Nov. 27, 2006 -- As any Letterman writer will tell ya, putting together a Top Ten list ain't always the easiest thing to execute. And when it comes to skiing, personal preference and geographic prejudice usually outrank what some media outlet dictates.
With those considerations in mind, our list of the top North American resorts stretches across the four corners of the continent, from Whistler Blackcomb in the north to Taos in the south, from Killington in the east to Squaw in the west. Some are bona fide institutions with something for everyone, while other are light on crowds and weighted toward the experts among you.
Only one thing is assured: Choose one of these resorts and a one-season tryout trip may become an annual pilgrimage.
Away.com's Top 10 North American Ski Resorts: • Jackson Hole Ski Resort, Wyoming • Killington Ski Resort, Vermont • Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, California • Snowbird Ski Resort (Alta), Utah • Snowmass Ski Resort (Aspen), Colorado • Squaw Valley Ski Resort, California • Sun Valley Ski Resort, Idaho • Taos Ski Resort, New Mexico • Vail Ski Resort, Colorado • Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort, British Columbia • Photo gallery: Top 10
JACKSON HOLE SKI RESORT, WYOMING
By Dina Mishev
Price: $$$ Number of Runs: 111 Number of Lifts: 12 Terrain: 10% beginner, 40% intermediate, 50% advanced Skiable Acreage: 2,500+ Vertical Rise: 4,139 feet Season: Early December to Early April Annual Snowfall: 459 inches Web Site: http://www.jacksonhole.com/
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is, in its own words, "Like nothing you have skied before." This sign, on a t-shirt in nearly every shop in town, hangs above the entrance to the resort's tram dock and goes on to say, "It is huge. With variable terrain from groomed slopes to dangerous cliff areas and dangerously variable weather and snow conditions. You could become lost. You could make a mistake and suffer personal injury or death. Give this mountain the respect it deserves." The cowboys that called Jackson Hole home at the turn of the last century might have been inclined to tell tall tales, but this sign is meant as a very truthful, and serious, warning.
Jackson's nine lifts and eight-person gondola service 2,500 acres of skiing on two neighboring mountains. An additional 3,000 acres of unpatrolled backcountry terrain in the Bridger Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park were opened recently. Excluding the backcountry, 10% of Jackson's terrain is beginner, 40% intermediate and 50% expert. There are 22 miles of groomed trails, the longest of which is a 7.2-mile traverse of mixed terrain from the 10,450-foot summit of Rendezvous Mountain. Jackson recenty unveiled a huge base lodge expansion, and at the end of the summer 2006, the famous aerial tram was retired (a brand-new version will be ready in 2008).
The 96 "official" trails at Jackson include bowls, couloirs, wide-open groomers, trees, and mellow faces. Just as many unofficial trails wind their way down the mountain. Skiers at Jackson tackle its two mountains in one of two ways: rather like children at the local swimming pool, they either jump right into it at the top of Rendezvous Bowl (experts-only) or ease themselves into it by starting with the resort's two beginner lifts, the Teewinot High-Speed Quad and Eagle's Rest double chair. (These two lifts service Jackson's only beginner terrain.)
From the top of Rendezvous, one can take advantage of Jackson's open backcountry policy and ski off the backside into Grand Teton National Park or stay inbounds and tackle such Jackson benchmarks as Corbet's Couloir, a double black diamond run. If you don't feel like committing to the 20-foot jump inside the steep 10-foot-wide chute, you can watch those who do from either the top or from Tensleep Bowl at the bottom.
The Sublette Quad Chair offers access to several more of Jackson's legendary bowls as well as to some chutes that are not quite as heart-stopping as Corbet's. Rendezvous Trail, a winding, roller-coaster intermediate run from the top of Sublette, provides some great views of surrounding mountains and access to the Hobacks. An experts-only area, the Hobacks will satisfy powder hounds who don't feel like venturing out of bounds.
