The family gathers around the dining room table. Everyone agrees it's time to go somewhere new for our winter vacation. But, each family member has a different idea of where to go.
We asked the regional editors of OnTheSnow.com to take you on a short trip across alpine North America. Each knows the territory they cover like the back of their ski gloves. Perhaps your search for that perfect vacation can be narrowed right here.
Colorado: Shannon Luthy is OnTheSnow.com's Colorado editor and she's hardly shy about touting what makes it great. Here's her overview:
Colorado gets huge storms, and those are supplemented by snowmaking in the early season. Aspen/Snowmass, Vail , and Steamboat are great ski towns, with mountains that have it all. The snow is incredible but there is much more to do than just ski or snowboard. The restaurants are amazing. The ambience is worth the visit alone. A place like Steamboat is a step back to the real Wild West.
Want to avoid the big resorts? Try the "Colorado Gems." These are smaller resorts that are easy for a family to negotiate. The gems include places like Arapahoe Basin, SolVista, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, or Monarch Mountain, where you can pull your car right up to the base area, and eat a sack lunch in the lobby.
Other resorts that are a bit bigger are Winter Park, Crested Butte, Keystone, and Breckenridge. The base areas are fun, as are the nearby towns where kids and teens can find entertainment like tubing, ice skating, or hanging out at a pizza joint. The shopping is great too, full of variety with a Colorado flair.
Here's a Colorado secret: the historical hot springs pools scattered throughout the state. Soak in the warm mineral waters bubbling from the earth after a day on the slopes at Durango, Sunlight in Glenwood, Monarch, Steamboat, or Telluride.
Northern Rockies: Becky Lomax is Western Editor for OnTheSnow and part of her vast territory includes the Northern Rocky Mountains, including Alberta, Canada.
Some of North America's most stunning, rugged national park views titillate skiers and riders in the Northern Rockies. Skies clear at Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee to reveal the Grand Teton while visitors at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort stare at a panorama of Glacier National Park. Big Sky and Moonlight Basin visitors can pop for a day into neighboring Yellowstone.
The Northern Rockies amasses snow when Pacific and arctic weather systems collide. While temps can drop below zero, giving the region a frigid reputation, most of the time the thermometer hovers around 15-20 degrees F. That's perfect for producing dry powder.
A vast array of mom-and-pop ski hills sprinkle the region with bigger destination resorts spread along the mountainous spine. Many of the resorts rarely see lift lines due to the remoteness. Calgary provides easy access to resorts in the Canadian Rockies, but reaching the region's other destination resorts requires flights into small regional airports.
Pacific Northwest: Lomax explains that the Pacific Northwest benefits from wet weather systems cycling inland from the ocean carrying generous snow. So much snow usually falls that Mt. Baker has claimed the North American record for the most snowfall in a season. Sometimes it piles up across the region as thigh-deep powder, but other times as soggy Cascade Concrete, requiring fat boards to help you float.
The farther inland you go, the drier the snow. Hit Mission Ridge in Washington, Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho, or Fernie Alpine Resort in B.C. to find lighter pillows of powder. Areas with high elevation mixed with desert climates tend to garner the lighter-consistency snow, too. Mt. Bachelor benefits from slopes sprawled across several aspects of the Central Oregon volcano, while legendary Sun Valley rakes in the days of skiing under blue skies.
The region has three metro cities, including Portland, Ore.; Seattle, Wash.; and Vancouver, B.C. Each is within a hop from several resorts with at least one within a one-hour drive. Vancouver even boasts Grouse Mountain in the city with Whistler/Blackcomb, host of the 2010 Olympics, just to the north.
British Columbia and Alaska have burgeoned with heli-skiing companies in the past couple decades. Alaska heli-skiing maintains the reputation for extremes, including vast amounts of vertical, while British Columbia heli opportunities explore open alpine glaciers in good visibility and tree slopes for blustery days. (See related story on heli and cat skiing by Lomax)
California: Lomax also covers California in her huge swath of the West.
California presents a land of dichotomies for skiing and riding. Weather yo-yos between blue skies and storms that can pummel the Sierra Nevada range with five feet of snow in just a couple days. It's a place you can float through powder one day and grab sunny sky turns the next. But the glare of the sun also can quickly transform from powder into a firm surface.
