The Top 10 Ski Resorts in North America for 2015
We have crowned Jackson Hole as the preeminent place to ski not only in the United States, but also within the whole of North America.
This is the third year of the best, most-read ski resort rankings on the Web. Each time we do this, we try to expand the number and depth of factors in our algorithm and explore and vet the nuances involved in ranking all of these ski mountains that can be so inherently different. We’ve also been listening to our millions of readers. Up until this year, for simplicity’s sake—and because gathering the right data takes time— we’ve only ranked resorts within the United States. This year, Whistler advocates can finally relax: we’ve expanded our rankings to include the whole of North America, which means that British Columbia, paragon of alpine snowfall, will be part of the mix that we sift.
As always, we have complete rankings for more than 200 of the best ski resorts in North America at ZRankings.com. If you don’t see a resort here in the top 10, you will almost definitely find it amongst those 221 best ski resorts at ZRankings.
Running through the spine of all of our rankings is the Pure Awesomness Factor. It’s how we grade resorts—and it’s the most pure mathematical expression for awesomeness as has been conceived in the universe. A resort’s PAF score cuts through the marketing, the dogma, the conventional wisdom that’s anything but to produce unadulterated, unalloyed truth. To believe the PAF is to believe the truth, to believe in awesome.
To be fair, not every skier is the same. Everybody’s PAF is different, in other words. You may value one thing, say, ski town ambience, while your brother favors extreme terrain over all else. Or perhaps copious amounts of snow is your thing. Whatever it is, you can dial in your own PAF and find the perfect resort for you with a new tool we’ve built: the Perfect Resort Finder. Challenge it by balancing what you need from a resort and see where it sends you. Run it multiple times; it can handle rejection.
And you should believe that ranking ski resorts, while it’s certainly not a hard science—should be several magnitudes more scientific than many of the other rankings we see so often on the Web. For one thing, there are absolutes that matter when it comes to ski resorts, things like continuous, lift-serviced vertical, skiable acreage, efficiency of lifts, town and ambience and, perhaps most importantly, snow and terrain. The quality and quantity of snow varies widely from mountain to mountain; it’s what separates the elite from the good. Terrain can be even more of a separator, given consistently good snow conditions. Terrain doesn’t vary year to year. It’s not capricious, like the weather. Terrain offers us something of a binary qualifier—resorts either have it, or they don’t. Similarly, you have good gear, or you don’t—see Forbes’ top five gear pieces for this winter here, which include the most advanced life saving device you can strap on your back.
Rarefied terrain exists at only a handful of resorts, one of which you will not see in our rankings. Unlike the other resorts on our list, Silverton Mountain isn’t for everybody. But if you’re good, it is for you, and you should go. It’s a pilgrimage that all serious skiers should take at some point in their lives. I profiled how Aaron and Jen Brill built Silverton from the ground up in Forbes magazine nine years ago. I journeyed back to the San Juans of Colorado last winter to see what has changed at Silverton, and what has blessedly stayed the same. Read about it here.
Even if you’re not looking for elite terrain or aren’t ready to test yourself at Silverton, everybody is looking for snow. Cold precipitation can be the difference between a ski trip that’s remembered for a lifetime and one that fades into the pot of mundane memories. That’s why we measure not only annual averages, but also the standard deviation of a resort’s snowfall. Some resorts, like those around Lake Tahoe, can boast large annual averages, but they’re also far more likely than most resorts in the Rockies to go a month with little to no snow (like the winter of 2014). In other cases, some resorts inflate their numbers, reporting dubious annual snow averages or vertical drops that aren’t serviced by lifts; we adjust for that. Similar to last year, our snow ranking system has received an assist from Tony Crocker, who has been gathering snowfall data on more than 100 North American Resorts for more than a decade. His data come from a variety of sources, from patrol shack logs to avalanche center records. This data is more valuable than numbers reported by resorts on their websites and in their marketing grist because, as mentioned before, those numbers can sometimes skew away from reality.
