White Lines: North American Ski Resorts
For those in search of perfect North American powder, look no farther than these 10 ski resorts
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While the proximity to and selection of luxurious hotels, restaurants, après-ski hangouts and boutiques are important when planning a ski vacation, the most significant consideration is the quality of the skiing, because that is, after all, your reason for being there. The rest is just window dressing.
The very best slopes are skiers' mountains, where skiers can spend a day, a week or a month without having to wipe the smile off their faces. So, wax those skis, sharpen those edges and head for these 10 resorts, my picks, in order, for places with the very best skiing in North America.
1 JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING
Its nickname says it all: The Big One. With the highest vertical drop in the United States, Jackson Hole is a monster of a mountain, beautiful in its simplicity: one ski area, tall, wide, steep and deep. Terrain defines greatness, and Jackson has it, from cruisers and bumps to bowls and chutes, with plenty of snow to cover it all.
What sets Jackson apart is its wide-open layout. More a series of bowls and slopes than a set of trails, the runs defy mapping. The printed map the resort provides barely scratches the surface. With few trees, Jackson is a huge open slope, and one big bowl empties into another, and so on down the mountain, with choices at every turn. This layout cannot get boring: you could ski a whole season without taking the same line twice. Jackson takes the very best part of most western mountains--the above-tree-line terrain--and multiplies it by 10.
Jackson has a reputation as an expert's mountain, and not undeservedly. It has some impossibly difficult terrain, including the famed Corbert's Couloir, probably the hardest marked trail anywhere. But Jackson offers terrain for skiers of all abilities, and the right side of the map offers some truly superb blue (intermediate) runs. With fewer than 5,000 skiers on busy days, Jackson Hole is also wonderfully uncrowded, and skiers have entire trails, or even bowls, to themselves. If there is any drawback, it is the distance from town (about 12 miles).
Despite Jackson's charms, nearby Grand Targhee draws many skiers for a visit, and they aren't disappointed. Even locals head to "The 'Ghee," as it's called, after a snowfall, because it gets better powder. Grand Targhee is laid out much like Jackson Hole, but is less steep and without cliffs. Beginners and intermediates will love Grand Targhee, which is among the most snowed-on resorts in the country.
Planning a trip: Nonstop jet service from Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Chicago makes Jackson surprisingly easy to reach. The airport is just minutes from town. The best lodging in Jackson is found at the Wort Hotel, home of the SilverDollar Bar & Grille. Skiers can also stay slopeside in Teton Village.
2 LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, UTAH: ALTA AND SNOWBIRD
Utah enthusiasts lay claim to "the greatest snow on earth." It is not ego, but realism that fuels this sentiment, and few in the ski business would disagree. Skiers flock to Utah for its famous "Champagne powder." Like the best Champagne, which is dry with tiny bubbles and served in vast quantities, the small flakes created by fronts passing over the Wasatch Range are dry and light and exceptionally deep.
The whole state basks in the glory of this snow, but one place gets more than anywhere else, and that is Little Cottonwood Canyon, 45 minutes from Salt Lake City. Here, Alta and Snowbird Mountains sit side by side, receiving 500 inches of snow annually. Alta bears more than a passing resemblance to Jackson Hole. Although not as big or as steep, but with more blue and green (beginner) runs, Alta is a wide-open set of bowls with far more skiing than the 40 listed trails, a virtually infinite number of routes through bowls, trees and chutes. Alta's founders went looking for great terrain and snow, and they stopped when they got here. Six decades later, it has maintained a rustic feel, and it is one of only four major mountains in the United States that still ban snowboarding.
Snowbird has similar terrain but a much different personality. Whereas Alta is vintage skiing, Snowbird has faster lifts, a 125-passenger tram to the summit, and a large, modern hotel. Snowbird also has a much higher percentage of expert terrain, and is opening more. The brainchild of entrepreneur Dick Bass, whose mountaineering exploits were captured in the book Seven Summits, Snowbird reflects his identity: big, tough and adventurous. Fans enjoy the long, steep top-to-bottom powder runs. While Alta and Snowbird are competitors, they enjoy a synergy, as almost all overnight guests to the canyon ski both mountains.
