Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder and to some extent the same is true for ski runs.
A friend who likes very steep ski runs, lots of moguls, or deep powder, may tell you they consider this or that the best ski run ever, but you might get far more pleasure from cruising a wide, freshly groomed, perfectly pitched piste on a constant fall line with a spectacular view ahead of you.
OnTheSnow has picked 10 of the best ski runs in Europe with something for all tastes, from thrilling, off-piste descents and cross-border skiing to amazing views and natural freestyle terrain. Ski or ride them yourself and decide if we hit the mark. Some are hard, some are not. Just the best ski runs on the continent.
1. Pic du Midi de Bigorre, La Mongie/Bareges, France
Far-reaching views from the highest point in the Pyrenees
It’s a popular misconception, perhaps due to its reputation as a great place to learn to ski, that there are few challenging runs in the Pyrenees. In fact the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is one of the world’s greats, beginning 2,877m up, the highest lift-served point in the Pyrenees, after a 1,900m vertical ascent.
This makes our “best ski runs in Europe” list due to its long, off-piste descent which, until quite recently, had to be undertaken with a guide and indeed is still best attempted that way – in any event you will need to sign a disclaimer before you begin your run.
After admiring the amazing, far-reaching 300km views of mountain peaks, there’s a classic route down, with many longer and steeper variants including the combe de l’ours (“The valley of the Bear”) which takes four hours to complete and ends in the little hamlet of Artigues where the ‘navette de freeriders’ shuttle bus picks you up.
“When I skied from the Pic du Midi, our party was able to help ourselves to some sublime spring snow that seemed to go on forever as we drifted languidly down this wonderful descent,” said the famous ski journalist and author Arnie Wilson.
2. Hidden Valley, Cortina, Italy
A scenic ride past craggy pink peaks and frozen waterfalls
A run in the middle-of-nowhere, best describes the remarkable ’Hidden Valley’ piste, number 2 on our best ski runs list. It benefits, in terms of being very special, from being a bit of a trek (a 20-minute bus ride) from central Cortina, with no easy way back (a longer bus or taxi ride) from the bottom, so not many people do it and you often have this amazing 8km long groomed descent to yourself.
“This run is one of the great treasures of Cortina, and indeed of the entire Dolomites,” says Marianne Moretti of Cortina Turismo. “You feel a million miles away from the cares of the world as this run descends on and on through stunning scenery.”
From the open peak of Lagazuoi (2750m), the “best ski run” descends through spectacular 360-degree views of towering Dolomitic structures of brown, pink and grey with the occasional frozen waterfalls thrown in. At the bottom, you can take a horse-pulled drag lift to connect to the Sella Ronda circuit and potentially ski on to Alta Badia or Val Gardena, or catch the bus back to Cortina.
3. Val de Mesdì, Alta Badia, Italy
A thrilling 1,200m vertical off-piste descent
While most people spend an enjoyable day circling the 37km Sella Ronda clockwise or anti-clockwise, a select few opt to go over the top from the Arabba side and ski down one of the great classic off-piste runs of the Dolomites, Val de Mesdì.
With full avalanche kit on, and after an hour or so traversing the top of the Sella Massif, you plunge down through this glorious cleft in the rock, which pitches at around 35 degrees and the rock walls tower high above you, meaning that initially relatively tight turns are required before it widens out for the remainder of the 1,200m vertical descent.
4. Dammkar, Mittenwald, Germany
7.5km off-piste descent through avalanche-prone terrain
Aside from Garmisch, Germany’s ski areas may not be well known internationally, but one trail here has entered freeriding myth and indeed our ‘best ski runs in Europe’ list.
The Dammkar above the impossibly quaint Bavarian village of Mittenwald has been a must-ski for more than 80 years and originally people hiked up the 1,300m vertical in order to make the 7.5km off-piste descent through avalanche-prone terrain. These days there’s a cable car up, a tunnel through the top of the mountain where once skiers had to negotiate an icy ridge, and the run is closed if avalanche danger is too high.
At the top there’s a restaurant, where you can even get married, and, on a clear day, superb views as far as the Zugspitz, but you may not wish to linger too long over food, views or marriage the first time you ski it, especially if it’s a fresh powder day.
