A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
Sure, you can ski or ride the rest across the country. You can learn there. Have fun there. And make one of those mountains your family’s “home hill.” But, sooner or later, you’ll hear the siren call of the wild. The famed Rocky Mountains are rattling around in your head saying, “It’s time.”
The western mountains of the Rockies are special. They’re big. Some huge. Most high. Some literally breathtaking. Trails – mostly wide open – are endless. The Rockies are famous for fluffy powder snow days. Once you’ve floated down a mountain, you won’t rest until the next “Pow Day.” The ski towns range from clusters of condos and inns to small cities (think Aspen-Snowmass, the Vail Valley) welcoming thousands of new guests each week. If you were a baseball player, well, you’ve made it to “The Show.”
What about the glam? That all began with the opening of Sun Valley, led by Averill Harriman, chair of the Union Pacific Railroad, who was in search of the “grand American resort.” He found the spot in Idaho in 1936 and it became the first real destination resort. “Sun Valley Serenade,” the famous movie with its iconic song “It Happened in Sun Valley”, hit the movie houses in 1941, spreading all that glamour starring skater Sonja Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle, Lynn Bari and Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Then along came Aspen and Vail and some 60 resorts founded by returning 10th Mountain Division veterans who had trained at Camp Hale in Colorado.
Rocky Mountain ski resorts range in size, just like any other region, so families with skiers and snowboarders of all abilities will find what they are looking for. But, your best bet is a resort that specializes in children's ski schools. That way, you know the kids are in a safe environment, are learning to ski or ride correctly and you’ll swing by and pick them up at the end of your day and find them happy to tell you all about their new found superhero skills. Take a day later in your ski week to play as a family so the kids can show off.
Sun Valley is certainly still glamorous, classy and stylish and all that good stuff. But Harriman wanted it to be a great family resort. It is. Why? It’s relatively easy to get to (2 hours from Boise), plenty of newly remodeled places to stay, including the classic Sun Valley Lodge. There are 100 runs and 70 percent of them are labeled beginner and intermediate and many of those runs just may be the best groomers on Planet Earth. Finally, the ski hill that began in the thirties remains one of the tops in the world.
Vail is a winner for a family vacation because of its two pedestrian-friendly villages (Vail Village and Lionshead), an easy-to-navigate mountain, huge choice of lodging in all price categories and another great ski school. Another great choice is Park City Mountain Resort and its Kids Signature Ski Program. Example: Signature 5 is for children 6-14 and guarantees the class size is five students or less. Signature 3 is for kids 3.5-6 and guarantees a class size of three.
Another peak to pick for family skiing is Snowmass, a huge “purpose-built” mountain in the Aspen complex. Families love it here because the ski terrain is uniquely varied on more than 3,000 acres of wide-open fun. The ski school starts kids at 2.5 at the Treehouse Kids Adventure Center, a safe, fun environment. Besides, mom and dad can sneak away at night to the Aspen “scene and be seen.”
Start with Jackson Hole, Wyo. Named for trapper Davey Jackson, this wild and wooly Western town always lives up to its reputation for nightlife and fun. Don’t miss a brew at the Mangy Moose.
Steamboat, Colo. has always maintained its cowboy flavor and one thing visitors often ask locals is how do the cowboys get along with the skiers? It’s an easy answer – they ski. But, if you’re looking for that authentic vibe, this is the place. Take a run with Olympian Billy Kidd every day at 1 p.m. when he’s in town. Look for the cowboy hat. Breckenridge is a historic mining town with loads of Victorian charm.
Big Sky in Montana may not be the first cool ski town that comes to mind, but move it on up. This is the place to escape the crowds and relish the great outdoors. Taos Ski Valley is a small, peaceful village at the base of the iconic New Mexico mountain. Park City grew up around silver mining boom town.What resorts are easiest to get to by air?
The big winners are the Wasatch Mountain resorts that ring Salt lake City, Utah. The International Airport is so close to the mountain resorts you can arrive in the morning and easily be skiing or riding by lunchtime. Virtually all the resorts are within an hour’s drive. There’s probably no other major resort grouping in the nation that close.
Denver, of course, is no slouch. You can figure about a two-hour drive to the I-70 resorts (add another hour to Aspen). The closest major resort to Denver, Colo. is Winter Park, about 1.5 hours.
The Rocky Mountain ski season traditionally begins with a bit of a snowball fight between Arapahoe Basin and Loveland to see which will open first in the Rockies and, often, the nation. That date can be as early as mid-to-late October. Many more will open just before Thanksgiving and into early December. Virtually every resort will be wide open and waiting for you during the holidays.
You’ll find the slopes basically uncrowded until the Christmas holidays. January crowds have picked up over the years, particularly over the long MLK Weekend, but are nothing to worry about. It’s colder in January and February, but it’s all relative compared to New England and the Upper Midwest. February brings the school breaks over the Presidents’ weeks and it’s beginning to warm up a bit.
The eighth wonder of the world just may be skiing and snowboarding in the Rocky Mountain springtime sunshine. The snow is soft by late morning and there are many days you can shed the layers even down to that photo-shoot bikini. Rocky Mountain skiing is usually available to Easter and some years a handful of resorts operate well into May.
First, learn to sing “Rocky Mountain High.” (Not old enough to remember? Google Aspen’s John Denver.). Seriously, the Rocky Mountain resorts are destinations – not simply ski areas. You will have no trouble finding tons of things for every member of the family on or off the slopes. No matter where your “home base” may be, you would be wise to purchase one of the major ski passes as they all will lead you to a major Rocky Mountain resort and some good pricing.
Remember the elevation. Don’t be tempted to make your first night “party time.” The irascible Rocky Mountain “splitter” is only aggravated by a hangover. Finally, once you have skied in this region, you’ll be back. Probably next year.