Speaking of snow, Lake Tahoe resorts are conspicuously absent from our top 10 this year. Just as with every other year, we tweak the algorithm we use for the rankings. In the algorithm this year, we included snow scores devised at ZRankings.com. Tahoe area resorts didn’t show well in those snow rankings: too much variance, too little consistency and a snowpack formed by snow with high moisture content and assaulted by temperatures that are significantly warmer than those in the Rockies. And, it should be known, in coming to these grades, we basically ignored the ignominious winter that the Tahoe area suffered through last season. Here’s hoping this year is a banner one for the Sierras.
The complete snow breakdowns for the best ski resorts North America can be found here. Grading a resort’s snow requires analyzing several factors, including: its average quantity of snow seen during a skiing winter (December through March—we don’t care much about snow in October, it usually melts); the standard deviation of the snowfall (how dependable is it—is it 600 inches one year and 150 inches the next, or is it a steady 400 inches nearly every year); the quality of the snow (snow in the Pacific Northwest can often be wet and heavy, not so in the Rockies); the latitude and elevation of the resort—northerly latitudes and higher elevations lead to better snow preservation; and the aspects of the resort’s terrain—north-facing slopes preserve snow better than south-facing slopes.
And as always, we reserve a human touch for some of the data ingested by our algorithm: our team of ZRankings skiers criss-crosses the continent every winter to visit resorts new to us and reacquaint ourselves with resorts we may have visited several years ago.
With that bit of explanation out of the way, I invite you to explore thebest ski resorts in North America, as ranked by their Pure Awesomeness Factors.
1. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming — PAF: 99.0
We have crowned Jackson Hole as the preeminent place to ski not only in the United States, but also within the whole of North America. More skiers are finding out that Jackson is the right place for more than just the hucker/powder set. Jackson established a record for its skier visits last year with 563,631, a 12% increase compared with the previous season. Despite that uptick, Jackson has not yet become a place where overly crowded lift lines, outside of the tram on a powder day, should be expected. Consider that Jackson’s record year for visits still only comprises about a third of the visits that the mountain
s at Breckenridge or Vail see in a year.
Even with the addition of Canada to our rankings, the tram at Jackson Hole remains the finest ski lift at any of the resorts we consider. It scales 4,139 feet in 9 minutes while carrying 100 passengers. The tram operator selects the music played through its ceiling speakers, although it’s a near certainty that a day riding the tram will bring some Rolling Stones, AC/DC and, on rare occasions, Frank Zappa.
Classic Jackson moment: Led Zeppelin filling your ears while the tram skims the treetops above Tower 3 Chute, snow hammering at the windows, erasing your last set of tracks.
Unlike most ski resorts and ski towns, summer is the big tourist season in Jackson with people pouring into Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, which means plenty of lodging is available, close to the resort, for prices lower than you might see elsewhere. The tradeoff, of course, is that a flight into Jackson is going to cost more than a flight into Denver or Salt Lake City. That being said, the resort is an easy 35-minute drive from the airport in Jackson, which makes it one of the easier airport-to-mountain commutes in North America. And with direct flights from most major hubs in the U.S.—Chicago, New York, L.A., San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, and more—Jackson has one of the top 5 ski town airports in America — and is well serviced by the best airline for skiing.
As for the resort, big plans for more lifts in seminal locations, beginning next winter (2015-2016), will keep things fresh. The Teton lift, on which construction has begun, will take skiers to a ridge near the crags area, a spot that currently requires a hike via bootpack to access. As with any lift expansion at any ski area, there exists spirited opposition to the move.
You can further peruse the Web to read more commentary on the matter, but know that much of the invective is over-charged and unfit for reading by intelligent people. As the caretakers of the Pure Awesomeness Factor, we understand why Jackson is making the move, and we also understand why some people aren’t happy about it.
Skiers tend to forget that ski resorts are businesses, something that has been made all the more clear during the last several years (see Vail/Park City spat and sale). Jackson, in our estimation, is one of the more responsible stewards of the spirit of skiing. They’ve expanded their operations while staying true to the thread that made the place great before the Four Seasons ever showed up.