Resorts clustering around Lake Tahoe, including Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Northstar-at-Tahoe and several others, make easy trips from Reno or the Bay Area with ski areas sitting close enough that you can try out several on one vacation. North shore resorts sit only 10 to 30 minutes apart.
Flights into Mammoth Mountain's tiny airport sped up travel to California's highest resort, and Yosemite's venerable Badger Pass provides one of the few remaining places to find lift-served skiing within a U.S. national park.
Even Southern Californians living near beaches can grab quality turns at several resorts, such as Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, and Mountain High. The mountains east of Los Angeles rely on snowmaking to keep coverage on the slopes, but El Niño seasons can strengthen the snowpack with more consistent conditions mixing in natural snow.
The race to the slopes on powder days for many Californians is complicated by highway patrol requirements. Chains are required over some of the passes to reach the resorts, and the ability to put chains on a vehicle fast may make the difference between first tracks through the powder or not.
Midwest: Mike Terrell has covered the Midwest ski scene in 11 states and Ontario, Canada for OnTheSnow.com for 13 years and has logged thousands of hours on its slopes over many more.
The best skiing and riding is arguably found around the Great Lakes. Resorts range in size from around 400 feet to 900 feet vertically and can range from several hundred acres to a thousand skiable acres in places like Lutsen Mountains in Minnesota. The largest vertical drop is found at Terry Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota with about 1,100 feet.
There are seven ski areas found around the Great Lakes that are over 700 feet vertical: Granite Peak, Lutsen and Spirit Mountain in Minnesota; Loch Lomond, Searchmont and Blue Mountain in Ontario; and Mt. Bohemia in Michigan's UP. Three UP resorts, Indianhead, Big Powderhorn, and Marquette Mountain, measure over 600 feet vertically.
Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, located about a half-hour apart around Petoskey, Mich., are the largest in terms of trails and terrain offered. They offer over 100 trails, seven terrain parks, an 18-foot Superpipe and two halfpipes combined. Lutsen Mountains and Granite Peak offer over 70 runs and multiple terrain parks.
Ski hills and resorts in the lower Midwest tend to be in the 250 feet to around 400 ranges for vertical drop. Chestnut, Ill., Sundown, Iowa, and Mt. LaCrosse, and Devil's Head in Wis., however, stretch to almost 500-foot vertical drops.
The Great Lakes ski resorts enjoy a combination of snowmaking, blizzards, and lake effect snow that blanket the slopes. They measure their snowfall in feet, while Lower Midwest areas measure theirs in inches. . Mt. Bohemia, which has no snowmaking, and seldom a need for it, can receive well over 20 feet of snow in a season. It topped out at over 350-inches several years ago.
Most of the ski areas around the large Midwestern cities - Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis - are small. But they are ideal teaching and learning areas. Wilmot Mountain, on the north side of Chicago, is credited with teaching more than a half-million Chicagolanders to ski and ride over the past 70 years. Tiny Mad River Mountain normally puts between 1,000 and 1,500 new skiers and riders through ski school on busy winter weekends.
Terrain Parks and tubing operations are extremely popular in the heartland. Nubs Nob has a highly rated terrain park, for example.
EASTERN SEABOARD: Roger Leo is Eastern Seaboard editor for OnTheSnow.com, covering another huge swatch of snowland, including the Northeastern U.S., Eastern Canada, and the Mid-Atlantic. Here's his look at the region that Robert Frost immortalized in poetry and Currier and Ives framed in art.
It is said that if you can ski or ride in the East you can do it anywhere, because in a season you will experience every variety of snow that exists. There is some truth to this. It is one reason that America's best ski racers, for years, were Easterners, able to handle tough, icy courses and difficult conditions with ease.
New England skiers and riders are fortunate indeed to have an amazing choice of resorts of all types within driving distance of Boston and Worcester, Mass., Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn., and surroundings, the region's main population centers. New York State offers similar variety a few hours' north of the greater New York Metro area.
Some drives are farther, as to Sugarloaf in Maine's Carrabasset Valley. A trip to the 'Loaf is well worth the five hours on the road, however, as it is a huge mountain, with some of the nicest terrain in the region, from gentle groomers to gnarly, fall-line bump runs.
Jay Peak in Northern Vermont is another haul for southerners, but again worth the trip for the quality of snow and terrain.
