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.
Everyone of us has their favorite part of the country to ski or ride. Perhaps we grew up there – perhaps we remember a great family ski trip. But, one thing’s for sure, we won’t find many of our breed arguing that the ski slopes and majestic mountain ranges of the Wild West still top the lists.
The big difference comes in two forms – the sheer size of the major destinations in terms of skiable acres and vertical drops, plus that mystical, magical factor that is the stuff of legend many times during the season: POWDER.
It’s light. It’s fluffy. Once you catch the knack of rolling through it your day or week or season has been made. They call it champagne powder at West ski resorts like Steamboat in Colorado. Utah calls it, “The greatest snow on earth.” And, from wherever you live, it’s worth the trip.
Here at OnTheSnow.com, we give the West a wide birth – Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington. If you can’t find that perfect Western ski vacation in those states, well, your eyes are closed.
Here's a tip: Spring skiing in the West can be magnificent. Dress in layers, slather on the lotion, begin early and quit early. Sometimes you can ski in the morning and then add a round of golf in the afternoon.
We've picked two of the best resorts in each of the Western states to give you a flavor of what to expect. So, just pick your own pow.
Aspen/Snowmass is one of the most exciting ski resorts on the planet. It’s at once upscale, challenging, easy and cruise-worthy, modern and throwback. That’s because there are four mountains to ski here: Aspen Mountain (oldies will say Ajax) that can be challenging and exciting at the foot of the famous town; Aspen Highlands with its famed Highlands Bowl that certainly live up to the Wild West – and this is where locals love to ski and ride; Buttermilk, a great place to learn and the home of the winter “X” Games; and family-centered Snowmass with those long, extra wide cruisers like the Big Burn and a village all its own. This is John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High.
Steamboat is another great choice in the real cowboy town of Steamboat Springs, about 157 miles from Denver. No worries, you can fly right into the Yampa Valley Regional Airport from 16 major U.S. airports. This where Olympian Billy Kidd hangs his hat (OK, he never takes it off) and many days you can take a run with him at a designated time. Steamboat is unpretentious, informal and is equally ideal for family vacations and adult getaways. You can ski and ride on five mountains covering 2,565 skiable acres. And all that champagne powder on your cake.
Jackson Hole personifies the Wild West in every way, with plenty of luxury touches built in. It is named after the Jackson Hole Valley and is well-known and respected for its steep terrain and large continuous vertical drop of 4,139 feet - big mountain skiing . But, no worries, while Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offers tons of expert terrain, about 50 percent of the terrain is dedicated to intermediate and beginner slopes and is accessible from the base. There are plenty of great eateries, luxurious hotels and rollicking après ski and nightlife (i.e., The Mangy Moose) in the Town of Jackson, but don’t look for many bargains. The local joke here is the “billionaires have chased out the millionaires.” Consider staying at Teton Village for more tolerable prices and quick mountain access.
Grand Targhee is a lesser-known, but great choice in Alta, Wyoming (close to Driggs, Idaho) about an hour’s drive from Jackson Hole. Located within the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Targhee is known to the skiing know-it-alls for having deep, deep powder combined with excellent terrain choices. Its location keeps the big crowds down so lift line waits are usually short. The resort is owned and run by the George Gillett family (who once owned Vail and Beaver Creek). They understand resort hospitality for sure. Yes, bring your blue jeans.
TV Yellowstone’s John Dutton likely won’t be impressed by ski resorts bringing in skiers and riders from all across the country to this gorgeous landscape, but you will be. Big Sky Resort rules the nest here. It is the largest major full-scale resort in the state and the second largest in the U.S. by acreage (skiable terrain here is 5,800 acres with a vertical drop of 4,350 feet). You will be surrounded by the beauty of the Greater Yellowstone Region where wide-open spaces meet dramatic peaks. Consider a stay at the late TV news anchor Chet Hundley’s luxury lodge.
Skiing has been part of the Whitefish resort region of northwestern Montana just east of Glacier National Park for more than 50 years. The name was changed from Big Mountain to Whitefish Mountain in 2007 to drive awareness, taking its namesake from the historic railroad town where the resort was founded in 1947. Today Whitefish offers 3,000 acres of glades, groomers, bowls, and steeps, covered in more than 300 inches of that beloved Rocky Mountain powder. There’s a laid back vibe, short lift lines, and one of the most affordable lift tickets in the nation (purchase multi-day passes online 48+ hours in advance and save 26 percent). The resort town is unpretentious and is just that – a resort town. Fly into Kalispell.