Planning a trip: The canyon has very limited development, so most lodges offer full American meal plans. Many visitors choose to stay in Salt Lake City and commute for the nightlife and dining options. But on snowy days, when there is danger of an avalanche, the road to the canyon is often closed in the morning, a Catch-22 that causes tourists to miss the skiing when it is at its best. If you plan to come here, stay at the Alta Lodge, the Cliff Lodge or one of the handful of other European-style properties, and turn yourself over to the get-away-from-it-all seclusion of the canyon.
3 TELLURIDE, COLORADO
Although Aspen and Vail may get the majority of the tourists visiting Colorado's ski resorts, Telluride is fast giving them a run for their money. It's in the middle of nowhere, and its fans, including Ralph Lauren and Oprah Winfrey, want to keep it that way. The town is memorable, with skiing to match.
Telluride--thought to be a clipped version of "To Hell You Ride"--is another mountain with mystique. The bumps on its long, steep mogul trails, which go by such names as Spiral Stairs, Kant-Mak-M and Mine Shaft, can burn out well-conditioned thighs on a single descent. Linking these three top-expert, double-black-diamond classics results in the longest, steepest, bumpiest run imaginable. Plenty of less publicized trails, however, also offer top-notch skiing.
The mountain juts up steeply from town, just two blocks from Main Street. From the peak, additional runs drop off the back, down to a second base at Mountain Village, a contemporary upscale neighboring town, which is the secret to Telluride's success. By locating new construction here rather than in the older section, Telluride has preserved its Old West feel from the days when Butch Cassidy came here to rob his first bank. Telluride has the most authentic historic western feel of any ski town. Meanwhile, Mountain Village addresses the need for larger homes, hotels and additional shopping and dining. A gondola, which provides free transportation until 11 p.m. (midnight on Fridays and Saturdays), links the two. The Mountain Village area includes a lot of green and blue ski terrain, and despite its fearsome reputation, Telluride is a great place to learn to ski. Lift lines are unheard of, cruising runs plentiful, and the mountain gets a lot of snow.
Planning a trip: Telluride has its own airport, but it closes frequently because of bad weather. A larger, more reliable airport in Montrose, Colorado, sits at a lower altitude where there is much less snow, but it is an hour and 15 minutes away. The Peaks, a sister resort to the renowned Boulders resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, is the standout lodging. The Peaks has excellent food, great rooms, stellar service, ski-in, ski-out convenience and a branch of the acclaimed Golden Door spa, where you can relax with a much needed post-skiing massage.
4 ASPEN, COLORADO
When people visit Aspen, they expect glitz. They want chic nightspots and long wine lists, and they are rarely disappointed. Sometimes forgotten amidst the luster is that Aspen also has a lot of awesome skiing.
The resort comprises four ski areas, linked by the most user-friendly free bus system in ski country. Only one, Aspen Mountain (called Ajax to confuse tourists) is in town, a stone's throw from the best hotels and restaurants. Skiers here are in for some surprises: unlike the other three mountains, Ajax does not allow snowboarding. Also, it may be the only large ski mountain in the world without a single green run. For a mountain that draws people as much to be seen sipping Martinis as to ski, Ajax is surprisingly difficult. If you do ski, and ski fairly well, this is the place to be.
Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands are just outside of town. Aspen Highlands is the locals' mountain, the least pretentious with the most difficult terrain. It has runs for skiers of every ability, but is a must for advanced skiers who will relish the uncrowded runs, steep tree glades and perfectly formed moguls. Buttermilk is a pure beginner's mountain, and may be the best place in the country to learn to ski or snowboard.