Thunder Lift, also a quad, accesses Laramie Bowl and Tower Three Chute, so-named because it begins at the third tram tower. Heading toward skier's left from the top will get you to some easier expert runs that, in turn, lead to some hidden intermediate terrain.
What's New: For the first time, the public will have access to the Crag's terrain (an additional 200 acres and 1,000 vertical feet of expert terrain above the Casper Lift area).
Also, the new East Ridge Chair is a temporary double chairlift which goes from the Sublette Chairlift up to Rendezvous Bowl, replacing the aerial tram until the new edition is ready in '08.
KILLINGTON SKI RESORT, VERMONT
By Mitch Kaplan
Price: $$ Number of Runs: 104 Number of Lifts: 19 Terrain: 26% beginner, 36% intermediate, 38% advanced Skiable Acreage: 1,209 Vertical Rise: 3,050 feet Season: November to April Annual Snowfall: 250 inches Web Site: http://www.killington.com/
It's difficult to say anything about Killington -- because everything applies. This beast of the East is the region's largest resort, and offers something for everyone. With the recent addition of neighboring Pico, there are now seven distinct peaks to explore. Not only can you find what you want, you can find it separated from other terrain. Experts flock to Bear Mountain, Skye Peak, and The Canyon. Intermediates love Needle's Eye and Snowdon. The novice area at Snowshed can get crowded, but it stands apart from speeding experts. Add on Pico, a superb mountain in itself, and you've got the complete picture.
Here, too, accommodations are good, but Killington lodging stretches for miles into downtown Rutland. The resort is famous for attracting ski clubs and people sharing houses, which fosters a hard-charging party sensibility that is heartily reinforced by numerous bars strung along the access road.
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN SKI RESORT, CALIFORNIA
By Alistair Wearmouth
Price: $$ Number of Runs: 156 Number of Lifts: 28 Terrain: 25% beginner, 40% intermediate, 20% advanced, 15% expert Skiable Acreage: 3,500+ Vertical Rise: 3,100 feet Season: November to June Annual Snowfall: 400 inches Web Site: http://www.mammothmountain.com/
For once the hyperbole actually applies. A summit elevation of 11,053 feet and hefty 3,100-foot vertical drop are just some Mammoth stats that don't need any embroidering by Bay Area marketing whiz kids. The mountain is served by 27 lifts numbered in the order they were built, giving a nod to in-the-know locals who are able to think in creative, non-linear ways.
The uninitiated need only to remember that the Panoramic Gondola will take you all the way to the very top, from where you should tack right to the Upper Bowl and a series of plunging drops fanning into a wider bowl. If you make it that far, you'll have some time to catch your breath and reconsider your recklessness.
Mammoth's signature siren-of-the-steeps is Hangman's Hollow, a chute bordered by snarling rocks that leaves room for only one perfect turn -- or one mistake. It's not just the elevator-shaft steepness, too; it's the mandatory air required to get into it in the first place. Even the local wackos won't try Hangman's unless there's a foot or more of new snow, guaranteeing a pillowy landing.
SNOWBIRD SKI RESORT (ALTA), UTAH
By Alistair Wearmouth
Price: $$ Number of Runs: 89 Number of Lifts: 13 Terrain: 27% beginner, 38% intermediate, 35% advanced Skiable Acreage: 2,500 Vertical Rise: 3,240 feet Season: Mid-November to Mid-May Annual Snowfall: 500 inches Web Site: http://www.snowbird.com/
Snowbird's Aerial Tram ploughs into the early morning mist, packed to the hilt with lucky skiers, mountain rescue crews, and liftees, all expectantly awaiting just one thing: first tracks down the slopes of one of North America's top-rated resorts.
And even though the scenery remains shrouded in a thick blanket as we reach the top of 11,000-foot Hidden Peak, the run home certainly doesn't disappoint, with a gleeful (if not always graceful) glide down blues, blacks, cat tracks, and steep bowls that ends all too swiftly. Good thing, then, there's time to squeeze in one re-run before the tram's official 9 a.m. opening....