When skiers think of New Mexico, it’s often of Taos Ski Valley, a three-hour drive from Albuquerque’s Sunport. The unique, iconic resort that the legendary Swiss Ernie Blake built has a new owner today (financier and environmentalist Louis Bacon), but the mystique of the place – even the Martini Trees known only to instructors in one of the best ski schools in the nation – continue to lure skiers. Bacon has made more than $300 million in investments to the resort. Brave skiers give a whirl at Harakiri, the world's steepest groomed slope at 78 percent. But, not to worry, 47 percent of the terrain lures intermediates to its slopes.
Angel Fire Resort is 23 miles from the town of Taos and also is in the Southern Rocky Mountains. This is truly a family-friendly ski resort with more than 2,000 vertical feet, six lifts, three terrain parks, night skiing and tubing hill. The resort is located 8,600-feet above sea level. The ski school welcomes kids as young as three. It’s an ideal vacation sport for families on spring break.
The doyenne of American resorts is most certainly Sun Valley Resort near Ketchum, Idaho ever since Averill Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, had a vision to create it. Sun Valley long has been the genteel superstar of the ski world since It Happened In Sun Valley hit the movie screens so long ago and it remains so today. The skiing and riding is superb with terrain for all ability levels and has 2,154 skiable acres. The summit elevation is 9,150 feet with 2,400 feet of vertical drop. This is where legendary late ski filmmaker Warren Miller began his career while living in the Sun Valley Inn parking lot.
Tamarack Resort is the closest ski resort to Boise (2.5 hours north), making it a top Idaho vacation destination. With some of the best skiing in state with 2,800 feet of vertical on 2,000 skiable acres, Tamarack also offers Nordic skiing and snowshoe trails. The resort and its independent owners have seen ups and downs over the years, but are on a roll with a new village of condos and townhouses with ski-in, ski-out access.
Park City Mountain Resort in the old mining town of Park City is just up the mountain a bit from Salt Lake City International Airport. In other words, grab your skis and luggage and be skiing or riding an hour later. Always a favorite with all levels of skiers and snowboarders, PCMR was purchased by Vail Resorts in 2014 and combined the resort with neighboring Canyons Resort via an interconnect gondola to create the largest lift-served ski resort in the United States. Play forever on 7,300 acres, more than 330 trails, 43 lifts, six terrain parks, and ski-in-ski-out access to historic Main Street with its boutique hotels, great restaurants and nightlife. This is home base for the annual Sundance Film Festival.
Head up Little Cottonwood Canyon for some of the best skiing and riding in the world at Snowbird and neighboring, legendary Alta. The two resorts are distinctive in their styles, but styles be darned here, the skiing is terrific at both. Snowbird's 2,500 skiable acres are accessed via one tram and 10 chairlifts, including six high-speed detachable quads and four doubles. Alta, with a more low-key, but still stylish vibe, has a vertical of 2,538 feet, spreads over 2,538 acres and picks up an average of 538 inches of snow each winter.
Heavenly Resort on the south side of Lake Tahoe high above the town of aptly named Stateline straddles both California and Nevada. The resort’s website asks all the right questions: The choices are endless. “Do you ski California or Nevada? Will it be 34 miles of wide-open, groomed cruisers, 1,600-foot plunges in the double-black diamond canyons or the most outrageous tree skiing in North America?” The nightlife? A very good bet.
Mammoth Mountain in the Inyo National Forest of the High Sierra is hugely popular with hordes of Southern California skiers each winter weekend. The resort is about six hours north of Los Angeles. It’s a good thing the mountain lives up to its name. Mammoth is home to 3,500 acres of skiable terrain. That means that no matter how large the crowds are on a powder day or holiday weekend, with so much terrain there’s more than enough room for you to find your perfect run. Come for a week’s vacation when the crowds are lighter and it will be the most memorable week you’ve spent on any mountain. Take a day off and head to sister resort, June Mountain, a scenic 30 minutes down the road.
Mt. Bachelor is the Pacific Northwest’s largest resort and the 6th largest ski resort in North America. There’s free parking and it's only 20 mins from Bend. The slopes are on a long dormant volcano in the Cascade range. Mt. Bachelor ski area offers a modern lift infrastructure and updated amenities on 4,323 skiable acres within 40 miles of Redmond Municipal Airport. Mt. Bachelor is approximately 115 miles south of Portland. Intermediates love it here with 55 percent of the terrain just for them. Bachelor is owned by Powdr Corp. of Salt Lake City.
