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Europe's Best Early-Season Ski Resorts- ©Michael Portmann

Skiing Zermatt provides breathtaking views of the Matterhorn.

Copyright: Michael Portmann

As summer ends and temperatures drop, skiers and riders become increasingly excited about the coming ski season and start planning their winter trips. Why wait? A handful of European ski resorts are already open, and during October and November another dozen of Europe’s leading ski areas will crank their lifts and open their slopes for early-season skiing.

"You'll enjoy uncrowded slopes and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with national ski teams." 

“Having worked in the ski business for many years, I am often surprised by how few people take advantage of the opportunities for early-season skiing in October and November,” says Katie Waddington, boss of ski tour operator Zenith Holidays. “You'll enjoy uncrowded slopes and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with national ski teams as they prepare for winter. Best of all, you’ll be paying less for accommodation and lift passes. All in all a five-star experience at three-star prices.”

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In most cases, early-season skiing is limited to glacier areas, but on the upside, you’re likely to have the slopes pretty much to yourself and a select few other early-birds. You’ll be able to travel through quiet, empty airports and you’ll be the first to try out the new season’s equipment.

Autumn skiing on the Hintertux glacier, Austria  - © Tuxertal Tourism

Autumn skiing on the Hintertux glacier, Austria

Copyright: Tuxertal Tourism

Where to Ski in September

Austria

Zermatt, located in Switzerland (operates Europe’s highest lifts) and Hintertux glacier in Austria’s Ziller Valley. Both of these resorts are open year round. Zermatt’s neighbor, Saas Fee, opens mid-July each year. By September, Saas Fee is already two months into its 10-month-long snowsports season. The next option is Pitztal, which offers skiing and riding via Austria’s highest lifts. This ski area closes in mid-May but re-opens in mid-September each year for an eight-month season. Its sister resort, Kaunertal, operates with a similar schedule.

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Italy

Italy’s Val Senales, which normally opens at the start of September (subject to weather conditions) offers a cable car that lifts guests to the station at Hochjochferner in six minutes. From there, a five-mile downhill run is possible with additional trails available from linked chairlifts.

Apart from operating their country’s respective highest lifts, Pitztal and Zermatt have another thing in common: they both own a revolutionary snowmaking system designed by an Israeli company, IDE, which is capable of making snow in above-zero temperatures. The two resorts have the system ready in the fall if temperatures are high on their glaciers and there’s no fresh snow.

October skiing at the Pitztal glacier, Austria  - © Pitztaler glacier

October skiing at the Pitztal glacier, Austria

Copyright: Pitztaler glacier

Where to Ski in October & November

Austria

Austria normally has more places to ski or ride in the fall than any other single country, with up to eight areas open by mid-October. The precise opening dates depend on snow conditions, but many resorts tie in traditional fall beer festivals with the first skiing of the season.

Along with Hintertux, Kaunertal and Pitztal, Austrian fall glacier ski and ride options include the Kitzsteinhorn glacier at Kaprun; the Mölltal glacier ski area; the twin glaciers of Solden; the Stubai glacier close to Innsbruck and the Dachstein, not far from Schladming.

Solden and Stubai may open in early September, depending on conditions. Obergurgl is normally one of the first ski areas that doesn’t rely on a glacier to open each winter, thanks to its high base and very high slopes above. The resort can usually offer top-to-bottom skiing starting in mid-November.

Switzerland

Besides Saas Fee and Zermatt, several more of Switzerland’s glacier ski areas open in early October each year. The four other fall choices, which may only be open on weekends until the main winter season begins, include Glacier 3000 between Les Diablerets and Gstaad; the Titlis Glacier above Engelberg; the Vorab glacier at Laax and the Diavolezza glacier in the Engadin Valley (which is close to Pontresina and St Moritz).

Zermatt Glacier Paradise  - © ZBAG

Zermatt Glacier Paradise

Copyright: ZBAG

France

Tignes is the only French ski resort open for almost the entire fall season. Besides Tignes, Les 2 Alpes traditionally opens its glacier ski area, which it claims is Europe’s largest, for a 10-day period (two weekends and the week in between) straddling the end of October and start of November) when they host a fall snowsports festival; it then closes again until the main season starts at the beginning of December.

Italy

In Italy, apart from Val Senales, Cervinia usually opens at the end of October, offering access from the Italian side to the Klein Matterhorn glacier paradise above Zermatt. A third option is the summer ski area at Passo Stelvio, normally open at least into October. The base of this ski area is home to the highest base lift in Europe. 

The Rest of the World

Of course, it’s not just the Alps offering early season skiing in fall. The southern hemisphere’s ski season will be in spring skiing mode by September and many of the ski areas in Australia, Argentina and Chile will be closing at the end of the month.  A few resorts in New Zealand, most notably Mt Ruapehu, are likely to last into October.

In North America, only Timberline on Mt Hood in Oregon stays open almost year round, but normally closes for a three- or four-week maintenance check of all its equipment in September.  If it’s a cold fall, the snowmaking guns will start at some of the world’s highest resorts in Colorado during the first weeks of October. Ski areas like Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Loveland are all able to open in October if conditions are right. North of the border, Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise around Banff are usually the first to open in Canada during the first weeks of November. 

Back in Europe, Scandinavia is first to open with the non-glacier slopes. Ruka in Finnish Lapland claims the longest non-glacier ski season in Europe, typically from mid-October to mid-June. Two of Norway’s small summer glacier ski areas usually stay open until October or November as well; Galdhøpiggen operates on Scandinavia’s highest peak at 8,098 feet and Folgefonn has a lot of beaches nearby and a reputation for a very deep snow base that often reaches 33 feet. 

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