Utah's "Bird" has everything going in its favor, including pages of good press and the perfect location. Just 29 miles from Salt Lake City airport and its hundreds of daily domestic and international flights, the big selling point here is you can fly and ski on the same day to max out long-weekend slope time.
Tucked up in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird's geographic aspect performs a meteorological trick known as the "Lake Effect" to bestow dumps of dry, fluffy powder on the steep canyon sides. Indeed, the quantities are epic, including a record 633 inches for the 2004-05 season that astonishingly kept skiers on the slopes until the July 4th weekend.
Eighty-nine runs lace a monumental 2,500 acres, with the mountain's front face brimming with double-black chutes and long black-diamond runs that will appeal to intermediate skiers and hucksters alike. For a slightly less demanding time, drop over the back into 500-acre Mineral Basin, with a more open aspect and some easier cruisers to loosen things up.
The lower mountain's Gad Valley area proffers a decent number of greens and blues, plus several well-constructed terrain parks to up the action quotient. Beginners who have a burning thirst to conquer the Bird should try the meandering 2.5-mile Chip's Run off the top of Hidden Peak, a fun, blue-rated descent that takes in Snowbird from top to bottom. It intersects a grid of straighter, steeper blacks, so be sure to stay on track if you're just in it for the scenery!
Note that the resort's centerpiece Aerial Tram, while able to whisk up to 129 riders to the top in eight minutes, can get crowded, especially first thing in the morning. However, things quickly open across other sections of the mountain, which is efficiently served by ten other chairlifts. Unlike busier East Coast resorts, or the oft-maligned Euro ski experience, you'll never feel crowded out when skiing in Utah.
As if Snowbird's embarrassment of riches weren't enough, the resort offers access through its Mount Baldy shoulder to neighboring Alta and a jumbo 4,700 combined acres of world-class skiing (remember, Alta is off-limits to 'boarders). That's one helluva lot of skiing and may just require you postpone your flight home -- time to get in a day's bonus runs and still be home for dinner.
With the living so good on the slopes, it'll come as no surprise that things are equally stellar off piste. Accommodations at Snowbird include the ultra-luxe Cliff Lodge & Spa ($229 to $389 for standard mid-season rates), which boasts slopeside convenience, restaurants and bars, and a rooftop spa and Jacuzzi in which to soak away the aches of a hard day's skiing. On the slightly less swanky side, try the Inn at Snowbird for cheaper condo-style lodging. Meanwhile, Salt Lake City is packed with all manner of accommodations, from budget hostels to five-star pleasure palaces -- either way, decamping to the city by night is no big hardship given that the Bird is only 30 miles up the road, a negligible distance unless you get blessed with a double-digit dump. And if that happens, you'll definitely want to stick close to the mountain base....
SNOWMASS (ASPEN) SKI RESORT, COLORADO
By Claire Walter
Price: $$$ Number of Runs: 88 Number of Lifts: 22 Terrain: 06% beginner, 50% intermediate, 12% advanced, 32% expert Skiable Acreage: 3,128 Vertical Rise: 4,406 feet Season: Late November to April Annual Snowfall: 300 inches Web Site: http://www.aspensnowmass.com/
As a ski area, Snowmass is the giant among the four Aspen options -- and one of Colorado's biggest as well, with the nation's second-greatest vertical. It is huge, sprawling over a complex landscape of peaks, ridges, gullies, and open slopes that offer the greatest range of terrain, from the gentle precincts of Fanny Hill to the broad cruising expanse of the Big Burn to a wide variety of steeps. Innovative programs and on-slope facilities abound. As a resort, Snowmass offers a congenial slopeside village and some of the best accommodations for families. It's subdued compared with nearby Aspen, but the action is just a bus ride away.
Where: 12 miles from Aspen, off Colorado 82.
What's There: 4,406-foot vertical drop, 87 trails, 3,100 acres, seven high-speed quads, two triples, six doubles, six surface lifts, three snowboard parks, speed skiing, and race arenas.