Southern Vermont holds Stratton Mountain, Mount Snow and Okemo Mountain Resort. All are attractive and nearby mountains with terrain to suit all tastes. Killington, famous for decades of innovation in ski teaching and marketing, is just a little farther north. Mad River, Sugarbush and Bretton Woods are a little farther still, but have the allure of historic venues that have kept up with changing technology.
An hour or two farther north brings one to Waterville Valley, Loon, Cannon, and Bretton Woods. Just a wee bit down the road lie Cranmore Mountain Resort, a family oriented operation in North Conway, and [R501R, Wildcat Mountain, one of the most traditional New England areas, with the very best view across Route 16 into Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines on Mount Washington.
Looking for a truly close to home "staycation?" Consider Wachusett Mountain, a scant hour from Boston, and Jiminy Peak in the Massachusetts Berkshires, a small resort with a true village feel and interesting terrain.
Quebec offers wide choice, including Tremblant an hour and a half north of Montreal; Owl's Head and [R242, Mont Orford] in the Eastern Townships near Lake Memphremagog; and Le Massif, an hour east of Quebec City, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Trips by Americans to any Quebec area seem like an exotic adventure, with different food, different language, different culture. The skiing and riding is fabulous, as the more northerly location often means colder weather, and fluffier snow.
Mid-Atlantic: Skiers and riders in the Mid-Atlantic portion of the Eastern Seaboard also have a huge variety of areas awaiting their pleasure.
The large population centers are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Farther south, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Atlanta, Ga., Louisville, Ky., Memphis, Nashville, Tenn., and Virginia Beach, Va. These cities ring a mountainous chunk of terrain that contains a fine selection of mountain resorts.
These include Snowshoe, W.Va., the region's largest destination resort, Sugar Mountain, N.C., and Wisp in Maryland. Pennsylvania's Poconos and Laurel Highlands also host a raft of ski areas, including Seven Springs, Camelback, and Hidden Valley.
Skiers and riders who frequent these locales know to hit the slopes when the snow is good because a more southerly location sometimes means weather that can swing quickly from cold to mild, and back. In this same vein, operators who have succeeded over the years have done so with heavy commitment to advanced snowmaking technology.
Southwest: Jill Adler covers the American Southwest for OnTheSnow.com. That region includes Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Here's her regional trip.
Utah: The state's slogan "Greatest Snow On Earth" is no lie, no embellishment, no propaganda. It's the honest truth. I swear to it on my brand new pair of Head Jimmi's. The consistent white stuff in the Utah Wasatch range is exactly what you hear about and see in ski movies. No illusions.
Hundreds of flights enter and exit Salt Lake International. It's an hour or less to 10 major mountain resorts once you land. The smallest one, Sundance, has 450 acres and a vertical drop of over 2,100 feet. Picking which ski area to hit if you do choose Utah is probably your toughest decision. Each has a history, a following, entertaining terrain, and a distinct personality.
Deer Valley is where the Hollywood and New York elite vacation. Stock brokers, movie producers, real estate moguls spend $700 per day to cruise with their own green-clad ski instructor making perfect turns on the groomers. When they're done flitting through the mostly intermediate terrain, they eat at cafeterias that serve gourmet-quality burgers and prime rib from china plates. There are only a handful of bumps, no terrain parks, and the runs are short. You can ride the high-speed quads all day and never tire. No snowboarding is allowed but occasionally people do get away with wearing jeans.
Snowboarders and skiers have Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons to appreciate together. PCMR is a giant family ski area with night skiing, an alpine coaster, terrain parks on steroids, a village at the base for après ski and ice skating, and an impressive junior race program. This is where the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team and Masters racers train. The runs are wide open, groomed and fast, but you can still get the fluff off Jupiter, Motherlode, and McConkeys chairs.
You can't ski all of Canyons in one day. The massive resort is the largest in Utah and if you try to ski everything all you'll be doing is working your way from one side to the other on lifts and cat tracks. Pick a spot and stay there whether it's 99/90, Condor, Iron Mountain, or Dreamscape. The narrow runs are frequently bumped up and crowded but you can still have a blast. Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons have a homier, less resort feel than Deer Valley, but all three resorts' ticket prices are within about $10 of each other at the walk-up window.
Big and Little Cottonwood canyons have the epic snow. It may snow eight inches in Park City and two to three feet in the Cottonwoods during the same storm. It's called lake effect and the science is real.
