain is its 60,000-square-foot North Lodge, fitted with deep chairs, roaring fireplace and one of the country’s best historic displays of snowboard evolution.
FOR WEEKEND WARRIORS
Loveland Basin, Colorado
Located on the Continental Divide, plucky Loveland’s gotta whole lotta heart. It spreads the love over what’s often the longest season of any U.S. winter resort, routinely being the first to open and last to close. Topping out at 13,010 thin-air feet, this chilly snow monkey sees 400 inches of natural powder, with 160 of the mountain’s 1,365 skiable acres getting a double dose by mechanical snowmaking. The real kudos, however, come from its proximity to Denver’s Front Range skiers. Just 53 miles west of Denver on the Interstate 70 corridor, Loveland is within easy striking distance. Yet unlike so many close-to-home “bunny hill” areas, its mountain stats are impressive: a 2,410-foot vertical, eight lifts and serious advanced terrain to the tune of 46%. Economics play easy here as well, the biggest sweetheart deal being its Four Pack tickets for $119 (read: under $30/day). Even if you don’t go for the pack, regular adult day tickets are just $44 and $56, depending on time of season.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming
What’s in a name? If they’re Pucker Face, Rock Garden, Head Rush or the infamous Corbet’s Couloir (which demands sticking a freefall to escape a 1,000-foot slide) the answer is everything. Welcome to the heart of the Tetons and Jackson Resort, considered the ultimate acid test for winter gravity seekers. Jackson’s hallmark is the gutsy, untamed terrain shooting abruptly skyward on its two distinct mountains, Rendezvous and Après. Fifty percent of its 2,500 inbound acres rates as expert, and the groomers is does have are wide-open and sweet as they come. Factor in an average 459 inches of seasonal “pow” and it’s understandable why Jackson is a virtual right-of-passage for hardcores. For the 2008/2009 season, its big news is that the highly anticipated new Aerial Tram will begin operations. The “cable to the sky” tram is singular in the U.S. — twice the size of the original historic tram, carrying 100 passengers 4,139 vertical feet to the crest of the Tetons and an endless number of runs below. As the off-slope scene goes, après time in Teton Village is considered mandatory. Hands down, the best bet for first-timers is the famous Mangy Moose, voted the #1 restaurant and entertainment complex of all North America ski resorts.
Resorts of Aspen, Colorado
Aspen is awesome, the closest thing to Nordic Nirvana in the U.S. Part of the appeal is its Glitter Gulch glitz and (yawn) see-and-be-seen celeb scene. But get past your inner paparazzi and you’ll find that Aspen’s hype rightfully extends to its incredible ski destinations, four in all. Aspen Highlands — aka “Ajax” — is one of the world’s classic ski mountains, rising straight from the epicenter of downtown. Its 67 miles of runs have it all, from steeps and bumps to wide groomers, all packed inside a vertiguous 672 acres boasting an elevator shaft 3,276-foot rise. You want classic ski town charm, this is it, and it gets no better than après down-time at the famous Little Nell’s bar. Aspen Mountain is known as the “local’s mountain” for its testing big mountain terrain and 3,600 feet of steep vert, and it’s ‘the’ place to be for deep powder. Below its 12,500-foot summit, 125 runs fan out over 1,028 acres, and the snowplay is its best within the Deep Temerity area’s new terrain.
Buttermilk is another Aspen classic, known to Gen Yers as home of the ESPN Winter X Games. Lacing its 470 acres are 44 trails, many favoring less experienced riders and families wanting to ski together in a mellow ski environment. And finally there’s Snowmass, the largest of Aspen’s quartet famed for its vast all-ability terrain. This brute struts 3,132 acres, 147 miles of trails and 4,406 vertical feet — the longest vertical rise in the country. Intermediates can ski all day on various wide open groomers without ever repeating a run. And experts can swoon over the infamous Cirque at Snowmass, where fall lines drop through cliffs, rockbands and steep headwalls. Off-slope, Snowmass is fresh from over $2 billion worth of improvements funneled into its new base village, five new restaurants, lodging and the new Sheer Bliss quad chair lift.
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Ted Alan Stedman is a former ski and snowsports journalist for the Rocky Mountain News and has covered skiing for Outside, Sunset and SKI magazines