SQUAW VALLEY SKI RESORT, CALIFORNIA
By Peter Oliver
Price: $$ Number of Runs: 177 Number of Lifts: 34 Terrain: 25% beginner, 45% intermediate, 30% advanced Skiable Acreage: 4,000 Vertical Rise: 2,850 feet Season: Mid-November to Memorial Day Annual Snowfall: 450 inches Web Site: http://www.squaw.com/
Squaw is the American birthplace of extreme skiing. About twenty years ago, Squaw locals began skiing impossible lines from the Palisades, essentially a cliff with snow stuck to it. In the early 1980s, Scot Schmidt, arguably the father of extreme skiing, arrived in Squaw to pull 100-foot cliff jumps. Thus was a reputation born, and it still lives today. To earn your spurs as an extreme skier or snowboarder -- or "free rider" in the current nomenclature of mountain sports -- all road leads through Squaw.
But the extreme reputation aside, Squaw is actually a reasonably well-rounded ski area. There's a good amount of skiing for all ability levels, and the relatively new Resort at Squaw Creek is an exercise in extreme pampering. Squaw skiing can be ridiculously intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. New this year amid a flurry of run upgrades is an on-mountain demo center.
Squaw's extreme rep may overshadow the mellower side of the mountain, which is more substantial than you might think. From High Camp, about halfway up the mountain, there is plenty of novice and lower-intermediate terrain. What I like about this cluster of runs is that beginners can experience the thrill of being high on the mountain, rather than being stuck around the base area. At the end of the day, simply ride the tram or the Funitel Lift back to the bottom.
Intermediates tend to congregate around High Camp, too, although there are longer intermediate runs from the Squaw Creek Chair. As for expert skiing, the number of intriguing lines is impossible to calculate. KT-22 and the Headwall Express are particularly popular, and justly so. But I happen to like Granite Chief, which sees far less skier traffic. The runs are shorter, but the fresh snow stays untracked longer.
What's There: If you want to learn to ski Squaw in classic Squaw style, join the Egan and DesLauriers brothers, all renowned extreme skiers, for their X Team clinic in February (800-XTEAM70). Otherwise, jump into a class under the guidance of the Squaw Valley Ski and Snowboard School.
Hang out at High Camp, one of the most complete (and complicated) on-mountain facilities in skiing. If the kids aren't into skiing, there's ice skating, snow tubing, and bungee jumping to keep them entertained.
Where: Squaw Valley is 42 miles from Reno, 96 miles from Sacramento, and 196 miles from San Francisco -- all via Interstate 80.
SUN VALLEY SKI RESORT, IDAHO
By Tim Neville
Price: $$$ Number of Runs: 75 Number of Lifts: 19 Terrain: 36% beginner, 42% intermediate, 22% advanced Skiable Acreage: 2,054 Vertical Rise: 3,400 feet Season: November to April Annual Snowfall: 225 inches Web Site: http://www.sunvalley.com/
Hollywood hotties, Olympic skiers, and John Kerry may flock to sexy Sun Valley these days, but America's first ski resort has been drawing us hoi polloi since '36. Swaths of immaculate corduroy run for miles here, so pray your legs last. No sweat if they don't: French chefs and other fanciness await below.
Why we love it: Fantastic snow-making gear, five-star base facilities, and runs so fast and long you can attempt to break the sound barrier -- after stuffing your face with beignets, of course.
Number-one run: Crank the bindings and launch down Warm Springs. After a continuous 3,100-foot vertical loss on a blue groomer, your quads will glow like an Apollo capsule on reentry.
Hot lodge: Stay in Ketchum, Sun Valley's neighbor and the epicenter of the après action. The Best Western Kentwood Lodge, situated right in the mix, has an airy stone-and-wood lobby, big rooms, a hot tub, and a pool.
Soul patch: Clomp into Apple's Bar and Grill, at the base of Greyhawk, and mingle with folks who packed it in after logging 30,000 feet of vert -- by lunchtime. Notice all the passes tacked to the wall? You could once trade yours for a pitcher of suds. Talk about priorities.