Snowbird is not for beginners. They have a teeny tiny beginner area and that's about it. The mountain will chew you up if you're not ready. Nearly 3,000 straight vertical off the Hidden Peak tram and all you do is lap the thing. You can ski all day and never sit down. Snowbird also has high-speed quads that can access pretty much everything the tram does.
Beginners and those looking for more groomed runs than not can take the short drive past Snowbird to [R10R,Alta]. The old-school charm wasn't lost when they replaced old chairs with highspeeders. It's still the place for hippies on teleskis and backcountry lovers. No snowboarding allowed here, either, but you can strike out into uncharted territory (well, they do have maps, but you know what I mean) from any number of backcountry gates. The snow at Alta and The Bird is often thigh to chest deep.
Solitude and Brighton up Big Cottonwood Canyon draw in more of the local crowd. Snowboarders flock to Brighton. They don't have the biggest or best "manufactured" terrain park and they don't need it. The whole mountain is a giant playground with cliffs, hits, walls, trees and powder to hit. Solitude is an intermediate powder lover's delight. Wide open, steep, uncrowded groomed runs.
Arizona: Fun in the sun in the winter is entirely possible in Arizona. We're not talking those world-class golf resorts and spas, either. You can get your ski and snowboard fix in the Grand Canyon State as well.
Day trips to family friendly resorts like Arizona Snowbowl, Sunrise Park, Mt Lemmon, and Elk Ridge, are an easy outing for those living in Phoenix and Tucson. Instead of plunking down hundreds of dollars on plane tickets, Arizona ski hills make for cheap commuter getaways.
Arizona Snowbowl is a little under three hours from Phoenix and just minutes from Flagstaff. The terrain is mostly intermediate, but you can climb to 11,500 feet off the highest lift. Arizona Snowbowl may be the most famous Arizona resort but it's not the biggest. That honor goes to Sunrise Park in the Arizona White Mountains, about four hours from Phoenix. It's run by the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
There's Mt. Lemmon, high above the Old Pueblo of Tucson in the Catalina Mountains. It's the southernmost ski area in the United States. This is a local's place through and through as they have just one chairlift. The tiny town of Summerhaven, literally burnt to the ground in a massive forest fire several years, but has been rebounding ever since.
Elk Ridge Ski Area, 30 miles west of Flagstaff, used to be known as Williams Ski Area. It's another family spot ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers.
New Mexico: You may not find another state to ski that is so immersed in culture that your turns are almost secondary. The art, the food, the people embrace New Mexico, and you will too.
The vistas of the aptly named Land of Enchantment stretch from every roadway. When those southernly weather swells hit New Mexico's eight ski areas, you'll discover steeps, groomers, and deep powder to rival most ski mountain ranges across the country. The temperatures, however, stay milder and skies bluer.
Some of New Mexico's resorts are strictly localized. You wouldn't necessarily book your vacation for a week at Pajarito. But, combine a day at this weekends-only ski area in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos with time spent exploring New Mexico's other resorts in the North Central Region.
The traffic- what traffic? The skyline, sigh. The New Mexican cuisine, yum. You're engulfed in the pueblos, homey hospitality, handmade crafts and art before you even hit the slopes.
Angel Fire, three hours from Albuquerque, entertains day and night. When you're done cruising the wide open front side or the steep glades off the backside, celebrate your vacation with snow tubing and night skiing, or wine pairing at the En Fuego Wine Bar in the Lodge at Angel Fire.
Red River is a throwback to the areas where your mom and pop learned to ski together. Cheap tickets and an earnest ski school will have you ready for the bigger slopes of Ski Santa Fe. Ski Apache sits high above the resort town of Ruidoso and is a big favorite of West Texans who head for its slopes. You'll be saying "y'all" whether you know it or not. There are three - count ‘em -- casinos in town, too.
Taos Ski Valley is a whole different ballgame. We've saved it for last because there is no place like it and offers an unusual, memorable ski vacation. The dramatic peaks jut from the Sangre de Cristo horizon forecasting the wicked times ahead.
More than 50 percent of the mountain is rated for experts, so your best bet is to sign up for a European-style Ski Week where experienced instructors hold your hand through knee-shaking chutes and high-five you when you take your skills to the next level. The Frito Pie and margaritas at the Stray Dog Cantina go down much smoother after they've led you on a successful hike to Kachina Bowl. The pueblo town of Taos nearby is filled with shops, fine galleries, and restaurants.