To be clear, we love the Four Seasons, especially the Handle Bar. And we also love the guys drinking Ranier tall boys on the snow in front of the Mangy Moose. The mingling of these two dynamics makes Jackson what it is
Staying on the infrastructure topic, we’re more excited for the lift that will come after Teton, for the winter of 2016-2017. Jay Kemmerer, who owns the resort, told us in August that he has plans to install a second gondola that would embark from near the base of the current gondola and follow a path up and further north, touching down near the base of Casper lift. This would alleviate much of the line pressure seen on big mornings at the current gondola, and it would give skiers seeking blue intermediate terrain an easier, swifter journey to the mountain’s main stash of such runs. Anything that gets people up the mountain and out of the fracas at the bottom quicker is good by us.
Jackson continues to produce bumper years of snow during this last decade, with the biggest years coming 2008-2012. It has not at any point seen the kind of drought that has stricken the Sierras during several different years or even much of Colorado in 2011-2012. That could be dumb luck, but historical powder probabilities, which can be seen here, tell us Jackson is a pretty good spot to camp out for a high quality dump.
The Place to Stay: Hotel Terra—the first LEED hotel at Jackson, is in a plum spot, a two-minute walk from the tram.
The Place to Eat: Spur Restaurant & Bar—the grass fed organic Wyoming beef burger has risen to the top of the meat-on-bun hierarchy of northwest Wyoming, which is a feat. The dry aged buffalo sliders are also worth your time.
2. Alta, Utah — PAF: 97.8
Most skiers consider Alta holy ground. And it is one of the Top 5 Unique Places in Skiing. Snowboarders know the place to be the den of all heathen activity, as they remain barred from its snow-bound steeps, chutes and bowls. A silly lawsuit is now trying to spring the gates open for one-plank riders, but we’re betting that one of the skiing industry’s quirkiest and best places will be able to keep this particular oddity of its operations alive.
Mad Terrain at Alta: Sugarloaf peak, Baldy
Skier-Snowboarder spats aside, Alta continues to do what it does best: collect snow from nearly every cloud that passes and collect the hearts of each skier who visits. Snowbird, which resides next door, just to the west of Alta inside Little Cottonwood Canyon, benefits from Little Cottonwood’s microclimate as well, but not to the degree at which Alta does. Because it’s at the very end of the canyon, the end of the funnel, historical snowfall records show that, with an annual average of 540 inches, Alta tends to get 17% more snow than does Snowbird, although both resorts are elite in that regard.
Skiers can spot plum lines in every direction at Alta, which is one of the main reasons the place appeals to so many people. Getting to those great shots—and finding the others that can’t be seen—is the challenge of the place. You can see those epic strips of white way up on High Rustler, but can you find the right traverse, the right side-stepping ledge, that right stretch of green matting over mountain rock scree, to get your planks pointed down that powder-filled notch in the trees? It’s hard to do, but it gives you a mission. With every trip made to Alta, you can hope to crack open another puzzle, another stash that you’ll commit to permanent memory.
For old fashioned fun, small hucks and stashes, we like skiing the Supreme lift. You won’t find any prolonged stretches of powder here hours after a storm—most of the terrain is easily accessible, but if you’re willing to grind through a few trees and wiggle past some rocks, you can get two to three turns at a time in fresh snow, even a day or two after the last storm. Alta gets more powder than anywhere not in Alaska, but it also turns into something of a racetrack on big days.
The best days I’ve ever had at Alta, some of the best days of skiing in my life, have been in early December and late April, when tourists haven’t sniffed the place or have long since left for the season, and when many locals have their skis still stashed in the attic in favor of mountain bikes and golf clubs. Powder in December and April, really, tastes sweeter than it does in February—like catching a giant trout in an unnamed stream in South Dakota. An uncrowded Alta with piles of fresh snow is better than heli-skiing. And a lot cheaper.
The Place To Stay: There are some sweet digs—in the form of private homes and condos—just west of Alta toward Snowbird. Try VRBO and Airbnb.
The Place to Eat: Straight out of your backpack. While on the chairlift, of course. There’s no such thing as friends on a powder day; nor is there such a thing as stopping for lunch. And you’re not missing much at Alta, food wise.
3. Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia — PAF: 94.1
Bringing Canada into the PAF rankings has been met with expectations in some corners that 2015’s best ski resort list would become dominated by one particular province in Canada. The legend of British Columbia’s inner snow belt—it’s the Rockies, bro, but further north!—felt like it might dominate our annual conversation on skiing.