TAOS SKI RESORT, NEW MEXICO
By Mitch Kaplan
Price: $$ Number of Runs: 110 Number of Lifts: 12 Terrain: 24% beginner, 25% intermediate, 51% expert Skiable Acreage: 1,294 Vertical Rise: 2,612 feet Season: Mid-November to April Annual Snowfall: 305 inches Web Site: http://www.skitaos.org/
Taos, of course, is the stuff of legends. In skiers' lore, it ranks with Aspen, Sun Valley, and Squaw Valley among North America's must-ski places. So, when I'm standing at the bottom of Al's Run, the legendary trail at the legendary resort, and reading the sign that starts out by saying "Don't panic!" and goes on to explain that what you see before you is only a fraction of what the place has to offer, I can't help wondering if even I, a damned good skier, have bitten off more than I can chew.
Indeed, Taos offers as much as any skier could care to chew. Picking our way across the High Traverse ledge, the runs drop so steeply to our right that vertigo sets in. You'd best know how to set an edge up here. But, that, too is just a fraction of what's to be found here. You can hike up from the top of Kachina Lift (some say it's 20 minutes' hike, but we flatlanders would lean towards 45 minutes) and take on the awe-inspiring bowl off Kachina Peak, or drop in en route to a series of chutes and glades that depart the Highline Ridge at regular intervals, each a bit more memorable than the last.
These, then, are the downhill routes that made the Taos legend. That, and Ernie Blake's somewhat absurd notion of putting a Bavarian-style Alpine resort in the middle of the American Southwest. Whether a Bavarian-style makes sense is a matter of aesthetics. But the need for a more intermediate-friendly ski hill eventually became obvious. And, Taos has responded to the challenge. Both sides of the mountain offer surprisingly pleasant intermediate cruising, especially off the Kachina Lift, but the novice trails remains somewhat limited. The ski school, however, is so good that novices should be tackling blue runs in relatively short order.
Meanwhile, if it's southwestern flavor you're after, the trick is to stay in town -- about a half-hour drive down the access road. Replete with a classic, central town plaza; dozens of atmosphere-rich B&B's, eateries, and art galleries; and a stone's throw from the famous Taos Pueblo, this is the place that first got Georgia O'Keeffe hooked on New Mexico and where D.H. Lawrence liked to hang out. Taos offers classic skiing, excellent facilities, great family programs, and 305 inches of annual snowfall.
Be aware, however, of two things: one, snowboarders are not welcome here; and two, you will have to make a choice between lodging on the mountain or in town -- a choice because the access road can be a laborious trip, particularly during the pre- and post-skiing rush hours, but also later when the aprés-ski life has worn you to a nub.
VAIL SKI RESORT, COLORADO
By Nathan Borchelt and Claire Walter
Price: $$$ Number of Runs: 193 Number of Lifts: 33 Terrain: 18% beginner, 29% intermediate, 53% advanced Skiable Acreage: 5,289 Vertical Rise: 3,450 feet Season: Mid-November to Mid-April Annual Snowfall: 348 inches Web Site: http://vail.snow.com/winter/
Vail is the 800-pound gorilla of American skiing. This massive mountain is all things to all skiers and riders -- a soothing beginner environment, a nurturing place for small fry to make their first turns, a mountain full of electrifying challenges, and most of all, a huge ski area with abundant groomed cruising terrain for intermediates (in fact, Vail has more groomed terrain than any other resort on the planet). The country's largest ski school (with over 1,000 instructors and classes for all skill levels), unsurpassed on-mountain services and facilities, and a fully interchangeable lift ticket with Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin are additional pluses, but the terrain at Vail alone could keep you knee-deep for weeks at a time.