5. The Wall, Avoriaz, France
Thrilling gradient and giant moguls on the Franco-Swiss border
Popularly known as ‘The Wall’ but officially named the Chavanette run, this huge, steep, slope starts on the French-Swiss border, above Avoriaz, before plunging down into Switzerland. This ‘best ski run’ is not only thrilling for its gradient, but moreover it is covered in giant moguls.
How difficult these are to negotiate will depend to a great extent on conditions when you visit. If there’s fresh powder and strength in your knees you may be able to bounce down joyfully. Whereas if it has not skied for weeks and you’re inching over huge bumps polished to ice by thousands before you, it’s a little less fun. In those circumstances, there’s no shame (well, not much), in opting to ride down on the chairlift at the side of the slope instead.
6. Kanin to Sella Nevea, Slovenia to Italy
Ski the old ‘Iron Curtain’ with views of the Adriatic
A new option to ski from Slovenia to Italy was born as recently as 2009 when Doppelmayr installed a lift connecting the two countries and the resorts of Kanin and Sella Nevea. The piste down is a wonderful descent carved through the forest, although from the top there are spectacular views out to the Adriatic.
However along with the views and the magnificent piste itself, it’s perhaps worth considering the political and historic significance of this run as you descend – you are essentially skiing through the old ‘Iron Curtain’ which only a little over 20 years ago used to divide East and west Europe.
7. Wild Grub’n run, Stubai Glacier, Austria
A 10km rollercoaster ride starting at the glacier
The Stubai’s Wild Grub’n run, officially ski route 14 on the map, descends for a remarkable 10km over a 1,450m vertical from the top of the glacier at 3,210m. As its name suggests, after the smooth glacier sector at the top, the descent is something of a long rollercoaster ride down towards the valley providing the pure, enduring pleasure of a fast, fun ski run.
The most thrilling section of the Wild Grub’n run begins where the glacier ends at 2,640m and continues over a 1,200m vertical, far from the ski lifts (until it re-joins them at the end) leaving you feeling a million miles from the rest of the world. The resort has a ‘Powder Department’ where you can check conditions, hire a guide, test your avalanche safety gear and much more.
8. Olympia Run, Igls, Austria
A glorious high-speed run with wonderful views of Innsbruck
Only one run on the planet has hosted downhill skiing at three separate events. The Olympia Run on the Patscherkofel at Igls, high above Innsbruck in Austria was the venue at the city’s Games of 1964, 1976 and in 2012 for the Youth Winter Olympics.
The run is the shining star of the Patscherkofel, which has a modest ski area otherwise, although the Innsbruck area pass covers skiing at eight neighbouring areas around the city so if you stay for a week or more you need not get bored. It is a glorious high-speed run for 5.1km over a 1,350m vertical with wonderful views out over Innsbruck. Racers complete the run in under two minutes, but why hurry?
9. Piste 4, Riksgränsen, Sweden
A giant natural terrain park in the Arctic Circle
Riksgränsen is a very unusual ski resort. Located up in the Swedish Arctic Circle, it’s too cold and dark to open until mid-February and then it stays open until mid-summer, snow permitting, with skiing under the midnight sun from late May.
It is most popular in mid-to-late spring when many of the world’s most die-hard skiers arrive en masse (sometimes in fact you can’t get a hotel room there), and the mood is buoyant as spring fever hits.
Fortunately, Riksgränsen’s slopes, from the 909m summit, form one giant terrain park with endless natural lumps and bumps for whooping boarders and freeskiers to bounce off. Piste 4 makes it into our ‘best ski runs in Europe’ list for the added novelty of finding you’re skiing over the unmarked border into Norway for a few hundred metres before curving back in to Sweden.
10. The Back Corries, Nevis Range, Scotland
Just choose your route, point your skis and enjoy
When conditions are good, you don’t have to look that far from home to find great skiing with exciting runs to be found at all five of Scotland’s ski areas, and some of the best views in world skiing to boot.
One candidate for the best ski run in the country is the infamous Back Corries at Nevis Range. You may have to battle gale force winds and horizontal blizzards on a bad day (in which case the area will probably be closed anyway), but on a fresh powder day, the Braveheart chair takes you up to the long ridge from which you just choose your drop-in point then simply point your ski tips downhill and enjoy.