Mt. Hood Meadows is 90 miles from Portland but delivers a big mountain experience. The ski area operates on a special use permit in the Mt. Hood National Forest, and the resort sprawls across Mt. Hood's southeast flank, the sunny, wind-protected side of Mt. Hood. Meadows' terrain challenges all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Meadows offers more than 2,150 acres skiable terrain.
Mt. Baker is home to the world's greatest recorded snowfall in one season, 1,140 inches (95.0 ft; 29.0 m), during the 1998–99 season and every season since has hardly been a slouch. The ski area at Deming, Washington is about 10 miles south of the Canadian border. There’s 1,000 acres of skiing and riding and eight quads to move you around. This is a small, but mighty, ski resort with an ultra-loyal following. It may never become an international destination because of its rather remote location, but if you live in the Northwest it’s a must-ski.
Crystal Mountain in Washington (not be confused with its Midwest namesake) is a long ridgecrest running north-south, immediately northeast of Mount Rainier. The largest ski area in the state covers the east face of this ridge, while the west slopes are a wilderness in Mount Rainier National Park that drops down to Highway 410. The ski area is on the sunny side of the mountain. The resort stretches across 2,600 acres of terrain with over 2,400 vertical feet to explore. Crystal is a Boyne Resort property.
When learning to ski or ride you necessarily want to head to a resort that has a ski school with a good reputation (that’s most of them, by the way) and plenty of beginner terrain for you to learn and practice on. With bigger mountains and vertical drops of more than 3,000 feet, it can take a while to get to the bottom, especially for beginning skiers. Green trail skiers can ski from the top on trails like Schoolmarm at Keystone or Sugar N’ Spice at Sierra-at-Tahoe that meander gently for miles. This means more time skiing and less concern for lift lines.
There are 190 ski resorts served by 1,343 ski lifts. Breakdown includes the states of Colorado; California; Utah; Wyoming; Montana; Oregon; Idaho; Nevada; Washington State; New Mexico. Check out which western US ski resorts are currently open: https://www.onthesnow.com/west-coast/open-resorts.
That’s in the eye of the beholder of course. But, Western ski resorts typically enjoy low humidity, consistently cold temperatures, and enough natural snowfall that ice doesn’t form as easily. The snow is drier and fluffier, although some so-called “Sierra Cement” can slip in sometimes in Northern California. You’re very likely to get to experience a real powder day – measured in feet, not inches at a Western resort. The biggie: Western resorts get tons more sunny, bluebird days than the other side of the country.
There sure are. Sun Valley (near Ketchum in south-central Idaho). For the quintessential Sun Valley experience stay in the Sun Valley Lodge, where the walls are adorned with black and white photos of the many well-known personalities that have stayed over the years. Closest airport is Friedman Memorial Airport - 15 miles (25 minute-drive).
Big Bear Lake is Southern California's four-season mountain escape, located in the San Bernardino National Forest. The Village is a tiny storybook hamlet where you’ll find shopping, entertainment, and dining out. Pop in for a wine tasting at Barrel 33, grab souvenirs at Brown Bear Gift Shop, hear live music at The Cave. And dine at the Himalayan Restaurant, Country Kitchen (hearty breakfast), and enjoy dessert at Sister My Sister Bake Shop.
Red Lodge, Montana is a classic Western town and is always described as “really cool.” Missoula is a lively town for sure and a stop at Charlie’s Bar on Higgins Street is a must. The blue light atop the Hotel Baxter tips off locals about new snow on the mountain in Bozeman. The town feel is laid back and relaxed.
The weather of the West Coast has two major influencers – the Pacific Ocean and the mountain ranges along the coast. These two work in unison to create a very unique weather pattern.
Warm moist air results in the West Coast receiving high levels of precipitation towards the west of the mountains. On average, there are 227 sunny days per year in the West. The U.S. average is 205 sunny days. West gets some kind of precipitation, on average, 80 days per year. Precipitation is rain, snow, sleet, or hail that falls to the ground.
For the most affordable airfare West, opt for Denver International Airport, Salt Lake City and Reno. They all have a multitude of ski resorts with a couple hours' drive. Salt Lake International Airport is closest to the slopes.
Fly or drive? Decision can change depending on the number of people traveling, the cost of airfare, gas prices, time spent waiting in the airport, or overnight hotel stops on a long drive. Driving is usually cheaper. And while many adults may not mind long car rides, if you are traveling with kids, we all can agree that the shorter the car ride after getting off a plane the better.
If you live in the american West, where to ski is a no-brainer. Buy one of the passes that fit your needs and your winter will fall in place quickly for your family. But, if you live in the Midwest or East, try to make a trip to the West at least every few years. Ice is nice, but – dare we say it – powder is nicer.