Looking this year’s list up and down, it’s clear that the Canuck takeover didn’t quite come to pass, although BC resorts do hold two of the top ten spots. And here we have the resort that many favored to win the new, unified North American PAF belt. The name Whistler evokes images of twin mountain hulks, blasted by coastal range snow, limitless stretches of terrain and a vertical drop that’s double that of other highly-ranked resorts. Whistler has become something of an obsession with casual skiers; it’s legendary for its stats and a location that’s just foreign enough to be exotic but just close enough to seem accessible. And then there’s the ski magazines, with their unending curtseying toward this twin-mountain ski hill. People who don’t know Keystone from Snowbird will tell you: “I really want to go to Whistler—that’s the place.”
Whistler: terrain forever
Credit: Whistler-Blackcomb & Romy Schmerausova/ Coast Mountain Photography
Well, as it turns out, it is quite a place. Good enough to be No. 3 on our list. The British Columbia snow machine, however, isn’t quite as ferocious as its reputation. According to data compiled by Mr. Crocker, BC is a decent place for snow, but the BC mountain that scored highest for snow with verifiable data, Whitewater, ranks behind all four Utah resorts in the Cottonwood Canyons, Alaska’s Alyeska, Tahoe’s Kirkwood, Wyoming’s Grand Targhee and even a couple of resorts in Colorado. It’s fun when data leads us to unintuitive conclusions.
The vastness of Whistler’s terrain means it has more than one distinct snow profile, which is why we assigned Whistler and Blackcomb separate snow scores (the Whistler peak has conditions that are slightly favorable to those of Blackcomb). In addition to the distinct peaks, the 5,000-foot vertical drops—about a mile—give each mountain distinct microclimates of their own. While it can rain at the base and snow at the top of many Western and Eastern mountains, this phenomenon has assumed a regular cadence at Whistler. Warm storms barrel in from the Pacific, burdened with moisture that stays below 0 degrees Celsius only at the highest elevations of Whistler, giving village-bound pedestrians an annoying commute to the lifts, but rewarding their heartiness with fresh lines toward the top.
Whistler’s terrain is as varied as its snowfall, which is one of the reasons it rightly holds so much appeal to so many kinds of skiers. The Jackson/Squaw set can be satisfied here, as can those skiers who prefer to cruise blues and pop into the woods for a couple of hundred feet of adventure at a time. There may be no better place, in fact, in all of North America for cruising terrain. Long, meandering blue runs etch the faces of both mountains, giving intermediates sustained runs of length that, in North America, can only be found here and at Revelstoke. That by itself sells many people on this place.
Many people. That can be a theme at Whistler, especially during holidays and the prime months of February and March. It would seem that so much acreage could never be filled in with enough human bodies to be called crowded. That’s half true. The quantity of Whistler’s terrain does guarantee that quiet, sparsely traveled spots can often be found, but even people who ski the woods alone have to get up the mountain somehow. Whistler’s lift lines can grow cantankerous on weekends when much of Vancouver and half of Europe seem to be here.
The mercurial weather can give visiting skiers disparate experiences from one day to the next. The resort does get a good quantity of snow, more than 400 inches a year, but the quality of precipitation can vary greatly, which knocks down both Whistler and Blackcomb’s total snow scores at ZRankings, although both scores still place within North America’s top strata.
Snow or rain aside, Whistler’s popularity gives its mountain village an electricity and a density of action that doesn’t exist at any other ski resort. Dance clubs that evoke Las Vegas’ biggest parties, bars spilling over into the pedestrian-packed streets, dozens of high quality restaurants filled to capacity. New Zealanders and Australians, each with a distinctive flair for après ski, have imprinted the Whistler village landscape with their flair for the bombastic. Those who enjoy the 5 p.m. crush at St. Anton will love the scene at Whisler-Blackcomb.
The Place to Stay: Four Seasons Whistler (if you can swing it! otherwise, plenty of other great choices)
The Place to Eat: Peaked Pies (it’s not what you think, but it is awesome in an Australian kind of way)
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4. Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, Utah — PAF: 93.o
In its tram, Snowbird has perhaps the second best ski lift in North America, behind the Jackson tram. The Snowbird version is blessed by geography, being positioned in topographic wrinkle called Little Cottonwood Canyon that helps produce copious amounts of snow from seemingly benign weather systems.