Snowmass is Aspen's largest and most removed mountain, more than 12 miles away. It has its own village, with more than 700 condominiums, over 90 percent of which are slopeside, making it popular with families. If you want space, not nightlife, stay here. Its size has earned it the nickname Snowmassive, and it has something for everyone, from placid learning areas and green cruisers to steep, narrow bump runs from the summit. Aspen offers loads of quality skiing, with generally reliable snowfall, but it is in the area of off-mountain activities where Aspen has no peer, with plenty of restaurants, entertainment and recreation.
Planning a trip: Getting to Aspen requires a four-hour-plus drive from Denver, and that's in good weather. The Aspen airport is convenient, with frequent flights, but closes often, making Aspen a good place to get stuck. Few major cities, much less a ski town, can boast two Mobil five-star hotels: Aspen has the St. Regis and the posh slopeside Little Nell. The Hotel Jerome has the best cigar menu in town.
5 THE RESORTS OF LAKE TAHOE, NEVADA AND CALIFORNIA
The five large and 10 smaller ski resorts that surround Lake Tahoe are spread out over a 30-mile area. That's the good news for their competition. If these resorts were clustered like the mountains of Aspen or Salt Lake City, there would be little reason to ski anyplace else.
Good skiing comes down to terrain and snow, and you will not find more of either anyplace else. Kirkwood, the area's snowiest resort, has led the United States in total snowfall four of the past five winters, and averages 593 inches, or nearly 50 feet, of snow annually. There are exceptions, such as the winter of 1995 when more than 800 inches fell, but there are few bad years.
Tahoe has no standout mountain, no Snowmass to occupy skiers for a week. Coming here means skiing multiple mountains. The two biggest are Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, and Heavenly, which straddles the Nevada-California state line. Each anchors a number of ski areas at either end of the huge lake.
At the northern end is Squaw, known for extreme skiing, where filmmakers come to shoot footage. As a local told me on the lift, "If God didn't want us to ski off cliffs, he wouldn't have made Squaw." Still, there is plenty of skiing for all abilities, with numerous cruisers.
Adjacent to Squaw is Alpine Meadows, another large area that offers expansive terrain, with a little more emphasis on beginner and intermediate skiing. Alpine also has a lot of tree skiing. Northstar-at-Tahoe is the largest of three small resorts nearby, and definitely worth a day of skiing.
The southern end draws more tourists because of its waterfront casino hotels. From South Lake Tahoe, you can be skiing at Heavenly in minutes. While glitzier than Squaw, Heavenly has equally challenging terrain: stashes of double-black terrain for experts, better hidden than Squaw's in-your-face cliffs and chutes. The hardest skiing at Heavenly is in the trees, but mostly it's a cruiser's mountain, with wide-open blues and greens, and plenty of sunshine. Closer to the lake than any other Tahoe ski area and rising right from the edge of the water, Heavenly has arguably the best skiers' views in the world. Descending the face, you feel as if you are skiing right into the blue water.
Kirkwood is Tahoe's hidden gem, with unbelievable expert skiing. The mountain is a horseshoe-shaped ridge, with steep runs all the way around. A topographically unique ski resort, everything is in plain sight, yet a third of it is off-limits to all but the best skiers. You don't see skull-and-crossbones trail designations too often, but you do here, so take them seriously. Much of the ridge line features cornices, or over-hanging ledges, that drop into tight chutes, steep tree runs and very steep bowls. Kirkwood's expert terrain is one of the few that rival Jackson Hole's for difficulty.
Sierra-At-Tahoe is extremely popular with locals and snowboarders. Sierra has a mom-and-pop feel to it, and has a great mix of green, blue and black runs, making it a perfect family mountain.
Planning a trip: Tahoe resorts do not have a lot of lodging at their bases. Many people stay in South Lake Tahoe and make the trip to the different mountains by shuttle bus or car. The Tahoe Queen, a paddle wheeler that whisks skiers from South Lake Tahoe to Squaw Valley daily and returns with an après-ski party cruise, is the most fun commute in ski country.
6 VAIL, COLORADO