The front side of the resort boasts all variety of skiing, from gentle blue cruisers to the four-mile-long Riva -- a black-to-blue leg burner -- to deep mogul runs to bunny slopes. Tree skiers on the front side should head into the Game Creek Bowl, where stashes of powder linger between the runs, or drop into the patches of pine below the Northwoods Express and Mountaintop Express lifts. Greens and blues are nestled into a nice pocket of terrain off Giant Steps Lift, and blacks and double-blacks are…well, everywhere. But some of the most challenging terrain lies in the Back Bowls, a dizzying mix of black and blue runs that could easily swallow entire days of your vacation. During storms the Back Bowls can become blustery as there's no tree cover to brunt the force of the wind. In those cases, retreat either to the front side, or off to Blue Sky Basin, another spectacular stash of blue and black runs woven into dense crops of trees with trails that prove glade skiing ain't just an East Coast phenomenon. If you head to Blue Sky Basin, just remember that that part of the resort closes early because it takes a while to get back to the main mountain.
The large and lively town of Vail is segmented into several interrelated centers, the original Alpine-style Vail Village, rejuvenated Lionshead, tranquil East Vail, (relatively) economical West Vail, and Cascade Village with practically private chairlift access to the western part of the ski terrain. At the top, Eagle's Nest boasts a day-and-night family entertainment area called Adventure Ridge, with night skiing and snowboarding, sledding, tubing, ice skating, and dining.
Where: 100 miles from Denver and 35 miles from Vail/Eagle County Airport, right along I-70.
What's There: 3,450-foot vertical drop, 193 trails, 5,289 acres, and a total of 34 lifts, including one gondola, 14 high-speed quads, one fixed-grip quad, three triple chairs, five double chairs and surface lifts, and one magic carpet. Vail also boasts four terrain parks, including a 400-foot-long Superpipe with 18-foot walls, 25 tabletops, 40 rails -- plus an additional 12 hand-carved rails, and one night-lit, on-mountain fun park.
What's New: Vail's Lionshead base is currently under construction, and will soon boast a full-service base lodge with dining, après-ski pubs, and more. MTV's new all-digital channel has also built a studio near Eagle's Nest.
WHISTLER BLACKCOMB SKI RESORT, BRITISH COLUMBIA
By Steve Giordano
Price: $$$ Number of Runs: 200 Number of Lifts: 37 Terrain: 20% beginner, 55% intermediate, 25% advanced Skiable Acreage: 8,171 Vertical Rise: 5,280 feet Season: November to June Annual Snowfall: 360 inches Web Site: http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/
Welcome to Whistler Blackcomb, Land of Oz. Oz? Isn't that the nickname for Australia? The Down Under accents on the slopes here will convince you that half the skiers and snowboarders in Australia spend their summer (our winter) on these mountains. Besides, like Oz, Whistler is a magical place -- especially when the guy behind the curtain lets the sun out. The stats foreshadow the enormity of the possibilities.
Whistler and Blackcomb are separate mountains and were once separate, competing resorts. The ski runs on both bottom out in the resort village of Whistler. It can be a real crapshoot as to what the weather will be like here, but there is generally a 100-inch-plus snowpack all winter long.
Lift riders may pass through three separate weather systems on their way to the 7,500-foot summits. Whistler Village (at a mere 2,140 feet) can be soaked with rain, with the peaks bathed in sunshine and a soupy fog sandwiched in-between.
A surprise for Blackcomb beginners is a sinuous run called Greenline. It takes off to the right from Horstman Hut, at the upper terminal of Seventh Heaven Express and follows the natural contours of the mountain from top to bottom on daily-groomed trails. It's a thrilling way for novices to enjoy big mountain skiing. Beginner runs branch off from nearly every chairlift on both mountains, but the upper reaches also sport some of the most extreme skiing terrain in North America.
Now that Whistler and Blackcomb are both owned by Intrawest Corporation, lift tickets are single-issue, usable on both mountains. Whistler Blackcomb ambiance favors the destination skier, and many come from Japan, Europe, eastern Canada, and the United States.
What's New: This year Whistler Blackcomb invests $14.2 million on improving terrain; Whistler Mountain will have an additional 1,100 acres of new terrain and Blackcomb Mountain has a new Superpipe, lit for night skiing and riding. Article © Away.com. All rights reserved.