Skiing at Snowbird can be a wonderfully diverse affair, with legitimate steeps mingling with winding groomers right from the top of the mountain all the way to the base. The mountain has a European ambience to it, a rawness not often experienced at big resorts in North America. One decidedly continental touch: a tunnel, bored straight through the mountain and outfitted with an airport-style conveyor belt, shuttles skiers from the main side of the resort to the southern terrain on the backside. It’s the kind of thoughtful, and expensive, infrastructure often seen at resorts in Switzerland or Austria. Anomalously for an industry in a phase of corporate consolidation, Snowbird, like Jackson Hole, doesn’t operate from an MBA playbook; it’s independent and, after being held privately by Dick Bass since 1971, was sold in May to the Cumming family, the erstwhile owners of Park City Mountain Resort.
Snowbird: Epic snow, epic terrain, epic lift
Some of our favorite terrain at Snowbird is far to the skier’s right, toward the resort’s boundary line with Alta, where chutes and random stashes of untouched snow reward intrepid types who traverse away from Chip’s Run. More secret pockets of snow reside right below the tram’s path, up the gut of the mountain. It takes a little moxie to find these spots, and a lack of fear of tight spaces and rocks. For a resort that gets plenty of traffic with a major metro so close, Snowbird hides its treasures well.
On the backside, which still seems new to us even though it’s been open 15 years, there is more southern exposure which can spoil the snow during warm spates in the Wasatch. We like to get far to skier’s right on the back, skirting the cliffs and the edge of the forest, hunting for deep snow that’s gone unnoticed. As you look even further down the canyon here, you can see all of the new terrain for which Snowbird’s new cat skiing operation has access. It’s is a nice, cheaper alternative to heli-skiing, and the cat can keep cranking even when weather has grounded the choppers. We were lucky enough to get a peek, and a few rides, with the cat operation last winter, while we did a little touring up from the cat road to reach some couloirs and chutes. We’re looking forward to getting back.
As for non-skiing items, we always have to give props to Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge. Some of its rooms need a little updating, but the building remains one of the preeminent on-location ski hotels in North America, its concrete and glass facade rising to meet the steep walls of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The Place to Stay: The Indomitable Cliff Lodge
The Place to Eat: Dining options aren’t numerous, but breakfast atThe Forklift, just steps from the tram, is the best morning meal we’ve found at any resort. If the Oatmeal Brulee is on the menu when you get there, order it.
5. Alyeska, Alaska — PAF: 91.2
Of the mountains in our top 10 list, Alyeska gets the fewest number of visitors and has very little in the way of commercial encroachment on its mountain. In a fortuitous combination, it also receives more snow than any other resort on this list outside of Alta. Following a loose rule to find less people plus more snow will generally lead to good results when planning your next ski trip. And while most people can’t afford to drop $10,000 on a week-long heli trip to Alaska’s rugged coastal ranges, Alyeska offers a nice alternative. Skiers get access to some of that legendary snowfall while spending some winter days in the northern reaches of our planet where everything is a bit wonkier—if you ski in the spring, the lifts will turn until 7 p.m.
With such regular snowfall, visitors who give Alyeska five days on the mountain will likely see a dump and get to ride Alyeska’s tram and well-placed collection of high-speed lifts in a race to consume as much powder as is possible on a resort day. If that’s not enough snow for you, there is a rather convenient option available at Alyeska: heli-skiing out the backdoor within the Chugach, the most legendary mountain range in the world when it comes to skiing big lines and powder. Even if you haven’t heard of the Chugach, you’ve seen it. Nearly every ski movie during the last 20 years includes generous cuts of stars ripping GS turns town 50-degree expanses of powder that seems to be impossibly suspended on mountain faces that can go 3,000 or more feet vertically.
Alyeska: Mission Powder
Skiers in Alaska needn’t worry about an initial bad night or two of sleep because of altitude. The bottom of Alyeska’s runs are just a short walk away from the edges of the Cook Inlet, which being part of the Pacific Ocean, sits at sea level. So most visitors will be sleeping at an altitude that’s the same or even less than that of where they came from. Alyeska’s base elevation of 250 feet puts it at 300 feet below Chicago. This also means that hikes around the mountain’s peak, at 3,939 feet, won’t challenge skiers’ lungs and cardiovascular systems the way every other mountain in the West does. So don’t fear the bootpack. It will just be like a flight of stairs back home.
The Place to Stay: The only best choice is Hotel Alyeska, helicopter out the back, ski lifts out the front.
The Place to Eat: Ride the tram to Seven Glaciers.
6. Revelstoke, British Columbia — PAF: 89.4
Revelstoke is a bizarre railroad town that bumps against the eastern shore of the Columbia River, its waters already hulking from mountain snowpack nearly a thousand miles before it gets to Portland, Oregon and, beyond that, the Pacific. It’s also the place where the largest new North American ski resort in 30 years has been built.
Revelstoke gives skiers adventures on multiple fronts: excellent terrain, great inner-British Columbia snowfall and an exotic geographic location that can stymie even the best travel agents. We got to Revelstoke with a flight to Calgary and a five-hour drive though the Canadian Rockies, with stop offs at Banff and Lake Louise. Other routes include flying into British Columbia outposts like Kamloops or Kelowna, both of which still leave a 2.5 hour drive to Revelstoke. Those airports aren’t exactly O’Hare or LaGuardia, so flights can be expensive and irregular.
So why put a new megaresort here, in a spot that makes Whistler seem urban? Skiers understand when they finally make it up the gondola, with a 5,600-foot vertical drop below them and a vista framed by a winding Columbia River and the bristling Selkirk range beyond. The place’s remoteness means there’s little competition on the slopes. We ripped fresh corduroy for thousands of vertical feet, crossing only our same tracks on some of the side runs. There is no resort in North America whose groomers can bring as much burn to a skier’s thighs as those at Revelstoke.
Steeper, less tame terrain waits in other pockets of the resort. The northern latitude of the resort’s location helps preserve snowfall that averages about 350 inches a year, which, for British Columbia’s inner snow belt, is average rather than superior. But it’s enough to keep runs flush for most of the season. Bigger snow totals can be found in the close-by Selkirk Range, where the resort owns and runs a substantial heli-skiiing operation in Selkirk Tangiers.
The Place To Stay: Anywhere far from the railroad tracks, which hum with horns and activity all night.
The Place to Eat: Pound a Clif Bar in the morning and just get after it; we didn’t find any eats worth crooning about, but we’re sure we missed some gems—so let us know what you find.
7. Vail, Colorado — PAF: 87.7
Vail remains the best bet for skiers flocking to central Colorado, the most popular concentration of ski resorts in North America. With 5,289 acres, the place is bigger than anywhere else in the Top 10 not called Whistler, and it sports the best snow profile in the middle belt of Colorado. The only places better for snow in the state are Silverton (no beginners allowed); the far-flung Wolf Creek, a wonderful, but remote place in the southwest part of the state whose terrain is inferior to that of Vail; and, with respect to snow preservation, Winter Park, but Vail gets more snow.
This resort is the centerpiece of a $3.1 billion (market cap) public company in Vail Resorts that keeps growing, every year ingesting more flagship resorts. With the addition of Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, Vail Resorts now has a cornered the most commercial market outside of its previous holdings, even thought its methods had many in the industry bristling. Vail already has industry giant Breckenridge in Colorado, as well as Keystone and Beaver Creek—and a growing portfolio on the West Coast, with Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood. Each of these resorts gets folded into Vail’s Epic Pass, which has become a value that’s hard for destination skiers to ignore, especially if they’re New Yorkers, Chicagoans or Texans taking more than one trip out West during the winter. The rival Mountain Collective Pass is a worthy alternative, however, that gets skiers two free days plus discounts at Jackson Hole, Snowbird and Aspen, among others.
This is just the front side
Enough of that financial claptrap.
Vail has wonderful things to offer skiers on its backside. Skiers on weekdays and in January and late in the season can lap up dry stashes of snow that get delivered at a just-steep-enough pitch that’s ideal for powder and crud crushing. Some of our favorite places to stop on a powder day include the trees off of the Game Creek lift and some hidden shots off of Orient Express. Many of the best pure fall lines funnel to Chair 5, High Noon Express. Go here first; when it’s mined out, spread to the other areas. There’s fun terrain off of Blue Sky Basin, but keep your speed up for the cat track run-out at the bottom.
For skiing extras—lodging, diversions, etc.—few resorts can compete with Vail. Its lodging runs the gamut from the best, most well-appointed, like the Ritz-Carlton, to well-used condos that will take a full complement of college kids and come out no worse for wear. There are two main base areas that have basically merged into one giant village at this point. If you’re staying in the village, you needn’t trouble yourself with a car rental. Get a shuttle up from Denver International and keep your vacation simple. A day trip to ski Beaver Creek can also be done via shuttle and is very much worth it, especially for kids.
The Place to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton Vail, of course.
The Place to Eat: Hammer a German pancake at The Little Diner.
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8. Telluride, Colorado — PAF: 84.7
This mountain/town combination is a unique and seminal place that all skiers should journey to at least once. Ambience, scenery, an elite ski town and a uniquely easy-to-get-around experience coalesce to make a visit to Telluride a top experience in skiing.
Telluride: 14,000-foot peaks, elite terrain, a superior ski town and few people
One caveat: Telluride has the lowest cumulative and dump-expectancy snow scores within our top 10 list. The resort’s snow preservation characteristics are rather strong, with 50% of its slopes facing north and most of its terrain sitting above 9,500 feet. But it’s not as prone to dumps as the other resorts on this list. But, just like anywhere, everybody has different experiences. We’ve skied in good storms at Telluride more than once.
The oldest runs on the mountain remain some of our favorites: steep, unrelenting and true fall lines take skiers from the ridge that forms the spine of the resort all the way into town, where a cold beer at a legitimate townie bar is only steps away. All of Telluride sits below you, the end of its box canyon far to your right, as you go from one side of a wide groomer to the other—or hammer your way down some of the longest bump runs in the west. You should ski it: Plunge, a groomer that can take you to town as fast as you want to go. You may take to the air if you’re not careful; Plunge is one of the steeper groomers we’ve skied outside of Golden Eagle at Beaver Creek (when it’s groomed and not bumped up).
The best thing about these town runs is that, especially in the case of Plunge and the black and double diamond bump runs near it, there’s almost nobody on them, as most town-going skiers opt for one of the few more mild options down to the streets. We recommend avoiding these cat track routes. Stick to the straight stuff.
Telluride probably doesn’t get enough credit from the Bro crowd for what is a legitimate collection of extreme terrain. The mountain’s upper reaches feature rocky chutes and couloirs fanning off of Palmyra Peak. Some of this terrain requires a ridge-line hike or some bootpacking plus some ascensions of fixed steel stairs, but it’s all worth it. The Gold Hill Chutes can be reached by traversing off of a lift, and they’re as ski-movie worthy as in-bounds, non-hike terrain gets.
Getting to Telluride is getting easier, via the airport in Montrose, which from Telluride is about an hour drive, chock with stunning vistas. Daily directs for most of the season come in from Denver, Chicago, Houston and Dallas, with directs once or twice a week from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Newark and Phoenix.
The direct flights make getting a family to Telluride even easier. Once the entire squad has reached town, it’s as low-maintenance a ski vacation as a family can have. Town, Mountain Village (it’s own municipality) and the ski resort are all reachable via heavily-ridden public transportation infrastructure: the Telluride Gondola accounts for about 2.25 million passenger rides a year, runs from 7am to midnight and, best of all, it’s free.
The Place to Stay: Inn at Lost Creek—with new management perfecting the guest experience and a Mountain Village location just steps from the gondola and the main workhorse chairs of the resort, the Inn is tough to beat, even though Telluride has a plethora of plus lodging.
The Place to Eat: The Butcher & Baker Cafe—for breakfast, make your way to Colorado Avenue and order the Cafe’s breakfast burrito, the best take we’ve had on this ski town staple. If you’re looking to go berserk and don’t mind a big check: eat a proper dinner at Alpino Vino. There are two sittings, and if you miss the only snow coach up—it leaves from the mid-point of the gondola at Allred’s—you won’t be showing for your reservation at 11,996 feet.
9. Grand Targhee, Wyoming, PAF: 83.7
Any place with a snow score as high as this place—No. 4 best snow in North America—simply can’t be kept out of the top 10. It’s kind of like Alta, with more run-out within its terrain (fewer prolonged steeps), but, unlike Alta, it’s not easy to get to. Many visitors make their way over from Jackson Hole, via a steep drive up and down Teton Pass, up through the Idaho towns of Victor and Driggs and then, finally, just barely back into Wyoming. It’s about 75 minutes of driving, if weather is clear.
Bam! That’s Pure Awesomeness delivered
The Alta comparison works, too, because in spite of development finally finding some traction on this side of the Tetons, Targhee remains a sleepy place with few frills. Alta is also free of frills, but there’s many days when it can have monstrous lift lines—not at Targhee. The snow comes in copious amounts at this place because it’s basically getting many of the storms that hit Jackson Hole—a place where snow totals usually top 400 inches—but Targhee gets more out of the same clouds. Much like the relationship between the Cottonwood Canyons on the Salt Lake side of the Wasatch compared with the Park City side of those mountains. Park City, being leeward, simply gets less snow from the same systems.
There’s enough terrain and lifts to keep the most ambitious skiers busy—especially if there’s fresh snow to be played in, and that’s the case more often here than almost anywhere.
The one demerit that Targhee’s natural conditions come with: fog. Just like the snow funnels up the foothills and canyons into its slopes, a stubborn fog can settle in for lengthy spates, making groomers nearly unnavigable. Sticking to the trees gives skiers and riders the only antidote for this depth-perception robbing moisture.
That said, there’s plenty of blue bird powder days at Targhee, and while that kind of thing draws in locals from Driggs and all the way down to Idaho Falls, lots of snow stays preserved all day, especially if it’s a weekday.
The Place to Stay: Our crew has always day tripped from Jackson, but there’s more and better options, by the look of things, every year.
The Place to Eat: In this neck of the woods, the backpack Clif Bar gets replaced by the Tram Bar, a higher quality energy bar that’s made locally—but is now available in far flung metros such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
10. Mammoth Mountain, California — PAF: 79.2
Our sole representative from the state of California, Mammoth manages to hold on and make our list thanks to its sprawling acreage, good vertical, solid snowfall, and an elevation that’s 2,000 feet higher, at base and summit, than many of its peers in the Sierras. That fact helps Mammoth dodge some the unpleasant precipitation (rain) that can afflict some of the resorts closer to Lake Tahoe. It also keeps snow colder, precluding it from turning into the kind of unforgiving frozen caramel that can stymie skiers in the morning at many California mountains.
Mammoth accepts the Mountain Collective pass, giving that program a neat 50% of our top 10 best ski resorts list, which is remarkable. For skiers looking to make two or more destination trips during the winter, the Mountain Collective makes a strong case to be part of the overall consideration. Vail Resorts’ Epic pass also should be factored in, as it affords skiers full access to a large swath of resorts.
For those who aren’t driving from Southern California—a large chunk of Mammoth’s clientele—getting here continues to get easier. In addition to regular flights from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, the Mammoth Lakes airport will welcome in Saturday service from Denver on United. Now Midwesterners and East Coasters, if they’re curious enough to make a trip out of it, can check out what is a decidedly West Coast mountain, more so than the Tahoe resorts. If those Eastern visitors don’t want to commit an entire week, they can make a connection in San Francisco on either end of their trip.
But just as with Tahoe, flying over the Rockies to get to California skiing isn’t a play we’d recommend exercising often. But Mammoth is enough of an unknown for people looking to add to their resort count that it should be part of the equation if, for whatever reason, travelers were eschewing Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
That said, the best play at Mammoth is to ski it on the weekdays as it does get considerable traffic on the weekends as snow fiends who aren’t interested in the weaker mountains closer to Los Angeles migrate north to its slopes.
The Place to Stay: Lots of good options, naturally, with the SoCal set around, but The Westin Monache Resort is excellent.
The Place to Eat: On the mountain, hit up McCoy Station for a burger and hit the slopes before the coma hits.
Christopher Steiner is a New York Times Bestselling Author ofAutomate This, How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, and the founder of ZRankings, which ranks the 220 best ski resorts in North America using more than 30 factors.